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Two Weeks in the Eternal City: From the Vatican Secret Archives to the Basilica of St. Charles Borromeo | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | June 24, 2007

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I just returned from spending two weeks in Rome. I've visited before, but I never fail to be moved by the Eternal City, the extraordinary place where St. Peter is buried in a tomb beneath the great dome of St. Peter's. As Archbishop Fulton Sheen once wrote, in This Is Rome, "to those whom years and faith has ripened, Peter is walking in Rome, not as a Ghost, but as a man dressed in white."

Those two short weeks, oddly enough, felt like two short years, in part because it seemed that every hour was filled with new and often overwhelming experiences. I worked in the Vatican Secret Archives examining official documents of the martyr saints of China. I spent time in the Pope's Private Library reading and copying Chinese works from the seventeenth century--works that have not been read since men such as Fr. Matteo Ricci, S.J., wrote them during the Qing dynasty. I attended the canonization of four new Catholic saints and sat a few feet away from the Pope Benedict XVI during his Wednesday Audience. My wife and I followed the Holy Father through the streets of Rome in Eucharistic adoration from St. John Lateran to St. Mary Major; we visited the tombs of Borromini and Bernini; prayed in front of the exposed heart of St. Charles Borromeo and the incorruptible body of St. Vincent Pallotti, and the altar where St. Ratisbone saw the Blessed Virgin Mary; visited several monumental churches; strolled through Rome's incredible palazzos; and received the Pope's blessing after Sunday Solemn Latin Mass at the Vatican.

But what impressed me most during those busy fourteen days in the city of martyrs was the profound holiness of the Holy Father. I saw him four times through my visit, and there is something striking about how he stretches out his arms before his flock, like the outstretched arms of our Divine Savior, reaching out in his last hour in an embrace of love.

June 3, 2007, was a very wet Sunday in Rome, but St. Peter's was brimming with people who didn't seem to notice the steady rain. It was the Solemnity of the Holy Trinity, and Benedict was canonizing four new saints into the Church as pilgrims cheered, prayed, and waved large banners with depictions of the new saints who haled from their respective countries. The celebration certainly resonated with me since I was in Rome working on a book about the martyr saints of China. I could not help but reflect on how truly difficult it is to ascend to the altars of the Church as a canonized saint, and how truly holy are the souls of those who do.

After reading numerous documents in the Vatican Secret Archives and the Pope's Private Library about the canonized saints of China, I became even more aware of how arduous and extensive is the process of canonization. It would be difficult to overstate how much care is given to discerning who is "certainly in heaven," as the Church believes of saints. The files I spent many hours reviewing were enormous, including several thousand pages of testimonies about miracles and historical records of the personal heroism and holiness of each person to be canonized. The Church does not desultorily proclaim someone a saint. So as I listened to the Holy Father's solemn pronouncement of canonization I was quite moved, having observed first-hand the requisite holiness and sacrifice.

After the Vatican schola intoned Psalm 8 and chanted a litany to the saints, Benedict "exalted to the Catholic faithful" four new saints, St. George Preca (1880-1962), St. Simon of Lipnica (1435-1482), St. Charles of St. Andrew (John Andrew Houben, 1821-1893), and St. Anne Marie Eugenie (1817-1889). The Church understands and presents sainthood as a significant form of witness to God; all saints in a certain way are martyrs, either "wet" by the shedding of their actual blood or "dry" by the suffering they endure in emulation of Christ's agony. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council explained that in the authentic cult ("cult" meaning public veneration) of the saints we seek in them an "example in their way of life, fellowship in their communion, and the help of their intercession" (LG, 51). In other words, the saints offer us an example for our own Christian pilgrimage, hope for a share in their communion with God once we've died, and the expectation of their assistance while we are still alive.

In his final "Testament," Pope John Paul II expressed both his concern for the difficulties of the present world, and his hope in the example of the saints. He wrote that "the Church finds herself in a period of persecution no less evil than the persecutions of the early centuries, indeed worse, because of the degree of ruthlessness and hatred" (Testament of the Holy Father John Paul II, 24 February to 1 March, 1980). And then he simply quoted Tertullian's famous cry: "Sanguis martyrum--semen christianorum [The blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians]." John Paul II thus called Christians forth to be saintly martyrs in today's world, "wet" or "dry."

Later, after enjoying a strong Italian cappuccino I passed the Swiss Guards with my letter of invitation and walked through an archway into the courtyard (now a parking lot) facing the bronze doors to the Secret Archives and the Pope's Private Library. Vatican overseers of these two archives speak Italian and French; it was the first time I really appreciated the mandatory French fluency requirement to get my doctorate in Chinese. Once I passed through the obligatory (and quite extensive) interview, I finally consulted books from the seventeenth century rightly treasured by the Vatican. I read through several Chinese books written by Jesuits who lived with emperors and brought the faith to both high officials and simple villagers. One book was especially interesting: it was a Chinese translation of the Roman Missal published in Beijing in 1670 by the famous Ludovico Buglio (1606-1682). It took that Jesuit twenty-four years to translate the Latin Missal into Chinese, and the Pope later allowed the Mass to be offered in the native language of China. There were also Chinese catechisms produced by the Jesuits who lived in late-imperial China. Among the most moving documents were the personal letters of missionaries who were eventually tortured and killed for their faith. Holding the very papers once held, centuries ago, by such holy saints is summoning; their letters are entirely centered on Christ and his message.

During a break from working in the Secret Archives, I walked through Rome's hot and tourist-crowded streets to an out-of-the-way neighborhood beyond Trastevere, where the P.I.M.E. (Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions) House is located. There I met with P.I.M.E. Father Ciro Biondi, the head archivist of the Institute. Fr. Biondi ushered me to a back room where they keep a number of personal belongings of P.I.M.E. missionaries who have been martyred for their faith in Christ. My initial interest was in St. Alberco Crescitelli, P.I.M.E., who was tortured and killed in China during the 1900 Boxer Uprising. But Fr. Biondi shared accounts with me of Catholic missionaries being persecuted to this day throughout the world, some being martyred just as the Christians of the early Church were also killed for their faith in Christ. I saw St. Crescitelli's personal crucifix and his ecclesial hat, worn during Mass and when administering the Sacraments. I also was shown the blood-stained white shirt of a P.I.M.E. priest who had been shot in the head for his faith in Christ. It was a vivid reminder that the Church is still being built on the blood of the martyrs.

One of the last churches I visited before leaving Rome was the Basilica of St. Charles Borromeo, the great Church intellectual who struggled in defense of Catholic belief and contributed to the Roman Catechism. In several ways St. Borromeo reminds me of Pope Benedict XVI--a holy ecclesiastic and brilliant thinker devoted wholly to Christ and the Church he established. Sitting near the Holy Father I had been struck by how tired he seemed, though still entirely present and energetic. St. Borromeo was known to have been sleep deprived from his long hours of prayer and study, and in his final hour he cried, "Behold I come; your will be done."

Imagining St. Borromeo's holiness I knelt in front of the reliquary containing his heart in the basilica named after him, and prayed for our Holy Father, for the Church, for the world, and that John Paul II's hope be fulfilled that Christians today become martyrs for the truth and love of Christ. While I had been working in the Secret Archives I met another American professor, who was working on a book about seventeenth-century Jesuits. He made a point to inform me that he "wasn't religious." This was ironic since the first thing I noticed when I first entered the Vatican Archives--perhaps the most impressive library in the world--was the massive Cross hanging at the front of the reading room. Just raise your eyes slightly from your manuscript and there it is, a reminder that at the heart of the Catholic Church is the Sacred Heart of the Savior, whose death is not only a witness but is The Way for those seeking true life and the eternal city, the New Jerusalem.

[Photos courtesy of Anthony and Amanda Clark.]

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Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. is assistant professor of Asian history at the University of Alabama.

He did his doctoral studies at the University of Oregon, where he studied Chinese history, philosophy, and religion. His more recent research has centered on East/West religious dialogue. He has also been researching the history of Catholic martyrs in China.

Dr. Clark has presented papers at numerous academic conferences and has also been a guest on "EWTN Live." He is also a regular contributor to This Rock magazine.

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