- Steve Addazio's inaugural press conference as Boston College head football coach (pg. 9)
- Wake Forest University president Nathan Hatch's keynote address at the Sesquicentennial symposium "Religion and the Liberal Aims of Higher Education" (pg. 34)
- David B. Couturier, OFM Cap., on "New Evangelization for Today's Parish" (pg. 42)
- Guerilla Orchestra: the Callithumpian Consort and student musicians rehearse John Zorn's Cobra (pg. 10)
Updates, special features, and a day-by-day history of Boston College
View upcoming events at Boston College
Books by alumni, faculty, and staff
Alumni in the news
Order books noted in Boston College Magazine
Join the online community of alumni
View the current BCM in original format
The church on the way
From a C21 book about hope, thoughts at an open door
There are 400 churches in Rome, and San Giuseppe della Lungara has got to be one of the ordinariest. The Counter-Reformation front shoehorned into a block of apartments; the iron banister bent into submission by 20 generations of old hands; the pair of green doors at the top of chipped and slanted stone steps blackened by exhaust from passing motorini—all are standard, and grim enough to banish any illusions about the vitality of the city and the Church headquartered there.
The right door is held open by a loop of string. Past it is a plain pine booth of a vestibule, the knots in the wood an oddly rustic touch amid the soot and stone. You push a small door till a coiled spring strains open, and go in.
Inside, this church is cool and dark, musty like an unfinished basement, and so deserted as to seem abandoned. There are no windows, no chandeliers, only some spotlights at the corners just bright enough to show what is where. A number of wood-and-glass dioramas depicting scenes in the life of Christ protrude like birdhouses overhead. To each side and up front—”up at the holy end,” as Philip Larkin put it—are altars with ropes swagged across them, museum-style. There are no signs of recent life here: no stray missals or dried palm fronds, no tracts or collection envelopes, no left-behind umbrellas or wads of gum or children’s toys or printed bulletins reporting on how many people came to church last Sunday.
Even as old churches go, this one is dispiriting, at least by the usual measures. Yet it became for me a place of hope during the bright spring days when a new pope was elected—became a reason for hope when that virtue, grounded more than any of the others in human weakness and dependence, was being crowded out by triumphalism on one side and dismay on the other.
I happened upon the church for the first time on the Saturday after the conclave. Sent by the Atlantic, I had been in Rome two weeks earlier to attend John Paul II’s funeral, staying in a pilgrim house in the old historic center. Now I returned for a long weekend to see Joseph Ratzinger—the name Benedict hadn’t taken hold yet—invested as pope and to attend, with several thousand others, his first press conference. I arrived that Saturday morning with just enough time to gain entry to a friend’s vacant apartment in Trastevere, disinter a suit from a garment bag, and walk the mile to the Vatican. In fact, I had a little more than enough time, and it was as if to redeem this pleasure that I ducked into the church whose green door stood open.
In the darkness, I was at once calmed and moved. Here was a church that—rare thing in Rome—was a church and nothing more: not the site of a saint or a refashioned pagan temple or the base of a religious order or the titular church of a prominent cardinal. A Roman church reduced to essences, it offered the meditatory aids associated—often in sinister ways—with the Church of Rome, as the controversialists once called it. The dioramas dramatizing Christ’s Passion were out of reach but not out of sight, and clearly had been expertly constructed. The roped-off altars were fronted by signs warning questo altare è allarmato (this altar is alarmed), and yet they looked like altars in a Christian church, not Noguchi tables or skinny-legged xylophones. Here was a church for—well, for what I was doing now: kneeling and bowing my head and praying for the Lord’s guidance in the work I had come to Rome to do.
Benedict was invested as pope, and I returned to Rome once more, this time settling in Trastevere with my family to write an article about how he had come to occupy the papal office. On foot, the via della Lungara is the most direct route from Trastevere to the Vatican, and I passed that old church nearly every morning in the weeks to follow, on the way to appointments with members of the Curia. As often as not, I went inside—computer in backpack, can of lemon soda protruding from pants pocket—and conceived a quick prayer.
It was some weeks before I learned the name of the church, and its translation: something like St. Joseph’s in the Road that Runs Along (lungo means along), or St. Joe’s on the Way.
What drew me back to that particular church then, and what draws me back to it now as a sign of hope? At the time, the nature of its attraction seemed obvious. In my reporting, I was passing through some of the most exalted spots in Rome: St. Peter’s Basilica, the old monastic churches on the Aventine Hill, the mosaic-bedecked basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere. But St. Joe’s on the Way was a “regular” church, one not burdened by symbolic greatness. And it was an empty, quiet, peaceful church—one where, even more than in the perfectly austere spaces of Santa Sabina and the like, it was possible to feel oneself in communion with Catholics worldwide, the living and the dead, and at the same time to feel alone with God.
Certainly its ordinariness was part of its appeal. But surely there was more to it than that.
Over time, on those morning walks from Trastevere to the Vatican, I realized that the church is halfway between the two districts—the one an old working people’s redoubt, now a bohemian quarter, marked by a delicate late medieval arch; the other the seat of the Church and the magnet for pilgrims from all over the world, marked by a broad stone arch set into the brown brick of the wall that is the border of Vatican territory. The road that runs between these two arches, which stand steadfastly at its ends as if constructed out of children’s blocks, was one of the first roads laid out in the Italian Renaissance, planned to offer the pilgrim a straight shot to St. Peter’s; and in the centuries to follow it became one of the most traveled routes in the Christian world.
Today, though, the main road to and from Vatican City is the Lungotevere, a broad boulevard built in the Mussolini era. Alongside it, the via della Lungara has the feel of an alley or service road—buckled, grimy, made clamorous by the engines of small trucks and military vehicles and shortcut-seeking motorbikes. Just as the Tiber, once a flowing river, is now more like a catch basin for Rome’s runoff, so the via della Lungara is a drain for traffic sloughed off by the more scenic Lungotevere.
Likewise the Church of St. Joseph on the Road that Runs Along. For centuries, it served pilgrims en route to St. Peter’s. Now I suspect it serves mainly people from the neighborhood—a neighborhood that, like Italy as a whole, probably claims fewer observant Catholics with each passing year.
Over time, my work writing about the life of the Church in Rome had made a pilgrim of me, and over time the via della Lungara and the church on it came to suggest something important about the pilgrimage. Left behind, the church had also been left untouched by the forces usually taken for signs of life in the Catholic world—and taken for news by the people who write about the Church. Save for the orientation of the high altar, it had not been renewed by Vatican II, for as far as I could tell it had no windows to open. Nor had it been restored by John Paul II, on whose watch Rome’s more illustrious churches were made to sparkle again, the better to symbolize the restoration of Catholic orthodoxy. Its spot at the midpoint between Trastevere and the Vatican was no metaphor for a contest between worldly playground and clerical fortress; the warning signs and alarms at the altars were not emblems of the exclusion of women or married men from the priesthood, just precautionary measures put in place so the church could be left open.
And open it was, morning after morning. There it stood, a survivor, its door held back with that piece of string even when nobody was around, so that it might witness the life passing before it—and welcome a pilgrim from time to time.
In the books about the Church written when the gulf with Protestantism was widest, the Church of Rome is characterized by its fixity. The Church is an absolute, a feature on the landscape, a port (as John Henry Newman had it) where every ship ought to call.
I remember reading Newman’s Apologia as a young man in the 1980s and being left bewildered, for the Church of my experience was characterized not by fixity, but by change. It was to this sense of constant and tumultuous change that John Paul sought to respond. But to have spent any time in Rome in recent years is to have become aware that the era of John Paul also was characterized by change in the Church. The ever greater reach of the pope’s itinerary; the serial drama of the 2000 Jubilee; the reining in of even the most temperate postconciliar initiatives; the reshaping of the cardinalate so as to make it at once geographically diverse and theologically uniform; the melodrama of John Paul’s last illness and the hullabaloo over his death—all would have surprised his predecessors. Avery Dulles has said that each epoch in the Church’s life can be seen as having a single overriding preoccupation, and that the 20th century was the “century of the Church”—in which questions about the nature of the Church were the questions for Catholic believers. If that is the case, under John Paul it was the case right up to the end.
Against this background that small, dark, empty church on the grimy old byway seemed to me—and seems to me now—a reason for hope, for it is a sign of life that is not a sign of change. There it stands, unoccupied, unsupervised, but still open—no small thing, as those of us in the big cities of the United States now have special reason to know.
It may sound as if, in idealizing such a church, I am hoping for a Catholic Church that is fixed and unchanging. But I don’t think that is the case. I’d say that I hope, rather, for a Church in which the life of faith is not so often conflated with a yearning for change in the Church, whether toward restoration or relaxation. I would hope, in other words, for the “century of the Church” to be over, and for some other preoccupation to take its place. Maybe we are now in the century of history, as Catholics undertake the “pilgrimage in time” called for by Vatican II in the 1960s and called forth by the collapse of communism two decades later. Maybe it is now the century of women, as the presence of women in the Church, already unmistakable, shapes the Church’s life in the face of efforts to the contrary. Maybe it will be the century of the Church as the “salt of the earth,” in which Catholics go forward together with other Christians, and with Jews and Muslims and people of other faiths, and Catholicism recognizes that it is, at least sociologically, one religion among many. Each of these would bring change—as an effect of Catholic lives fully and faithfully lived.
I would hope, that is, for the Church in search of itself to find itself as the Church on the way.
I knelt in the back of the church once more. The roar of motorbikes came through the open door, engines revving for the straightaway. The church itself was quiet, however. I might have prayed just then for the century of the Church to pass. But I had plenty else to pray for. I lowered my head, lofted a prayer in the general direction of heaven, and set out for my appointment at the Vatican, a little later than I had expected.
Paul Elie is the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (2003). His essay is drawn from Take Heart: Catholic Writers on Hope in Our Time (2007), published by Boston College’s Church in the 21st Century Center.
The idea for Take Heart: Catholic Writers on Hope in Our Time grew out of an event held at Boston College on September 30, 2002, when 350 Boston-area Catholics, distraught over evidence of sexual abuse and cover-up in their archdiocese, packed an auditorium to hear four theologians discuss “Laity and the Governance of the Church: Legitimate Expectations.” Ben Birnbaum, editor of BCM and of Take Heart was there, and writes in the book’s introduction of an audience of men and women who “stayed alert in their places for an hour and 10 minutes . . . scribbling, scribbling, scribbling on legal pads and in notebooks, like students in the week before the final exam, worried but sure of the possibilities, taut with hope.”
Take Heart is a collection of essays commissioned of 35 writers—novelists, poets, essayists, journalists, theologians, philosophers, a documentarian, even a former presidential speechwriter. Their assignment: to “reflect on the nature of hope and its sources and uses in our time.” With three exceptions—what Birnbaum calls “a control group” of an orthodox priest, a rabbi, and a Lutheran minister—the contributors come steeped in the Catholic tradition and include Kenneth Woodward, Valerie Sayers, Timothy Radcliffe, James Martin, Ann Wroe, Lorenzo Albacete, Phyllis Zagano, Robert Royal, and Luke Timothy Johnson. In addition to Christian theology, their reflections on hope draw upon stories of Spanish anarchists, bracelet charms, and a murder in Central America, seeking what Radcliffe, paraphrasing Vaclav Havel, calls the belief not that things will turn out well, but that they will “ultimately be found to have meaning.” The book joins six others in the Church in the 21st Century Series.
Read more by Anna Marie Murphy