I’m living for awhile in the Eternal City for studies, and spent some time wandering the city center today. I’ve come up with one single conclusion:
Rome is a city of facts.
Love or hate the churches and empire and buildings and streets and culture, you can’t escape the settled facts of the place. Rome so abounds with ancient things that every vista mirrors back its own longevity and one’s own impermanence. There’s a corner nearby: look down one direction, and there is the Forum. Look down another direction, and there’s the Colosseum. The things one meets at eye-level, the first-floor commonplaces of every city, are ephemeral and passing: the graffiti and the shops, and even the scooters. But look up, or over, or down aways, and you will see many, many things that have been and will be for centuries.
Of course, it’s not military or economic empire that makes Rome Rome for us as Catholics. It is our center because of the blood of Sts. Peter and Paul, those prime apostles and eyewitnesses to the Resurrected Crucified One, as these office hymns show.
St. Peter, downward crucified—
To honor God in how he died—
Securely tied, he sees unfold
The death his Shepherd once foretold.
On such foundations Rome may claim
The highest service of God’s name.
His noble blood has dignified
The city where this prophet died.
Let all the world, then, run to Rome.
Let families of nations come!
The head of nations teaches there
Beside the nations’ teacher’s chair. (from Apostolorum Passio)
The heavens’ porter, and earth’s sage,
The world’s bright lights who judge the age.
One wins by cross, and one by sword,
And life on high is their reward.
These are your princes, happy Rome!
Their precious blood clothes you, their home.
We praise not you, but praise their worth,
Beyond all beauty of the earth. (From Aurea Luce)
Musically, our facts are similarly ineluctable. Gregorian chant simply is. It has been here before you and me, and it will perdure, not only because of its history–which for us as Catholics is not a negligible matter–but particularly because of its suitability as a musical language of cantillation. Flexible, multiform, and gentle, it accompanies the scriptural words of prayer in a way that is sensitive to the words, as the kind of immovable facts they are: eternal, living, and effective.