A visit to San Clemente, where Christianity's roots are centuries deep


ROME -- On the eve of William H. Keeler's elevation to the College of Cardinals, he and members of his flock paid homage to the last cardinal from Baltimore with a visit yesterday to an ancient basilica built on three layers of Christian history.

At the Church of San Clemente, a startling combination of grandeur and simplicity dating back to the First Century, there were emotional reminders of the late Cardinal Lawrence Shehan and his gentle rule of the first Catholic diocese of the United States.

A group of priests and lay people from Maryland and Pennsylvania who accompanied Cardinal-designate Keeler to Rome attended a morning Mass at San Clemente, which was Cardinal Shehan's "titular church," his honorary parish here.

The Shehan coat of arms with his motto, "Omnia in caritate" (Everything in Charity), adorns the marble floor of the church's sacristy, the renovation of which the Baltimore prelate financed shortly after he became a cardinal in 1965. Cardinal Shehan died in 1984.

Reading during the Mass from the basilica's lofty marble pulpit, Mary Elizabeth Sweeney, Cardinal Shehan's secretary for many years, told the congregation, "The dead were judged according to what they had done in their lives."

It was a passage from the Book of Revelation that evoked fond memories. Miss Sweeney recalled that she had been with him when he took possession of his titular church and was with him here again in 1977.

After the Mass, holding back tears, she spoke of his quiet ways and said, "When I came back here, it hit me. We became such good friends."

Cardinal Shehan's memorial in the sacristy, where Archbishop Keeler vested himself for his last Mass before today's Consistory, marked the passage of another generation in a church that has been a house of worship for 2,000 years.

In the First Century, it was the home of St. Clement, one of the Roman Catholic Church's earliest pontiffs. And even before that it was a temple for pagan rites.

Decades of archaeological digging 90 feet below the present street level have revealed haunting traces of a pre-Christian society.

Damp, dark and narrow passageways that were streets and alleys of Rome in the First Century lead to chambers used in Nero's time for the minting of coins, the storage of grain and the worship to the god Mithras. The Mithraic religion was brought to the Eternal City from Persia by Roman soldiers.

After yesterday's Mass, the Rev. Seamus Tuohy, the Irish Dominican priest who is the rector at San Clemente, led some of the Baltimore visitors on a subterranean tour down through time to the dawn of Christianity.

"We are standing on what was the street level in the First Century," Father Tuohy said outside a chamber with a low ceiling above a white Mithraic altar. "Mithraic was a very popular cult, known for having very high moral standards and an ethical code. . . . Later, Christians gained use of the buildings on this level."

And as time passed, the rooms were filled with soil and rubble and new structures rose atop them. By the Fourth Century, a Christian house of worship was on the site. Eventually, that church became the foundation of the present basilica.

In this vast underground are tombs containing relics of major saints -- Clement, a martyr and pope who was the third successor of St. Peter, and Cyril, known as the "Apostle of the Slavs." Their burials took place more than 1,000 years ago.

In the ancient underground are catacombs, marble vaults, herringbone brick floors and massive walls used to support the upper edifice.

The excavation at San Clemente continues. Numerous frescoes have been discovered. Sixth Century marble pavement, believed to be a processional route in the early church, was recently unearthed. And within the last two weeks, Father Tuohy said, workers discovered a large, marble baptistery, also from the Sixth Century.

The modest exterior of the basilica, rebuilt 800 to 900 years ago, hides treasures within -- glistening mosaics, frescoes, statuary and an ornately carved, gilded ceiling.

The marble pulpit is high enough to have made Archbishop Keeler joke that priests might need oxygen to use it.

After Father Tuohy opened the tall doors of the church, soft sunlight cascaded into the basilica from a splendid, 12th Century courtyard.

And on this clear, warm day of pilgrimage and homage, Italian school children gathered to sing a hymn. Their teacher encouraged them, and their little voices filled the church.

The old ghosts of San Clemente should have been delighted.

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