Sant’Onofrio al Gianicolo: Journeying to a Citadel of Faith: John Paul Sonnen, KHS

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Interview with John Paul Sonnen, KHS

Sant’Onofrio al Gianicolo: Journeying to a Citadel of Faith by John Paul Sonnen, KHS

Synopsis: Il 15 agosto 1945 Papa Pio XII concede all’Ordine equestre del Santo Sepolcro di Gerusalemme (Ordo Equestris Sancti Sepulcri Hierosolymitani) la chiesa e il cenobio di Sant’Onofrio al Gianicolo quale chiesa madre ufficiale dell’ordine religioso cavalleresco, oggi di collazione pontificia e posto sotto la diretta protezione della Santa Sede.

Why did you choose to work on this book dedicated to the church and the convent of Sant’Onofrio al Gianicolo, located on the famous “passeggiata del Gianicolo” in Rome?

The soul craves beauty in religion. How right Plato was when he wrote that at the sight of beauty the human soul grows wings. The pursuit of beauty is therefore a lifelong quest. The beauty of churches and liturgies inspires awe and raises minds to heavenly ascents. So many times people have been transformed by art, changed forever by an encounter with beauty.

My love for the Roman church of Sant’Onofrio al Gianicolo began when I first stumbled upon this forgotten church when I was a pilgrim in Rome for the first time at age 19. I was immediately struck by the simple Renaissance beauty and rustic condition of the church. It was beauty that attracted me and grace that led me to write this book on the history and art of Sant’Onofrio.    

In the Catholic tradition beauty is a theological category, an ontological category. Art is the expression of the beautiful and has the capacity to reveal spiritual realities to us. Most importantly, sacred art manifests divine beauty. The truth is beautiful, revealed in art, carrying the splendor of spiritual beauty to those touched by grace to receive it.

The pilgrim’s encounter with beauty begins by visiting holy places. The experience for me to stumble upon this church in Rome soothed my soul. I have always found that the most striking characteristic of the age in which we are living is psychological suffering and ugliness. Even against the background of unparalleled physical and material advancements, this suffering stands out vividly. Borderline cases are everywhere. No small part of the solution is spiritual healing. This is why pilgrimage is recommended as a medicine. This church is a perfect destination to encounter beauty and find the healing remedy of grace.

Who was Onofrio, and why was he was chosen as the Titular Patron of this Church?

Sant’Onofrio was an Egyptian monk who lived as a hermit dwelling in the seclusion of the remote wilds of Upper Egypt. He was therefore one of the Desert Fathers of the early Church. He was part of the first great expansion of Christian monasticism. He lived with other hermits alone in the desert in a kind of spiritual martyrdom. Monks went to live in the desert on account of God and to be with Him alone. In monastic literature, both the desert and mountain have a geographical and religious sense. The desert was a harsh place where the monks worked out their salvation, entering the fertile land of spiritual life. These monks laid the foundation of Christian culture in the East. Little is known of the life of Sant’Onofrio. His story is told by a biographer, the Abbot Paphnuntius, a fellow monk who writes of visiting Sant’Onofrio in the desert and witnessing his death after praying with him and keeping vigil the night before.  The story of Sant’Onofrio therefore recalls both his holiness and the ascetic feats of the saint and how the Lord cared for him and preserved his life for many years in the desert. The Egyptian Copts preserve his memory. In the Latin Church the memory of Sant’Onofrio has been revered for many centuries and his death is recorded in the Roman Martyrology even though the saint did not shed his blood for the Faith. He was chosen as the titular patron of this church because the hermit monks who founded it in the 1400s took their inspiration from him along with the other Desert Fathers.   

The second part of your book is dedicated to the personages related to the Monastery. Could you indicate to us which are the most particular, the most interesting figures, among all of them?

The Church’s universality is seen and felt as nowhere else in the city of Rome. Since Sant’Onofrio al Gianicolo is a historic church in Rome. It has been for hundreds of years a crossroads for people from all over the world. There people still gather to visit and pray in a picturesque setting, elevated above the city on the Gianicolo Hill.

The gardens and sloping vineyards of Sant’Onofiro were a favorite gathering place for St. Philip Neri who during his lifetime led gatherings at this location for many years. These gatherings were held in the summer months where he would gather boys in later afternoon to teach them the Faith in an outoor setting among the groves of Sant’Onofrio, which unfortunately disappeared during urban development in the city of Rome at the end of the nineteenth century.

Further, the famous Italian poet Torquato Tasso was fond of Sant’Onofrio and went to die there in his final sickness as the air quality was considered optimal to treat his poor health.  He chose to die as a guest at the monastery and specified in his will that he would like to be buried in the chapel of Sant’Onofrio. Thus pilgrims visit his final resting place in the church and sometimes also the museum dedicated to him in the adjoining monastery where he died. The Torquato Tasso Museum (known as the Museo Tassiano), is housed in the upper floor of the old monastery. Visits to the museum are by appointment only. The museum, although small, contains some interesting artifacts related to the Tasso’s life and death. Visitors enter the room where he passed away and admire original copies of his books. Tasso remains a prominent Renaissance figure and is considered the greatest poet of that period, described as the link between the fading classical and medieval culture and the new Christian culture that was born in the wake of the Renaissance.

Could you explain to us the reasons that led Pope Pius XII to issue the “Motu Proprio” dated August 15, 1945?

Eugenio Pacelli was a true Roman (un vero Romano) – he was born in Rome and grew up in the city. He was born into a certain literary age (in 1876), almost within sight of the top of the Gianicolo Hill.  Although little is known of the childhood and early studies of Papa Pacelli, we know that he would have been immersed in the history of Rome as well as the glories of the poet Tasso, who in those days was still widely read and studied. While he was a student at the Ennio Quirino Visconti Lyceum, a state school with a hostile atmosphere toward religion, the young Pacelli may easily have studied the poetry of Tasso as was the custom at the Italian lyceum in those years. After graduating he spent a year at the University of Rome where his subjects may further have included Tasso. In addition, he grew up at the Chiesa Nuova, where St. Philip Neri lived and died. Therefore he would have been well acquainted with Philip Neri’s Oratory and his connection with Sant’Onofrio, the saint’s favored place to lead his summer oratory events during the summer months of his ministry in the city of Rome. Later after his priestly ordination, Fr. Pacelli’s first assignment was to the Oratory church in Rome, the Chiesa Nuova. He was therefore well acquainted with the life and story of St. Philip Neri.   

The designation of Sant’Onofrio as the Roman chapel of the Order dates back to the days of Venerable Pius XII. The honor was bestowed in direct response to the growing needs of the Order, which the Pope providentially foresaw would continue to expand in the postwar years. On August 15, 1945 the Pope issued a Motu Proprio decree (an official act taken without a formal request from another party), that was signed by him granting to the Order “for perpetuity” the use of the church of Sant’Onofrio together with its adjoining monastery and Torquato Tasso Museum.

Over the years having Sant’Onofrio under the care of the Order has proven a tremendous grace for its worldwide members, giving them a convenient meeting place in the center of Rome for carrying out religious ceremonies and works of charity in a spirit of unity and mission. The special reason given by Pius XII for the designation of Sant’Onofrio was because the Order did not yet have its own Roman church. He desired to grant it one which would not only be proof of Roman Pontiff’s benevolence toward the order, but also one that would be especially fitting and have a particular significance for the Order’s members.

Needless to say, this was because inside Sant’Onofrio is found the tomb and final resting place of Torquato Tasso (1544-1595), the greatest bard of the conquest of Jerusalem. He was a famous Renaissance poet who lived his last months at the adjoining monastery and died there at the age of fifty-one. Tasso’s immortal work was entitled “Jerusalem Delivered.” It was an epic poem that sang of the arms and mercy of the captain who freed the glorious sepulchre of Christ, Sir Godfrey of Bouillon, ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and victor of the First Crusade.

In the words of Pius XII: “In this church, in fact, there still lives the memory of Torquato Tasso, illustrious poet, who sang in exquisite verse the deeds of the Crusaders who struggled to restore freedom to the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem: and there, too, is an ancient monastery, which – after the legitimate cessation of the Order of Hermits of St. Jerome [the monks who initially inhabited the site] – can fittingly accommodate this Equestrian Order and can provide it with a convenient center for the carrying out of its religious ceremonies and its acts of piety and works of charity.”

In the book readers are reminded that for the Knights and Dames of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, Sant’Onofrio is forever their spiritual home in Rome – their own special church in the shadow of the Vatican. Indeed, the cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica can be seen from the attached convent and gardens, where a gentle breeze is sometimes felt amid colorful oleanders, magnolias and rhododendrons in full bloom in the summer months. I conclude by extending to everyone, especially members of the order, a personal invitation to visit Sant’Onofrio as pilgrims on their next trip to Rome, perhaps in conjunction with a leisurely stroll atop the Gianicolo Hill.

In the last part of the book you present to us what you describe as a “Self-Guided Tour” inside the Church and the Monastery. Can you elaborate on this?

The book is written with pilgrims in mind. It is my hope people will buy the book, read it, and take it with them when they visit Rome, making time in their busy schedules to visit Sant’Onofrio for a self-guided tour on a quiet morning after breakfast when the church is still open (it closes in the afternoon).

Of our modern age we can say many people have ceased to exercise the spiritual part of their nature. This is precisely where the life of grace comes into play. To be a pilgrim is an opportunity to set out on a journey to heal the disease of the soul – a spiritual rather than a psychological ailment. The condition today is one of spiritual weakness and it is largely because souls and minds are starved.

For those suffering consciously or otherwise from a vague and persistent unhappiness or inexplicable sense of emptiness, a good recommendation is a journey in search of God. Boredom, anxiety, shame, frustration, sloth. It has been said that countless people today are suffering from no clinically definable neurosis, but from the senselessness and emptiness of their lives. They thirst for the spiritual and seek the infinite. The need is for Christ. The start of a pilgrimage lasts a lifetime.

The pilgrimage experience to Sant’Onofrio is not to be missed. It is just what many people need: a journey that is a response to the never-ending call to conversion. An invitation to move with others in a constant renewal of the self, the Church, society and the world. A journey which during its short span of days can mirror all the hopes, joys and fears of a lifetime seeking to know God and find the path of direction.

Many have sought to define pilgrimage. An easy definition reads thus: “It is a journey, towards God, with a purpose.” When God called Abraham to leave on a mammoth journey from Ur to another land, Abraham was asked to make a great act of faith and to set out from his home surroundings. He was to begin a new life, living in a completely different way, led all the way by God. God promised to look after him.

The faith-based pilgrimage to Rome is not just about travel or getting away, it is a journey undertaken for the sake of faith. What makes a journey a pilgrimage is the reason a person embarks upon it, and the intention of carrying it out. By participating in a pilgrimage, the soul professes publicly a desire to come closer to God and to discipline the ego by prayer and penance.

The pilgrim is not a tourist, but undertakes the journey as a sign to strengthen their faith. Every journey has a destination and pilgrimages guide people to very significant, renowned and holy places – places that bring the soul closer to God. What better place than Sant’Onofrio?  God is the true destination of any true pilgrimage to Sant’Onofrio. In this journey no one is alone. Pilgrims travel in the footsteps of others who have gone before them. They are inspired, strengthened and supported by the faith and devotion of others who have journeyed before them and with them on the same path. They are carried by the prayers of others living and deceased, by the forbearance and the friendship of those who are fellow travelers with them. The pilgrims who travel to Sant’Onofrio will by their holy witness be drawn nearer to a place of grace, where they might glimpse yet a new aspect of the face of God.

Regeneration, refreshment, and relaxation – these are three words that summarize the self-guided tour experience. Reading the book ahead of time plays an important part as well. The journey has a special purpose: to put aside whatever keeps us from God and to open ourselves to undergo a true conversion of heart and soul.

Would you like to explain which are the most representative artistic treasures, then share the names of the artists that are related to the history of this place?

Sant’Onofrio has an illustrious history that goes back to its construction in the late fifteenth century, a fascinating time that coincided with the High Renaissance. That was an exceptional period which produced some of the most magnificent works of art. This was especially the case in Rome, where Renaissance art flourished. The most prominent images in Sant’Onofrio are attributed to the famous architect and painter Baldassare Peruzzi. The few frescos attributed to him are seen in the center of the apse of the sanctuary, depicting scenes from the life of Mary. The image in the middle above the altar is of the Madonna and Child.

Inside Sant’Onofrio is found the final resting place of Torquato Tasso, the greatest bard (poet) of the Renaissance. His statue is by Canova. The chapel was renovated in 1857 during the pontificate of Pius IX. The massive tomb structure, found in a side chapel in the rear of the church, was made of Carrara marble and includes a carven statue of Tasso, looking to the heavens. Originally, Tasso had been entombed in the sanctuary of the church, as the plaque in the rear indicates with its Latin inscription, However, it was not until the nineteenth century that a fitting memorial tomb was created to hold the poet’s mortal remains.

Also famous at Sant’Onofrio is the outdoor Renaissance cloister attached to the church — a well-known attraction for its charming and peaceful atmosphere, even on a rainy day. It is topped by a portico-style gallery balcony, a sight sight to behold any time of the year. The architect is unknown.

The Torquato Tasso Museum (Museo Tassiano) also draws visitors, housed in the upper floor of the old monastery attached to the church. The museum, although small, contains some interesting artifacts related to Tasso’s life and death. Visitors enter by appointment only, to see the room where the poet passed away and to admire original items associated with his life.

In the book readers are reminded that Sant’Onofrio is forever a spiritual home in Rome – and a site worth visiting, located conveniently close to the Vatican. Indeed, the cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica can be seen from the attached convent and gardens, where a gentle breeze is sometimes felt amid colorful flowers in full bloom during the summer months. The author concludes by extending to everyone a personal invitation to visit Sant’Onofrio as pilgrims on their next trip to Rome, perhaps in conjunction with a leisurely stroll atop the Gianicolo Hill.

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