In retrospect, it is easy to see the lines of demarcation between one society and another. Yet, when one considers the fall of Rome in the West that was clear by the year 476, it seems that the signs of crumbling that long predated the final collapse are largely forgotten. Similarly, most people familiar with the fall of the Eastern Roman empire in 1453 may overlook the steady crumbling of the empire’s borders over the years.
The fact of the matter is that the final burial of a civilization always follows an earlier death. Many men in history have lived as inheritors to a ghost, limping and lingering on past the dissolution of the body politic. Many men have lived in the ruins of their own society and, rather than observing the evident decay, put their faith and trust in a death rattle.
I had been in Rome for several weeks before my roommate proposed walking the Seven Church Pilgrimage. I knew that the pilgrimage was an ancient tradition, and, feeling some modicum of piety, I decided to go along. The route ran thus: Maria Maggiore, Saint Lawrence, Santa Croce, St. John Lateran, St. Sebastian, St. Paul outside the Walls, and then St. Peter’s. For anyone familiar with the geography of Rome (as I was), the route is daunting, covering around 14 miles and taking a pilgrim through much of Rome. We arrived at Maria Maggiore from the nearest metro stop without trouble, said a rosary, and headed to Saint Lawrence.
This is where our troubles began, and where I began to recognize the newborn ruins that dot Rome. We had made a wrong turn and ended up in the Verano Cemetery. The noise of the city streets soon faded away as we were enveloped by the silence of graves. A plethora of mausoleums and grave chapels in different styles rose around us. Looking at the weeds that blocked the iron doors and the vines that crawled across their edifices, the thought struck me that there was once a time when priests would come to celebrate Masses here. Was it that there were so many priests that such a feat was possible? Or rather, was it because the priests were educated enough, and cared enough, to come to a cemetery and offer a Mass for the dead? Perhaps both?
We carried on, winding deeper into the graveyard, passing elaborate statues of men and angels carved from the finest marble. Soon a flight of stairs took us to another section of the graveyard, passing above rows of tombs carved into the side of the hill. I recall stopping briefly to look through a broken glass window halfway up the stairs. Inside the dim grave was an abandoned altar and a desiccated bouquet of flowers. “When was the last time a priest stood at that altar?” I thought. Another thought dawned on me: “when was the last time a priest came and celebrated the traditional Mass here, in the chapel that was built for this specific Mass to be said on this poor person’s grave?” Chesterton’s line about tradition being the “democracy of the dead” echoed in my mind.
When the reach of a society ebbs, it is the dead and their memory that are left behind first; marginalized, the dearly departed remain at the outer rim as a selfish generation reallocates its resources and efforts to the practical and pleasurable for themselves.
The stairs leveled off, and we headed into a different section of the serene cemetery. I peeked into another mausoleum, observing another abandoned altar that had been turned into a flower stand, a soft electric glow coming from the sanctuary lamp hanging above it. Symbols and architecture that were once immediately understood and easily grasped had clearly begun to erode. True, people still came to this mausoleum, but they no longer understood the purpose their ancestors had in erecting it. Here barbarians lived in a fallen empire, thinking themselves still Romans.
The winding routes of the cemetery led us back to the road, the noise of the still living city swallowing the silence of…what? The dead lying at rest, or the ruins of a dead society? Either way, we were back at the route and soon arrived at the façade of St Lawrence. Iron gates barred our path. It turned out that we had left too late in the morning and come to our stop at pranzo, when most places of business in Rome close down.
I had to wonder how far in the past one would have to go to see every Roman church filled with a parish priest. We were in the heart of Rome, and there were not enough priests to go around. Another sign of collapse. These two experiences covered the rest of the day, looming over prayer and thought alike.
At St. Paul outside the Walls, new indications of ruins confronted us. The enormous nave was lined with monumental rows of columns, holding up a flat coffered ceiling. Yet there were seats only at the very front, at the foot of the sanctuary.
“It’s so empty,” I whispered.
“They use it for concerts now,” my friend retorted.
Eventually, at the foot of the central altar, we came across other people: tourists, with smartphones and cameras, snapping pictures at the tomb of St. Paul. The tourist is a collector of aesthetics, a foreigner entering into a world not his own to take a quantifiable reminder of his destination with him as he leaves, as opposed to the pilgrim, who exists in a certain tradition, in continuity with the past and heritage of his destination, coming to lay down his prayers and sacrifices.
There was little in the way of genuflection, less in the way of silence. A bishop walked around the basilica, loudly talking and laughing into his cell phone. St. Paul’s may be a papal basilica, but it is not a living church for the living God. Rather, it is, in function, a museum to a dead god, a ruin misused by the barbarians into whose hands it has been placed, as vulgar as it would be to open a market in the tomb of Augustus.
The pilgrimage left me with the impression that we are still witnessing the birth of ruins, and not their consummation, for truly, they are not known as ruins by the world yet. We hang somewhere between Thomas Cole’s “Consummation of Empire” and “Desolation,” as our “Destruction” is ongoing and violent in a way other than what comes by the sword. So we dangle in the balance, echoes of “new springtime” still in our ears, the words spoken by contemporaries who ignore the growing ruins around us.
It appears that we are in for the long haul, for we have much more destruction to witness. One day, we may have our own 476 or 1453 in the Church, when the great cry rings out in the night that “all is lost” from the world at large. When that time comes, we, like St. Augustine, must be there to show how all this started, and where our hope must lie.
That said, thinking of the bishop laughing into his phone, feet away from the tomb of St. Paul, in a sacred church built for the housing the Presence of God in the Sacrament, we should not expect anyone to save us from this desolation. Our hope must be in God seeing us piece back together what really matters, as the popes did in the wake of Rome’s fall to the barbarians. We will drink this cup of ruin to the dregs, and only then will rebirth come. We Catholics are already living in the ruins.
Jonah Michael Cloonan is a Catholic living in Rome.