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Rome is a crazy city. The traffic is chaotic, the politics quite impenetrable to outsiders, the beauty of its fountains and piazzas in sharp contrast with its grimy buildings, its impressive array of artistic and architectural masterpieces, its rich pagan and Christian history, its saints and its sinners, its nuns and its pickpockets. I've been in Rome the last few weeks taking an intensive Latin-as-if-it-were-a-living-language course at my alma mater, the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, where I got a doctorate in canon law 25 years ago.
Some things never change. Rome is rightly called the Eternal City, because getting things done here can take forever. As the Roman poet Catullus once wrote in another context, "Odi et amo," "I hate and love" at the same time. Roma spelled backwards is amor, the Latin word for love. But only backwards. Romans put a lot of stock in "la bella figura," making a good impression. This makes for great fashion and style, of course, but it can often substitute for substance. Romans are big on conspiracy theories, that there is something behind everything, that things are not as they seem. And of course that is often true.
But then there are the saints, sincerely practicing love of God and others. Just recently the pope approved decrees of heroic virtue for American Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, who was a media celebrity when I was a kid in the 1950s (He at one point had the most-watched show on television), but also a holy priest, as well as for Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, who was the successor to St. Josemaria Escriva as head of Opus Dei, and whom I knew when I lived here lo these many years. The supernatural spirit and peace that he always exuded were palpable. Both are eminently the stuff of saints, and not just their bella figura, in other words. If he is canonized, Bishop Sheen would be the first American-born male to be proclaimed a saint, joining native-born Saints Elizabeth Ann Seton and Katharine Drexel, not to mention the soon-to-be-canonized Kateri Tekakwitha.
Rumor has it that Pope Benedict will soon beatify both Pope John Paul I, the pope who reigned for a month before Blessed John Paul II, and Pope Paul VI, who concluded the Second Vatican Council. Since both John Paul II and John XXIII, who opened the Council fifty years ago, have already been beatified, that would mean that the previous four popes would all become "Blessed," and well on their way to being proclaimed saints. Since the papacy is Rome's greatest adornment, this is great news, a truly wonderful development. Would that the Renaissance popes had been such paragons of virtue!
When you explore Rome, you are immediately struck by the marvelous presence of its saints. St. Bridget of Sweden, for example, whose feast was celebrated this week, lived and died in a building just off the Piazza Farnese, a block from where I'm staying. St. Philip Neri, the Renaissance-era apostle of Rome, is buried under a side-altar at the Church of St. Mary in Vallicella, the Chiesa Nuova (It was a "New Church" in the sixteenth century. In the U.S., of course, such a church would be our oldest.) St. Catherine of Siena, who in the fourteenth century convinced the pope to return to Rome from exile in Avignon, France, is under the main altar of the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva (St. Mary above Minerva, since the Gothic church is built on the site of an ancient Roman temple to the goddess Minerva.)
At the Capitoline Museum, which sits atop the Capitoline Hill, I visited the spectacular exhibit Lux in Arcana ("Light in Hiding"), a collection of a hundred documents like the sixteenth-century excommunication of Martin Luther or the thirteenth-century papal recognition of the Franciscans, which occurred during St. Francis' life. Church history contains everything, good and bad, but it's marvelous to see the leavening effect that the saints continue to exercise throughout history, in spite of everything. Wars and politicians come and go, but the saints, like the Eternal City, remain.
Dwight G. Duncan is professor at UMass School of Law Dartmouth. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.