Keeler's home away from home Church: Like all cardinals, Baltimore's William H. Keeler is assigned a "titular" church in the Rome area. Keeler's is a gem designed by Michelangelo -- the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri.

Sun Journal

July 05, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

ROME -- Cardinal William H. Keeler's flock might be in Baltimore, but his home away from home is here at a church called the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, St. Mary of the Angels and Martyrs.

Every cardinal, when he is elevated to the position of prince of the church, receives a "titular" church in Rome or its suburbs. According to local wisdom, American cardinals often received the most decrepit churches, those badly in need of painting and re-pointing, with exposed wiring and bad plumbing. The assumption was that the Americans could raise the most money for renovation.

But Keeler, when he was elevated in 1994, received a gem. The cavernous basilica, which was the model for Washington's Union Station, was designed by Michelangelo and incorporates elements of the ancient Baths of Diocletian that occupied the site before Christianity became the religion of Rome.

"I felt overwhelmed" at hearing he had been assigned to Santa Maria degli Angeli, Keeler says. "I had a sense of being very honored because it was a church I had a special attachment to since my days in Rome as a seminarian. When we lived downtown, we went out on walks every day. It was our form of exercise. From the first time I visited the church, I had a special appreciation for it."

Keeler visits Rome several times a year to meet with Pope John Paul II and to conduct business with the Vatican. "When I'm in Rome, I try to at least make a visit" to the basilica, he says. "I try to visit and celebrate a Sunday Mass at least once a year, and sometimes more."

When he was in Rome two weeks ago, he stopped in on a Thursday to celebrate an early morning Mass in a chapel off the sacristy.

If you would happen to catch Keeler there on a Sunday, you might not understand a word of his sermon. Keeler is fluent in Italian, and when in Rome, he speaks like a Roman.

Impressive structure

Santa Maria degli Angeli is impressive in a number of ways.

It is considered the Italian national church and contains the tombs of several national heroes. It is common to see men in military uniform pausing from their daily routines to pray silently before the ornate altar. "The [Italian] soldiers who were killed in Somalia, they had their state funerals there," Keeler says.

When the legendary film director Federico Fellini died in 1993, it was here that thousands came to pay their last respects at his funeral Mass.

The basilica is also a center for music and other cultural events. This past Easter, there was a concert with a full orchestra and the Spanish tenor Jose Carreras. In November, when Keeler was in Rome to participate in the Synod for the Americas, he took part in a ceremony that bestowed awards on standouts in the arts and sciences.

"What struck me was the way the church is trying to call forward people of quality and show its support for their professional work," Keeler says.

At the same time, the basilica is a normal parish with the requisite activities, such as religious education and marriage preparation, for its parishioners. In addition, Santa Maria degli Angeli is home to members of three ethnic communities living in Rome, who come to the church for services in their native languages: the Chinese community, Latin Americans and the Chaldean Christian community from Iraq.

That Santa Maria degli Angeli is built from the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian, the largest of the baths of Rome, is apparent from the moment one faces its entrance off the busy Piazza della Repubblica, near Rome's main train station. The semicircular apse of one of the three buildings that formed the baths has been converted into the entrance of the church.

The construction of the baths was begun in A.D. 298 under the emperors Maximian and Diocletian. According to tradition, the labor of 40,000 Christian slaves was used to complete the mammoth complex, which covered an area of 1,230 feet by 1,200 feet and could accommodate 3,000 people. Construction took about eight years.

The baths were a center for exercise, leisure and socializing, and they were filled with paintings, sculptures, libraries and concert halls. They featured three large pools: the calidarium, or hot-water bath, which faced southwest to get the maximum benefit from the sun, but also used huge furnaces and boilers to heat the water; the tepidarium, in the middle; and the frigidarium, or cold-water pool.

From the ruins

With the fall of the Roman Empire, the baths fell into disrepair and ruin. In 1561, a Sicilian priest had a vision of angels rising from the ruins of the baths, and he persuaded Pope Pius IV to build a church to honor the memory of the 40,000 Christians whose sweat and toil went into the construction of the pagan ruin.

Pope Pius prevailed upon the 86-year-old Michelangelo to take on the task of converting the profane into the sacred, transforming the central hall of the frigidarium into a church. Michelangelo worked on the project until shortly before his death.

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