ROME— In the days leading up to the Sept. 4 canonization of Mother Teresa, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from around the world will gather in Rome to celebrate one of the greatest Catholic saints of the 20th century.
For many, it may be their one and only chance to see the Eternal City, which is the reason why on Monday, Crux’s weekly radio show, “The Crux of the Matter,” on the Catholic Channel Sirius XM 129 spoke to Elisabeth Lev, an American-born art historian who knows the secrets of Rome like few others.
Although she described it as an “interesting challenge,” her selection of destinations is worth printing out and turning into a to-do list if you’re among those coming over to Rome this week or if you’re planning a future visit.
Number Five: St. Peter’s Basilica
A “no-brainer” according to Lev, this visit should probably be done either before or after Sept. 4, but not on Sunday after the canonization Mass “unless you enjoy waiting in line under the sun for 4 or 5 hours.”
Although the Vatican is refusing to give estimates as to how many people it expects to attend the Mass to be celebrated by Pope Francis, close to 350,000 attended the beatification of Mother Teresa back in 2003, and the crowd is expected to be larger this time around, hence the long wait.
“What’s really interesting about this visit, is that we do have a comment from Mother Teresa regarding St. Peter’s Basilica,” Lev told Crux. “[Once], as she was walking through it, she actually said to her companion, ‘I feel like a prisoner here.’”
As the art historian pointed out, it’s hard to imagine little Mother Teresa in this gigantic church, surrounded by all its opulence. So on the surface of it, it would not seem like the most obvious place for her.
“Except for the fact that inside those walls, inside that building not only do we have St. Peter’s, the true rock and foundation of that Church that she gave her life to, but we also have the bodies, the remains of these popes who were such an important part of her life,” Lev said.
Among the pontiffs buried in St. Peter’s Basilica, there’s Pope Pius XII, who allowed Mother Teresa to leave the religious order of the Sisters of Loreto to become the sari-wearing sister of the slums.
Also here is the body of St. John XXIII, who helped her along, and Paul VI, who not only brought the founder of the Missionaries of Charity to Rome for the first time in 1968, but who actually went to Calcutta, India, to visit her and see her work first-hand.
And of course, St. Peter’s is the final resting place for St. John Paul II, with whom Mother Teresa had a 20-year long friendship. Among many other signs of their partnership, he gave her a place within Vatican walls for the Missionaries of Charity to have a home from which to help the poor and the homeless right next to the square.
Number four: San Gregorio al Celio
When the Missionaries of Charity first opened a home in Rome back in 1968, they did so in “the middle of nowhere,” in an area in the outskirts of the city called Tor Fiscale. Yet, two year later, in 1970, they were given a very central location: San Gregorio al Celio, in between the Coliseum and the Circo Massimo.
Mother Teresa, according to Lev, would refer to it as the “come and see place,” where people could have a firsthand experience of what the Missionaries of Charity actually do.
Yet it’s not just a random church with a really good location: It used to belong to the family of St. Gregory the Great, a pope who in the 600s had the difficult task of reigning over a Rome that had been attacked and sacked four times in 100 years. The population had dropped significantly, there was no food and there was a plague.
“Rome was a slum in the 600s,” Lev said. Yet Pope Gregory managed to figure out how to help the city, not only physically but spiritually.
“As you’re in that site, remember not only Mother Teresa’s physical presence, but that [her spirit] has been part of the Church from Gregory the Great all the way back to Jesus,” was Lev’s advice.
Number 3: A “really weird curve ball” … The Caravaggio crawl
This crawl — to be clear, it’s a church crawl, not a pub one! — begins in Piazza del Popolo, and takes pilgrims all the way through Via di Ripetta and Via della Scrofa, one of Rome’s main streets.
Fun fact: “If you were with Caravaggio, it would actually be a pub crawl,” Lev said, since this magnificent 17th century painter was constantly getting kicked out of bars, the reason why most of his adult life has been reconstructed through police records.
The crawl includes three churches very close to one other, all of them containing paintings from this Italian artist famous for his use of light.
Beginning at Piazza del Popolo, the first church is Santa Maria del Popolo, which has its walls adorned with paintings from some of the greats such as Raphael and Gian Lorenzo Bernini. However, the two Caravaggios here, the “Crucifixion of St. Peter” and “Conversion on the Way to Damascus,” are considered the two masterpieces of this basilica.
The second church is St. Agostino, where one can find the Maddona di Loreto painting, also known as Pilgrim’s Madonna, depicting the apparition of the barefoot Virgin and naked child to two peasants on a pilgrimage.
Last but not least, the crawl moves on to St. Luigi dei Francesi, France’s national church in Rome, home of three world renowned canvases: The Calling of St Matthew, The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew.
“Now here’s what I want you to think about,” Lev said. “Whenever we talk about him, we talk about this light, he’s a painter who’s famous for his use of light. But when you read the work of Mother Teresa … she speaks of this inner darkness, this dark night of the soul, and it makes you think about Caravaggio differently, because you realize that what that light in his paintings does is to keep away this encroaching darkness.”
This, she said, is a way in which Mother Teresa helps one view art in a completely different way.
Defined by Lev as the “girl power Church par excellence,” this major papal basilica is only one of four dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the other three being St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, and St. Paul Outside the Walls.
Located some five blocks southwest from Rome’s Termini train station, Santa Maria Maggiore, as it’s known in Italian, is also the first church dedicated to the Virgin to be built in the West.
This basilica is also one of Pope Francis’ favorite ones, as he visits it before and after each one of his trips, depositing flowers at the feet of Our Lady.
Number 1: The Church of Santo Spirito in Sassia
Located just a short walk away from St. Peter’s, Lev described this church as central to the Jubilee of Mercy. “It’s where we have the devotion to the Divine Mercy, and we also find here the relics of St. John Paul II,” she said on Monday.
It also represents everything Mother Teresa taught about, especially this “mission of love, her belief that love could change the world, specifically the love towards Christ in this distressing disguise of the poor.”
For English speaking visitors, it’s worth keeping in mind that Mass in English is celebrated at Santo Spirito in Sassia every Sunday at 10:00 AM.