Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Bells for Nuper Nonnulli

There are so many wonderful things about Rome that I will miss when I leave. For sure, one of them is a good public transit system - the sine qua non of a vibrant, healthy urban life. But one thing I will especially miss is the sound of church bells - not just clock bells tolling the hour, but loud, clanging, constantly pealing bells - calling people to Mass in the morning. This morning, just as we were beginning our stational Mass at the church of Santa Balbina (photo), we were treated to the wonderful clamor et clangor of the local church bells. It was every bit as loud and overwhelming as that other common background noise that tends to drown out everything else in European cities - the sirens of emergency vehicles - but so much more uplifting!

The bells rang because it was morning and time for Mass. For the Paulist Fathers in Rome, however, this was a special morning, for it was on this day in 1858 that the Congregation for Bishops and Regulars issued its Decree Nuper Nonnulli, which brought Isaac Hecker's first stay in Rome to its successful conclusion. That decree dispensed Hecker and 4 others - Augustine Hewit, George Deshon, Francis Baker, and Clarence Walworth - from their vows as Redemptorists and authorized them to return to the U.S. to continue, under the authority of the local bishops, their work for the evangelization of the country. This set the stage for Hecker (together with three of the four) to found the Paulist Fathers, four months later, on July 7, 1858, in New York City.

"We are left in entire liberty to act in the future as God and our intelligence shall point the way. Let us be thankful to God, humble towards each other and everyone else, and more than ever in earnest to do the work God demands at our hands." (Isaac Hecker, Letter to the American Fathers, Rome, March 11, 1858).

Fittingly for Nuper Nonnulli Day, I finally took the bus to the Basilica of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura (St. Lawrence Outside the Walls), which is one of the Seven "Pilgrimage Churches" of Rome. S. Lorenzo is actually 2 churches - an ancient one and a medieval one placed end-to-end. It enshrines the Tomb of Rome's esteemed 3rd-century martyr, the Deacon St. Lawrence (+August 10, 258). In addition to Lawrence's tomb, it also houses a marble slab, said to have been where the martyr's body was first laid after his death. It also has a beautiful medieval chiostro (cloister), housing scores of antiquities, which alone would be worth a visit.

The connection with Nuper Nonnulli is that, since 1881, it has also housed the Tomb of Hecker's papal patron, Blessed Pope Pius IX, with whom Hecker had 2 audiences during his momentous months in Rome - one before and another after the Decree Nuper Nonnulli. Pius IX was Pope from 1846 to 1878. His burial at S. Lorenzo was delayed until 1881 in the hope of avoiding a hostile demonstration in recently united Italy. As it turned out, a "patriotic" Italian gang did attempt (unsuccessfully) to throw the Pontiff's body in the Tiber. Pius IX's feast day is February 7.

Another modern Pope associated with S. Lorenzo is Venerable Servant of God Pius XII, who rushed there during the allied bombing of the basilica and neighborhood on July 19, 1843, to pray with the victims and distribute cash to those in need. An outside statue of Pius XII "Defensor Civitatis" commemorates this event. It has been suggested that the King was convinced that the Pope's presence would spare Rome the experience of other bombed cities. When that proved illusory, he switched to Plan B. Just 6 days later, he fired Mussolini. In fact, the Pope's presence probably did make a major difference in Rome's fate. Romans certainly remember him fondly for having stayed with them through the bombardment and the German occupation that soon followed - unlike the King and the Government, all of whom fled.

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