05 March 2017

Encounters in Rome with the diplomat,
the duchess and the Homeless Jesus

A week close to the Vatican allowed walks through Saint Peter’s Square a few times each day (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Some of the Dublin and Glendalough diocesan clergy recently visited Rome. But I knew I was about to move to the Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe and missed out on that visit. It was strange then that before my move to the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes, I decided to have my own short but intense pilgrimage to Rome, visiting churches, going for long walks, and taking some time off to reflect.

This must have been my tenth visit to Italy, but it was over ten years since I had been to Rome, and this was, perhaps, only my fourth or fifth visit to the ‘Eternal City.’ I was staying at the Hotel Franklin in the Prati district, just a few steps from the Vatican, so that I strolled through Saint Peter’s Square a few times each day, morning an evening.

William Maziere Brady ‘Crossed the Tiber’ and was buried in Rome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

‘Crossing the Tiber’ is a phrase used since the 19th century to describe the action of Anglicans, particularly Anglo-Catholic, who joined the Roman Catholic Church. The church historian William Maziere Brady (1825-1894) was one of the best-known Irish-born Anglo-Catholics to ‘Cross the Tiber.’

Brady was a son of Sir Nicholas Brady, Lord Mayor of Dublin, and was a curate in Co Kildare, Co Limerick, and Co Dublin, and a rector in Co Cork, before he went to Rome to carry out research in the Vatican archives.

There he joined the Roman Catholic Church and later became a private chamberlain to both Pope Pius IX and Pope Leo XIII. When he died in Rome two days after Saint Patrick’s Day, on 19 March 1894, he was buried in the Campo Verano, and his grave is marked with a white marble Irish cross.

‘The Homeless Jesus’ in Rome

Santa Maria in Trastevere … a favourite church in Rome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

In a very different way, Crossing the Tiber was a regular exercise on this visit to Rome, moving from the Vatican side of the river to the classical and historic centres of the Italian capital, and back again for meals in Trastevere, with its maze of narrow cobbled backstreets, alleys and squares, visiting churches linked with the Community of San Egidio, or sitting in cafés and simply watching people passing by.

But there was no escape in Rome that week from reminders of the housing and homeless crisis in Dublin. People from every age group can be seen begging on almost every street corner, and not just in the areas seen as tourist traps. Homeless couples and individuals walk the streets, and clusters of homeless people gather on the steps of many churches.

The ‘Homeless Jesus’ project by the Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz provided an interesting link between Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and the homeless crises in both Dublin and Rome.

One of the most photographed features at Christ Church Cathedral is his large bronze statue of the ‘Homeless Jesus.’ Timothy Schmalz has been creating large-scale sculptures for almost three decades, and describes many of his works as visual translations of the Bible. He quotes Saint Gregory the Great, who said that ‘art is for the illiterate,’ an effective way of educating the general population.

The original sculpture of the ‘Homeless Jesus’ showing Christ as a homeless person and sleeping on a park bench was installed in Toronto in early 2013. Since then, similar casts have been installed at churches and cathedrals throughout Canada and the US.

His first sculpture outside North America was installed at Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, in 2015. Christ is shown lying on a park bench, his body almost entirely covered by a thin blanket, his face shrouded. The only indication that this is the Crucified Christ is his feet poking out under the blanket, bearing the marks of his Crucifixion.

Sculpture as Prayer

‘I was ill and you visited me’ … a sculpture by Timothy Schmalz on the steps of Santo Spirito Hospital near the Vatican (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The artist decided to depict Christ like this after seeing a homeless person sleeping on a bench one Christmas. ‘That is Jesus. That is how we should perceive the least among us in our heart,’ he has written. At the start of Holy Week last year, a bronze sculpture of the ‘Homeless Jesus’ was also placed in a courtyard in the Vatican, at the entrance to the Office of Papal Charities.

In Rome, I visited two similar statues by Timothy Schmalz at the entrance to Santo Spirito Hospital on the banks of the River Tiber, close to the main entrance to the Vatican.

The Church of Santo Spirito in Sassia was first built by King Ine of Wessex, who died in Rome in 728 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The hospital attached to the Church of Santo Spirito in Sassia is the oldest in Rome and was founded by Pope Innocent III (1198-1216). In his dream, the Pope saw an angel who showed him the bodies of Rome’s unwanted babies dredged up from the River Tiber in fishing nets. As a result, the Pope decided to build a hospital for paupers.

In the Middle Ages, unwanted infants were passed into the hospital through a revolving, barrel-like door, the rota. When Martin Luther visited the hospital in 1511, he was shocked by what he saw. But he exaggerated the reports he heard and claimed the unwanted babies were the Pope’s own children.

It was the sort of exaggeration and misinterpretation that would shape Luther’s preconceptions in the run-up to the events in 1517 that sparked the Reformation.

After the sack of Rome in 1527, the church was rebuilt in 1538-1544 and the hospital survives to this day, continuing to care for the poor and the homeless.

Timothy Schmalz believes ‘Christian sculpture acts for many as a gateway into the Gospels and the viewer’s own spirituality.’ The artist says: ‘I describe my sculptures as being visual prayers.’

‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink’ … a second sculpture by Timothy Schmalz (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

One of his statues outside Santo Spirito Hospital depicts Christ as an impoverished patient lying on a makeshift bed on the steps of the hospital. The words beneath him read: ‘Ero malato e mi avete visitato. I was ill and you visited me’ (Matthew 25: 36).

A year ago, in March 2016, he donated a second bronze statue on the same steps, showing ‘Christ the Beggar’ sitting nearby, with the words: ‘Ha avuto fame e mi avete dato da mangiare, ho avuto sete e mi avete dato da bere. I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink’ (Matthew 25: 35).

The bowl and cup in front of ‘Christ the Beggar’ could be a chalice and paten. True Communion with Christ is giving food and drink to those who hunger and thirst.

Churches and synagogues

The Great Synagogue serves one of the oldest Jewish communities in Europe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

During that week in Rome, I visited the Coliseum and the Forum, the Trevi Fountain and the Piazza Navona, the Ghetto and the Great Synagogue, which serves one of the oldest Jewish communities in Europe.

Saint John Lateran is the cathedral of the Pope as Bishop of Rome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

I also visited some of my favourite churches, including Santa Maria in Trastevere, which is closely linked with the Community of San Egidio; the neighbouring church of Santa Maria della Scala, also in Trastevere; the Chiesa Nuova or Church of Santa Maria in Vallicella, which is associated with Saint Philip Neri; Saint John Lateran, the church where the Pope has his cathedra as Bishop of Rome; Saint Mary Major, also a Papal basilica; the Pantheon; and San Clemente, linked with the Irish Dominicans.

In the mediaeval cloisters of Saint John Lateran (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Saint Mary Major is one of the designated Papal basilicas in Rome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

But I also did some of the normal ‘tourist things’ too during that week too.

Babington’s English Tea Rooms is a traditional English tea shop beside the Spanish Steps, the 135-step staircase built in the 1720s and leading up to the Trinità dei Monti church.

The Spanish Steps … the 135 steps lead from the Spanish Embassy to the Trinità dei Monti church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The diplomat and the duchess

Babington’s Tea Rooms … a reminder of an Irish diplomat and an American duchess (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Visiting Babington’s Tea Rooms led me to the story of yet another Irish man who made his career in Rome. William James Babington Macaulay (1892-1964) was the Irish Ambassador to the Vatican from 1933 to 1940.

Some sources say Macaulay was born in Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin, but his obituary in the New York Times and other newspapers in the US in 1964 say he was born in Co Limerick. He was educated privately, attended the Sorbonne in Paris, and was in the Royal Naval Reserve during World War I. He was a member of the British Civil Service in Inland Revenue, but after the Irish Free State was formed in 1922 he joined the Irish diplomatic service.

He worked in the Irish Legation in Washington from 1925 until 1930, when he became the first Irish Consul General in New York. He moved to Rome in 1933.

In 1937, Macaulay married Duchess Genevieve (Garvan) Brady, a wealthy American widow. Her first husband, Nicholas Frederic Brady (1878-1930), was not related to Sir Nicholas Brady, whose son ‘Crossed the Tiber.’ Instead, he was a New York businessman and philanthropist who held several papal honours, including being a papal duke.

Nicholas Brady’s business interests included brand names such as Edison, Westinghouse, Union Carbide and Chrysler. He married Genevieve Garvan, and the couple had no children. A devout Roman Catholic, she was a Dame of the Order of Malta, a Dame of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, and held many other Papal honours.

Nicholas Brady was the second American to be named a Papal Chamberlain. In 1926, Pope Pius XI made him a Papal Duke ad personam, meaning the title was not hereditary, and Genevieve was also made a papal duchess in her own right.

In the courtyard of San Clemente, linked with the Irish Dominicans (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The papal duke and duchess lived at 910 Fifth Avenue, New York, but they also built a large mock Tudor Elizabethan mansion on Long Island estate. It was completed by 1920 and they named it ‘Inisfada’ – an Irish-language pun on ‘Long Island.’ But they also lived for part of the year at Casa del Sol, their villa on the Janiculum Hill, between Trastevere and the Vatican. There they entertained senior Vatican officials, including Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, later Pope Pius XII.

Nicholas Brady died in 1930, and his widow continued to divide her time between the Casa del Sol and Inisfada. In 1934, she met the Irish Ambassador to the Vatican, William James Babington Macaulay, in Rome. They were married three years later in 1937 in Manhattan, with Cardinal Francis Spellman officiating at the wedding.

Generous bequests

The Pantheon … an ancient church that was once a Roman temple (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

But Genevieve died in Rome in 1938. She left a large fortune to the American Jesuits and left her second husband $1 million outright along with the furnishings of their Roman villa. The Jesuits used Inisfada as a retreat house until it was sold and demolished in controversial circumstances in 2013.

When William James Babington Macaulay retired from the Irish diplomatic service, he became a US citizen in 1944. He lived in retirement in Essex, Connecticut, was an active yachtsman, and travelled widely. In 1958, he donated $60,000 to Eamon de Valera to establish a foundation to assist young Irish painters, writers, sculptors, dramatists and musicians.

William Babington Macaulay later returned to live in Italy and died in Florence in 1964; he was 71.

In the narrow cobbled streets and alleys in Trastevere (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford blogs at www.patrickcomerford.com . This feature was first published in the March 2017 editions of the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough) and the ‘Diocesan Magazine’ (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory).

The Coliseum at night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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