Saturday, March 14, 2015

Statio ad Sanctam Susannam

At Rome, the stational church for today's Mass of the Saturday of the 3rd Week of Lent is the Church of Santa Susanna on the Via Venti Settembre - just down the street from the Quirinale palace and not far from the famous Spanish Steps. Since 1922 (with a brief interruption during World War II) Santa Susanna has been the American national church in Rome, the parish home of American Catholics living or working in Rome, and has also been the Roman parish of my religious community, the Paulist Fathers, who have been responsible for the pastoral care of the American community there these 90+ years. Today is an appropriate occasion to mention and celebrate the great ministry of the Paulist Fathers at Santa Susanna. The fact that Santa Susanna is a stational church, however, indicates that it has a history much longer than that of the American and Paulist presence in Rome.

In fact, Santa Susanna was a working Roman parish as early as the 4th century.  By the 12th century, however, the local population had declined so much that the parish seems to have died out. In the 16th century, the church was extensively restored and renovated. And, in 1587, Pope Sixtus V gave the property to the Cistercian nuns, who remain there today. As a result of the kingdom of Italy's conquest of Rome in 1870, which unified the kingdom of Italy and put an end to papal rule in Rome, much of the nuns’ property was confiscated by the state, which also confiscated the Pope's nearby Quirinale Palace, turning it into the principal royal residence.

Under the floor of the present church are the ruins of a Roman house lived in by Christian relatives of the Emperor Diocletian, which served as a Christian “House Church” from 280 to 293. Emperor Diocletian, however, was hostile to Christianity; and his Christian relative Susanna (the niece of Pope Caius) and her father Gabinus were martyred. By 330, a church had been built over the site. At some point, the bodies of Susanna and Gabinus were brought back from the catacombs and buried in the church; and in 590 Pope St. Gregory the Great, in recognition of devotion that had developed around Susanna’s tomb, renamed the church in her honor. (Her feast day is August 11.) That same year, a certain Rusticus was named Cardinal Priest of Santa Susanna – the first of Santa Susanna’s 77 Cardinal Priests. 

Fast forward to the 20th century. By then, the Paulist Fathers were looking for a residence in Rome to house the community’s representative to the Holy See and for a church to minister to the growing American population in Rome. Near the American Embassy, not far from the railroad station and the Grand Hotel, they found Santa Susanna. Paulist Father John J. Burke, then General Secretary of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference, mentioned the matter to President Harding, who mentioned it to the Apostolic Delegate, specifically suggesting Santa Susanna. So Pope Benedict XV authorized the Paulists to use Santa Susanna as a national church for American Catholics in Rome, and the first Sunday Mass at Santa Susanna for the American community was celebrated on February 26, 1922. The church remained open throughout that day for the first time in many years, and many Italians, including many of the nobility, came to visit the church and to see its frescoes. On one wall, the frescoes illustrate the story of Santa Susanna. On the other side, they depict the Book of Daniel's story of her famous Old Testament namesake.

Taking its cue from the day's stational church, for centuries today's Mass used to feature the reading of Susanna's story (Daniel, 13:1-62), paralleled then by John's Gospel's account of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). In the Old Testament reading, an innocent person is condemned but justice is preserved when she is saved by God's intervention in the person of the wise prophet Daniel. Meanwhile in the Gospel, something even more amazing happens. An admittedly guilty person is saved by Jesus, who administers not justice but mercy. As Pope Francis has so frequently reminded us - most recently this week in his letter celebrating the centennial of the Catholic University of Argentina's Faculty of Theology - Mercy is not just a pastoral attitude but it is the very substance of the Gospel of Jesus. And the further to highlight what is obviously a central theme of his pontificate, the Pope just yesterday (on the second anniversary of his election) proclaimed a Jubilee Year of Mercy to go from December 8, 2015, through November 20, 2016.

(For some utterly unaccountable reason, the 1970 Lectionary cavalierly rearranged the ancient sequence of lenten readings. Ignoring the historical associations of the day and its stational church, 
the 1970 Lectionary relocated the parallel accounts of Susanna and the adulteress to the Monday of the 5th Week of Lent! In the process, today's Mass got the reading formerly read first on good Friday! To what purpose or advantage was all this gratuitous reshuffling of texts with such complete indifference to their history and geography?)

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