In 313 A.D., the Roman Empire stretched from Portugal in the west to Afghanistan in the east and from Scotland in the north to Africa in the south. That year, the Roman emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, giving Christians a legal status. No longer fearing persecution, Christianity emerged from underground “church houses” and became the dominant faith.
However, before Constantine’s benevolence, Christians were persecuted as enemies of the state. The disciples Paul, Peter and James were among the first Christians to be put to death. The martyrs eventually became saints and were whisked to heaven. The local congregations began venerating them. Pilgrims visited their burial sites, and towns adopted them as patron saints, asking their intercession on the worshipers’ behalf.
Helena, the mother of Constantine, traveled to locate the relics of Christianity. She came back from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with what is said to be the True Cross, Christ’s crown of thorns and the lance used to pierce his skin before his crucifixion.
Because of Helena’s appropriations, Rome became a vortex of Christian pilgrims. The Madonnelle (Little Madonna) was built on the face of buildings. Each Madonnelle, illuminated by an oil lamp, lit the way of the pilgrims as they searched for spirituality.
I am not so much fascinated by church history as I am with our quest for spirituality. Yet throughout my travels through Italy, understanding the evolution of Christianity was important to gain a grasp on why Rome is the fulcrum of Christendom.
While in Assisi, the home of Saint Francis, I found the perfect perch above the piazza of the Basilica dedicated in his name. In the early morning and late in the afternoon, I would nurse a cappuccino and write. The bells of Saint Francis rang every half hour and exploded throughout the ancient city of Assisi. To understand spirituality was to experience that very moment.
Pilgrims, not unlike the original wayfarers from the time of Constantine and beyond, would meander through the piazza and into the Basilica praying at Francis’ crypt and touching the land where he began his ministry: the Franciscans.
In the early morning I saw priests, brothers and nuns walking the streets and praying the rosary. Their audible chants and reverent personifications were mesmerizing. What did they see that I as a seeker could not? What I believed to be most profound is that these pilgrims were spiritually linked to the millions who have come before them.
One afternoon I met Pierce Gibson, a novitiate in Jesuit formation, studying to become a priest. I was impressed by his brilliance as he was founded in philosophy, Latin, Greek and classical studies. He cut a memorable image — he was seemingly on fire to become a disciple of Christ. He represented the best and the brightest of his generation. Again, I understood there must be something to our quest for spirituality.
Returning to Rome, I met a most impressive young man, Father Michael Baggot, a priest in the Legionaries of Christ order. We enjoyed a cappuccino and spoke of philosophy, faith and the existence of God. “My sensitivity to the beauty of nature and art led me to conclude the existence of a creator,” he told me. He calls his recent ordination the “beginning of a new adventure.”
Their brilliance and charisma would shape them as giants in the secular world, yet they’ve chosen a spiritual quest. We are in good hands with the likes of Pierce Gibson and Michael Baggot.