Rorate Caeli

"THE ROMAN SPIRIT: This is what we need!" - by Roberto de Mattei

Lateran Basilica

The Roman Spirit is something that one breaths in only in Rome.  The “sacred city” par excellence, the center of Christianity, the eternal fatherland of every Catholic, who is able to repeat with Cicero, “civis romanus sum”, claiming a spiritual citizenship that has as its geographical boundaries not that of a city but that of an Empire:  not the Empire of the Caesars, but that of the Church, Catholic, apostolic, and Roman.

There was a time when bishops of dioceses from far away places used to send their seminarians and priests to Rome, not only for studies in the best theological schools, but to acquire this spiritual Romanitas.  In this light Pius XI, addressing the professors and students at the Gregorian University, expressed it in this way: “Your presence tells us that your highest aspiration, like that of your Pastors who sent you here, is your Roman formation.  That this romanità that you have come to seek out in that Roma eterna that the Great Poet—not only Italian, but of the whole world, because he was a poet of philosophy and Catholic theology--, Dante speaks in the Purgatorio of the Christ who is Roman:  may Rome become the Lady  of your heart as Christ is the Lord of your heart. May this Romanità take hold of you, you and all that you will do.  In this way when you return to your own towns and villages you will be able to be teachers and apostles of this Romanità."(Address of November 21, 1922.)

The “Roman spirit” is not studied in books, but is breathed in, so to speak, in that impalpable atmosphere that the great Catholic polemicist Louis Veuillot (1813-1883) called “the perfume of Rome”: a perfume that is both natural and supernatural, that emanates from every stone and from every piece of earth in which are stored the history of the city. It is this place in which Providence has placed the Cathedra of Peter. Rome is at the same time a sacred space and a sacred memory, a “fatherland of the spirit”, as one of Veuillot’s contemporaries described it, the Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol, who lived in Rome on the via Sistina, between 1837 and 1846.

Rome is the city that contains the tombs of the apostles Peter and Paul, it is the subterranean necropolis whose bowels contain thousands of Christians,  Rome is the Colosseum, where the martyrs faced the ferocious wild beasts. It is Saint John Lateran, the Mother and Head of the Churches, where one can venerate the only bone of Saint Ignatius spared by the lions.  Rome is the Campodoglio, the center of government, where the emperor Augustus had constructed an altar to the true God,  who was about to be born of a Virgin.  Also on the Capitoline Hill was built the basilica of Aracoeli, “the altar of heaven”, where lies the body of Saint Helena, the empress who found the relics of the Passion that are today kept in the basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem.  Rome is her streets, her piazzas, where  lived Saint Catherine of Siena and Saint Francesca Romana, Saint Ignatius and Saint Philip Neri, Saint Paul of the Cross and Saint Leonard of Porto Maurizio, Saint Gaspare del Bufalo and Saint Vincent Pallotti, Saint Pius V and Saint Pius X.  In Rome one can visit the rooms of Saint Birgitta of Sweden on the Piazza Farnese, of Saint Joseph Benedict Labre on the Via dei Serpenti, of Saint Stanislaus Kostka in the church of Sant’ Andrea al Quirinale.  Here one can venerate the crib of the Infant Jesus at Santa Maria Maggiore, the arm of Saint Francis Xavier in the church of the Gesù, the foot of Saint Mary Magdalene in the church of Saint John of the Fiorentini.

Rome underwent terrible scourges of every type in her long history. The city was sacked by the Goths in 410, by the Vandals in 455, by the Ostrogoths in 546, by the Saracens in 846, by the Landsknechte in 1527.  The Jacobins invaded Rome in 1799, the Piedmontese in 1870.  The city was occupied by the Nazis in 1943. Rome bears on her body the scars of these deep wounds, and others beside, such as the Antonine plague in 180, the Black Death in 1348, the cholera epidemic in 1837 and the Spanish flu in 1917.

According to the American historian Kyle Harper (The Fate of Rome, Princeton University Press, 2017) the fall of the Roman empire was caused not only by the barbarian invasions but also by the epidemics and climatic disturbances that characterized the period between the second and sixth century after Christ.  These wars and epidemics, in the successive centuries as well, were always understood as divine chastisements.  So writes Ludwig von Pastor, that universally, among both the heretics and the Catholics, “there is seen in the terrible sack of Rome a just chastisement from heaven upon the capitol of Christianity sunken in vice”.  (History of the Popes, Desclée, Rome 1942. Vol. IV, 2, p.582)

But Rome always lifted herself up, purified and stronger, a symbol of which is  the medal ordered to be coined in 1557 by Paul IV  dedicated to Roma resurgens after a terrible famine. It can be said about Rome what is said about the Church:  impugnari potest, expugnari non potest: always capable of being attacked but not able to be knocked down and destroyed.  

Given all of this, in the troubled times in which we live and anticipating even more trials, we must lift our gaze toward Roma nobilis, whose light does not set: that noble Rome that an ancient song of pilgrims salutes her as the mother-Lady of the world, made red by the blood of the martyrs, and whitened by the pure lilies of the Virgins: O Roma nobilis, orbi et domina. Cunctarum urbium excellentissima, Roseo martyrum sanguine rubea, Albi et virginum liliis candida.

Christian Rome gathers up and raises on a supernatural plane the natural qualities of ancient Rome. The spirit of the Roman is that of the one who is just and strong, who confronts with calm and imperturbability the most hostile situations. The Roman is one who does not let himself be shaken up by the furor that surrounds him. The Roman is the one who remains fearless, even if the universe falls into smithereens upon him. Si fractu inlabitur orbis, impavidum feriant ruina (Horace, Odes, III,3). The Catholic who inherits this tradition, affirms Pius XII, does not limit himself to be still standing even amidst the ruins, but strives to reconstruct the edifice that has been struck down.  The Roman uses all of his strength to seed the devastated field. (Allocution to the Roman Nobility, January 18, 1947)’

The Roman spirit is firm, willing to do battle, but is prudent.  Prudence is the internal discernment of good and evil and does not directly look towards the ultimate ends of man-- that is the subject of wisdom--, but provides the means for that discernment.  Prudence, therefore, is the practical wisdom of life, and among the Cardinal Virtues occupies a central and directive place.  For this reason, Saint Thomas considers Prudence as the culmination of all the moral virtues.  (Summa Theolgiae, II-II, q. 166, 2.1).

Prudence is the chief virtue required by those who govern, and among all those who govern no one has a higher responsibility that the one who guides the Church.  An imprudent Pope, not having the capacity to govern the bark of Peter, would be the gravest of disasters, because Rome cannot be without a Pope who governs her, and a Pope cannot be lacking in the Roman spirit that helps him to govern the Church.  If this happens, the spiritual tragedy is worse than any natural disaster.

Rome has known disasters of every kind, but has confronted them as Saint Gregory the Great did,  in his facing a violent epidemic of the plague that afflicted the city.  To placate the divine wrath, the Pope, as soon as he was elected, ordered a penitential procession of clerics and the Roman people.  When the procession reached the bridge that joins the city to Hadrian’s mausoleum, Gregory saw on the summit of the fortress Saint Michael the Archangel putting back his bloody sword into its sheath, which was a sign that the chastisement had ended, while a chorus of angels sang:  “Regina Caeli, Laetare, Alleluia—Quia quem meruisti portare, Alleluia—Resurrexit sicut dixit, Alleluia!” Saint Gregory responded with a loud voice:  “Ora pro nobis Deum, Alleluia!”

There was born in this way the harmony that still resounds from one end to the other of the Catholic world.  May this heavenly song instill in Catholic hearts a boundless trust in Mary, Protector of the Church, but also of the Roman spirit, strong and harmonious, of which we have never needed so much as in these terrible days.

[Translated by Father Richard Gennaro Cipolla]