A place in the cityIsabel de Bertodano
- 7 April 2007
When a cardinal is appointed, along with the red hat, and all that that means, he is given one of Rome's titular churches. The allocation of who gets what is sometimes random - but not always
There must be many good things about being appointed cardinal, but the gift of a church in Rome is surely among the most gratifying. No matter whether the new cardinal is from Honduras or Hong Kong, he will be given an honorary position as a member of the clergy of Rome and assigned his "parish church".
This is a hidden side of the Eternal City, the stuff that only the most inquisitive tourists will be aware of. Titular churches, as they are known, vary from plain modern buildings to the sumptuously palatial, but each has an alter ego, an identity that links it - and so Rome itself - to the far-flung dioceses of the earth.
For example, the beautiful Renaissance church of Santa Maria della Pace, with its theatrical baroque facade and Bramante cloister, is the titular church of Cardinal Errázuriz of Santiago in Chile. San Lorenzo in Panisperna is assigned to the Thai Cardinal Kitbunchu, while the fabulous former medieval fortress-cum-monastery of SS Quattro Coronati belongs to Cardinal Mahoney of California.
Titular churches are identified by the coat of arms above the door. But one would have to be a heraldic specialist with unusual skills of deduction to be able to identify in this way to whom each church has been assigned.
Former Vatican archivist Mgr Charles Burns is just such a specialist and he agrees that the churches divulge few secrets. "These days sometimes the coats of arms aren't even redone when a new cardinal takes over," he says. "I don't know if the traditions are being observed in the same way as they used to be. There used to be a portrait of the cardinal inside the front door of the church, but that rarely happens now."
The titular church tradition dates back to the days when early Christians held clandestine gatherings in private homes, where they would pray and read from the Scriptures. "You would come into an atrium where people could assemble and there would be the house with store rooms for collections of clothes and food for the sick and poor," says Mgr Burns.
There are references to such meetings in the New Testament - for instance, Paul, in his letter to the Romans, sends a greeting to his fellow Christians Prisca and Aquila and "to the church in their household".
Mgr Burns explains that the buildings became known as tituli (or titles) because the name of the proprietor would be inscribed above the door. Later the churches were often named after their original owner.
"Excavations have revealed the original house where the gospel of Mark was written under St Mark's," says Mgr Burns, "and you can also see the homes of [fourth-century martyrs] John and Paul. These original titular churches reveal more than you'd imagine."
Indeed they do. On the right-hand wall on the ground floor of S Marco's Renaissance portico, for example, is the funerary inscription of Vanozza Cattanei, mistress of the Borgia Pope Alexander VI. Their children Lucrezia and Cesare also get a mention.
The church of Santa Maria in Campitelli was once the titular church of Henry Cardinal Duke of York - the second son of James II and uncle of Bonnie Prince Charlie, known to Jacobites as Henry IX. He acquired two more - Santi Apostoli and Santa Maria in Trastevere.
Meanwhile, two floors beneath the church of San Clemente, one can still visit rooms of the original Roman house used for Christian meetings. It is believed to have belonged to Titus Flavius Clemens, who was executed in AD 95 for Christian worship.
Later, after the Edict of Milan in 313, when Christians could practise their faith openly, the house grew to encompass neighbouring apartments, on top of which a church was built and dedicated to Pope St Clement, a martyred contemporary of the original owner.
There were initially around 25 titular churches in Rome, among them the aforementioned SS Giovanni e Paolo, now traditionally the titular church of the Archbishop of New York - currently Cardinal Egan. Santa Pudenziana is now the titular church of Cardinal Meisner of Cologne and Santa Sabina is now attached to Cardinal Tomko of Slovakia.
As more bishops were incardinated, more churches were required for them. In 1586, Pope Sixtus V set the maximum number of cardinals at 70, representing the 70 elders of Moses. "It remained at that number until the time of Paul VI," explains Mgr Burns. "But it was recognised that the cardinals failed to represent the universality of the Church. Two out of three were Italians, so it was decided to increase the number to 120."
There were no longer enough churches in central Rome, so newly ordained cardinals began to be given parishes further afield. Thus, the Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien's titular church is to be found near Ciampino Airport in a suburb of Rome constructed in the 1980s.
Last month, this parish, SS Gioacchino e Anna, in Tuscolano, celebrated its silver jubilee and Cardinal O'Brien travelled to Rome to join in the festivities.
"Cardinal O'Brien goes out there a lot," says Mgr Burns. "Most Italians wouldn't be aware of who their cardinal is, but they're delighted with O'Brien because he makes a fuss of them."
The church is reached by taking the metro to the end of Line A. There is then a 15-minute walk through a dreary housing estate before one reaches the more lively district of Tuscolano. The church is a plain but appealing building on a busy road lined by red apartment blocks. Not only is Cardinal O'Brien's coat of arms above the church door, but the blue-and-white saltire flutters alongside it. For the jubilee vigil Mass presided at by the cardinal, the pews were packed. The cardinal greeted the congregation in English, but conducted the rest of the Mass in Italian, which, he admitted afterwards, was rather faltering.
Earlier he had spent time visiting the sick of the parish and after Mass he was due at a dinner with a group of Boy Scouts and their families. The following day he presided at two further Masses and attended a jubilee lunch.
Fr Dario Gervasi, the young parish priest at Gioacchino e Anna, said that the cardinal was popular in the parish and that his arrival was always an occasion. "It's hard for him to speak Italian but the people love him because he tries," he says. "Before Cardinal O'Brien we had Cardinal Gruer [of Austria] whom we saw very little of."
The cardinal himself says that he would not dream of swapping his parish in Tuscolano for one of the grander churches in central Rome. "There's certainly a contrast with the historical churches," he agrees. "Those churches might have a lot of history and be beautiful but the parishes have few people living in their boundaries and not many people go there, apart from tourists."
As a result of the cardinal's enthusiasm, a link has been forged between his diocese of Edinburgh and St Andrews and the parish of SS Gioacchino e Anna. A group of Italians visited Edinburgh and Glasgow with Fr Gervasi last year and Scots have also made the pilgrimage to Tuscolano. "It's lovely to have a living, thriving community where they know me," says the cardinal. "As soon as I came here I liked it, it's a very homely, welcoming parish with young, energetic priests. They took me to their hearts and I took them to my heart."
He is clearly invigorated by his visit to Tuscolano and one can see why. "There is a vibrancy about the church here - it is a social centre for people," the cardinal agrees.
Meanwhile, the church assigned to Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor could hardly be more different. Santa Maria sopra Minerva is in the heart of Rome, and groans with the weight of the works of art to be found within. These include Filippino Lippi frescoes, the tombs of Fra Angelico and Pope Paul IV and a Michelangelo sculpture of Christ, and outside, in the picturesque Piazza della Minerva, a Bernini marble elephant with an Egyptian obelisk on its back.
Although Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor does not significantly involve himself with his church, he clearly takes pleasure from it. "When you're visiting Rome, flatter your heart, quicken your intelligence and visit my little church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva," he wrote in The Spectator last year. "I promise you beauty, and moments of delight and pleasure, in this church so full of wisdom ancient and perennially new."
So why did Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor get this magnificent building while Cardinal O'Brien was sent to suburbia? It simply depends which parishes are vacant when a cardinal is appointed - it is unusual for a church to be handed to a cardinal's successor. For instance, S Giorgio in Velabro, formally the titular church of Cardinal Newman, has since been assigned to French, Swiss and Italian cardinals and now belongs to Cardinal Stickler of Austria. However, in a nod to its illustrious nineteenth-century patron, a plaque commemorating Newman adorns the wall.
In rare cases churches are assigned to a particular cardinal if there is an historical reason for it. For example, there is traditionally an Irish cardinal (currently Cardinal Daly) at S Patrizio (St Patrick's) and Cardinal Lustiger has the French church, S Luigi dei Francesi. Mgr Burns says that it is fitting that Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor has Santa Maria sopra Minerva. "Cardinal Howard is buried there and he built most of the English College where Cardinal Cormac was rector," he explains, adding that the Papal Master of Ceremonies decides who is given which church, some apparently randomly, others with more obvious intent.
The first American cardinal to be assigned SS Giovanni e Paolo was Cardinal Spellman in 1946. "He spent millions on restoring it - all the facades were restored," says Mgr Burns. "Other American cardinals were also generous to their titular churches until they began to suspect they were being given any church that was falling down."
Whether a cardinal takes advantage of the parish he is assigned is up to him. But with today's cardinals scattered all around the globe, their titular churches can represent a link both with headquarters and with history. It is an opportunity which is rarely exploited, but which deserves acknowledgement.