15 February 2016
Prisons, prisoners, prison chains, and the Prisoner of the Domus Sanctae Marthae
Today is the Monday after the First Sunday in Lent. The devout among you, as you opened your Missals at Mass this morning, will have seen the magic words "Statio ad Sanctum Petrum ad vincula". Because, today, the 'Stational Church' in Rome is Ecclesia sancti Petri ad Vincula. That is where, before the Avignon days, the Pope, clergy, and People gathered for the Holy Sacrifice. Before going there, however, Pontiff and People met for the Collecta at the church of Ss Cosmas and Damian: which was right in the heart of Old Rome.
Strange - I know you are thinking - because, you ask, surely really old churches are built over martyria, "Tropaia", in cemeteries, which (because Roman law forbad interments within the walls) are always outside the City gates.
So, if you're all sitting comfortably, I will begin.
Pope Felix IV (526-530) founded the church of Ss Cosmas and Damian at a time when some of the old Roman public buildings were no longer used and were falling into disrepair. Near the Forum Romanum, in the Via Sacra, was the hall in which the City Archives had been kept. Felix added an apse and ... hey presto, the Church of Ss Cosmas and Damian.
After the Collecta, Pontiff and Clerus and Plebs walked under the continuous porticoes which, in those days, provided shelter from February weather along most of the thoroughfares of Rome (after all, Ovid, after telling us that February 10 was the start of Spring, wagged his finger and observed "Ne fallare tamen; restant tibi frigora, restant;/ magnaque discedens signa relinquit hiems"). Their destination: the slope of the Esquiline Hill, where Mass was celebrated in the more sumptuous surroundings of a church built by the Empress Eudoxia [not the showy whore who persecuted S John Chrysostom to his death, but a later and pious Eudoxia]. Originally called simply Ecclesia Apostolorum, it acquired its popular title as the place where the Chains of the Prince of the Apostles are venerated.
Perhaps a day to pray (cf the Gospel: "in prison") for those in prison?
I wonder what it would do for the piety of the City's inhabitants, and of its visitors, if some valiant Champion of the Faith were to unsheathe his trusty sword and, like the Good Angel who loosed S Peter's chains on August 1, were to liberate the Prisoner of the Domus Sanctae Marthae from his incarceration, so that the Successor of S Peter could freely perform his Lenten Collectae and Stationes with his beloved Clergy and People, by trudging round the City day by day throughout Lent. Isn't there some rather jolly old hymn by Cardinal Wiseman about "our pope, the great, the good", which talks about him "panting in the heart of Rome"? Or possibly I've slightly misremembered the words.The years do take their toll. Don't be too hard on me.
Perhaps we should start up a campaign to "Free the Santa Marta One!"