When I return to Rome, I feel a foolish mixture of excitement and pride, as though the city belongs to me. Or rather, as though I belong to it. Every visit is a kind of homecoming. Like the fields and pastures of my father’s farm, its territory makes a claim on me. It reminds me that I belong to a family. If one of the Romans who speeds past me on the cobblestones, or grimaces as I order coffee, were to hear me say this, he would laugh in my face. But it is not my fault that he, and not I, was born in a magical city, whose very ground is (in the words of Pius V) inzuppata col sangue dei martiri, soaked with the blood of the martyrs like a piece of bread dipped in soup.
A full survey of Rome’s churches, shrines, and hospitals would constitute a summa of the Christian faith, with no doctrine neglected, no duty of love overlooked, no divine favour forgotten. It is a credo in stone, an ebenezer to the mighty works of God.
On my most recent visit, I bought a copy of Gregory Martin’s 1581 work Roma Sancta, a rapturous defence of the city against its Protestant critics. Writers such as Martin Luther and William Fulke believed that Rome had broken with primitive Christianity. Though such polemics have cooled in the last 500 years, this view is still common. Last year the Protestant philosopher James K.A. Smith wrote, “Anyone who’s actually read Augustine would have to conclude: he would be more at home at St Pierre’s in Geneva than St Peter’s in Rome.”
Martin counters such arguments by quoting patristic encomia to the city and praising the devoutness of the city’s Christians. “They are so ravished with devotion and sodenly touched with sweete compunction,” he writes, “that I was ashamed of my own hardnesse and coldnesse.” But Martin’s most important argument is historical. “Rome now is nothing degenerated from Rome in old tyme shuch as the fathers have described.” He contrasts the decay of pagan temples with the perdurance of the Catholic faith.
Where Protestants see rupture, Catholics assert continuity. Or so it has usually gone. In recent years, appeals to continuity have fallen out of vogue at the highest levels of the Church. Pope Francis’s favourites present him as a revolutionary, rather than a custodian of tradition. Take Fr Thomas Rosica’s claim that “Pope Francis breaks Catholic traditions whenever he wants … Our Church has indeed entered a new phase … it is openly ruled by an individual rather than by the authority of Scripture alone or even its own dictates of tradition plus Scripture.”
It is sobering to think that this statement, which has some justification, was meant as a compliment. Francis’s main attempt at breaking tradition is of course Amoris Laetitia, which muddies the clear teaching of Veritatis Splendor by using ambiguous language about grave sin. Some bishops have even suggested, in the wake of Amoris, that couples in what the Church calls “public and permanent adultery” can receive Communion.
At various colleges, chapels, and shrines, I have met young priests who believe that such a view cannot take hold. They say it breaks from the teaching of the Doctors of the Church and fails to appeal to the penitents they encounter in the confessional. They accept the words of St Paul, who told the Thessalonians to “stand fast; and hold the traditions which you have.”
Even amid attempts at revolution, Rome remains the same. Business at Gammarelli, the clerical tailor whose motto is “Nobilitas in Traditione”, is growing. Images of John Paul II are still the most prominent in many gift shops, despite efforts to undo his teaching. Crowds are still drawn to the relics of the martyrs and saints. No Roman Christian from 1518 or 518 would have trouble joining the men and women who visit the Madonna del Parto in Sant’Agostino to pray that God will bless them with children, and return to pin up pink or blue bows in thanks.
For those disturbed by the direction the Church has taken under Pope Francis, nothing is more reassuring than the fulfilment of one of Martin’s more eccentric predictions: “Thou shalt never see Rome without some Athanasius and Paulus.” Five centuries later, things are just as Martin said. Today there is an African bishop in Rome who maintains Catholic doctrine, even as others turn against it. Call him Athanasius. There is another bishop who has led an effort asking Peter (in the form of five dubia) to confirm his brethren in the faith. Call him Paul.
On my most recent visit to Rome, I saw both Athanasius and Paul. Whatever their own concerns about current events in the Church, they are confident that God will once again rescue and save his elect inheritance. So am I.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor at First Things and a Robert Novak journalism fellow
This article first appeared in the November 9 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here