Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Our First Church in Italy

Just out the window of our 8th-floor apartment and over the top of the caving roofline next door formed from red-clay half-pipes, we can glimpse the upper half of the façade of what my guidebook says is the largest church in Venice, the Basilica of Sts. John and Paul. The guidebook is quick to explain that these are not the John and Paul, nor even John Paul, a pope, but instead they are an obscure pair of early martyrs. The church was conceived in the thirteenth century and begun in the fourteenth to provide the Dominicans a home base in Venice.

Fighting off jet lag in late afternoon while Katie was out grocery shopping, I decided to stretch myself and visit the basilica. Just then, Katie came in the door with bags of fresh produce from which she later made a dynamite dinner of spaghetti in pesto sauce with a salad topped by fresh strawberries. She readily dropped everything to see the basilica with me.

With a ticket window guarding against free entry inside the front door and crowd-control ropes enforcing the message, the basilica immediately says, Once a church, I am now a source of revenue. Yet there was no denying the immemorial smell of sanctity in the place, and I shelled out 5 euros for the two of us. In we went.

My second glance seemed to confirm the first: in the cavernous interior pews are set up only in the front 5 percent of the nave, before a high that is really a triumphal arch in the Roman style, where no light glows. I concluded that the Blessed Sacrament must not reside here, that this church truly was dead. My third glance showed an inordinate number of sarcophagi lining the walls of the nave, not to mention tombstones under my feet. A lot of rich people are buried and immured here. The guidebook explains that the basilica was the official burying place of the doges of Venice, and twenty-five of the city-state kings are here.

Passing side chapels, I noted that the information panels concern the paintings and sculpture seen in them, without reference to the chapels maybe having had a liturgical purpose at one time. So this church is now also a museum, I thought. What a pity.

Then I saw what seemed to be a foot.

You can see the foot at the top of this post. It is the foot of St. Catherine of Siena and it is here too. It looks a bit time-worn if also shellacked or otherwise chemically preserved. The big toe extends far above the others, like the forefinger of the Disney witch as she points threateningly at Snow White. Still, I spared a few minutes for St. Catherine's foot. How could I not? I know that St. Catherine's head is on display elsewhere—in Siena? I have not seen it—but here, in this revenue-generating former church, her foot stands out in a truly striking way. Others walked by without noticing it. Above the foot is a painting of St. Catherine from some mid-eighteenth-century Venetian school. One couple stopped to study the painting but didn't seem to recognize the foot as a foot. The guidebook mentions the painting, though not the foot.

I continued around the church from right to left, muttering about how the faith is all but disappearing from the country that was once its home and pausing to pray before a larger-than-life-size crucifix, the kind that always seemed gory to me when I was a Protestant kid but not now that I am a Catholic adult. Passing the main altar—no, no tabernacle light, it was true—and entering the left transept, I walked suddenly into The Rosary Chapel. And here again was something striking.

Three elderly women were huddled near the front saying the Rosary in Italian. I sat behind them and let the sound of their prayers sink in. Slowly my eyes closed and my head sank: jet lag. But I remained a few moments longer to hear them exchange parts on the next decade, the one who had led now responding to another.

I must admit, it hurts to see so many young people, so hip, so sophisticated, walking past this basilica without even glancing toward the door. It hurts to think that these three old ladies are the last of a dying breed. But they have not died, not yet anyway, and neither has the Basilica of Sts. John and Paul.

A tabernacle light glows in The Rosary Chapel. I genuflected and headed back to the apartment with Katie for supper.


  1. You know you are writing a book about your journey, right? This is so great, Webster, and I feel like I am walking with you two.....

  2. Thanks for the encouragement, Allison. If a book comes out of all this it will be beautiful, but right now I'm just trying to live each day as a pilgrimage. We'll see where it all leads.


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