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The Church in the photograph is the Basilica of St. Bartholomew. Named for the Apostle, whose relics are preserved beneath the altar, this Basilica is found in Rome on the island in the Tiber River (and is currently the titular Church of Chicago’s Francis Cardinal George).
Externally, the façade of this Basilica (although Baroque) does not seem to be exceptional or even spectacular . . . at least not when compared to major Basilicas like St. Peter’s or St. Paul Outside the Walls. In contrast to those grand Basilicas, the Basilica of St. Bartholomew has the appearance of a simple, even “every-day” Church (at least for Rome!). It was, perhaps, for this reason that it took me quite awhile to make the time to go inside. I will never, however, forget my first experience within the walls of this very “normal” Basilica; for once inside, I was immediately struck by a silence that was palpably “full” of prayer. It was instantly clear to me that this place was a place of ongoing pilgrimage and deep prayer, as opposed to the tourism and curiosity that tend to characterize some of the major Basilicas. This atmosphere of prayer was manifest by:
- the large icon on the altar the image of which, clearly modern, seemed calculated to draw me into heaven and into union with all of the saints.
- by the attitude of the people who walked with an almost contemplative air from one side-altar to the next, lighting candles as they stopped to pray;
- by the number of candles that had been lit by previous pilgrims, whose prayers still kept us company in the many flames that offered the Church a special glow
- by the fact that when I discovered the tabernacle, I was also discovered a number of people knelt in prayer, keeping company with the Lord.
On visiting the rest of the Church, I discovered that, in 2000, John Paul II dedicated this Church to the memory of the new martyrs of the twentieth century, who were represented in the icon on the altar. In fact, the various side-altars at which pilgrims prayed preserved the relics of various individuals such as Oscar Romero and other Christians who were the victims of the Spanish Civil War, the Communist and Nazi regimes, and even contemporary religious unrest in the Mideast.
On my walk home from the Basilica of St. Bartholomew, I continued to marvel at how the atmosphere behind such a simple façade was charged with prayer, and how this atmosphere was palpably different from the atmosphere that I normally felt within other “greater” basilicas . . . And then the Lord gifted me with an insight by way of a question: “How many people would, upon being welcomed into my company, be struck by the powerful presence of God rendered “tangible” by a deep and ongoing life of prayer?” It seemed to me that my experience within this very simple Church ought to be the experience that Christians, engaged in their various ministries, offer the world. My mind was carried to the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells within you?” (I Cor 3.16), or again “For we are the temple of the living God” (2 Cor 6.16).
It seemed to me that this basilica (which is in fact a minor basilica) offered a testimony to what true discipleship is. In the end, being a disciple of the Lord Jesus does not consist of maintaining an “outstanding personal façade” by way of a strict regimen of formal prayers and austere penance, but rather, consists in maintaining oneself (one’s “interior space”, one’s soul) as a place of deep and ongoing prayer. In this way, behind the façade of a very normal and day to day existence, God will be powerfully present, transforming a very normal existence into a place where his presence might be perceived, and this same presence might offer refreshment to those we are blessed to serve on our pilgrimage to the Father.
Note: Watch a podcast on Sister Marie Kolbe Zamora, OSF.