Italian Heritage: September 2006 Archives

Michaelmas Day

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Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Apocalypse 12: 7-12ab
Psalm 137:1-2ab, 2cde-3, 4-5
John 1:45-51

Angels Everywhere

One of the most striking things about Rome’s churches — and about Italian churches in general — is that they are full of representations of the angels. American churches in contrast, especially those built in the last fifty years, are strangely devoid of angelic imagery. In Italian churches there are angels everywhere: all sorts of angels. There are majestic angels of graceful athletic appearance, angels in splendid apparel playing musical instruments, and playful little angels with fat cheeks and chubby legs. In Italian churches, one is always conscious of praising God in conspectu angelorum, “in the sight of the angels” (Ps 137:1).

The Angels at Santa Croce in Gerusalemme

In the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, the angels are associated with the mystery of the Cross. The glorious Cross is depicted throughout the basilica and around it there are always angels — jubilant, praising, adoring, wondering angels! There is a theology in this iconography of the Cross. The mystery of the Cross astonishes even the angels. The mystery of the Cross casts them into a state of unspeakable amazement. They look upon the wood of the Cross and praise the “secret and hidden wisdom of God” (1 Cor 2:7). They look upon the wood of the Cross and adore the Precious Blood that stains it. They look upon the wood of the Cross and confess it as mankind’s only hope. O Crux, ave, spes unica! One cannot visit Jerusalem in Rome, the Basilica of Santa Croce, without realizing that the mystery of the Cross has become the everlasting joy of the angels.


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Celebrating today's feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, the Addolorata, brought me back to the church of my Italian great–grandmother, Donna Emma Onoratelli, in Sepicciano (Campania). I have had the privilege of celebrating Holy Mass there on numerous occasions. My dear cousins Carlo de Lellis, his wife Nora, and their children Ettore and Sissi now live in the palazzo Onoratelli just a few steps from the church. Whenever I visit them, they insist that I consider it my home too.

The church was built in 1742 as a private family chapel by my forbear the Marchese Don Clemente Onoratelli in fulfillment of a vow made to Saint Michael the Archangel. It contains an extraordinarily expressive statue of the Sorrowful Mother commissioned by the family. The ladies of the family considered it an honour to provide the Madonna with an exquisite black dress, mourning veil, and jewelry. In her hand she holds a delicate white handkerchief edged in lace. Unfortunately, I do not have a photograph of the statue. There are still many like it throughout the former Kingdom of Naples, in spite of the fact that unscrupulous antique dealers prize them as collection pieces!

From my father's side of the family, the Gilbrides from County Leitrim, I inherited a splendid little Irish prayerbook printed in Middle Abbey Street, Dublin, in 1860. It contains A Devout Exercise in Honour of the Sorrowful Heart of Mary in the form of short meditations on the Seven Sorrows, a Prayer to the Blessed Virgin in her Desolation, and A Short Method of saying the Rosary of the Dolours of the B.V.M.

There is evidence of a tradition of devotion to the Mother of Sorrows on both sides of the family tree. I pray that it may continue from generation to generation. "Sow for yourselves righteousness, reap the fruit of steadfast love; break up your fallow ground, for it is time to seek the Lord, that he may come and rain salvation upon you" (Hos 10:12).

About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

Donations for Silverstream Priory