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It’s a story of a young man named Giovanni, a pope named Pius IX and a time when….well I’ll let Omar Guiterrez tell the story...(he’s the best kind of “storyteller” because his stories are exciting, poignant, compelling and…true)
An excerpt from Omar’s Regnum Novum post entitled “Giovanni and His Rome Beneath the Surface”:
It would behoove you to know that at this time in history, not too much unlike our own, the idea that the Catholic Church as we know it actually existed before the Middle Ages was an idea largely held to be ridiculous. Certainly there was a Christianity. But surely nothing like the Church of Rome. The scathing writing of the Enlightenment thinkers from the late 18th and throughout the 19th centuries had convinced most people that the priesthood, and much more so the papacy, was a Roman Catholic myth, invented to justify their inherently corrupting hold on power. Any notion from the average man that these existed before the stupefyingly dark ages of Medieval ignorance was mere pious idiocy. Even before this time, Martin Luther wrote, in his book titled Against the Roman Papacy Instituted by the Devil (catchy title no?),
I am content to be able to say, since I have seen it and heard it at Rome, that it is unknown where in the city the bodies of Saint Peter and Paul are located, or even whether they are there at all. Even the Pope and the cardinals know very well that they do not know.
Yet, in this world of legends and stories Giovanni lived in youthful and pious bliss. So it was that one fine Spring day in 1849, the same year that the Communist Manifesto was published, and at the ripe old age of 22, whilst the Roman birds sung their sweet songs of vernal joy to travelers on the ancient Appian road, Giovanni came across a piece of marble, which looked something very much like this:
Pieces of marble were constantly being found by farmers in the area. It is just a part of living in that world where history grows from the ground like the leaves of the acanthus plant that decorates the Mediterranean. This marble was probably dug up by the farmer attempting to ready his field for planting, and he tossed it toward the road. As fate – or should I say God’s good grace – would have it Giovanni, with all his peculiar knowledge, came across it on this day and at this hour. He examined the thing and began to wonder, as only a youthful lad can and does.
He recalled from his vast reading the legend of a Pope Cornelius who had been sentenced to exile by the new emperor Gallus. The emperor was a useless fellow, who had been put into power by the Roman army after the death of the Christian-hating Decius only to be killed by that same army two years later. Poor Pope Cornelius died in exile but was referred to in the martyrologies as not just a confessor but as a martyr. Furthermore, this Pope Cornelius, who reigned as the vicar of Christ from 251-253 was said to have been brought back to Rome and buried in the legendary Crypt of the Popes in the catacomb of St. Callistus. So perhaps, thought the youthful Italian lad, perhaps this is a marker for Pope Cornelius’ grave, which would mean that he’s buried in that field somewhere, which would mean that underneath lies not just the mythic Crypt of the Popes but also the original burial place of St. Cecilia, who was later moved to the Church in Trastevere that still bears her name, and all sorts of wonders within the famed – but never discovered – catacomb of St. Callistus. Yes, this was the reasoning of young Giovanni. This was the thought process of a young lad who had not lived long enough to know that silly dreams of an ancient Church were passé and never mentioned in polite company. These were the musings of a boy who dreamed to discover something true in an age of cynical doubting. And these were the notions that Giovanni Battista de Rossi took to Pope Pius IX.