Those participating in this week’s Lenten station church pilgrimage would have visited the basilica of Sant’Apollinare, an ancient Roman church with ties to the Jesuit order.
Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pontiff in the history of the Catholic Church, has brought renewed attention to the order since his election a little more than a week ago. The basilica is also part of the same complex as the Casa del Clero (residence for clergy) where Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio stayed before attending last week’s conclave.
Originally constructed in the 7th century, Sant’Apollinare, dedicated to Saint Apollinaris of Ravenna, was rebuilt in the 17th century under Benedict XIV. The baroque façade and basilica were designed by Ferdinando Fuga, who also designed the façade of the basilica of Saint Mary Major.
From 1574 until 1773, the adjacent palazzo belonged to the Jesuit order, during which time it was used as a residence for German and Hungarian students attending the Jesuit-run Pontifical Gregorian University. The palazzo, now owned by Opus Dei, is the current site of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross (PUSC).
Fr. John Wauck, professor in the faculty of institutional Church communications at the PUSC, spoke with ZENIT about some of the unique features of this week’s station Church.
Because the current basilica was built while under the ownership of the Jesuits, he explained, there are various elements which reflect that history. The two side chapels closest to the main altar, for instance, are dedicated to Jesuit founder Saint Ignatius of Loyola, and Saint Francis Xavier, the Jesuit missionary.
“One of the curiosities of that chapel dedicated to Francis Xavier,” Fr. Wauck noted, “is the golden crab crawling up the leg of the saint. This refers to the end of the life of Francis Xavier when he was on a tiny island off the coast of China, having already worked as a missionary in India and Japan, he was awaiting the possibility of entering into China to preach the Gospel in China when he died. On the shore of the island, he was gazing toward China and out of the sea crawled a crab that had a Cross on its back.”
Other saints featured in the basilica include Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, another Jesuit saint, and Saint Josemaria Escrivá, founder of Opus Dei.
The basilica of Sant’Apollinare is also known for its acoustics, Fr. Wauck continued. “The story is told that Mozart, when he visited Rome, would frequently play the organ that was here. This organ is no longer present here in the church, however: there is an empty place where clearly a great organ once stood.”
However, one of the most unique features of the Sant’Apollinare, explained Fr. Wauck, is the unusual placement of a small chapel where the entrance to the basilica would be expected to be. “When you enter from the street, the main doors of the façade, you step into what you would have expected to be a vestibule or portico leading into the Basilica – or perhaps, entering into the nave itself. But instead, what would be the portico, is itself a chapel into which your are entering sideways.”
Above the Baroque altar is an ancient fresco of the Blessed Virgin Mary, with the child Jesus on her lap; on either side of her stand Saints Peter and Paul – the patron saints of Rome. Directly across the side entrance – on the “right” side of the chapel – is another set of large doors which lead into the nave of the main basilica.
Fr. Wauck explained that this unique layout – a chapel constructed horizontally to the entrance of the main basilica – was brought about by the Napoleonic invasion of Rome. Like other churches in the city at this time, Sant’Apollinare had been converted into a stable for the French troops. In order to protect the fresco of Mary and the Child Jesus, which at that time was somewhat new, it was bricked over in order to protect it, and eventually forgotten.
Some hundred years later, construction workers doing renovations uncovered the fresco by accident. “That image became an object of great popular devotion, so much so that the portico was converted into a chapel – a little church unto itself.”
“There is no other church in Rome that has this unusual layout – a chapel perpendicular to the main church as you enter through the main doors.”