It was standing room only on Rome’s Palatine Hill when Cardinal John P. Foley took possession of his “titular” church Tuesday evening. Every new cardinal gets one, to underline their new connection with the Diocese of Rome.
The Church of St. Sebastian stands on a historical piece of real estate, next to the ruins of imperial residences and just a stone’s throw from the Colosseum. But it’s tiny, and the mostly Philadelphia crowd that packed the pews may have had less leg room than on their flight back home the next day.
The church was built on the spot where, according to tradition, St. Sebastian was beaten to death by the Roman emperor’s soldiers and his body thrown into a sewer. Earlier, the saint had been shot full of arrows by imperial archers — an event depicted in hundreds of paintings — but was nursed back to health by a Christian widow.
Cardinal Foley spoke movingly about St. Sebastian and the meaning of martyrdom in the modern age. Then, in typical fashion, he lightened things up a little.
The cardinal recalled celebrating Mass for the Swiss Guards, one of whose patron saints is St. Sebastian. He told the guards they had an important role as the Vatican’s point of contact with visitors. They should always respond kindly, he said, even though it could be tiresome to answer the same questions over and over, including some that seem rather obvious, like: Where is St. Peter’s Basilica?
Cardinal Foley said he knew how they felt. He recalled standing in St. Peter’s Square one day when a woman approached him, asking where the Sistine Chapel was. The cardinal pointed to a roofline and told her that to reach it she had to walk all around the Vatican walls.
“But this is worth seeing,” he said, pointing to the basilica.
“It’s not on my list,” she said, and walked away.
Such questions, the cardinal concluded, are “like St. Sebastian’s arrows — annoying but not fatal.”
PHOTO: Cardinal John P. Foley celebrates Mass at the Church of St. Sebastian on the Palatine in Rome Nov. 27. The church was symbolically placed under his care as part of his elevation to cardinal. A titular church in Rome is designated for each new cardinal. (CNS photo/Alessia Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)