Thursday, March 6, 2014

Thursday after Ash Wednesday: San Giorgio

Well today we have reached a new milestone..  We can now begin speaking about blog posts "in a row".  Small victories are victories nonetheless!  Thanks for the prayers.  So today was perhaps a bit more tiring to wake up, but what I really can't wait for is when we hit the approximately three week, four day mark.  I'm sure I'll be feeling like a million bucks as soon as I throw my alarm clock at the wall.  But in the meantime, onward we march!

San Giorgio

San Giorgio is in the same general direction as Santa Sabina, but not quite as far -- about a 30-35 minute walk from the College.  It is on the south side of the city just east of the Tiber.  I'm gonna have to get a map up and start marking these things for you so you have a better idea.

The full name of the church is St. George in the Velabrum.  Back in the day this part of Rome was called the Velabrum for all the yellow sand that seemed to be gathered there (from the Etruscan word velum for 'marsh', and the Latin word aurum, 'gold').  It was nearby the cattle market of ancient Rome (the Forum Boarium).  St. George himself was a late 3rd century Roman soldier and martyr who was tortured and decapitated at the decree of then-Emperor Diocletian for being a Christian and refusing to make a sacrifice to the Roman gods.  He is the patron saint of at least eighteen countries and is one of the most prominent patrons of soldiers.  His traditional sign is the red cross on a white background.  The central red cross on the flag of the United Kingdom is the Cross of St. George.

Actually, this church used to be named after both Ss. George and Sebastian, particularly because of its location nearby the Cloaca Maxima (ancient city sewer--which, by the way, still functions today) into which Sebastian's body was thrown after his martyrdom.  The first Christian building on this site was not a church but a deaconry; it was built in the late 5th century and served as a distribution center with supplies for Rome's poor and needy, although the site did include a small chapel.  Pope Leo II undertook a major restoration of this building in 682-683 and dedicated it to Ss. Sebastian and George.  A relic of St. George's skull was placed in this church by Pope Zachary in the early 740s and has been there since--today you can see it behind a piece of glass under the main altar.

So what's the deal with relics anyway?  Catholics seem to love displaying body parts of saints or important Christian objects (the manger, the true Cross, the nails, the crown of thorns etc.) in glass cases under the altar or in little niches of our churches all over the world.  Are we super wacko?  Well every family has some of those!  But there are a few things going on here worth mentioning, I suppose.

Seeing the dead reminds us that one day we're going to die, and that's prolly a good enough reason in itself.  The 'Last Things' are so important to think about!  (If you've never really done this before, a great way to start is by pondering, praying about, and imagining every day what heaven must be like.)  Mortality makes us realize how important the important questions are: what does life mean, how should I live it, where am I going and what happens when I die, does it all matter, can I hope in something that lasts, why is death and suffering so hard?

Seeing the bodies of the saints also helps us take courage from those who have gone before us and have "won the imperishable crown", "fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith".  Since we are 'enfleshed' souls, our bodies themselves are sacred -- in fact St. Paul calls our bodies temples of the Holy Spirit!  And so we honor and give our respect to the body even after the soul has left it.  And a big reason Catholics love relics is that as Christians these relics remind us of our belief in the final bodily resurrection.  We're going to get these babies back in perfected form, friends!  So as good stewards we keep them with care while the body sleeps in death until the final and definitive coming of Jesus.

So now back to our church!  The exterior porch and campanile (bell tower) of this church which we see today were rebuilt in the 13th century from an original addition during the medieval period.  Inside, above the apse you can see a fresco with the figure of Christ flanked by the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Peter, St. Sebastian and St. George (on a white horse).

One last interesting note is that this church used to be the titular church of Blessed John Cardinal Henry Newman (+1890) and Otto Colonna (+1431), the man who became Pope Martin V.  Sweet!

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