Ostia Antica: St. Augustine’s Home Town

On August 28, we celebrate the feast of St. Augustine of Hippo, the North African convert who became one of Catholicism’s greatest educators after his conversion.

Our guide Fr. Joseph Fox, O.P. explains the layout of Ostia Antica.

I’ve posted several articles about St. Augustine (here and here and here).  I thought I’d round out the series with a few pics from some of his favorite hometown haunts.

Back in 2003 or 2004, I had the privilege of leading a group of pilgrims to some of the fun spots in and around Rome.   One of my favorite spots, outside of the Eternal City itself at the mouth of the River Tiber, was the ancient seaport of Ostia Antica (“Old Mouth”).

View of the city from the old Roman road

Well, actually, it isn’t really a seaport today.  Time and tide have reworked the landscape, leaving the old port city landlocked.  The sea, if you go there in 2012, is nearly two miles away.

Shops along an Ostian road

But in the fourth century, Ostia was a bustling seaport serving the city of Rome.   Merchants from the warehouse district greeted the incoming vessels, then sold their goods to people of the city.  Sailors on shore leave mingled with Roman citizens, shopping, dining in restaurants, perhaps enjoying a good stage play before setting sail once again.  So the town of Ostia needed to accommodate the crowds—and so the settlement sprawled across the Italian plains, including down its narrow streets shops and schools, administrative buildings, a theatre, public baths, small homes and apartments, public ovens, even a latrine that requires no explanation. [Read more...]

Orvieto and the Feast of Corpus Christi

Orvieto atop a butte

The town of Orvieto is an Etruscan city located in the scenic region of Umbria, between Firenze (Florence) and Roma (Rome).

I first visited the medieval town of Orvieto in 2002, and again in 2006.  It’s the eucharistic miracle which is preserved there that I want to tell you about today—but first, let me tell you a little about this picturesque little town.

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Getting Up There – Orvieto sits atop a volcanic rock, on a high butte overlooking the plain; and our group rode a funicular, a hillside train, from the valley below.  The original funicular, with its water ballast counter-balanced cabin, was replaced in modern times by an automatic line.  There is no driver aboard the cabin—just a single operator who manages the computerized system from the upper station.

Troubled History: A City Under Siege – The citizens of medieval Orvieto thought they were safe, up there on that butte.  When attacked by other groups, they could fend them off, hurling arrows or axes or rocks over the cliff.  What they weren’t prepared for, though, was a long siege.  On their fertile butte they could grow corn and other crops, even raise cattle and chickens; but they descended to the valley to get their water.

When many of the town’s citizens died of dehydration following a long siege by the Romans, the people of Orvieto conceived the idea of a deep well.  Utilizing a double helix staircase St. Patrick’s Well, as it was named, descended from the upper plain 248 steps to the water level.  Families maintained narrower artesian wells, down which they could drop a bucket to retrieve water for drinking, cooking and bathing.  In the walls of the deep wells, the Etruscans dug holes which served as dovecotes, encouraging pigeons to nest. At dinnertime, the enterprising Etruscans simply reached into the well, pulled a dove out of the nest—and enjoyed the bird roasted.

Popes In Residence – Orvieto, securely situated and not too far from Rome, was a place of refuge for five popes during the 13th century:  Urban IV, Gregory X, Martin IV, Nicholas IV and Boniface VIII.  Orvieto’s Palazzo Soliano, the palace of the popes in that city, contains many well-preserved frescoes from 1290 and earlier.

A Crisis of Faith, and a Miracle – Pope Urban IV was in residence at Orvieto in 1263 when a German priest, Peter of Prague, had a crisis of faith.  The priest was devout, but found it difficult to believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  He was en route to Rome and stopped at the Italian city of Bolsena, where he celebrated Mass at the tomb of St. Christina.  As he spoke the words of the Consecration, blood began to seep from the consecrated Host and trickle over his hands and onto the altar and the corporal.

Shocked, the priest immediately traveled to nearby Orvieto, where Pope Urban listened to his story.  The pope asked that the Host and the bloodstained cloth be brought to him in the cathedral.  Pope Urban and a number of cardinals and Church dignitaries greeted the procession and had the relics enshrined in the Cathedral at Orvieto.  The stained corporal bearing the spots of blood is still displayed there, in a golden reliquary in the Chapel of the Corporal.

Eucharistic Hymns for the Ages – Pope Urban, deeply affected by this miracle, commissioned St. Thomas Aquinas to compose the Proper for a Mass and an Office honoring the Holy Eucharist as the Body of Christ.  The hymns which St. Thomas wrote included the traditional hymns still widely used in Benediction:  the Pange Lingua (with its concluding verses, the Tantum Ergo), the Panis Angelicus, and O Salutaris Hostia.

One year after the miracle, in August of 1264, Pope Urban IV introduced Aquinas’ composition and issued a papal bull instituting the feast of Corpus Christi (the Body of Christ).

WHERE THE LOVE OF GOD GOES: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Does anyone know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours…

–Gordon Lightfoot, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”

It was circa July 1973, and my husband and I—young, free-wheeling and in love, with more dreams than experience—embarked on a driving trip through upper Michigan.  We’d never been much farther north than Lansing at that point.  We pitched a tent along the way, getting to know Grayling and Mio, the Au Sable River and the Traverse City wine country, finally turning back when we reached Lake of the Clouds in Michigan’s Porcupine Mountains.

Along the way, we stopped at Sault Ste. Marie, on the St. Mary’s River.  Originally called “Sault du Gastogne” by early French fur traders, it was renamed by Jesuit missionary Pere Jacques Marquette in 1633, to honor the Virgin Mary.

The St. Mary’s River is the only water connection between Lake Superior and the Great Lakes; but there is a section of the river known as the St. Mary’s Rapids, where the water falls about 21 feet from the level of Lake Superior to the level of the lower lakes.  With ingenuity and persistence, the settlers built a series of locks, called the “Soo Locks,” to bypass the dangerous waters of the river—and in 1855, the steamer Illinois passed through the locks in less than an hour.  The four locks in use today permit shipping through the Great Lakes into the waters of Lake Michigan, connecting the American Midwest to the Atlantic Ocean.

Standing there at the Locks in 1973, Jerry and I watched as a freighter passed through the locks, the ship’s crew “manning the rails,” a tradition which showed that they had no evil intent.  We snapped 35 mm photos which were later developed into slides.

Only years later did we review the 35mm slides we took that day and realize that the ship we’d seen that day was the mighty and legendary Edmund Fitzgerald, destined for immortality as a “ghost ship.”

On November 10, 1975, just two years after we captured the ship and its crew on film, the Edmund Fitzgerald—en route from Wisconsin to Detroit’s Zug Island—sank in the waters of Lake Superior during a storm.  The ship broke in two, its crew of 29 were lost, and Gordon Lightfoot wrote his ode to the ship and its brave crew.  Today, 35 years after the loss, Old Mariner’s Church in Detroit still sounds its bells 29 times each day in honor of the sailors who lost their lives in this most famous of Michigan’s many shipwrecks.

Looking at the photographs today, I remember that these men—most in their 40s or 50s, and some as young as 21—were not planning to die that day.  They left loving wives, children, parents, and friends, drawn to the depths of the sea and the arms of their Creator.  Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord.