Saintly, tormented yet breathtaking, is the Eternal City ready to welcome an exceptional pilgrimage?
They’re coming in numbers, large numbers. Their peaceful invasion of this tormented city has already begun. Troupes, led by flag bearers, clog up the streets of the city centre. Their coaches block the traffic and test the patience of local drivers. They are, of course, blameless pilgrims, the faithful, tourists and visitors here for the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. The coming year really will be extraordinary, but there is little cause for jubilation. It comes at a time of intertwined crises, each one worse than the next: the Vatican, Europe, the Mediterranean. At the centre of each is Rome.
Rome is a complicated city, and visitors need to understand where Rome begins and the Vatican City ends. The distinction may appear simple, but it is not. At the launch of the Jubilee of Mercy, Rome is a city without a mayor, governed by specially appointed commissioners who are now focussed on the emergency foisted upon them by the Holy See. Dozens of construction sites may be the bane of the pilgrims, but they represent what the Romans will inherit for their troubles.
In this ancient city, things have always been done this way: administrators pretend to govern ordinary life, but actually wait for extraordinary events (and the corresponding financial grants) and then focus on flashy projects. Catholics from foreign shores may be tempted to ask their tour guide about all the posters of faces pasted on the walls of the city. A short answer suffices: a new mayor is to be elected, full stop. The fate of the city’s most recent mayor, Ignazio Marino, and the role of Premier Matteo Renzi in his downfall are as unmentionable as they are incomprehensible. Both are part of an age-old political tradition in which the mayor is not the leader of the city, but rather the local reference point of the government’s majority. Only the Pope remains a constant because, as the Roman saying goes, “when one Pope dies, they make another”; but even this appears to be changing with the appointment of Pope Francis.
Rome is a city that has been left to its own devices. You could say that it only keeps moving due to inertia. No one is paying attention; no one is minding the store. Buses break down on the road and sometimes even catch fire. The underground system floods every time it rains. Storm drains are blocked, and road signs are non-existent or broken. Traffic reigns supreme, corruption is rampant and the Romans are fractious and restless. Pilgrims see all of these things; they cannot be hidden. They also see a great city, the centre of which is transforming into a kind of tourist fairground with little shops selling knick knacks, pizza joints that are here today, gone tomorrow, cafés selling coffee for four euros a cup, a disaster comparable to that of Venice. The naïve visitor will ask why the capital of this country has been allowed to fall so low.
Rome is a holy city and has always been a target for Islamist fanatics because, in their ignorance, they believe that it is mentioned in the Koran. In reality, the reference is to New Rome, or Constantinople, i.e. Istanbul, a city that was Islamised centuries ago. Metal detectors, long queues at Saint Peter’s Basilica and the soldiers standing guard outside serve only to provide the pilgrims with a sense of protection. At the end of the day, if fanatics want to blow themselves up, there’s little that can be done to stop them. Pope Francis has also done the right thing in resisting calls to cancel the Jubilee. We cannot allow our actions to be dictated by frenzied assassins, plus the Pope has a lot on the docket. For months, the Argentine Pontiff has been openly at war with the Roman Curia and needs this Jubilee in order to mobilize the laity. The future shape of the Church is at stake, an extremely delicate passage from an absolute monarchy to a Synodal system, the ecclesiastical form of parliamentarianism. Non-Catholics, who closely follow the project of this excellent priest, understand this, even if they don’t understand the plenary indulgences awarded to pilgrims that pass through the Porta Sancta of St.Peter’s Basilica.
Rome is a beautiful city. If one of the 20 million Jubilee pilgrims were to raise his glance from Saint Peter’s and look beyond, he would discover a rich city, the eternal capital, adorned with masterpieces of every genre, spread across each corner of an immense historical centre. You only need to look around. If you survive Roman traffic without being fleeced by taxi drivers, you can travel on foot or jump on the number 64 bus, where half of Europe’s pickpockets converge, or even on the underground metro, brushing past the muzzles of soldiers’ submachine guns. The curious visitor will discover monuments and artefacts to suit every taste and interest. This is a city that has been inhabited, without interruption, since the time of Romulus and Remus. The modern has been built on top of the old. The old has been built on top of the ancient. You need only to scratch the surface to find it. It would take a lifetime to get even a vague idea of the treasures not even partially hidden in this city.
Rome is inhabited by Romans. But in the end, even those who are not born Roman become Romanized. The pilgrim might recognise their personality traits from films and novels: standoffish, diffident, crafty, of few words and, above all, proud and cynical. The Romans have seen everything. They know everything. Nothing surprises them. They don’t want to be nice. If you detain them in conversation, they will brush you off with a piercing quip. But from their cynicism emerges an unexpected humanity. For millennia, locals and pilgrims have resided in two parallel worlds. The Jubilee year is not a good opportunity for the two to meet. They should probably wait for a better moment.