NY Times gets religion … in Rome!

The New York Times published a lengthy travel piece with tons of religion in it. It’s written by David Laskin, and nicely weaves religion, history and travel together. A reader complained about one portion, incorrectly, but before we get to that, let’s look at the top of the story.

For half a millennium, the Portico d’Ottavia has been the heart of Rome’s Jewish ghetto, four cramped blocks wedged between the Tiber, the Turtle Fountain, the Theater of Marcellus and the Palazzo Cenci. Amid today’s celebration of earthly pleasures, I had trouble finding the small wall plaque that commemorates “la spietata caccia agli ebrei” — the merciless hunting down of the Jews — that took place here on Oct. 16, 1943.

Seventy years ago, the world was at war, Rome was occupied by the Nazis, and the ghetto was a virtual prison for a large part of the city’s Jewish community. On the morning of Oct. 16, 1943, SS Captain Theodor Dannecker ordered that the prison be emptied.

Trucks pulled up on the cobblestoned piazza beside the Portico d’Ottavia, the neighborhood was sealed, and 365 German soldiers fanned out through the narrow streets and courtyards. Families hid at the backs of their shuttered shops. The able-bodied and quick-witted jumped from their windows or fled along the rooftops. The unlucky were hounded from their homes at gunpoint and herded into the idling trucks. Of the more than 1,000 Roman Jews seized that day and later transported to Auschwitz, only 16 survived.

On a balmy night in April, I sat pondering that dark time with my wife and two of our daughters on the terrace of Ba” Ghetto, a lively restaurant near the Portico d’Ottavia. All around us, waiters were bearing platters of grilled meat and assuring tourists that their fried artichokes alla giudia were the best in Rome. Deep into the night, a sparkler ignited atop a slice of cake and everyone sang “tanti auguri a te” (happy birthday to you) to a 20-something beauty.

It was impossible not to be stunned by the contrast between the festive present and the somber past. Even a dozen years ago, when we first visited the ghetto, the neighborhood felt forlorn and insular. Old, suspicious eyes sized us up as we made our way past kosher butchers and shabby tailor shops. Jews had been confined to these flood-prone riverside streets in 1555 by Pope Paul IV, and in 2001, an aura of melancholy still lingered.

I had irreligious friends who lived near Portico d’Ottavio 15 years ago and they never described the neighborhood as forlorn or insular — far from it. Always good to remember that different people’s perspectives of a given neighborhood might vary quite a bit. This is just one (very good) travel writer’s perspective. And I’m thankful for a religion writer who understands the role religion plays in the character of a place.

The piece is long, and I want to quote extensively from it, but it’s best if you just read it. The writer acknowledges that the nine-month occupation by German forces was just a blip on what he calls “this city’s 2,000 years of glorious and inglorious history.” Of course, if we’re going to include all of its history, might it be better to refer to its 3,000 years? In any case, there’s some great World War II history, a mention of the Protestant cemetery where Keats and Shelley are buried, and various other tidbits. He visits “San Lorenzo’s mellow 12th-century brick campanile” and learns how American bombs caved in the roof of the basilica’s roof and shattered parts of the mosaic floor, one of the most beautiful in Rome (since set back into place). There:

As my guidebook instructed, I descended a short flight of steps at the end of the nave to find the tomb of St. Lawrence, who was martyred over hot coals in the year 258.

But the moment that will stay with me came in the 12th-century cloister. Amid the dainty paired columns and drifts of myrtle and herbs, I stumbled upon a fragment of a bomb’s casing that was pried out of the rubble in 1943 — a shard of American steel displayed incongruously in a sacred Roman garden.

St. Lawrence’s story is one of my favorites, and it’s nice to see a mention. The next paragraph is poignant as well. He asks locals if they have any bitterness over what the United States armed forces did to San Lorenzo. They explain that they are grateful to Americans for liberating them from the Nazis.

Here’s the part for which we received a reader complaint:

The Via Tasso, about midway between San Lorenzo and the ghetto, is an undistinguished thoroughfare of 19th- and early-20th-century apartment blocks and schools, with a crumbling arch at one end and the sanctuary of the Scala Sancta (the sacred stairs that Jesus trod) at the other. It looks like a comfortable, convenient place where middle-class Romans and striving immigrants live, though not a spot you’d go out of your way to visit.

But during the nine months of the Nazi occupation, Via Tasso 145 was the most feared address in Rome. It was here in a charmless, smudged yellow apartment house that the SS and the Gestapo had their headquarters, their prison and their torture chambers. During the occupation, the place was so dreaded that Romans never called it the Via Tasso. Instead they would say laggiù (down there), as in, “He was hauled off laggiù.”

You can probably figure out what seems off. How could stairs in Rome be noted for Jesus trodding on them? Jesus never visited Rome. The reader wrote: “More religious illiteracy in today’s New York Times, where editors apparently think that Jesus visited Rome.”

I’ll fully agree that this could have been better explained in the story, but there’s one other way that these steps Jesus climbed could be in Rome and that’s if the steps were moved there. From New Advent‘s explanation of the Scala Sancta:

Consisting of twenty-eight white marble steps, at Rome, near the Lateran; according to tradition the staircase leading once to the prætorium of Pilate at Jerusalem, hence sanctified by the footsteps of Our Lord during his Passion.

The historians of the monument relate that the Holy Stairs were brought from Jerusalem to Rome about 326 by St. Helena, mother of Constantine the Great. In the Middle Ages they were known as Scala Pilati, the Stairs of Pilate. From old plans it can be gathered that they led to a corridor of the Lateran Palace, near the Chapel of St. Sylvester, were covered with a special roof, and had at their sides other stairs for common use. When Sixtus V in 1589 destroyed the old papal palace and built the new one, he ordered the Holy Stairs be transferred to their present site, before the Sancta Sanctorum (Holy of Holies). The latter is the old private papal chapel, dedicated to St. Lawrence, and the only remaining part of the former Lateran Palace, receiving its name from the many precious relics preserved there. The Sancta Sanctorum also contains the celebrated image of Christ, “not made by human hands”, which on certain occasions used to be carried through Rome in procession. These holy treasures, which since Leo X (1513-21) have not been seen by anybody, have recently been the object of learned dissertations by Grisar and Lauer.

In its new site the Scala Sancta is flanked by four other stairs, two on each side, for common use, since the Holy Stairs may only be ascended on the knees, a devotion much in favour with pilgrims and the Roman faithful, especially on Fridays and in Lent. Not a few popes are recorded to have performed this pious exercise; Pius IX, who in 1853 entrusted the Passionist Fathers with the care of the sanctuary, ascended the Holy Stairs on 19 Sept., 1870, the eve of the entrance of the Piedmontese into Rome. Pius VII on 2 Sept., 1817 granted those who ascend the stairs in the prescribed manner an indulgence of nine years for every step. Finally Pius X, on 26 Feb., 1908, granted a plenary indulgence to be gained as often as the stairs are devoutly ascended after confession and communion. Imitations of the Scala Sancta have been erected in various places, as in Lourdes and in some convents of nuns, and indulgences are attached to them by special concessions.

Read the rest of the Times story. A story about how Germans enacted retribution for a bombing that killed 33 soldiers is particularly horrifying. That the 330 Romans killed in response are rarely remembered and their memorial at Fosse Ardeatine is evocative.

One of Laskin’s best skills is the use of ordinary people to tell extraordinary stories. That is something of a theme throughout this piece, and his discussion with a Jewish woman hid by Gentiles — but whose many close relatives were killed at Auschwitz — is a good example.

The piece is very well told with tons of religion — dramatically more than we might expect in a comparable story. And now we all learned something about the Scala Sancta.

Photo of the mosaic at Scala Sancta via Shutterstock.

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  • spiritchatter

    I write for Patheos (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/spiritchatter/), so my buddy David Laskin naturally thought, at first blush, that I wrote this piece. Nope. But I did take David out for happy hour yesterday to celebrate still another wonderfrul NYTImes piece. (He’s written other great ones.) You’ll be interested to know that his next book, The Family, similarly weaves history, religion, and travel together, as David traces three branches of his family from its Polish home prior to the Shoah. It’s gotten all sorts of rave–I do mean rave–endorsements, and I can’t wait to read it (http://www.davidlaskin.com/). Of course, we’ve been talking about it for the last few years, following a trail of discovery, as David and I get together at least once a week to talk about life, writing, kids, spirituality. David’s a terrific guy, not just a terrific writer.

    • David Laskin

      As we say in Italian — altrettanto — the same to you and then some. Jack Levison is pal supreme and a writer who bears and shares the gifts of the spirit. Go Jack!


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