Pio Nono; Catholics and Cremation

Life and Turbulent Times of Pius IX

By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, FEB. 7, 2007 (Zenit.org).- It seems hard to believe that eight years have already passed since the 2000 Jubilee. For those in Rome the Holy Year remains memorable for many things, from the 25 million pilgrims to the ubiquitous presence of John Paul II exhorting people to sainthood in St. Peter’s Square or manning the confessionals in the basilica.

This week however, we remember another event of the year 2000: the beatification of Pius IX. The 256th successor of St. Peter was beatified in May 2000, and his feast day declared as Feb. 7.

Giovani Maria Mastai Ferretti came from the Marche region of Italy. His election to the papal throne in 1846 was soon followed by the first signs of a turbulent age. His prime minister, Count Rossi, was assassinated and the Pope himself forced to flee Rome and take refuge in Gaeta in southern Italy.

The short-lived Republic of Rome disintegrated shortly after Pius IX left, and the Pope was able to return to his home on the Quirinal Hill in 1850. But the “Risorgimento,” or the unification of Italy, was under way.

For 20 years Pius IX struggled to defend the territories of the Church while Camillo Cavour and Giuseppe Garibaldi, the brains and brawn of the Italian Nationalist movement, picked away at his lands; closing monasteries and selling sacred art as they went.

On Sept. 20, 1870, they invaded Rome and Pius IX was once again forced to flee from the Quirinal, this time taking refuge in the Apostolic Palace attached to St. Peter’s Basilica. Victor Emmanuele II, the first King of Italy, occupied the Quirinal Palace, and Pius IX died eight years later imprisoned within the Vatican walls.

Pius IX holds the record as the longest reigning Pope, having sat on the throne of St. Peter for 32 years. (In fact, many superstitious Romans claimed the fall of the Papal States was due to Pius’ outliving his tenure of 25 years — the time Peter himself had been Bishop of Rome.)

Pius IX’s great contributions to the universal Church are well known: He declared the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 and published the “Syllabus Errorum,” a list of 80 censured propositions; this document foresaw the future trials the Church would suffer.

He also called the important First Vatican Council in 1869-70, which formulated the doctrine of papal infallibility on questions of faith and morals in the Church. It also spoke of man’s ability to know God through the use of reason, a very apt teaching for today’s world.

But here in Rome, Pius IX’s international persona and historical protaganism are almost eclipsed by the ubiquitous evidence of his indefatigable service as Bishop of Rome.

During his long reign, train tracks were laid to connect the Eternal City with the rest of Italy. For the first time Romans walked at night through gas-lit streets and the Jewish Ghetto was abolished. Laymen were invited to join the papal government and countless new jobs were created to restore the flagging Roman economy.

Very few churches in Rome do not bear a plaque commemorating a restoration financed by Pope Pius IX, who sought to revive the great historical sanctuaries of the Eternal City, which languished after years of neglect.

His generosity continued despite the growing hostility of the Roman followers of Cavour, who had already chased him out of the city once. They applauded Pius IX’s retreat into the Vatican walls, and ultimately disrupted his funeral procession by attempting to throw his body into the Tiber.

Every Feb. 7, a large number of devotees of “Pio Nono” gather in the Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Walls for Mass. Surprising, perhaps, is the presence of so many young people gathered in the crypt, side by side with aged Roman aristocrats, descendants of Pius IX’s court.

Pius IX chose to be buried in the resting place of Rome’s beloved martyr St. Lawrence, joining his saintly predecessors, Popes Sixtus III and Zosimus. Pius IX had ordered extensive renovations to the church, removing the baroque adornments and returning the church to its Paleo-Christian splendor.

His tomb is a masterpiece of 19th-century mosaic art. Images of saints shimmer like sentinels against the gold background in the darkened chamber, and dozens of emblems of dioceses and orders who commissioned this homage to the Pope bear witness to the great love that Pius IX garnered throughout the world.

Together they pay homage to this great saint, so often maligned by modern historians, another example of the adage that “history is written by the victors.” One wonders, however, who is the victor here? Victor Emmanuel II gained 76 years of monarchy, and hostile authors have earned a dime or two off biographical distortions.

But Pius IX, after navigating the Barque of Peter through some of its toughest storms, found a safe harbor for all eternity.

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Ashes to Ashes

The New Year 2008 opened with a flare-up in Italy over the question of cremation and the scattering of ashes. The dust has finally settled, but it seems that a revisiting of Christian burial traditions is in order.

What started as discussion between a priest and his parishioners in Aosta (a tiny region in Northern Italy), sparked debate in major newspapers in Italy and abroad.

Father Carmelo Pellicone of the parish of St. Etienne in Aosta demurred when confronted with the wishes of a deceased parishioner to have his ashes scattered over the Alps after his church funeral.

In the time it took for Father Pellicone to read the Catechism instruction on burial the question had become a high-profile news item. In some newspapers, the conscientious Father Pellicone became a poster-child for Church antagonism toward cremation.

What gave Fathe Pellicone pause — although he did celebrate the funeral of the man in question — was whether the request to scatter ashes indicated the parishioner’s doubts about the resurrection of the body.

The event took place just after the Italian bishops’ conference issued a 250-page book on funeral norms. It includes specific prayers for those who choose to be cremated as well as a response to the very modern problem of the dispersal of ashes.

In Italy, as in many other countries, Church funerals have been accorded those who have chosen to be cremated since the 1960’s. This break with the traditional Christian practice of burial reflects the growing difficulty and expense for people to be buried in a plot of land with a costly coffin.

Still, it wasn’t much of a leap from requesting cremation to choosing to have one’s ashes scattered. While in fact many people who want their ashes dumped in the wild do so out of pagan notions of “oneness with nature,” the bishop’s conference has tried to recognize economic factors as well as modern concerns over “eco-burials,” and accommodate individual decisions regarding the disposal of remains.

This is provided that these decisions are not manifestly tied to a disbelief in the resurrection of body.

The Italian bishops have made a laudable effort to recognize the needs of the faithful. But Rome’s long memory also testifies to the ingenuity and heroic efforts made by the early Christian communities in order to witness their belief in the resurrection of the body.

Thirty miles of burial catacombs stretching under the city testify to a people that while poor, hunted and persecuted, went to great lengths to proclaim the importance of the body.

They hewed tombs out of volcanic tufa stone in underground quarries, making bed after bed where those who had fallen asleep in Christ would wait to be awakened by him.

Their bodies, not rendered beautiful by cosmetics and diets but by Christ’s own humanity, were considered worthy of careful preservation.

Millions of faithful have walked through the dark labyrinths of the catacombs offering prayers for the souls of those lying in the loculi and asking for the intercession of the saints and martyrs who lie sleeping in those walls.

The Early Christians, in a pagan world where virtually everyone else was cremated, responded to the hardship and expense of burial through cleverness and generosity, the wealthy donating land to ensure burials for the poor. Their insistence on burial did not stem, as some have suggested, from a naïve belief that God was somehow thwarted by cremation, but from their genuine respect for the human body.

Visits to cemeteries to pray for the dead, especially on All Souls’ Day, have long been a mainstay of Catholic piety, and offer an ever-present reminder that “what was sown in corruptibility will be raised in incorruptibility” (1 Corinthians 15:42).

While clearly God has no problem resurrecting those whose ashes have been scattered to the four winds, what does it say about our care of our temples of the Holy Spirit if we think only of efficient and ecological disposal?

Indeed, God will not forget our remains sprinkled on a mountain top of dissolved in the sea, but will our children and grandchildren remember to pray for us?

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus. She can be reached at [email protected].

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