Old Icons, New Churches; Benedict XVI's Strength

Rome Unveils Plans to Build 51 Parishes

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By Edward Pentin

ROME, JUNE 24, 2010 (Zenit.org).- This week has, in many ways, been quite a momentous one for the Church in Rome.

Attracting plenty of worldwide attention — thanks in large part to some canny and tantalizing pre-publicity by the Vatican — was the announcement of the discovery of the earliest known icons of the Apostles Peter, Paul, John and Andrew.

Unearthed on the ceiling of a tomb in the Catacombs of St. Thecla, close to the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, the images are said to date from the second half of the fourth century. They were uncovered using a remarkable new laser technique that burned off thick calcium carbonate deposits, yet left the underlying dark colors of the original paintings untouched.

The quality of the images is impressive given their age and the amount of debris that had to be removed. Each Apostle appears in medallions on the ceiling corners: St. Paul, whose image was the first to be discovered last year, is perhaps the clearest to make out. He resembles a renaissance philosopher with a balding head and pointed beard. Sts. Andrew and John, dressed in Roman attire look determined and pensive, while St. Peter, with white beard and thick forelocks, looks serene and distinguished.

Archaeologists made the discovery in perhaps the most unlikely part of the city: an ordinary suburb filled with some of the worst examples of ’70s architecture. But much like most of the Apostles, the Romans who have been living above their images for centuries are just ordinary folk, going about their daily lives.  

Shortly before Tuesday’s announcement came further good news for the Catholic Church in Rome: plans to build 51 new parishes in the city.

Gianni Alemanno, the city mayor, said the new parishes, funded through collaboration with the Vicariate of Rome, other dioceses, and land donations from the city council, would «not only be centers of worship, but also social and cultural centers for the city’s suburbs.» «We are well aware,» he said, «that parishes are often places of meeting and identity in city neighborhoods.»

It’s hard to imagine Rome, a city in which one can visit a different church for every day of the year, needing more churches. But parishes, such as St. Mary Queen of Peace in Tor Vergata, a city suburb, have been waiting almost eight years to find a permanent home. Now its parishioners will finally have one, Alemanno says, once planning complexities have been cleared up.

But not everyone is jumping for joy at the news. Members of other Christian confessions and religions complain that they should be given land, too. Alemanno has pledged to «find a way to give them areas» as well. Religious affiliation, he said, is a «universal value,» and therefore to respond to their demands is «always an enrichment for society.»

Such a response is characteristic of Alemanno who has been one of modern-day Rome’s most pro-Church and pro-religious mayors. A reformed former fascist, he has been consistent in his support for the Church’s concerns, not only regarding practical matters, but also in her battles with radical secularism.

Something the four Apostles would doubtless be heartened by.

* * *

A True Bavarian

Among Benedict XVI’s many friends, those from Bavaria are most probably the ones who know him best.

One of them is Professor Hanna Barbara Gerl-Falkowitz, chair of philosophy and comparative religion at the University of Dresden, who has known the Pope since before he was made archbishop of Munich and Freising, when he was simply Professor Joseph Ratzinger.

Last month, while in Rome to take part in a conference on the Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, she shared with me some insights into his character. In particular, she recalled a particular amusing anecdote of when they first met.

Gerl-Falkowitz was hosting a conference for 300 people and had invited the then-Professor Ratzinger to speak on Romano Guardini, the great German Catholic intellectual whom Joseph Ratzinger has long admired. The venue was Rothenfels Castle, high up on a mountainside near the Bavarian city of Wurzburg. «It was 1976,» Gerl-Falkowitz recalls. «I remember the year exactly because he [Professor Ratzinger] became archbishop of Munich one year later.

«I had sent a helper to collect him from the train, and this man came back saying: ‘There’s no Professor Ratzinger, I didn’t see him.’ But I had a castle full of 300 people and I was pulling my hair out, running around in total despair. You need to know that the castle was situated on a steep rock-face.

«Well after about 20 minutes, I stood on the ridge and next to me was a hedge that began to move. Then, first I saw a bag, then two hands, and then the white hair — he was already white-haired by then — of Professor Ratzinger. He was sweating, forcing himself through the hedge. He’d climbed the very steep hill just to find the castle. I wanted to disappear into the earth! But he was very kind and very smiling. He said: ‘Ascensio in montem sacrum’ which means: ‘To ascend the holy mountain.’ 

«He was hinting at Guardini because he enabled this castle to be used for German Catholic youth. That was my first encounter with Joseph Ratzinger — his hair unkempt, paper flying around and totally out of sorts. I don’t know whether he remembers it, but I do. It was terrible though — to be invited to give a speech and there’s no one to collect you!»

Gerl-Falkowitz has great admiration for the Holy Father, and continues to be amazed at his strength of character. «He’s very strong,» she says. «I was always astonished that, with all that was happening around him, with all his activities, the man can pray with such an incredible concentration. It means he’s really close to the Lord — that is my impression. And he’s very simple. All his intelligence is only a kind of casing around a very deep and precious simplicity.

«The first impression one always has is that he’s a bit shy and that is correct, he comes from a part of Bavaria — old Bavaria — where people are shy. There is this type of Bavarian who is loud and likes drinking and so on — that’s the official image of the region. But in old Bavaria they are timid, shy — they don’t speak so much but are grounded, very deep and pious.»

Gerl-Falkowitz says the recent crisis in the Church has caused the Holy Father to «suffer a lot» and «really knocked him down.» But «he’s a strong believer,» she adds, and has no doubt that his strength of character and faith will see him through the storms.

* * *

Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at: epentin@zenit.org

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