In the cathedrals of New York and Rome
There is a feeling that you should just go home
And spend a lifetime finding out just where that is
People understand catastrophes. The everyday ebb and flow of history, in their own lives and in the world, is much harder for them to grasp.
That thought—hardly a revelation, once one pauses to think about it—came to me in the lower sanctuary of the Church of San Fermo in Verona. For 15 years, I have taken part in various Rockford Institute Winter Schools and Convivia throughout Italy, and at some point on each trip our little band of travelers has found itself in a subterranean space that used to be firmly on the surface of the earth. Often these structures are pagan temples or baths or even houses over which a later building—usually a church—has been erected. In this case, the remarkably well-preserved fifth-century Church of San Fermo sits perhaps 12 feet below grade, crowned by an 11th-century Gothic church, also dedicated to San Fermo, that features a striking façade of red brick and yellow sandstone.
As I wandered through the lower sanctuary, admiring the mosaics of the early church and the frescoes installed around the time of the construction of the upper church, one of my traveling companions asked the inevitable question: “How did this church end up underground?”
The Blue Guide won’t tell you. Neither will any history of Verona. The answer, however, is obvious when you emerge from the depths of San Fermo and survey the surrounding landscape. The Fiume Adige, the river that outlines historic Verona, lies just to the east of San Fermo, and while the water is low here in early April, the height of the retaining walls on both sides of the river, running under the Ponte delle Navi across from San Fermo, provides silent testimony of the floods that built up the earth around the original fifth-century church over more than half a millennium, before the second church was built.
Such an answer, though, feels inadequate. Something in us wants to believe that it cannot be right. We can grasp the sudden burial of Pompeii in pumice and ash; but the gradual buildup of years and decades and centuries of silt is another matter entirely. Why didn’t someone do something?
That question is like asking your children, “When did you get so old?” Time and the tides are inexorable, and despite our best efforts, they slowly but surely change the landscape of our lives. And not just our individual lives, but the lives of families and institutions, nations and civilizations.
In fact, though we hardly ever stop to think about it, the reality of continuity is more surprising than that of change. It doesn’t take a Mount Vesuvius to bring about a radical break with the past: a plague, the migration of peoples, economic disruptions, a change of faith—any of these, or a million more events, large and small, might have resulted in the original Church of San Fermo being covered over completely or even destroyed, with no Gothic superstructure erected on its firm foundation, to stand another thousand years.
And yet the fifth-century church remained—gradually silted up, yes, but cared for by generation after generation of unknown Veronese whose dedication to their hometown and their faith buttressed the stone walls of their church. Unknown, that is, to us: The names of those who order or finance the construction of churches often come down to us through history, as do those of particularly important pastors; but the names of the young men who served the Masses and of the women who kept the sanctuary clean and of the groundskeepers who tried to manage the slowly rising earth and of the families who gave of their very substance to keep the building in good repair are lost to the ages. Yet they were known to one another, and to their descendants, some of whom undoubtedly continue to worship in San Fermo, and carry on their work.
We never think of them, however, caught as we are between a 19th-century sense of history as the work of “great men” and the parochial horizons of our own lives. The day-to-day toil of men and women whose names will never appear in the history books constitutes the continuities between generations that make up tradition in the truest sense—the “transmission of what is truly worth conserving,” in the words of Josef Pieper—and give rise to civilization.
Conversely, if civilization is in danger of crumbling—as it more or less always is—it is because those continuities are continually being broken, and only rarely by catastrophes. Personal decisions—to move away, to indulge our petty pride, to turn one’s back on family and friends, to abandon the pieties due to our ancestors and our God—not only change the shape of our own lives, but tear at the very fabric of civilization and send ripples down through the years, until, like the beating of a butterfly’s wings, they spark a hurricane. And such actions need not even be done in malice: Both the sheep on His right and the goats on His left, we are told, will find themselves surprised when called to account before the King.
Before he departed The Rockford Institute for Catholic Answers, Chris Check had an unofficial marketing line that he used to try to convince people to attend our Winter Schools and Convivia: “Go see the glories of Europe before they are gone.” It was, one might say, inherently pessimistic; but Chris always delivered it with the good cheer of Monsieur Calgues, near the end of Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints: “This is my home, Colonel! Where else should I be?”
If the glories of Europe are fading, we have only ourselves to blame, because we, as much as those who remain in Europe, are the descendants of those forgotten men and women who kept the Faith and civilization alive down through the centuries and millennia so that we would have a firm foundation on which to build. The ruins of ancient and medieval Rome underlie not only modern Milan and Verona and Venice and Ravenna but Rome, New York, and Rockford, Illinois. They are obscured by the silt of time and centuries of human neglect and destruction, but they remain for us to discover and recover. Our task—the task of all civilized men and women throughout history—has never been merely to freeze the past in time like, say, Colonial Williamsburg, but to transmit “what is truly worth conserving” by incarnating the truth in our own lives now and here. By building on top of the foundation that others have laid, we lay the foundation for future generations, who will not even know our names, to build a foundation for others to build upon.
“The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.” The Church of San Fermo has stood in Verona for 16 centuries, both because of and in spite of the efforts of men and women whose own lives spanned only a fraction of those years. Like them, we make choices every day that will either build up or tear down, turn others from the truth or pass it on to future generations. We too often let the shortness of our lives be a cause for despair, but the length of our days should give us a sense of both urgency and perspective. In the long run, it will not matter if we make a name for ourselves in our lifetime, or even one that lasts for a few generations after; what matters is if we leave a world—or rather, places in a world—in which others find life is worth living.
A few days after our visit to San Fermo, about half of our band of travelers gathered one evening at a different church, this time in Venice. Just a few yards up from the Ritz Carlton on the Grand Canal, San Simeone Piccolo was one of the last churches built in the maritime republic, a mere 300 years ago (though it, too, was built on the foundation of an older church). Its neoclassical style could hardly be more different from that of San Fermo, but we weren’t there to compare notes. Instead, each of us—Mark Beesley, Ken Rosenberger, Ray Olson, Jerry Brock, Bob Geraci, George Gaudio, Mark Kennedy, Gary and Elena Arnett, and Amy and I—had spent our afternoon wandering into neighborhood shops, buying a little bread here, a little cheese and salami there, olives and peppers, dried fruit and various dolci, and a couple of one-and-a-half-liter plastic water bottles filled with a young local wine. On the wall along the stone steps of the church, Beesley spread a cloth and prepared us a grand feast, and as the sun set behind the train station across the Grand Canal and tourists did double takes as they passed by, we enjoyed our shared meal and one another’s company.
When the citizens of one of Venice’s poorer neighborhoods gave of themselves three centuries ago to erect a church in honor of Saint Simon the Zealot, they had no way of knowing what would take place on its steps on April 15, 2015. Yet I firmly believe that, when the last trumpet sounds, it will not be counted among the least of their good works that, long after the last of those who built this church returned to the earth, their love of God and their devotion to the Sestiere di Santa Croce brought a few moments of simple joy to a handful of weary travelers from the New World.