The Meaning Behind St. Agnes; a Best-selling Pope

A Roman Basilica and the Life It Reflects

By Catherine Smibert

ROME, FEB. 2, 2006 ( In a city that can overwhelm you with religious art and architecture, one woman breaks it down and helps us take it home. She does this with the help of St. Agnes, whose feast was celebrated in a special way last week.

The feast brought Margaret Visser to Rome once again, this time to film a documentary based on her book “The Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery and Meaning in an Ordinary Church.”

Visser’s vision behind the book came from the observation that, though people know how to recognize a church, they often don’t comprehend the background, the symbolism or the story held within its walls.

That’s her literary trademark — to take something obvious and return it filled with riches. The Roman basilica of St. Agnes Outside the Walls was selected for the task.

“In my search for the perfect church, I remembered this one because it went ‘deep,'” explained the South African-born Catholic historian. “I had forgotten that you had to descend 45 steps in order to enter the place.”

She noted, “Already its design provided an example of the way in which a building can arouse in you a feeling, a meaning, an understanding, a desire … every stone manages to present Christian love, merely through their correct placement.”

It took Visser four years of research in seven languages to uncover all the secrets of the building.

The director of the new documentary, Paul Carvalho, said he found it challenging to translate into visual imagery many of the concepts presented in Visser’s scholarly writing.

“For instance, one of the church’s elements Margaret draws out is its narthex, or vestibule, that represents one’s decision to walk into the church, not past it,” Carvalho told me.

“It represents ourselves before we came to consciousness,” he said. “From there you step out into conscious life, into time after sin, and you’re on your road to being saved, transcendence toward eternal life” — toward the altar.

To render film-worthy the idea of the aisle representing the road of life, Carvalho took a 6-year-old Italian girl, her mother and grandmother and placed them sequentially up the church’s main aisle.

But it is what lies beneath the stones that holds the most intrigue for Visser.

“It’s an incredibly revolutionary story about a 12-year-old Roman girl, buried here, who said ‘no’ to the Roman state for the sake of following Christ and died for it,” she said.

Both book and film reveal the heroic the girl killed in Rome’s Piazza Navona around A.D. 305.

“We can almost look to her as a model for the women’s liberation movement — women starting to be valued as individual human beings,” Visser contended.

“She chose the right to be a virgin,” the historian said. “In doing so, she escaped the power of a father who could tell her who to marry to make alliances for the family, and her job to produce a male citizen or soldier for the Roman state.”

Visser, a classicist, explained how “her virginity wasn’t just a symbol for freedom, but also for the inviolability of the walls of Rome.”

Romans wouldn’t kill a virgin as it signified the breaching of the walls of Rome, she explained. “As a result, they would rape them first. We actually have a decree of Domitian stating ‘Christian virgins shall be sought out and raped because they are going against the role of women in the state.'”

The documentary turned to an annual tradition to illustrate these points.

“During her feast we filmed the ceremony of the blessing of the two lambs — one representing her martyrdom, the other her virginity,” says Visser. “I think that the story of Agnes helps us to understand what the Church means by virginity. It’s not the fact that you’ve never slept with a man; that’s only a small part of it. The point about it is your singleness of heart, your purity of soul, your intention.”

A sign of Agnes’ triumph is evident when people come to pray at her catacombs, in front of her fourth-century statue. The statue, recently dug up from under a stairwell, depicts her hands raised in prayer. A reminder that young Agnes is no longer a victim, but a hero.

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Why Love?

Benedict XVI’s first encyclical has sold a record 500,000 copies since its release just last week. Why?

Perhaps it is curiosity or maybe it is the fact the theme is so identifiable. Whatever it is, there’s something to be said about the element of surprise surrounding the subject of “Deus Caritas Est.”

During a visit to Rome, Samuel Gregg put the Pope’s choice of topic into perspective for me by going back to the Holy Father’s childhood. Gregg, an adjunct professor at the Lateran University, is the director of research at the Michigan-based Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

“Benedict XVI grew up in his very young, formative years under a totalitarian, pagan regime,” Gregg observed. “We have to understand that National Socialism had no place for love, except for love of the state.”

Gregg pointed out that many of the Nazi theorists at the time saw love as a sign of weakness.

“The idea of hate was actually elevated into a kind of principle, in the sense that the German people were the master race, which meant treating non-Germans as if they were subhuman,” he said. “The idea that all people deserved to be loved was completely foreign to this ideology.”

Gregg added: “Growing up in this society where love was not just trivialized but made out to be evil and somehow dehumanizing, may have contributed to Benedict XVI wanting to rehabilitate the idea of Christian love in the modern world.”

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Beyond God-vs.-Darwin

An old debate returned in all its glory to Rome last week.

Opening the discussion on the world and its creation came an article in L’Osservatore Romano, stating that Catholics should be wary of thinking that “intelligent design” belongs to science.

These comments of Father Fiorenzo Faccini, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Bologna, followed closely those of Cardinal Christoph Schönborn in a column last July in the New York Times.

Such commentaries led to a presentation on “Intelligent Design, Evolution and the Church,” hosted by the Vatican Forum, a Rome-based lecture and discussion group of Vatican journalists.

To start the event, moderator Andrea Kirk Assaf quoted scholar Richard Weaver: “Ideas have consequences and perhaps no idea has more profound consequences for the way we view ourselves, one another and our purpose on earth than that of evolution and other theories of the origin on human life.”

Indeed, the main speakers for the occasion seemed to agree with that assessment.

Mark Ryland, vice president of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank, and Legionary Father Rafael Pascual, director of the master’s program in Science and
Faith at the Regina Apostolorum university in Rome, are two who have intensely studied the questions surrounding creation, science and the Church.

The pair set out to present that the Church is not against Darwin, but rather Darwinism; not against evolution but rather evolutionism.

“No one really doubts that something like evolution happened in some sense,” Ryland told me after his presentation. “But primarily the question is the mechanism — what caused the evolutionary changes that science observes?”

Ryland insists that the core issue is not that there are problems with evolution theory. Rather, for him the issue is: “Can the Darwinian mechanism explain this complexity that we see in the biological world?”

He notes that “a lot of scientists believe the answer is no, while a lot of philosophers think that there are other, better ways of understanding nature as well. So these issues have to be discussed in a civil way.”

While Father Pascual gave a concise treatise of the Church’s teaching on evolution, Ryland went beyond with a spectacular PowerPoint presentation to give a holistic overview of the controversy with a more historical and philosophical approach.

Looking at the history of science, Ryland was able to show how the transition from the old science of Aristotle or St. Thomas to the new science of Newton and Boyle helps us see certain features emerge which begin to explain the controversy which we are having today about teleology: the study of purpose and design in nature.

“Father Faccini set up the problem by saying, ‘The way we do modern science is that we don’t deal with issues of teleology or purpose, and there’s a good argument for that,'” observed Ryland.

“However, the problem is the way Darwin’s theory is taught as a theory in which purpose is denied,” he said.

“To say that you can deny purpose, and that’s scientific, but affirm it and that’s unscientific, is, of course, ludicrous,” Ryland added. “So, as Catholics, we have to decide on the boundaries of science and the boundaries of philosophy.”

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Catherine Smibert can be reached at [email protected].

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