Recently, my wife and I had the great pleasure of going to Rome. The primary reason for the trip was business (she attended a conference at the Urbaniana), but we also made of it a 10th anniversary celebration and a pilgrimage. God gave so much to us leading up to our travels, during our time in Rome, and since coming back; I simply cannot say how great His grace is (for I do not know) and I cannot express the experience of receiving all these graces throughout these many weeks. For this All Souls’ Day, however, there is one particular part of the trip I would like to share: walking through the Capuchin crypt at the Church of the Immaculate Conception just off Piazza Barberini.
A few hundred years ago the Capuchin cemetery was dug up and the remains were used to decorate the crypt under the church. The crypt consists of a passageway with about six rooms along it. Each room has niches made not of stone or wood, but of bones. Within each niche is a full skeleton of a Capuchin friar clothed in the Capuchin habit. The walls and ceilings are decorated with bones in floral patterns. The light fixtures are also made of bone, hanging from the ceiling with a base in the shape of an eight-pointed star signifying our Mother to whom the church is dedicated. Instead of little cherub heads with wings there are skulls with shoulder blades (I think) used as wings.
It all sounds very macabre, especially to American ears. And when we look at pictures such as the ones below, it all looks very macabre to American eyes. It is radically different and expressive of a Catholicism unlike that in the United States. It was precisely for this reason that I absolutely had to see it. It is so thoroughly Catholic, a Catholicism that Americans are unfamiliar with. I want to experience the full breath and depth of Catholic life and devotion, especially what is so very strange or even abhorrent from the perspective of my particular culture. What I discovered is that it wasn’t macabre at all. Being in the crypt, walking down the passageway and stopping at each room was one of the most moving experiences I had in Rome. It was a journey of prayer, stopping to pray at each room and meditating on the mystery of death and resurrection, meditating on the mystery of our being body and soul and the connection between the two even in their separation.
It was also slightly nauseating, but that’s a good thing. Death is not a comfortable subject for us. We say many beautiful sounding things concerning death, death in Christ, and heavenly glory, but will we find it so beautiful when it’s happening to us? The exposed remains make us confront death, the death of our loved ones, our own impending death, and the mystery of death. Christ is God made man and in Him we are man made divine. The mystery of death is transcendentally divine and putridly human. The Capuchin crypt reminds us of both and honors the dead in doing so.
A happy All Souls’ Day to you all. May the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace, and may perpetual light shine upon them. Amen.