General Features

To Rome with love

Kairos Volume 24, Issue 1

Words Fiona Power
Pictures Fiona Basile

FEW of us need to be convinced of the value of a trip to Rome. The glorious attractions of the Eternal City draw millions of tourists each year from around the globe, many of them Christians visiting or revisiting holy sites.

As Rome-based art historian and lecturer Dr Elizabeth Lev demonstrated in her engaging theology@the pub presentation in Fitzroy on 5 December, Rome is not simply a ‘super secular backdrop for hooking up or breaking up or eating gelato’ but a city built on pilgrimage. And a pilgrimage to Rome offers so much more than a chance to see the sights.

Dr Lev said people traditionally went on pilgrimage to Rome for two reasons: as a form of penance and to thank God for special graces. She said that today such a pilgrimage, which is being encouraged by Pope Benedict XVI as part of the Year of Faith celebrations, offers both a way of saying ‘I love you’ to God and an opportunity to seek personal transformation away from our regular routines.

‘The operative word for pilgrimage is conversion,’ Dr Lev said. ‘It’s a chance for you to turn to God, to turn away from one lifestyle and to another.’

Dr Lev was in Melbourne with her mother, Professor Mary Ann Glendon, as a guest of the Archbishop Office for Evangelisation and part of the Year of Grace celebrations. Dr Lev and Professor Glendon addressed the Women of Grace luncheon held earlier in the day.

Rome’s most beautiful treasures and monuments, Dr Lev told the audience, were created for the purpose of encouraging pilgrims and invoking graces, as the city ‘rose, like a phoenix from the ashes of a self-detonated pagan city’: the Spanish Steps were designed to beckon pilgrims to churches; the Trevi Fountain to offer refreshment—and, like the many other fountains built in Rome, as a reminder of the waters of baptism and an opportunity for deeper reflection—and Vatican artworks to celebrate and testify to conversion.

An experienced tour guide, Dr Lev deftly led the audience through an overview of the highlights of the Roman pilgrimage, from the earliest days of Christianity, following the deaths of St Peter and St Paul, to today.

She introduced us to early pilgrims, who faced persecution and death for their efforts to reach what were then humble sites, through the legalisation of Christianity in 313 AD, with the consequent increase in pilgrims, including women enjoying the ‘incredible freedom’ of pilgrimage. Rome became the main Christian pilgrimage site, where pilgrims could ‘enjoy the spiritual fruits of the universal Church’, after the Holy Land became inaccessible from the 7th century.

Dr Lev discussed the importance of Pope Boniface VIII fixing the custom of the centennial jubilee year in 1300, when the 50,000 then-residents of Rome were joined by 200,000 visitors. Jubilee years were later set at 25 years. In the jubilee year of 2000, 25 million people visited Rome.

Quoting Lumen Gentium, Dr Lev said: ‘Rome is the visible and perpetual foundation of the unity of the Church’. She explained the way the Church has employed beauty in encouraging pilgrims. She said the remarkable planning, architecture and artworks created in the 1600s, during the Counter Reformation, were part of the Church’s efforts to communicate its message to the world and answer the doubts and questions arising at the time.

Brilliant artists such as Michelangelo and Caravaggio conveyed ideas of faith and conversion that became part of the pilgrimage experience and the message of Rome. Dr Lev explained that the elements of surprise and the unexpected in the treasures of Rome, such as many aspects of art in St Peter’s and the location of the Trevi Fountain, were also deliberate.

‘That sense of being taken off guard is perhaps the most important part of your pilgrimage,’ she said. Rome is like a giant theatre set, she said, designed to challenge us as to what we are doing with our time on the stage of life; to invite us to contemplate the face of Christ, believe and go forth renewed and able to proclaim our faith.