Weekly English edition of L’Osservatore Romano newspaper: ING_2021_009_2602.pdf (


In view of Pope Francis’ March 5 to 8 apostolic trip to Iraq, this weekend I offer you a special on the behind the scenes aspects of a papal trip, the preparations, the minutiae, all that goes into planning such a huge undertaking – ground transportation, where the Pope will stay and eat and pray and sleep, where liturgical events will be held and how they are prepared – everything from selecting vestments in Rome, getting them to the airport and unloading them in the country of the visit – scores of things you might never have thought about.

Here is the papal logo for that trip:

Click here for a brief summary of the itinerary: Pope Francis’ programme for Apostolic Visit to Iraq announced – Vatican News

To be honest I know most of the places Pope Francis will visit and know some of the people from my previous two visits to Iraq – trips whose memories of people and places and events remain seared in my mind and heart. Am I a bit jealous of those who will cover the Pope? Yes, indeed! Just re-reading the blogs I wrote during those trips and looking at my hundreds of photos bring back terrific and indelible memories. I was blessed to have three live radio shows every day with EWTN, morning, afternoon and evening, so I could tell a wonderful story as it was happening or minutes afterwards.

As I looked at some photos, I had to stop and ask myself: where are these darling youngsters today?   We were at a kindergarten run by the Catholic Church but most of the children were Muslim, a typical story in Iraq. The parents knew that if their children went to a Christian school, they would get a very good education and important values. I have a wonderful video of the children singing but cannot seems to retrieve it from my iPad. Will work on that. Pictured in several of the photos are Archbishop Amel Nona, then archbishop of Mosul, and Fr. Bashar Warda, now Bishop Warda of Erbil.

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(From the Congregation for the Eastern Churches and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity) – Following the Decree of the His Holiness Pope Francis to inscribe February 27 as the liturgical commemoration of Saint Gregory of Narek, Abbot and Doctor of the Church, in the General Roman Calendar, the Congregation for the Eastern Churches and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity have organized a celebration in Vatican City this Saturday 27 February, in collaboration with the Embassy of the Republic of Armenia to the Holy See.

Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, will celebrate Holy Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at 10.30 am, which will be followed by an Ecumenical Prayer at the statue of St. Gregory of Narek blessed by Pope Francis in the Vatican Gardens in 2018.

Concelebrating with Cardinal Sandri will be Archbishop Lévon Bogos Zékyian, Archbishop of Istanbul for the Armenian Catholic faithful and Pontifical Delegate for the Mekhitarist Congregation, and Bishop Brian Farrell, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

The Ecumenical Prayer will be presided by His Eminence Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Representative of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Rome, in the presence of His Eminence Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.


Passing through the Piazza Ss. Apostoli, one is hard pressed to imagine the raucous activities that took place here half a millennium ago, when the Colonna family, one of the most powerful in Rome during the Renaissance, lived in the palace to the right of the church.  Not only lavish parties with fountains of wine and gleaming gold and silver decorations, but also more popular festivities, such as the throwing of barnyard fowl from the palace loggia to the crowd below, as well as battles between the different families in the city, all took place here, where today tourists sip coffee and motorbikes pass by.

The earliest record of a basilica of the Holy Apostles relates to one built under Julius I in the mid-fourth century near Trajan’s Forum (in which stands his famous column).  A successor to this first church was begun by Pope Pelagius I in the mid sixth century on the present site, being dedicated by Pope John III around 570.  At this time the relics of the apostles Sts. Philip and James the Lesser were placed beneath the high altar.  While little is known about the lives of these two saints outside of what is given in the Gospels, Philip is believed to have preached in Hieropolis, where he was crucified.  James, possibly identifiable with the first bishop of Jerusalem who also presided over the council there as recorded in Acts, was condemned to death by the Sanhedrin and beaten to death with a club.

This first basilica reflected Byzantine architectural styles, as Rome was at that time under the control of the Emperor Justinian in Constantinople.  His emissary Narses is recorded as contributing to the erection of the new basilica.  Following this the basilica seems to have had a peaceful existence until an earthquake in 1348, which heavily damaged it.  Martin V undertook a restoration in 1421, followed by a more extensive one undet Sixtus IV and his nephew, the future Julius II, from 1471 to 1484.

The Franciscan Order, which staffs the basilica through the present day, arrived here in 1463.  A major rebuilding of the church in the early years of the 18th century provided them with an opportunity to commemorate their order in the decoration of the church, as we shall shortly see.  The façade was completed over a century later, in 1827.  Some decades later, the relics of Ss. Philip and James were rediscovered under the high altar in 1873.  These are placed in a confessio beneath the sanctuary, built between 1871 and 1879 as a place of prayer for their remains and those of several martyrs brought here from the catacombs (Address: Piazza dei Santi Apostoli)


Tomorrow morning Pope Francis and ranking members of the Roman Curia who have been on individual retreat since last Sunday will come together in the Paul VI Hall for about an hour for the first Lenten sermon preached by Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the papal household. Such sermons are traditionally held on Friday mornings leading up to Lent and in Advent as well.

Be sure to check in with me tomorrow as I’ll be posting some of the many photos I took on the February 22 feast of the Chair of Peter as I roamed St. Peter’s basilica after Mass at the Altar of the Chair.  I hope this will sate your hunger to visit the basilica in your longing to return to Italy and Rome!


St. Lawrence, though considered a minor saint by many today, was once one of the most beloved saints both in Rome and throughout Latin Christendom, and rightly so.  A deacon of the Roman Church in the mid-third century, he found himself faced with the task of administering the Church after the arrest of Pope Sixtus II and four of his fellow deacons in the Catacombs of Callixtus on 6 August 258.  Meeting the pope while he was being led away to prison and execution, Lawrence begged to be able to accompany him.

The pope turned this request down, giving the deacon charge of the temporal goods of the church, while telling him that the deacon would follow his bishop in four days time.  Lawrence then went forth and gave away the material goods of the church to the poor in the city.  Soon he in turn was arrested and brought before the magistrates, and when the treasures of the Church were demanded of him he presented to the authorities the poor, saying that these were the true treasures of the Church. (ACI file photo)

The Romans, enraged by this seeming insolence, cast the deacon into a dark prison cell near the site of today’s church.  There, he converted the jailer and his family.  With the authorities only further angered by his success, they condemned him to be burnt alive over a gridiron set up on the site of today’s station.  So it was that on 10 August 258, that St. Lawrence was burnt alive for his steadfast faith in Christ.  As one final jab at his executioners, he is said to have remarked to them as his torments neared their end, “Turn me over, I’m done on this side.”  And so he passed from the sufferings of this world to the glory of the next. (Rome Art Lover photo)

Today, the spot of his martyrdom is marked by this small church.  A record of a church on this site, then called St. Lawrence in Formonso, exists from the late eighth century, and it seems that this church was built in the early seventh century.  The current church was built to replace this in the period 1565-1574, being consecrated three years later.  A restoration in 1757 gave the church the appearance it has today. (Address: via Panisperna, 90)



Our continuing pilgrimage to Rome’s 40 Lenten station churches brings us today to St. Mary Major Basilica, thanks to the website of the Pontifical North American College (Wednesday: Santa Maria Maggiore – Pontifical North American College (

There was no weekly general audience today as the Holy Father and ranking members of the Roman Curia are still on their annual Lenten retreat, this year not as a group but on individual spiritual exercises. That period of time ends Friday morning when they will gather in the Paul VI Hall and, with safe distance seating, attend the first of several Lenten sermon to be preached by Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the papal household.


According to legend, a wealthy Roman had a dream on 4 August 352 in which he was directed by the Blessed Virgin Mary to construct a basilica on a site which she would reveal to him.  The following night, a snowfall took place on the Esquiline Hill, a truly miraculous event as anyone who has experienced a Roman August would know, and Pope Liberius (r. 352-356) initiated the construction of the first basilica, which stood in a location about one block in front of the present one.

Photos I took about four years ago during the annual reliving of that historic “snowfall” when thousands of white rose petals are showered upon the faithful from the gilt ceiling of the basilica:

Although it is unclear if this first basilica was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin from its foundation, the definition of our Lady as the Mother of God at the Council of Ephesus in 431 brought about a new flowering of devotion to her.  In this atmosphere, Sixtus III began to build a new basilica to her honor in a slightly different location.  It is this building that, while much modified, comes down to us today.  The basilica began to be known as St. Mary Major, as the principal church in Rome dedicated to our Lady, in the seventh century, the same period in which the relics believed to be from the manger of Christ at Bethlehem were enshrined here.

Various minor changes took place over the next few centuries.  One of the more interesting of these concerns the decision of St. Paschal I in the early ninth century to raise the episcopal throne in the apse because, on account of its nearness to the women’s area in the church, his private conversations could be overheard by them.  Later in that century a more serious event transpired when Adrian II approved Ss. Cyril and Methodius’ translation of the liturgy into Slavonic in this church.

The medieval period saw several changes here.  In 1291, a new chapel was created for the relics of the manger, known as the Chapel ad Praesepe.  Four years later, the rear wall and apse were demolished and a transept and new apse were built.  At the same time the new apse and the façade of the basilica were decorated with mosaics in the style of the day.  The late fourteenth century saw the addition of the campanile, the tallest in Rome, with the following century seeing the construction of several small chapels off of the aisles.  Pope Alexander VI, archpriest of the basilica before his election to the papacy, installed a new ceiling at the end of the fifteenth century.  St. Charles Borromeo was archpriest here from 1564 to 1572 and undertook some renovations in the choir. (photos from internet)

In 1587, the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, also known as the Sistine Chapel because of its patron, Sixtus V, was completed.  Into it was also put the Praesepe Chapel, set into the floor beneath the altar.  On the other side of the basilica the Lady Chapel was completed in 1611 under Pope Paul V of the Borghese family, whose name is also found on the façade of St. Peter’s.  In 1673 the exterior of the apse was decorated in the Baroque style, with the other exterior surfaces of the basilica receiving a similar treatment under Pope Benedict XIV about seventy years later. Thankfully, these preserved much of the mosaic work on the façade.  The confessio before the high altar was built between 1861 and 1864 to house the relics of the manger.  Despite this long history of renovations and renewals, the interior of the basilica still preserves its original spirit.

Standing in the square before the basilica today, a couple of things draw our interest before we enter the church itself.  The first of these is the Marian Column in the center of the square.  The column is originally from the Basilica of Maxentius in the Roman Forum.  This is the inspiration for the many Marian columns that can be found in various cities throughout Europe.  The second point of interest here are the mosaics on the old façade of the basilica, currently protected behind the columns of the eighteenth century loggia.  They depict Christ attended by angels, in the heavenly liturgy, and scenes from the legend of the basilica’s foundation.  These mosaics served as the apse for liturgies celebrated in the piazza. (Address: Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore)


Below is today’s Lenten station church in Rome as explained by the North American College website (Tuesday: Sant’Anastasia – Pontifical North American College ( from Internet).

In addition, on the story about Pope Francis, I offer some of the photos that I took at the Divine Mercy Shrine in Poland.


Pope Francis says we are called to pass on “the fire of Jesus’ mercy”, in a letter marking the 90th anniversary of the first apparition to St. Maria Faustina Kowalska in Płock, Poland.
By Christopher Wells (vaticannews)

Pope Francis has written a letter to the Bishop and Church of Płock, Poland, on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the first apparition of the Merciful Jesus to St Maria Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun. The apparitions to St. Faustina formed the basis of the Divine Mercy devotion.

In his letter, Pope Francis recalls the words heard by St. Faustina on 22 February 1931: “Paint a picture according to the pattern you see, with the caption: Jesus, I trust in You. I desire that this image be venerated first in your chapel and then throughout the world.” The image of the Divine Mercy has subsequently spread around the globe.

“I share the joy of the Church of Płock that this special event is already known throughout the world and remains alive in the hearts of the faithful,” Pope Francis writes.

“Ask Jesus for the gift of mercy”
The Holy Father encourages the faithful to “ask Christ for the gift of mercy,” to allow Christ’s mercy “to embrace us and penetrate us,” to have “the courage to return to Jesus, to encounter His love and mercy in the Sacraments,” and to “feel His closeness and tenderness,” so that we “might be more capable of mercy, patience, forgiveness, and love.”

He notes that his predecessor, St. John Paul II, whom he calls “the Apostle of Mercy,” “wanted the message of God’s merciful love to reach everyone in the world.”

In 2002, during a visit to the Divine Mercy Shrine in Krakow, the Polish Pope said, “This fire of mercy needs to be passed on to the world. In the mercy of God the world will find peace and mankind will find happiness!”

Pope Francis in his turn insists, “This is a special challenge for the Church of Płock, marked by this revelation”; for Sister Faustina’s community, the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy; for the city of Płock, “and for each one of you.”

“Pass on the fire of Jesus’ merciful love,” Pope Francis writes in conclusion. “Be for everyone a sign of His presence among you.”


Had we come to this church when it was first built we would still have been able to hear the sounds of chariots and the crowd inside the nearby Circus Maximus, one of the great symbols of the Roman Empire.  Now the stadium, like the empire that built it, is nothing more than ruins and memory, while the Faith it strove to crush by the execution of martyrs like St. Anastasia is still here.  Little remains of factual history of her story, other than remembering her martyrdom in Sirmium, in modern day Serbia.  Her cult arrived in Rome towards the end of the fifth century from Constantinople.

This was originally a district of Roman houses and shops, part of which was demolished to build a small, Greek cross plan church by Pope St. Damasus in the late fourth century.  It is possible that this church was originally sponsored by a member of the Imperial family named Anastasia and named in her honor, later being rededicated in honor of St. Anastasia when devotion to her spread to Rome.

Another saint associated with this church is St. Jerome.  There is a tradition that when staying in Rome he would often celebrate Mass here, possibly because he came from the same region as St. Anastasia.  Around the year 500, the nave was extended, giving the church approximately the same dimensions it has today.  The unequal width of the aisles, with the right being slightly wider, is a result of older structures being used as foundations for this addition.

As the practice of stational Masses during Lent developed, this was assigned as the collectum for the procession to St. Sabina, and as a result, the processional crosses used for the stational processions were kept here when not in use.  Another role of the church during this period was as the chapel to the exarch (governor and representative) in Rome of the Byzantine Emperor, who lived on the Palatine Hill.  As a result of this, the pope would come to personally celebrate Mass here on Christmas morning, which was also the feast of St. Anastasia.

Pope Leo III refurbished the church at the turn of the ninth century and later an ambo given by Innocent III in 1210.  Remains of the original Roman and Gothic windows of the right clerestory can still be seen if one looks back to the church from the area of the Circus Maximus.  Sixtus IV undertook a renovation from 1471-1484, which was followed by another in 1510.  This presaged a wave of additions and changes over the next two centuries.

In 1580, the chapel off of the right aisle was added.  Five years later the high altar was constructed, being moved to its present location in 1644.  The chapel off the left aisle, balancing that across the nave, was added in 1615, and the current façade was constructed from 1634 to 1640.  Finally, the interior underwent a massive renovation in 1721-1722, giving it the appearance it has today.  The pillars separating the nave from the aisles were reconfigured, and the walls and ceiling covered with stucco decoration.  Minor restorations were carried out in the course of the nineteenth century. (Address: Piazza S. Anastasia; via dei Cerchi, 55)



Today, on the occasion of their namesake’s feast day, I send special wishes and many prayers to my friends of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Peter, based in Houston, Texas. Special wishes go to the bishop of the Ordinariate and a dear friend, Bishop Steven Lopes.

I took a considerable number of pictures this morning in St. Peter’s Basilica and will post quite a few here to accompany the story of the Chair of Peter. I’ll offer other photos of the basilica in coming days. I don’t want to overwhelm your senses in one day!

Because of the time I have dedicated to this column on the Chair of Peter, I will present today’s station church, St. Peter’s in Chains, tomorrow (If you can’t wait: Monday: San Pietro in Vincoli – Pontifical North American College (


From my Franciscan daily email, “Pause and Pray”: “Peter stumbled. Oh, did Peter stumble. Just hours after he boasted he would never deny Jesus, he did so three times. But Peter also believed in Jesus’ forgiveness and love. Small wonder it was on this humble fisherman that the Church was built.”

“Thou art Peter”— “Tu es Petrus” in mosaics at base of dome:

And the largest church in the world, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, was built over the tomb of Peter, a Galilean fisherman and the first Pope and Bishop of Rome.

February 22, the Universal Church – and St. Peter’s Basilica in particular – celebrate the solemnity of the Cathedra or Chair of Peter, a recurrence dating back to the fourth century that honors and celebrates the primacy and authority of St. Peter. This is one of my favorite feast days and always a day I rejoice living in Rome. And today it was more wondrous than I ever could have imagined!

Whenever I go to St. Peter’s for daily Mass, I go to the Altar of St. Joseph where there are four Masses each day. Today, however, all morning Masses were at the splendid Altar of the Chair, aglow throughout the day with over 100 candles!

There were probably 20 or 30 of us at Mass, creating an incredible intimacy in this massive church! The celebrant, who wrote white vestments, gave a very brief homily dedicated to the Chair of Peter and explained that, because it was a solemnity, we would recite the Gloria and the Creed. He pointed in the direction of the dome noting that, at its base, in mosaic letters six feet high, are inscribed the words, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock….”

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In fact, this is one of two days every year when the statue of a seated St. Peter, on the right side of the main aisle as you walk towards the papal altar, is robed in ecclesiastical finery, including papal vestments, the triple tiara and a papal ring. The other day you may see St. Peter robed in this manner is June 29, the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, Apostles, patrons of Rome.

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What made this morning so wondrous was the almost total absence of people in the basilica. I was in the largest Christian church in the world but at no moment of the two hours I spent in church were there more than 50 or 60 people! It is very sad that Covid has kept tourists away but in these pandemic times, St. Peter’s truly is a church, not a monument in a guidebook but a very holy place, a place for silence and prayer and meditation.

After Mass, I walked ever so slowly throughout this entire basilica that I know so well, savoring the altars, the tombs, the magnificent sculptures, the endless mosaics (of the art you see in St. Peter’s, there is only one oil painting, everything else, all the art work over altars, etc. is mosaic), the omnipresent cherubs and doves, the dozens of confessionals, the relics of saints and popes.

I was in no hurry whatsoever. I was not stopped from praying at the tombs of St. John Paul or St. John XXIII as can happen where there are huge crowds in the basilica. I roamed the basilica as if I had received an engraved invitation to go where I wanted and explore and take pictures and pray.

I felt what I can only describe as a surge of joy – joy at being alive, at being able to attend Mass on this unique day in this unique House of God, joy at the Lord’s beauty and that of His creatures, the artists who so splendidly embellished St. Peter’s in an attempt to glorify God.

I first visited the basilica on this feast day in 1991, the first year I was working at the Vatican Information Service. To learn the history and background of this celebration for a story I had to write for VIS, I interviewed several people in the Vatican, one of whom, Msgr. Michele Maccarrone, was an expert on the Chair of Peter. In fact, he gave me one of the few remaining copies of a 1985 issue of the Italian periodical, “Rivista di Storia della Chiesa in Italia,” (Review of Church History in Italy) entirely dedicated to “The Chair of Peter, From Symbol to Relic.” He wrote part of that article and the footnotes make reference to his other works on the Chair of Peter.

The word “cathedra” means seat or throne and is the root of the word cathedral, the church where a bishop has his throne and from whence he preaches. Another word for “cathedra” is “sede” (seat or see): the “see” is the place from which a bishop governs his diocese. Thus, for example, the Holy See (also called the See of Peter) is the see of the bishop of Rome, the Pope.

The Chair of Peter is actually a throne that Charles the Bald, the grandson of the Emperor Charlemagne, gave to Pope John VIII at the former’s coronation as emperor on Christmas Day 875. For many years, the chair was used at liturgical events by Pope John and his successors: it was ensconced in Bernini’s Altar of the Chair in 1666.

A mixture of tradition, legend and belief held for many years that this was actually a double chair, parts of which dated back to the early days of Christianity and to St. Peter himself. This chair or cathedra has been studied over the centuries and the last time it was removed from its niche in the Bernini altar was a six-year period from 1968 to 1974 where studies pointed to a single chair whose oldest parts date to the sixth century. What appeared to be an outer or second chair was a covering that served both to protect the throne and to carry it in procession.

Bernini’s masterful Altar of the Cathedra was executed between 1658 and 1666. A bronze throne, which encases the Chair of Peter, dominates the apse, above the marble altar. It is supported by four statues of bishops: two Fathers of the Latin Church, Sts. Ambrose and Augustine, and two from the Greek Church, Sts. Athanasius and John Chrysostom (whose relics are under the altar of the Chapel of the Choir).

Above them, in the midst of gilt clouds, flights of angels and rays of sun is the Holy Spirit, illuminated by a stained glass window.

One of my photos depicts both the papal altar with it magnificent baldacchino and the Holy Spirit at the top, through which you can see the alabaster window with the Holy Spirit.


Notwithstanding its appearance of lightness and harmony, records show that more than 120 tons of bronze were used for this breathtaking monument. This altar is today still used for numerous liturgical celebrations. In fact, if my pictures seem familiar, for many months now, because of Covid, this is the altar where Pope Francis and others have celebrated Mass in the presence of a limited number of prelate and faithful.


Continuing our Lenten Station Church pilgrimage, today we visit St. John Lateran, the cathedral basilica of Rome. The text is from, the American seminary in Rome and photos today – a virtual visit – are from


On the first Sunday of Lent, the stational cycle brings us to the Cathedral Archbasilica of the Holy Savior and St. John the Evangelist and St. John the Baptist in the Lateran, the formal title of this church whose significance in the history of the Roman Church can hardly be exaggerated.  It is here that the Holy Father has his cathedra as Bishop of Rome, on a site given by the Emperor Constantine to Pope Miltiades soon after the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.  While there are only a few structural segments of that first basilica remaining within the walls, the dimensions of the church have remained mostly the same through its many rebuildings, allowing us to get some sense of its original size.

This area is so called because it was originally the estate of the Lateran family.  One member of this family, the senator Publius Lateranus, was charged with conspiracy and executed by the emperor Nero in A.D. 65.  At the same time, this land was confiscated, although it seems that it was returned to the family some time thereafter.  In the late second century, the emperor Septimus Severus built a cavalry camp on this spot; part of this land was also occupied by a palace, the Domus Fausta.  This would eventually come to be owned by the wife of Constantine, the emperor who would in turn give it to the pope.  In fact, one hypothesis proposes that the donation of this land to the Church took place on 9 November 312, less than two weeks after Constantine’s victory.

For a virtual visit: San Giovanni in Laterano – Visita Virtuale (

In time, both the palace and the military camp would be torn down to make room for the new basilica, the first major Christian building project in Rome.  It was finished by about 320, being at that time one of the most lavishly decorated churches in the Empire.  Over the next few centuries it would suffer from the various barbarian invasions of Rome, as well as the normal decay experienced by any building.  Through all of this, the local church would gather their resources to again rebuild and refurbish it.

In 896, an earthquake caused the nave to collapse.  It would be rebuilt early in the next century.  In 1291, Nicholas IV rebuilt the transept and apse, also commissioning the apse mosaic now above the papal cathedra.  Less than 20 years later, in 1308, a fire caused significant damage to the basilica, all of which was soon repaired.  This was followed by an even worse fire in 1361 which destroyed the roof.  The sad state of the basilica following this inspired the great author Petrarch to write to the pope, then living in Avignon, pointing out how the cathedral was open to the weather while the pope was residing in a palace hundreds of miles away.  This spurred the pope to call for contributions for the repair of the basilica, by which it was restored to some semblance of its former state.  The north façade of the transept, facing the Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano, was built by Gregory XI in the 1370’s, providing a more impressive appearance for the main entrance to those approaching from the city.  Martin V (r. 1417-1431) laid the beautiful marble floor in the nave.

As with many churches in the city, the period after the Council of Trent saw many architectural changes carried out on the fabric here.  Sixtus V added a loggia to the north transept in 1588, which preceded a total renovation of the transept from 1590 to 1605.  Among the new additions at this time was the magnificent Altar of the Blessed Sacrament.  The nave was completely redecorated by Francesco Borromini between 1646 and 1650, giving it the current appearance; the statues of the twelve apostles were added early in the following century.  Although this renovation replaced the previous brick columns dating from the Middle Ages with larger pillars, it nonetheless preserves the original five-aisle configuration, a characteristic of the classic Roman basilica.

The façade, by Alessandro Galilei, dates from 1730-1732.  The most recent change to the basilica is the lengthening of the apse, commissioned by Leo XIII and carried out in 1876-1886 in order to provide more room for major liturgical functions (the original apse began at the rear wall of the transept).  At this time the medieval mosaics were transferred and restored in the (Address: Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano, 4)




Holy See Press Office Director Matteo Bruni: “This afternoon at 4.00 the Holy Father paid a visit to Mrs. Edith Bruck, poetess and Holocaust survivor, at her home in Rome. The conversation with the Pope retraced those moments of light that marked the experience of the hell of the concentration camps, and evoked fears and hopes for the time we live in, underlining the value of memory and the role of the elderly in cultivating it. and pass it on to the youngest. After about an hour, Pope Francis and Mrs. Bruck said goodbye and the Pope returned to the Vatican.



Continuing our mini-pilgrimage of the 40 Lenten Station Churches in Rome, today is Saturday, Day 4. I’ve been featuring the stories of these churches in posts taken from the website of the North American College but for some reason their site has cancelled Sant’Agostino for today and names Santa Maria in Anima (a stunning church, by the way!) but they give no history of the church. (The Roman Station Liturgy – Pontifical North American College (

All lists I’ve found of the Lenten Station churches, including a page on the site, name Sant’Agostino as today’s station church and so I have taken text and photos I found online.

But first, a special story…


I often go to Mass at San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, just across the Tiber and a two-minute bus ride from my house. They have a 6 pm Mass during the week in Italian and in English on Sundays. The minutes passed yesterday as I was waiting for the bus and I heard the bells in my neighborhood that ring at 6 pm. I am by now a bit frustrated because I don’t like to be late for anything and Mass is at the top of that list.

Well, the Lord was enjoying Himself because He knew but did not tell me that being by being late I’d actually be on time. I got to church about 6:10 and was mystified when I walked in to see lots of TV cameras and lights and workers and the pastor chatting away with the TV people. I saw a handful of the women who are at Mass every night, who in fact say the rosary before Mass, and they told me Mass would not be at the main altar but rather in a small chapel at 6:15.

It turns out that RAI, the Italian national television network, would be televising its weekly Sunday Mass this week from San Giovanni. Thus, the cameras, the lights, the workmen, the cables throughout the church, etc.

The very small chapel in which Father said Mass was the gift of the day – the Chapel of Divine Mercy. When I walked in I stopped in my tracks because dominating one wall was a painting, at least 6 feet high, of a man I so love, St. John Paul! I sat right below it and kept glancing up during Mass.


Six women whom I see every night were at this Mass, one of whom has a small dog who is so well behaved you’d not know he was there unless you had seen him. I must say I always have a special feeling, perhaps a greater reverence, when gatherings are so intimate. I’ve been to many a Mass in my life in these intimate settings, often even historic settings such as caves in Cappadocia, Turkey, and often they make me think of how liturgy was celebrated in the earliest years of the Church in the homes of Christians.

Here are a few more pictures of this chapel –

There is a lot to know about San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, including the fact that St. Philip Neri was the first pastor here after the church was built. He was Florentine and this church was build for the Florentine community living in Rome (dei Fiorentini).

Another, perhaps even more amazing fact, is that San Giovanni houses a relic – the foot bones – of Mary Magdalen.

Three years ago, as I was explaining the relic to the Gingriches after the 6 pm Sunday Mass, the sacristan, who knew me, came over to the shrine, pulled out a key and opened the glass door to the reliquary shrine. Then, in a broad smile, he took the Cellini reliquary out, showed it to us and handed it to me! What is not visible when the reliquary is inside the shrine is the glass-covered opening that reveals the bones of Mary Magdalene’s foot!

I held the reliquary for dear life and slowly, prayerfully, moved one hand across the top of the reliquary. I think my breathing slowed as I held the relic! Several others were standing near us in total silence, also relishing uniqueness of the moment.

I cannot find the photos that Ambassador Gingrich took at the moment but here are several I took (apologies for the blurry photo of the relic!).


The origins of the church date back to the 14th century, when the Augustinians decided to build a new church devoted to St Augustine to replace the previous Church of San Trifone in Posterula.

Built between the end of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th century, the new church was completed around 1420. However the building was too small for the needs of the Community and subject to the continuous flooding of the Tiber. Thus, Cardinal Guillaume d’Estoutevillebetween 1479 and 1483, financed the construction of a new building, this time definitive.

The Church of Sant’Agostino was elevated by Pope John Paul II to the rank of Minor Basilica in October, 1999.

The current appearance is due to a reconstruction occurred in the years 1479-1483 by Jacopo di Pietrasanta andSebastiano Fiorentino. In 1756 Luigi Vanvitelliradically transformed the interior of the church and modified the fifteenth-century bell-tower.

The facade, typical example of Roman Renaissance architecture romana, presents in the lower order a large portal with a triangular tympanum. To the sides are two minor portals surmounted by two round windows.

Curious fact: it was the first church in Rome to have a dome. The interior of the church with a Latin Cross plant, is divided into three naves and has five chapels on each side.

Among the main works which you can admire, on the right of the main entrance is located the famous Madonna del Parto by Jacopo Sansovino (1521) which according to popular tradition, would be miraculous.

Legend has it that the statue was made by adapting an ancient effigy that portrays Agrippina holding her son Nero in her arms.

The Roman poet Gioacchino Belli in an irreverent sonnet commented the excessive pomp of jewelry on the statue of the Madonna.

Among the most important works is, without any doubts, the Madonna di Loreto by Caravaggio, also known as Madonna dei Pellegrini.

It is one of the most famous paintings by Caravaggio, which the artist donated to the church as a thanking gesture.

It is said that the tormented painter,in order to avoid being murdered by the father of a girl he had seduced, he found shelter in the basilica. According to many, the features of this woman, Lena, would be portrayed in the work to represent the Holy Virgin.

The third pillar to the left of the nave hosts the Prophet Isaiah (1512), an important fresco by Raphael, while on the high altar, made in 1627 by Bernini, is located the Virgin with Child coming from the church of Santa Sophia in Constantinople.

Also not to be missed are the shovel representing Saints Augustine, John the Evangelist and Jerome by Guercino (1591-1666) situated in the chapel of the right transept.

The church houses the tombs of several distinguished deceased including Santa Monica, the mother of Saint Augustine, the humanist poet Maffeo Vegio from Lodi, Contessina de’ Medici, daughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Cardinal Girolamo Verallo and Cardinal Egidio from Viterbo.

Curious fact… the Basilica of Sant’Agostino was the only church in Rome that allowed admission to paramoursto whom were reserved the first rows, to guard them against people’s looks and avoiding the faithful to be easily distracted!

In the church are the tombs of some of them, like Fiammetta Michaelis, lover of Cesare Borgia or Giulia Campana with her daughters, Penelope and the famous Tullia of Aragon

The official website of Sant’Agostino is only in Italian but I think this one gives all the essential information I addition to posting some lovely photos of the façade and the interior. Basilica of Sant’Agostino in Campo Marzio | Port Mobility Civitavecchia



Apologies for not posting the Lenten station church for Friday. Other commitments and preparing my weekend radio show, Vatican Insider, grabbed all of my time. I went to Mass in the evening, made dinner when I got home and then simply forgot to post! I’ll get Saturday’s station to you later in the day. The church description is from the website of the North American College: Friday after Ash Wednesday: Santi Giovanni e Paolo – Pontifical North American College (

Have a great weekend!


Passing under the arches that stretch over the Clivio Scauri we come around the side of this ancient church, built over several Roman ruins.  Among these is the house in which the patrons of this church witnessed to their faith with their lives.  Ss. John and Paul were soldiers who were chosen to serve as functionaries in the Imperial household in the middle of the fourth century.  Although the Imperial family was often in heresy with regard to many of the theological disputes of this time, these two saints were able to continue in their offices while holding to the orthodox faith.  However, when Julian the Apostate ascended to the throne in 360, they were forced with the decision either to embrace the renewed pagan religion or face death.  They refused to cooperate with the Emperor’s demands, and so were executed in their home on this site and buried nearby.  Although such an execution within the city walls was illegal, it is thought that the emperor sought to be as discreet as possible about this matter because of the unpopularity of his command.

After the death of Julian in 363, work began to perpetuate the memory of the saints.  This site had already been a location of Christian worship at the time of the saints’ martyrdom, with one of the early tituli, known as the Titulus Bizantis, located nearby.  In the late fourth and early fifth century a Roman senator named Pammachius built a basilica in honor of the two saints over their house and those surrounding.  This new basilica served as the seat of the Titulus Pammachii, and although the older titulus was based in the same location it seems that they maintained separate legal existences for at least a century. (Citta aperta photo)

Likely completed before 410, the church was further decorated in the middle of the fifth century.  The basilica did not experience any major events of note until the late eleventh century.  At that time, during one of the conflicts between the pope and others in Rome the pontiff had been driven from the city.  Attempting to retake the city, he enlisted the aid of a Norman army.  However, when the attack occurred in 1084 not only did the pillaging army cause much destruction, but also the fires which sprang up amidst the chaos.  Along with many other churches in the area, this basilica also suffered heavy damage, with repairs taking place in the early twelfth century.  Later that century the porch and campanile were both built.

The church would be renovated several times between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, with the current interior dating largely from a renovation from 1715-18.  In the late 1850s, the sacristy was added, as well as a large chapel dedicated to St. Paul of the Cross, founder of the Passionist order that serves the basilica.  In the late nineteenth century, archaeological excavations and studies of the Roman ruins beneath the house began, with the results being open to the public as a museum today.

From 1948 to 1950, a restoration/renovation was carried out by Cardinal Spellman of New York, who held the title to this church at that time.  During this time the façade was returned to its medieval appearance.  The interior was also restored; among the additions were chandeliers that had previously hung in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York.  Therefore, the basilica today is a palimpsest of architectural history, from the Roman ruins that make up the foundations, to the modern chandeliers hanging in the nave. (Address: Piazza San Giovanni e Paolo, 13)


Link to Weekly English edition of L’Osservatore Romano: ING_2021_008_1902.pdf (


You REALLY want to tune in to Vatican Insider this weekend when I bring you Part II of the story of the women behind the new World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly.

As I wrote last week for Part I, when Pope Francis announced on January 31 that he had instituted the World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly I thought immediately of two people, now very dear friends, who were in no small way behind the idea for such a day – Catherine Wiley who founded the Catholic Grandparents Association in the UK and Marilyn Henry who founded the American branch of this association.

I interviewed these wonderful, vibrant, faith-filled ladies (and grandmothers!) a year ago when they were in Rome for a three-day conference entitled “The Richness of Many Years of Life,” about the pastoral care for the elderly organized by the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life. (In the 3rd photo, we are with Bishop Gadecki, head of the Polish Episcopal Conference whom we met with his priests in a restaurant)

Because of the Holy Father’s announcement of this new World Day, I felt it was imperative to re-air my interview with them where you will hear of their idea for a world day for grandparents!!

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Friday, the Vatican released Pope Francis’ video message to participants of the 2021 Religious Education Congress hosted online by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. This year marks the Congress’s 65th anniversary and the 50th of its Youth Day. Participants are discussing the theme, “Proclaim the Promise!” – an invitation to believe that our lives and our world are sustained by God’s promise. In his video message in Spanish aired at the start of the Congress, Pope Francis said, “We need to proclaim and remember that we have God’s promise and that God always keeps his promises.” He noted that every woman and man in every generation “brings the promise of new relational, intellectual, cultural and spiritual energies”. He stressed: “How important it is to dream together and to look ahead!” (vaticannews)

Also Friday: The Holy Father sent a message to the organizers and collaborators of “Respira Peru” (Peru Breathes), an initiative of the Peruvian Bishops’ Conference that is working to raise support and resources for combating the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. A second telethon will take place on Saturday aimed at donating more oxygen plants and medical equipment to combat the Covid-19 pandemic in the country. (vaticannews)

Also Friday: The annual retreat for the Roman Curia is scheduled for February 21 to 26. Normally, the spiritual exercises are observed communally at the Casa Divin Maestro in Arricia, Italy This year, however, due to the persistence of the pandemic, Pope Francis invited the heads of dicasteries and superiors of the Curia to make private arrangements for their annual retreat.. The Holy Father, expressing his closeness to the retreatants during this period, is giving each one of them a book titled “Abbi a cuore il Signore” (Taking the Lord to heart), a Pauline publication, edited by Jesuit Father Daniele Libanori. The gift is accompanied by a letter from the Holy Father, addressed to Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, the Substitute for General Affairs of the Secretariat of State. (vaticannews)


(From the SPE, Secretariat for the Economy) – Yesterday evening, the Holy Father provided his nulla osta to the 2021 Budget of the Holy See, proposed by the Secretariat for the Economy and approved last Tuesday, February 16th, by the Council for the Economy.

With total revenues of € 260.4M and expenses of € 310.1M, the Holy See expects a deficit of € 49.7M in 2021, heavily impacted by the economic crisis generated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

For the first time, with the objective of providing more visibility and transparency to the economic transactions of the Holy See – as repeatedly requested by the Holy Father – the 2021 Budget is consolidating St. Peter’s Pence Fund (Obolo) and all dedicated Funds. With incomes of € 47.3M and grants of € 17M, the Holy See expects a net balance of € 30.3M from those items.

Excluding Peter’s Pence and the dedicated funds, the deficit of the Holy See would be € 80M in 2021. Operating Incomes decreased by 21% (€ 48M) compared with 2019, driven by a reduction on Commercial, Services and Real Estate activities, as well as Donations and Contributions. The budget also reflects a significant effort on cost containment, with Operating Expenses – excluding personnel costs, going down by 14% (€ 24M) compared to 2019. Employment security continues to be a priority for the Holy Father in these difficult times.

Consistent with its mission, the majority of the resources of the Holy See in 2021 will be dedicated to sustain its Apostolic activities, with 68% of the total expenses, while 17% are allocated to the management of the patrimony and other assets, and 15% to administration and service activities.

If the level of donations remains as expected, the deficit will be settled with part of the reserves of the Holy See.