Months ago, we made contact with a Marianist brother,who is also the brother-in-law of a former choir member, Jen Mason McAward. Br. Michael McAward S.M., works in Rome with his religious order, and he had agreed to guide us through a unique and ancient Catholic church, literally at the foot of the hill from where we're staying. This church is called the Basilica of San Clemente.
If only a few pilgrims know about the Scavi excavations underneath the Basilica of St. Peter's, even fewer are the numbers that would go seeking out this amazing passage through history. But travel we did, with Br. Michael's guidance.
We started our journey on the church's sidewalk, where we could look down the street, all the way to the Coliseum and the Forum Romanum. Did we know that thousands of years ago, all of this was swampland? The Romans found a way to drain and fill it, and thus created the real estate upon which they would eventually build their empire (and slaughter Christians).
As we walked into church, it was obvious that we were in a building far more ancient than anything we'd seen thus far. The hint: old doorways were plastered shut; the curves of their arches began at our feet. Clearly, this house of prayer was built upon another, much older edifice. In fact, where we stood – the "new church" – dated from the 1100's!
Then we went down a level, to the first church. Here were the oldest foundations of the chiesa, and these perfectly aligned columns, mosaic tile and masonry dated from the 4th century... All lying just four meters below the floor of the present place of worship. It had simply been lying in state for fifteen hundred years, until an Irish Dominican by the name of Fr. Mulooley decided to do some digging.
But there was more. Descending yet another level, we were led through actual city streets, deep in the earth, streets that were in existence at the time of the Emperor Nero, under whose reign most of the city went up in smoke in 64 A.D. And there, dozens of feet under the floor of the Christian altar of sacrifice, lo and behold – the remains of a temple dedicated to the Roman god Mithras.
It was a staggering walk through time, and Br. McAward led us well. Who would have guessed, at street level, that this church was sitting quietly on top of two thousand years of perfectly layered history?
And here was the final aha! moment... San Clemente has a unique dedication to Saints Cyril and Methodius – the former of which wrote a particularly lovely text, that goes like this:
"Make of our hands a throne,
So as to make a place for the King of heaven."
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