By Irene Lagan
ROME, MAY 31, 2007 (Zenit.org ).- As I crossed the normally tranquil Piazza Piscinula in Trastevere last Tuesday, a flurry of activity drew my attention to the St. Benedict Chapel, which sits on the edge of the piazza and can easily be missed by the unobservant passer-by.
Tuesday was the feast of St. Rita of Cascia, and visitors to the chapel were spilling over into the square. Most were women, and most were leaving the church with blessed roses that have come to be associated with St. Rita.
A day of Masses, rosaries and intercessory prayers closed with Benediction and blessings.
The daylong event was one of many church celebrations during the week leading up to Pentecost that reflect Benedict XVI’s recent remarks to the Italian bishops when he said that the “faith in Italy is alive and deeply rooted.”
The Pope also said that, despite the insidious advance of moral relativism that threatens culture and family life, the “Italian Church is a people’s Church that is a great resource for the future of Italian society.”
The celebration at the chapel named for St. Benedict and dedicated to St. Rita illustrated some of that faith that has been passed on through local tradition that is integral to Italian culture.
Entrusted by Pope John Paul II to the care of the Heralds of the Gospel, the St. Benedict Chapel was part of a sixth-century palace that belonged to St. Benedict’s family and was the saint’s home during his student days in Rome.
According to Deacon François Bandet of the Heralds of the Gospel, local devotion to St. Rita is a long-standing tradition that has been part of the chapel’s history and, he maintains, is credited with the miracle it took to reopen the chapel in 1943 after being closed for a century.
St. Rita, he explained, is appealing to women who face many of the same challenges she encountered during her lifetime.
“She passed through all the stages of life and had a tremendous spirit of forgiveness and love,” the deacon said. “St. Rita is a saint that women especially can turn to as a model.”
While St. Rita is best known as the saint of the impossible, Deacon Bandet said she is particularly popular among women today as the patron of marriages, child bearing and sickness.
Having lived through the violent death of her husband after a difficult marriage, St. Rita survived the death of her two sons within one year and was rejected three times before finally being allowed to enter the convent. Once in the convent, she suffered physically and was ostracized by the other women religious.
Deacon Bandet explained: “People need these devotions. We are bodily creatures who have longings for the infinite. Devotions offer a way for us to express our longings to our friends in heaven as well as our love and desire for God.
“Tangible expressions of faith, like the blessed roses, are necessary and form a part of what John Paul II talked about as the new evangelization.”
More importantly, he said, local devotion to St. Rita is just one example of the popular piety that signals that the Church in Italy is alive and well.
According to Deacon Bandet, the traditions that some people take for granted and others dismiss as idolatry provide a link to the faith of our forebears and are key to the rebirth of a Catholic culture.
“There is a strong link between the rebirth of Catholicism in the hearts of people through devotions, and especially through devotion to Mary,” he said.
In my own neighborhood a weeklong festival at Santa Maria of Liberatrice culminated with a rosary procession through the streets.
Hundreds of local Romans participated in the annual procession that dates back to the dedication of the “new” church a century ago.
At the end of the procession, families crowded into the neighborhood park in front of the church for a grand finale of fireworks and songs to honor Mary as the spouse of the Holy Spirit.
As the pastor invoked Mary’s protection for the families of Testaccio, fireworks to honor the Mother of God drew cheers, and men hoisting a float bearing a life-sized statue of the Virgin high in the air and shouted, “Viva Maria!”
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Stability is probably not one of the first impressions that one comes away with in hectic modern Rome.
So there is a certain ironic twist that as St. Benedict fled the chaos of Rome in 500 seeking tranquility and prayer, the rule he established would become the stable context for the flourishing of art and culture, as well as the cornerstone of modern political Europe.
This irony is not lost on Benedictine Father Edmund Powers, the abbot of the small Benedictine community that staffs the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls.
The beauty and richness of culture one experiences in Rome today hearkens back to the monastic rule established by St. Benedict, he explained.
The decadence of life in Rome appalled St. Benedict, whose ascetic practices and life of prayer eventually attracted followers and led him to establish his first monasteries on the outskirts of the city. He established a rule of life so his followers could live in harmony.
The vow of stability became a hallmark of the Benedictine Rule.
During the chaos that ensued after the decline of the Roman Empire, the Benedictine monastery was a stable social unit and, ideally, a selfless one, Father Powers said.
The ordered contemplative life of the monastery became the nest in which classical culture was preserved at a time when Europe was fragmented.
“The monastic life attracted people who were dedicated to the spiritual search, dedicated to order in the sense of organization, clear cosmos rather than chaos,” Father Powers said. “Thus, the creation of art and culture was a reflection of the whole creative work of God in bringing order out of chaos.”
According to Father Powers, art and culture spring from the context of stability. The function of stability as a prerequisite for the development of individual gifts and talents within the community cannot be underestimated.
“The production of any art, music, or literature requires a stable context in which people can develop their concrete gifts of making the art,” he said. “And the monastic life provided the context in which people could reflect on what they wanted to convey.”
Father Powers pointed out that a Carolingian Bible entrusted centuries ago to the community at St. Paul Outside the Walls is but one of the treasures that flow from this culture.
“The Gospel scenes and illuminated script make one realize that this was a labor of love and the fruit of much study, prayer, and selfless dedication,” he said. “The manuscript reveals a sense of profound stability and patience, as well as a sense of time that is not rushed.”
The Benedictine Rule also had powerful political exponents, such as the Emperor Charlemagne in the ninth century, who recognized the value of stability encoded in the Benedictine way of life as a powerful organizing principle for society.
The Benedictine charism and the establishment of monasteries throughout his realm resulted in a harmonic social structure.
“It was like a European constitution,” Father Powers said.
Although the Benedictine community today is smaller than in years past, Father Powers said its stable presence continues to exert an influence in modern culture.
He said: “We have a list of all the abbots of this monastery from the 900s onward. It gives you a sense of continuity, fidelity to a tradition, a sense of belonging to the Benedictine family that gives you a strength of context from which you can move forward into the future.
“Life is a gift and you just move slowly through it. The art we have here is an impressive witness of what the Benedictine spirit can produce.”
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A Meeting of Minds
Taking their cue from Pope John Paul II’s call for the genius of women to find its place in the life of the Church, many lay women are pursuing licentiates and doctorates at Rome’s richly varied pontifical universities.
Some women are sponsored by their local bishops and will serve in dioceses; others will be professors, teachers and catechists, or sit on tribunals or bioethics boards.
A meeting of minds over the course of the academic semester at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, known as the Angelicum, has helped to defuse some of the residual reticence over the presence of lay women in places that were formerly exclusively the domain of men or consecrated religious.
The international group included lay women, seminarians and priests studying at various universities, and two Anglican women who are both interested in the Church’s teaching on women.
Hope Gillis, a specialist in marriage and family studies and an organizer of the meeting, said that the inspiration for the group was in response to a class on the anthropology of St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) and John Paul II’s encyclicals on the role of the laity in the life of the Church.
She said that the discussions helped to sift through some common misconceptions that are still present in the Church today.
Gillis said that the group acknowledged that at times there is a subtle implication among the clergy and religious members of the Church that the lay vocation is somehow less than valid than a consecrated vocation. She added that the study group reaffirmed the authenticity of the lay vocation.
Josh Eli, a second-year seminarian from North Dakota, said the discussions were like “arranging pieces of a puzzle.”
He added: “It was eye opening to take a step back and see the in the bigger picture how the vocations complement each other.”
By Irene Lagan