Postcard from Rome, Italy: A literal definition of a marriage made in heaven

But bright Cecilia raised the wonder higher:
When to her organ vocal breath was given,
An angel heard, and straight appeared
Mistaking Earth for heaven.

“A Song for Saint Cecilia’s Day,” John Dryden, 1687

Music the fiercest grief can charm,
And fate’s severest rage disarm:
Music can soften pain to ease,
And make despair and madness please:
Our joys below it can improve,
And antedate the bliss above.
This the divine Cecilia found….

“Ode on Saint Cecilia’s Day,” Alexander Pope, 1708

Some time in the first or second century, the daughter of a wealthy family in Rome was betrothed to a young pagan. A Christian, Cecilia was dragging her feet about entering into the arranged marriage, fasting and pleading with God and the Virgin Mary to help her preserve her virginity. Definitely not the vow a prospective groom envisions.

As the musicians played at the feast celebrating the wedding, Cecilia stared upward, focused on serenading the heavens with the song in her heart. Valerian, the groom, was miraculously understanding when she explained her wedding night plans to him did not include consummation of their marriage.

Cecilia claimed she had an angel protecting her. A little suspicious, he asked for proof. She directed him to the third milestone on the Appian Way and to be baptized by Pope Urban I (died in 230). Valerian complied and, upon his return, saw her guardian angel with her, crowning her head with roses and lilies. In addition to his religious conversion, he accepted her vow of chastity.

Valerian’s enthusiasm was so great, his brother followed suit. Christianity was far from the official religion in Rome at the time, so Valerian and his brother busied themselves gathering the bodies of executed Christians and providing them with burials. This chore kept them quite occupied until their dedication attracted too much attention, and they themselves became martyrs.

Cecilia then threw herself more fervently into spreading the word, converting more than 400 pagans to the still somewhat new religion. Until…

… you know where this is leading, she attracted attention of those in power. But Cecilia’s angel did not let her succumb quickly to the efforts to dispose of her. First condemned to death by “spa,” she was locked in the baths with the heat and steam stoked up unbearably high. She emerged unfazed, so a more direct approach was taken.

Chop off her head. The executioner swung his axe three times. Despite profuse bleeding, her head remained in a semi-attached state. This afforded Cecilia time to make arrangements to distribute any remaining wealth to the poor and to donate her home in Trastevere for a church. Pope Urban I complied.

In the 800s, Pope Paschal I rebuilt the church. Desiring to locate Saint Cecilia’s remains and transfer them to her church, the pope searched the catacombs. After a vision, he finally located them and those of her husband and brother-in-law. Saint Cecilia’s original robes, blood-soaked, were at her feet; she was clothed in gold. All three bodies were moved to the church.

While the mosaic in the apse from that period survives, much remodeling followed. Fast forward to the 1500s, Cardinal Niccolo Sfrondrato (1535-1591), later becoming Pope Gregory XIV, was trying to confirm the location of the remains of Santa Cecilia.

Workers uncovered a marble coffin and opened it in front of the cardinal and, even more conveniently, sculptor Stefano Maderno (1576-1636). And there she was. Santa Cecilia incorrupta. The first Catholic saint recorded as emerging in this totally preserved state, further demonstrated by the fact that she had rolled over to a more comfortable position on her side.

Word spread like wildfire in Rome, and the cardinal was fortunate to escape being crushed by the crowds eager to view their patron saint of music, still cloaked in golden cloth. Maderno recorded this miracle by sculpting a realistic depiction of her body for the altar. But her actual body was reinterred elsewhere in the church.

The Mister is wise. A sign on the left side of the church offered entrance to the basement for a couple of euros, and he said, “Never turn down an invitation to visit the crypt.” And he proved so right.

Down underneath the church are ancient crypts and the remains of an old tannery, but then you stumble into a magical space. Arcades and walls covered with glittering mosaics heralding Saint Cecilia’s final resting place.

The Mister’s fingers seem to be gliding across his travel guitar’s strings more effortlessly ever since.

 

Postcard from Budapest, Hungary: Home for Saint Stephen’s holy dexter

The right hand of the blessed man was deservedly exempt from putrefaction because, always reflourishing from the flower of kindness, it was never empty from giving gifts to nourish the poor.

Bishop Hartvic, Life of King Stephen of Hungary, about 1116

Construction of the Basilica of Saint Stephen in Budapest took more than 50 years because the original dome over the facility designed to accommodate up to 8,500 worshippers completely collapsed in 1868. During the intervening years, the desired style evolved from neo-classical to neo-renaissance by the time the church was inaugurated by Emperor Franz Josef in 1906. The dome is the same height as that of Parliament, and no buildings in the historic center are allowed to tower above them.

Saint Stephen (975-1038) is celebrated as the first king of Hungary. His royal coronation was held on the first day of the second millennium, and the crown itself was a gift from Pope Sylvester II. King Stephen’s later sainthood was merited for his commitment to crush paganism in Hungary and for miracles credited to his right hand, the holy dexter.

The incorrupt hand was stolen at one point, recovered, hidden by nuns and finally returned and honored with a public procession in 1938 and enshrinement in a chapel in the basilica. The annual procession of the mummified dexter was ended abruptly by the communists in 1950. Since 1988, the church has been free to parade it through the streets annually on his day, August 20.

The crown presented to King Stephen served as the coronation crown for all subsequent kings of Hungary, but, like the dexter, spent some time in hiding. It and some of the royal jewels were spirited away for safekeeping in the United States during World War II. They remained locked in Fort Knox until returned to the Hungarians by an order of President Jimmy Carter in 1978. The crown and jewels are displayed in the House of Parliament.

Postcard from Puebla, Mexico: Mexico’s first charro bestows blessings on travelers

At first glance, he doesn’t look very good. But you have to know the backstory. He didn’t die yesterday.

Blessed Sebastian of Aparicio was 98 when he died and was buried, briefly, for six months. And that was more than four centuries ago.

Blessed Sebastian of Aparicio is among the group of saints, or in his case almost-saints, whose bodies have withstood the normal ravages of time. God chose to leave their bodies incorrupt, or intact, and they remain on display for the faithful.

While San Sebastian de Aparicio seems handsome for a 500-year-old man, in his youth his beauty caused great problems for him. He was so “comely,” according to the website Roman Catholic Saints, “wicked women frequently set snares for his purity.” The pious 31-year-old finally fled the lascivious ladies of Spain and settled in Puebla.

Blessed Sebastian de Aparicio began making ploughs and wagons for the primitive farmers he found there, and he plowed fields at no charge. So produce could be moved around the country, he set about building roads. This included a 466-mile stretch connecting Zacatecas, where there happened to be a lot of silver, to Mexico City. His farming, ranching and transportation endeavors made him wealthy.

Taking pity upon a young girl whose parents could afford to pay no dowry, Sebastian finally married at age 60. After her death at a young age, he entered a second “virginal marriage,” according to American Catholic. (Try to avoid falling prey to skepticism at this point.)

Finding himself a widower again, he distributed his worldly goods to the poor, funded a convent and entered the Franciscan order at age 72.

He died in 1600, and miracles attributed to him began to multiply and accumulate. He was beatified in 1787, but he’s still on the waitlist for sainthood after all this time.

If you are traveling through Puebla, you should make a pilgrimage to his shrine in the Church of San Francisco, particularly if you are from Texas. Although Blessed San Sebastian de Aparacio might not be canonized, he’s regarded as particularly helpful in granting miracles to travelers and was Mexico’s, which included Texas, first cowboy.