One year ago this week I boarded the first of two airplanes that took me to Calcutta, India. I traveled with a dozen or so others to volunteer for two weeks with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, on what the priest who runs this annual trip called, “a marvelous pilgrimage.”
As a pampered physical coward and dedicated xenophobe who had vowed never to step foot outside the USA, I faced the trip with some trepidation. We’d all heard stories about the “black hole” of Calcutta and seen images of the filth and squalor that dominate the lives of the “poorest of the poor” who live there; and we were not disappointed. Anyone who thinks they have seen real poverty or lack of respect for human dignity in America would do well to visit Calcutta.
Thankfully, the workday — which in my case was spent at Daya Dan, a home for physically and mentally handicapped orphans — was book-ended by morning Mass and an evening holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament with the sisters, which afforded a welcome spiritual refuge from the insanity that is daily life in Calcutta. Indeed, without these moments of grace, their mission of charity would be next to impossible.
I had these things on my mind last week as I boarded the plane that would take me to the seat of the Catholic Church, the eternal city of Rome. I felt a twinge of guilt, knowing that while this year’s group of pilgrims was wending its way toward the slums of Calcutta, I was on my way to one of the most beautiful cities on earth. Was there any beauty in Calcutta?
By a strange set of circumstances, my local pastor, a learned monsignore on a well-deserved sabbatical in Rome, was our official Vatican guide for what is known as the Scavi Tour: a walk through the underground necropolis three stories beneath St. Peter’s Basilica, where you can actually view the remains of history’s most famous fisherman.
Much of Rome is of a multi-layered nature. The easily missed Basilica of San Clemente is a treasure-trove of history. The current basilica is a twelfth-century edifice built over a fourth-century structure that itself was erected above a first-century house church, once owned by the Roman consul and martyr, Titus Flavius Clemens. This first building was later used as a Mithrian Temple, and all three levels are available for touring.
Taking in the beauty and enormity of the Catholic presence in Rome could likely fill a pilgrim’s plate for a lifetime, but in the short space of ten days I was able to feast on breath-taking works of religiously-inspired masters, too numerous to count. (And before you History Channel buffs armed with your DaVinci decoder-rings begin your tales that Michelangelo and friends had doubts about the faith, mistresses and what have you, remember; that’s why Catholic churches have what we call confessionals.)
As I trekked from huge basilica to tiny church, my head was often left spinning, trying to digest the splendor of the priceless paintings, frescoes, statuary and architecture surrounding me. It was a difficult chore at times, to remember that these countless masterpieces were dedicated to the glory of God and to honor his servants and martyrs, and not merely to be enjoyed for their own sake.
This task was more easily accomplished out on the streets of the city where one can still find numerous edicole, or little shrines to the Blessed Virgin Mary, on the walls of various buildings, some surrounded by notes of petition and thanks. Or by watching pilgrims on their knees ascend the Scala Sancta, or Holy Stairs, which, according to tradition, are the steps that once lead to Pontius Pilate’s praetorium at Jerusalem and were brought to Rome in 326 AD by St. Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine. This, for Christians, is an experience not to be missed, for it is an undertaking of pure love.
Pope Benedict XVI has written of this love between God and man, “God does not demand of us a feeling which we ourselves are incapable of producing. He loves us, he makes us see and experience his love, and since he has ‘loved us first’, love can also blossom as a response within us….Only if I serve my neighbour can my eyes be opened to what God does for me and how much he loves me.”
And this love is the real beauty which is present in the dazzling naves and chapels in Italy, as well as the Leprosy Centre run by the Brothers of Charity in Titagarh, India. It is in Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa (of Avila) and wholly evident in the life of her namesake, Blessed Mother Teresa. Rome and Calcutta; two destinations, one journey.