Wednesday 25 December 2013

Christmas 2013

A happy Christmas to all who pass here!
(Rather busy at present!)

Saturday 21 December 2013

Has Deacon Nick Unhinged?

I was somewhat shocked at reading the latest headline on the "Protect the Pope" blog, "Pope Francis tells Holy See’s curia to stop inspecting and questioning the local churches because it hinders the Holy Spirit". So shocked, in fact, that I looked at the original on the .Vatican website. I reproduce it below in full and I submit that Deacon Nick's take is completely off the wall.
Your Eminences,
Dear Brother Bishops and Priests, Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Once again the Lord has enabled us to journey through Advent, and all too quickly we have come to these final days before Christmas. They are days marked by a unique spiritual climate made up of emotions, memories and signs, both liturgical and otherwise, such as the crèche. It is in this climate that this traditional meeting takes place with you, the superiors and officials of the Roman Curia, who cooperate daily in the service of the Church. I greet all of you with affection. Allow me to extend a special greeting to Archbishop Pietro Parolin, who recently began his service as Secretary of State, and who needs our prayers!
While our hearts are full of gratitude to God, who so loved us that he gave us his only-begotten Son, it is also good to make room for gratitude to one another. In this, my first Christmas as the Bishop of Rome, I also feel the need to offer sincere thanks to all of you as a community of service, and to each of you individually. I thank you for the work which you do each day: for the care, diligence and creativity which you display; and for your effort – I know it is not always easy – to work together in the office, both to listen to and to challenge one another, and to bring out the best in all your different personalities and gifts, in a spirit of mutual respect.
In a particular way, I want to express my gratitude to those now concluding their service and approaching retirement. As priests and bishops, we know full well that we never really retire, but we do leave the office, and rightly so, not least to devote ourselves more fully to prayer and the care of souls, starting with our own! So a very special and heartfelt “thank you” goes to those of you who have worked here for so many years with immense dedication, hidden from the eyes of the world. This is something truly admirable. I have such high regard for these “Monsignori” who are cut from the same mould as the curiales of olden times, exemplary persons. We need them today, too! People who work with competence, precision and self-sacrifice in the fulfilment of their daily duties. Here I would like to mention some of them by name, as a way of expressing my esteem and my gratitude, but we know that, in any list, the first names people notice are the ones that are missing! Besides, I would also risk overlooking someone and thus committing an injustice and a lack of charity. But I want to say to these brothers of ours that they offer a very important witness in the Church’s journey through history.
This mould and this witness make me think of two hallmarks of the curial official, and even more of curial superiors, which I would like to emphasize: professionalism and service.
Professionalism, by which I mean competence, study, keeping abreast of things. This is a basic requisite for working in the Curia. Naturally, professionalism is something which develops and is in part acquired; but I think that, precisely for it to develop and to be acquired, there has to be a good foundation from the outset.
The second hallmark is service: service to the Pope and to the bishops, to the universal Church and to the particular Churches. In the Roman Curia, one learns – in a real way, “one breathes in” – this twofold aspect of the Church, this interplay of the universal and the particular. I think that this is one of the finest experiences of those who live and work in Rome: “to sense” the Church in this way. When professionalism is lacking, there is a slow drift downwards towards mediocrity.
Dossiers become full of trite and lifeless information and incapable of opening up lofty perspectives. Then, too, when the attitude is no longer one of service to the particular Churches and their bishops, the structure of the Curia turns into a ponderous, bureaucratic customs house, constantly inspecting and questioning, hindering the working of the Holy Spirit and the growth of God’s people.
To these two qualities of professionalism and service, I would also like to add a third, which is holiness of life. We know very well that, in the hierarchy of values, this is the most important.
Indeed, it is basic for the quality of our work, our service. And I want to say here that in the Roman Curia, there have been and there are saints; I have said this in public more than once, to thank the Lord. Holiness means a life immersed in the Spirit, a heart open to God, constant prayer, deep humility and fraternal charity in our relationships with our fellow workers. It also means apostleship, discreet and faithful pastoral service, zealously carried out in direct contact with God’s people. For priests, this is indispensable.
Holiness in the Curia also means conscientious objection to gossip! We rightfully insist on the importance of conscientious objection but perhaps we, too, need to exercise it as a means of defending ourselves from an unwritten law of our surroundings, which unfortunately is that of gossip. So let us all be conscientious objectors; and mind you, I am not simply preaching! Gossip is harmful to people, our work and our surroundings.
Dear brothers and sisters, let us feel close to one another on this final stretch of the road to Bethlehem. We would do well to meditate on Saint Joseph, who was so silent yet so necessary at the side of Our Lady. Let us think about him and his loving concern for his Spouse and for the Baby Jesus. This can tell us a lot about our own service to the Church! So let us experience this Christmas in spiritual closeness to Saint Joseph.
I thank you most heartily for your work and especially for your prayers. Truly I feel “borne aloft” by your prayers and I ask you to continue to support me in this way. I, too, remember you before the Lord, and I impart my blessing as I offer my best wishes for a Christmas filled with light and peace for each of you and for all your dear ones. Happy Christmas!

To this blogger, at least, it is clear that the holy father is congratulating members of the curia and contrasting their praiseworthy professionalism and service with a hypothetical alternative- "when professionalism is lacking". He is not issuing instructions for radical change. There are enough enemies of the truth distorting the holy father's message out there. It hardly behoves his supposed friends to do likewise.

Friday 20 December 2013

Monday 25 November 2013


This morning at mass for the feast of Christ the King in our little church we had two hymns, "Christ is King of Earth and Heaven", at the entry, and "Hail Redeemer King Divine", after Communion. Apart from a very simple Responsorial Psalm and plainsong "Alleluia"  it was all chants from the Missal- Kyrie XVI in Greek, Gloria XV, Sanctus XVIII , Pater Noster and Agnus Dei XVIII- all in English. Our priest sang the Collect, Preface and entire Eucharistic Prayer 1 (the Roman Canon) and Post Communion Prayer. He was, in my estimation, absolutely first class. We joined in singing the responses as well as the Memorial Acclamation. Everyone seemed to be joining in the singing.This was Mass of the Roman Rite in the vernacular and in the Ordinary Form and was very reverent. (There was no Organist- just a chap who plays through the first line, when necessary, with one hand.) It is possible! Yes, perhaps it would have been even more wonderful had it been in Latin... but we have come a long way since the introduction of the new Missal in 2011.  
Deo Gratias, say I.

Friday 1 November 2013

St Anthony of Padua in Chester!

Yesterday it was my great privilege to venerate the relic of St Anthony of Padua in the Church of St Francis in Chester- the latest saint whose relics I have encountered this year. These have included St Thomas Becket, in Canterbury, St John Southworth in Westminster, St Therese in Lisieux- as well as those of her parents the Blesseds Louis and Zelie Martin and St Peter in Rome. The older I get, the more important I feel it is to make the right kind of friends!

Friday 18 October 2013

Pope Francis Speaking English

 Don't believe me?
 Click on link below to hear Pope Francis speaking English!

Thursday 10 October 2013

Better than a dead shark!

 Follow the link to see some very interesting work:

I wonder. Will we see its like in Britain?

Tuesday 10 September 2013

Friday 6 September 2013

Ignorant and Lazy Journalist Trashes Fr Blake

I reprint, below, a piece by Fr Ray Blake, one of the best Catholic Priest Bloggers around, whose thoughtful and compassionate earlier piece was mangled and abused by a shameless (and apparently scruffy) hack.


Bill Gardner: an unscrupulous journalist

Have a look at this article by a 'journalist' called Bill Gardner,  in our local paper, it is his take on this piece I wrote on the poor.

I was saying that the poor, the really poor, turn our lives upside down. I know the local paper pays peanuts and expects its journalists to create stories in order to get onto the news networks but this is just a malicious and deliberate misrepresentation.

It is very interesting to see what a disreputable journalist can do with a few carefully chosen adjectives. I didn't 'condemn', 'complain', 'blast' etc, and I am pretty certain that some of his other quotes are not my words, especially not, 'test my holiness', I don't speak like that, 'only God is Holy'. Though I admit in an informal moment I might question the marriage of the parents of someone who disrupts the worship of an entire congregation, especially if they consistently steal from the church or other poor people.

It is interesting to see how an unscrupulous journalist can so easily put an entirely different slant on a simple theological reflection, presumably even basic Christian concepts are beyond the comprehension of some.

Well, journalists are obviously as messy as the poor; except unscrupulous journalists can do more damage. Perhaps Mr Gardner might like to help on our soup run, it doesn't have to be 365 day a year, once a week would be fine, providing he treats our clients with respect, or maybe he could take Jason or Daryl or Pawel or Dawn out for a cup of coffee or a meal, or just come a clear up the next time someone comes in and vomits or bleeds all over my kitchen because he is drug or has been beaten up.

Maybe next time I run out of money I could tap him for a few quid when some vulnerable 17 year old girl needs to top up her phone to speak to her mum because her boyfriend has beaten her up or she needs a roof over head because she is sleeping in a tent and it is just few degrees above zero and she is vulnerable, or maybe the next time I am arranging a child's funeral and someone comes to the door in need of someone to talk because they are suicidal I can send them round to Bill's place so he can spend a couple of hours listening to them.Here, to, I am neither complaining, blasting, lambasting or anything else, just asking.

I understand Mr Gardner's little piece has been syndicated internationally, perhaps kind readers might, if possible post my response.

(...and lazy blogger cuts and pastes! It doesn't take long to learn the skills of rubbish journalism!) 

Friday 26 July 2013

True Successor of St Thomas Becket Comes Out Fighting!

(while imitation whinges about Wonga)
The Narrow Gate
A Reflection by the Archbishop of Westminster
The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act has changed the legal definition of marriage in this land. No longer does this definition assume or support the complementarity of male and female, or expect sexual fidelity between the married couple, or see marriage as oriented towards conceiving and nurturing of children. The titles ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ are now officially gender neutral. This is the deconstruction of marriage as it has been understood for millennia. In effect, this Act completes the privatisation of marriage, so that its central content is whatever the couple wish to construct. Marriage is no longer a truly public institution, at the basis of society.
In passing this Act, with widespread support among sections of our population, our society has taken a significant step away from its Judeo-Christian foundations. Differences between social norms and these great religions have always existed. Today they are to be found in business practices, social welfare provision, in bioethics, in the beginnings and endings of lives. This Act adds to that list and to a sense among people of faith that they are, in these regards, strangers in their own land.
The Act does not change our Catholic teaching about marriage. In contrast to the new law, Christian teaching holds that marriage is a life-long, faithful commitment between a man and a woman, ordained by nature and by God for the creation of the family and future generations. Marriage is the place where sexual relations find their proper place and God-given purpose. Both as a natural, human institution and as raised by the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament, marriage provides the best circumstances for the birth and nurture of children and forms the most reliable links and supports between the generations. The notion of marriage now shaping its legal redefinition no longer assumes or supports these values. It is clear that the Catholic Church cannot accept the validity in Church law of same sex marriages.
At this moment it is important to recall why the Church was, and is, opposed in principle even to same sex civil partnerships. The reasons given, most clearly in 2003, were that civil partnerships (or same sex unions) inevitably failed to recognise the uniqueness of marriage, its specific nature and its crucial role in human well-being; they promoted lifestyles with a presumption of sexual activity outside the teaching of the Church and they would lead to a redefinition of marriage, just as we have seen.
Difference and confusion over the understanding of human sexuality and the principles governing sexual behaviour ran through the recent debate. Even though most people still seek a faithful love, and aspire to a faithful and lasting marriage and family life, our society has, in effect, thoroughly abandoned the fundamental principle that sexual relations belong properly with the bonds of marriage between a woman and a man. In contrast to the Christian tradition and the Church’s teaching, any sexual activity between consenting adults is now viewed as a matter of moral neutrality, to be decided upon by those involved, as long as no evident physical harm results. Also, the intrinsic link between sexual relations and the procreation of children has, in practice, long been abandoned.
It is easy to be carried along by these opinions and practices. They can have a great influence on our conscience and action. But this is not the way of the Catholic as a follower of Christ. We try to present and live by Catholic teaching as given by God for the ultimate good for each person. This may indeed lead us to feel, in these matters, out of step with popular culture. But that is our calling and not a matter for discouragement. Rather, with the confidence of faith, we stay resolute, encouraging one another and all who recognise the values we wish to uphold.
How should we conduct ourselves in these circumstances? There are many detailed points to be addressed in due course. But, in general, there are three principles which must guide our thinking and behaviour within our families, within the family of faith and in the roles we have in society. We must pay particular and respectful attention to those who experience same sex attraction, offering them consistent pastoral care in love and truth.
The first is that we try to live faithfully by the teaching we have received and to present it robustly and intelligently. Given to us in love by Christ our Lord and his Church, this teaching is no human construct but God’s
gift for our happiness. Nor is it an ideal to which we can but aspire. It is an invitation put before us in love. It is a goal towards which we positively strive on our pilgrimage. It is a goal we can attain because we are always accompanied by the loving friendship of Christ himself who constantly renews us in our efforts by his never failing forgiveness and grace. Failures neither surprise nor defeat us. Rather we press on knowing that in his invitation lies our true hope of stability in this life and happiness in the next. So we are willing to explain to each other the demands and coherence of Christ's invitation in every sphere of life and to offer each other encouragement for every challenge.
The second principle is that we are to make every effort to accompany one another through the difficulties and trials of life. We offer to others unfailing respect as they strive to do their best. We defend them from harshness and prejudice. Ready always to attribute the best of motives to others, we are slow to judge them in the particularity of their circumstances. Within our families and within the Church, in our parishes and groups, this loving support should never be withdrawn even in the times of confusion and disagreement about the right course of action to be taken. Together, with patience, we strive for that stability and peace for which we long. Most of all we remember that we are all engaged in a search for the loving presence of God in our lives, recognising that His presence comes to us most often through those who love us. We support each other in prayer, and find encouragement in the sacraments, especially in the Sacrament of Reconciliation where we receive God’s mercy and the call to change our way of life. Each day we entrust ourselves to God's loving providence which goes beyond all that we can see for ourselves. The third principle is that we are always willing to engage in dialogue and conversation with those who see things differently. This lesson was taught to us with extraordinary grace by Pope Benedict XVI during his Visit to the United Kingdom in 2010. In his manner and his words he engaged with the leaders of our society, offering both respect and challenge. He acknowledged the positive achievements of Parliament, yet challenged it regarding 'the objective norms governing right action.' Highlighting the 'worrying signs of a failure to appreciate… the rights of the believer to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion', he called on us all 'to seek ways to promote and encourage dialogue between faith and reason at every level of national life.' With respect and charity, then, we are always ready to present the reasons for the hope we have within us and to listen attentively to those who disagree.
This, then, is our mandate. We are to be energetic citizens and contributors to the common good of all. Crucial to this is our firm conviction of the truth and worthiness of our Catholic vision of life, and its moral principles and challenges. These we are always willing to present and to defend. We know the contentment that adherence to this way of life brings for at its heart is the love of Christ for all without exception and especially for those who are most burdened. In this we all have a part to play, keeping in mind the words of St Paul: ‘Now there are a variety of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.’ (1 Corinthians, 12.4-7)
Our place as followers of the Lord is not fashioned for our comfort. But nor is our discomfort something about which we should complain. From the outset until today, the Lord’s call to follow him has meant standing apart, quite clearly in some times and places. However that apartness is neither separation from nor disdain for our society. St Paul, in his advice to Titus, to us, is quite clear. We are 'to be ready to do good at every opportunity; not to go slandering other people or picking quarrels but to be courteous and always polite to all' (Titus 3.1-2) This is how we carry out our mission, striving always to enter the Kingdom by the narrow gate.
Vincent Nichols
6 July 2013

Tuesday 18 June 2013

"The Transfiguration" by Raphael

As seen in the Picture Gallery of the Vatican Museums.

Wednesday 12 June 2013

The Vatican Museums- at last!

It is not necessary to buy an exorbitantly-priced special ticket touted by agents offering to help you avoid the long queues in order to visit the Vatican Museums. We arrived at the entrance around 8am on the morning of Wednesday 24th April and we were alone. We were able to pop across the street for a quick cappuccino and were able to return and still be near the front of the queue which at that point appeared to consist solely of Germans. Within a few minutes, however, the queue behind us began to swell but once the doors opened we were soon inside and heading upwards.
Illustrated above are the sculptured figures over what is now the exit to the museums. Left and right of the papal arms are figures representing Michelangelo (short curly hair and damaged nose) and Raphael (youthful face with flowing locks).
We went first to the Picture Gallery where early treats included some musical angels by Melozzo da Forli

(images may be made bigger by clicking)

Monday 10 June 2013

Thursday 6 June 2013

Friday 31 May 2013

Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

The church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva is remarkable in several respects. It is said to be the only church with a gothic interior in Rome. It is the titular of H.E. Cormac Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor and outside may be seen an Egyptian obelisk carried upon the back of an Elephant! But there is more. Beneath the high altar lies the body of Saint Catherine of Siena, to the left of which may be seen a sculpture of the Risen Christ by Michelangelo and, then, the tomb of the Blessed ""Fra" Angelico. Perhaps I should pay more attention to guide books before my visits but, frankly, I found this quite jaw-dropping.

At the bottom we see another view of the elephant obelisk and, just creeping into view, the back end of the Pantheon.

Santa Croce in Gerusalemme

A short walk from St John Lateran is the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme- so-called because when built by Saint Helena, the mother of Constantine, the floor was packed with earth brought from Jerusalem. Here are kept, in a side chapel, several important relics of the Passion including a large part of the titulus (the signboard placed on the cross on Pilate's orders), one of the nails, a couple of thorns, a small fragment of the true cross and a larger piece from the cross of the good thief. Photography being forbidden, I did not take any snaps in the chapel of the relics.

Wednesday 29 May 2013

How not to visit the Vatican Museums

On the morning of Tuesday 23rd April we set out immediately after breakfast with the intention of visiting the Vatican Museums. At around  9am we found ourselves, to our dismay, at the end of a dense queue, several deep, and stretching over a hundred yards or so around the corner into the Viale Vaticano before the turn leading into the entrance. There seemed to be little chance of getting in in less than an hour. No sooner than had we arrived at this point than we were set upon by the representatives of various organisations offering to arrange tickets enabling us to avoid the queues and get straight in- at a price. Their persistence made our attempts to discuss the options open to us somewhat vexed. I am not the happiest of persons when I am being pressed to make a quick decision- my wife and I were being tackled simultaneously by a young man and a young woman- so I blurted out, "We'll come back tomorrow morning." "But tomorrow will be the papal audience and so it will be even busier", retorted the young woman. "Nevertheless," I declared, "we go!"- as we made a forceful exit from the queue. I was unsure as to whether we should come to regret that decision since the morrow would be our last day in Rome but I was quite sure I did not want to stand in a long queue being pestered and that even if we were to turn up the following day and find the same problem and so end up resorting to paying a grossly inflated rate for our tickets it would be on account of it being the only option left to us. 

We took the Metro then to San Giovanni and headed for the basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.

Monday 27 May 2013

St Peter's Basilica - Again

Following our visit to the Scavi we made our exit through the Vatican Grottoes emerging under the arch at the northern end of the facade of the basilica. We were then able to re-enter the basilica through the narthex. The nave was somewhat crowded but we were able to make our way to past the high altar to where mass was about to begin at the Altar of the Cathedra. Mass was largely sung and in Latin so that we were able to actively participate. Some of the music was provided by what appeared to be a visiting choir of boys and men who, sadly, did not appear to know the chants of the mass. At the Communion they sang the Cesar Franck "Panis Angelicus" - which I confess is not one of my favourite pieces. After mass I had hoped to venerate St Peter's statue but was left in little doubt by one of the stewards ( I don't know the proper title of these gentlemen) that this would not be tolerated.
In fact there seems to be a deliberate policy of keeping people away from the statue as the barricades in the photo above will confirm. Here, as I have remarked elsewhere, things seem somewhat changed from my last visit in 2000. On the other hand it is good to know that Confession is still called the Sacrament of Penance here.
Before leaving St Peter's we were able to see the monument to the Stuarts- the tomb of James III and  Henry Benedict the Cardinal Duke of York.

Thursday 23 May 2013

To the bones of St Peter

Exactly one month ago, on Monday 22nd April, we were privileged to visit the "Scavi"- the archaeologically excavated area under St Peter's Basilica- having booked our place on an English language guided tour well in advance back in January via the Vatican website. Our guide was a young Roman lady- an art historian- and we were the only Britons in the group.

The present basilica, as is well-known, was begun by Pope Julius II in 1506- the original basilica, built under Constantine, having become dangerously unstable. Immediately below the floor of the present basilica lie the Vatican Grottoes- the rather exotic name given to what would normally in other churches be termed the crypt- which extends under a large part of the building. It is here that many of the popes lie buried. Work carried out in 1939 for the construction of the tomb of Pope Pius XI revealed part of the Roman burial ground  or Necropolis which had been sealed and buried with the levelling of the site for the building of the basilica in the fourth century. Pope Pius XII authorised excavations which continued throughout the 1940s which revealed several mausolea and, ultimately, both the original grave of St Peter with the original monument over it, dating from the second century, and the loculus into which the bones of St Peter were later- presumably when the basilica was erected- replaced.

Entry to the Scavi is through a gateway to the south of the colonnade past security and Swiss Guards. Here, in a courtyard on the south side of the basilica, one stands on the site of the ancient Circus of Nero where St Peter was crucified. A tablet set in the paving marks the original site of the obelisk which was placed on the central spine of the circus and which now stands in St Peter's Square. Entering through a couple of rooms in which artefacts found in the excavations are displayed one soon descends through sealing doors to the ancient street level where the feeling of having been taken back through time is palpable and where almost the first sight that greets one is, in fact, a street!

The "houses" that line this street are in fact mausolea or tombs- despite looking from the outside very like houses of brick or stone in which the living might dwell. Inside they are decorated - mainly with fresco work but are also some mosaic work and as well as terracotta mouldings and the tombs served to house both burials (inhumation) and urns of ashes from cremation. The remarkable preservation is due to the siting of the basilica and the decision to raise the level of this part of the site in order to provide the foundations.

The Necropolis was on the southern slope of the Vatican hill along the northern boundary of the Circus of Nero. Following his martyrdom the body of St Peter was buried in a simple earthen grave on what was, at this stage, an undeveloped site. During the Second century the necropolis developed as wealthier citizens built tombs in the vicinity. Already at this time a priest named Gaius referred to a "trophy" or monument marking the grave. 
During the second and third centuries more mausolea were built and the Circus fell into disuse. An interesting feature of many of these edifices may be seen in the inscriptions announcing the will of the owner carrying information about who- generally other members of the family- the tombs are for. In some of these texts reference is made to the location "on the Vatican hill next to the Circus". During this period both cremation and inhumation were practised with an increasing tendency toward the latter as time went on. The occupants of the excavated part of the Necropolis appear to have been mostly pagan but one later mausoleum displays Christian imagery- an adapted image of Apollo as the Sun but with cruciform nimbus- is seen in a ceiling mosaic. Oddly enough, although I had long been familiar with this image through photographs, I was quite unprepared for its beauty and the sight of it was one of those rare occasions where I found my breath quite taken away by a sheer vision of loveliness. Unfortunately, from my point of view, one is not allowed to take photographs in the Scavi. By the time one sees the mausoleum with this mosaic the Apostle's tomb is quite close at hand.

Constantine's decision to close the Necropolis and erect the basilica was of profound significance implying both immense political will and extraordinary material resources. From the outset the intention was clearly to raise the altar of the basilica over Saint Peter's grave. Given the  grave's location with the surrounding necropolis and the fact of the Vatican Hill's falling away to the south it was deemed necessary to level the entire area. The roofs of the mausolea were removed and the site packed with earth and rubble. The walls of the mausolea were left in situ and additional walls strategically inserted as retaining structures for the massive infilling. The result for posterity of this infilling of this city of the dead may, I think, be compared to that of the ash of Vesuvius upon the city of the living Pompeiians with everything preserved snapshot-like at the moment of destruction. An additional benefit here is that excavation did not begin until modern archaeological techniques were available in the twentieth century. 

The experience of walking along the street of the Necropolis is barely like anything else I have experienced. From the light of mid-afternoon we had descended into a sort of night-time world- an ancient Roman street with modern, if subdued, lighting. One might make visual comparisons with a stage- or film-set because one looks up above the lighting and the rough top edges of the buildings to a "floating" hard reinforced concrete ceiling which is the base of the current floor of the Vatican Grottos. 

The tour lasts about an hour and a half and initially I found myself champing at the bit somewhat. I was eager to get to the relics of Saint Peter and we seemed to be spending rather a lot of time on the preliminaries. Guides do like to talk! Nevertheless it was absorbing and when we arrived in the area next to St Peter's tomb the site had been well and truly contextualised.

When Pope Pius XII  authorised the excavation the area around St Peter's tomb  had been initially excluded. A subsequent campaign involved the area around and underneath the tomb. It is possible to see a column from the original "trophy" referred to by Gaius and, through a small hole broken through into the loculus into which the bones were raised at the time of Constantine, some of the bones. These, following the excavation, were replaced in what I take to be perspex containers. Above this I think it is possible to see part of the base of the altar erected at the time of Pope St Gregory the Great- but I was unable to make out that particular structure. I do, however have a vivid recollection of seeing a clear part of the polished white marble facing of the altar erected over this by Pope Callixtus II in the twelfth century.

I should have liked longer to make out these several layers of masonry from the grave at bottom, to  the trophy of Gaius, the Constantinian loculus, the base of the altar of Gregory the Great and the altar of Callixtus II but it was nevertheless clear how this one small area had been repeatedly overbuilt with increasing grandeur for above those mentioned came the present altar, Bernini's baldacchino and Michelangelo's dome.

 All this honours the little spot of earth where the Fisherman's bones were laid after his ignominious death in the adjacent circus. And our guide pointed out an interesting fact. Most Christian churches are oriented, that is with the altar towards the eastern end but in St Peter's the altar is towards the west. This, she told us, is because the alignment of St Peter's burial followed Jewish custom and the basilica  follows the alignment of his burial. And the same is also true of other papal basilicas.

All too soon our visit was coming to an end.

We left the Scavi through the Vatican Grottos pausing at the Confession where the outer "casing" of the tomb is marked by an icon of Christ and the niche of the pallia. Here it is that, close to the Apostle's bones, the pallia rest before the pope gives them to metropolitan archbishops as a symbol of their union with the apostolic see.

It is an enormous privilege to be able to visit that holy spot and to catch a glimpse of St Peter's bones as I did on that afternoon. Given the way the world has changed even since my last visit to Rome in 2000 I can only marvel and wonder how much longer the opportunity will be available with such ease to ordinary pilgrims like myself. Thirteen years ago I was able to simply saunter into St Peter's Basilica unhindered to a mass and a Papal appearance. Now one has to queue and pass through security metal detectors and baggage X-rays simply to enter the Square.

Friday 17 May 2013

San Pietro in Montorio and other sights

From Santa Maria in Trastevere we climbed to the church of San Pietro in Montorio- a church I had heard about since it had been the titular of Giulio Cardinal de Medici who had commissioned Raphael's last great painting, "The Transfiguration". Originally intended for his Cathedral of Narbonne in southern France- the then cardinal had been simultaneously Archbishop of Florence, Archbishop of Narbonne and Bishop of Worcester- the painting had been unfinished at Raphael's death in 1520 and was installed instead in his titular church here where it remained until stolen by Napoleon. Returned to Rome following the Congress of Vienna  which dealt with matters arising from the Napoleonic Wars Raphael's painting found its final home in the Vatican Pinacoteca. Cardinal Giulio de Medici was elected Pope in 1523 as Clement VII in which role he was happily able to confirm that the marriage of Henry VIII and Queen Catherine was perfectly valid. Less happily, he had to retreat to the Castel Sant'Angelo(bottom picture) when Rome was sacked by the Imperial troops in 1527.
A curious feature of this church was the way we found the pews draped in heavy off-white blankets.These seemed somewhat heavy for dust sheets- which they reminded me of- nor did protection for repair work seem consistent with the unprotected sanctuary and altars.

Thursday 16 May 2013

Wednesday 15 May 2013

Santa Maria in Trastevere 1

Santa Maria in Trastevere is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful churches in Rome! Externally it is distinguished by the mosaic decoration of the facade (below the pediment) while internally the mosaics of the apse, while rich and glowing in their colouring, are striking for their bold naturalism. Attributed to Pietro Cavallini (1259-c1330) a slightly older contemporary of Giotto, they are particularly noteworthy for the strong sense of relief created by the clear representation of directional lighting usually associated with that master.
Unfortunately my photos do not do justice to their subjects. Try as I might, I could not get a picture of the main image of the apse without reflected glare from the lighting. Cavallini's style is best seen in the three narrative panels of The Annunciation, The Nativity (with the annunciation to the shepherds) and The Presentation in the Temple.
 In a side chapel I managed to snap this curious fresco representing the Council of Trent- again apologies for the poor quality of the shot. In the foreground are several allegorical figures including a lady who, crowned with the papal tiara, represents Holy Church trampling error underfoot!
Briefly a papal residence, Santa Maria in Trastevere, was the titular of Henry Benedict Stuart the grandson of James II and brother of Charles Edward Stuart the young pretender ("Bonnie Prince Charlie"). Possibly the most illustrious member of the house of Stuart, he rose to become Dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals and participated in several conclaves.

Monday 13 May 2013

Santa Cecilia in Trastevere

In view of the momentous visit planned for the afternoon of Monday 22nd April we decided to take the morning gently visiting some of the churches of Trastevere which lies on the same side of the Tiber but to the south of the Vatican. First was Santa Cecilia. Tradition has it that the basilica was built on the site of the house of the saint's family and it was here that her relics were brought from their original resting place in the Catacombs of Saint Callixtus. Under the altar is seen the famous sculpture by Stefano Maderno which depicts the body of Saint Cecilia as found when her tomb was opened in the sixteenth century. Somewhat appropriately, in the church of the patron saint of music, we arrived to find a lady playing the organ!
There are some notable mosaics in the apse and, I believe too that there are some impressive frescoes by Pietro Cavallini associated with the church but- unable to find them during our visit- I thought I had been mistaken in expecting them.

One famous holder of the title of Santa Cecilia was none other than Thomas Cardinal Wolsey Archbishop of York and Lord Chancellor of England.