Monday, May 1, 2017

Francesco on the island

Today's photos:

1. This photo of the Tiber Island shows all the places mentioned in this post: the large Fatebenefratelli hospital (behind the pine trees), part of the bell tower and façade of the Basilica of St. Bartholomew (in the right background) and the Jewish Synagogue (rising above the trees to the left).

2. The façade and bell tower of the basilica.

3. A view of the interior of the basilica.

4. A close-up of the main altar which consists of an ancient Roman sarcophagus covered by a marble slab. The remains of St. Bartholomew are contained inside the sarcophagus.

5. Pope Francis delivers the homily during the ceremony.

6. The Pope prays in front of one of the side altars dedicated to the martyrs.

Following in the footsteps of three of his recent predecessors, Pope Francis, on Saturday, April 22, set foot on the Tiber Island. His primary purpose was to visit the Basilica of St. Bartholomew for a ceremony recalling the modern Christian martyrs. Usually, these papal visits are made to parish churches and involve the pastor and parishioners directly. This Pope, as everybody knows, likes the personal contact with the people.

A curiosity

The first Pope to visit this island-church in modern times was John XXIII who "stopped by" unexpectedly and unofficially on August 24, 1960, the feast day of St. Bartholomew. In 1981, John Paul II came to the island to visit the Fatebenefratelli hospital just across the street from the basilica. The most recent papal visit to the basilica was by Benedict XVI who came calling on April 7, 2008.

Although the Basilica of St. Bartholomew is not a parish church, it holds a special place in the heart of Pope Francis for several reasons. The first is because this basilica was designated by John Paul II in 2000 as a permanent memorial of the modern Christian martyrs. Pope Francis has often called our attention to the fact that there are more martyrs for Christ today than during the persecutions in the early years of the Church.

A second reason for this visit is that in 1994, John Paul II gave the administration of this church to the Community of St. Egidio, a Catholic lay organization which, among other ministries, works to aid the poor, the homeless and, most recently, the immigrants who are fleeing the poverty and wars in their countries. This, too, is a favorite topic of Pope Francis.

Yet another reason for this papal visit is to reinforce the close relationship of this basilica, and the Tiber Island in general, to the Jewish community of Rome. The Jewish Ghetto (neighborhood), with its historic synagogue, is just across the river from the island. Hundreds of Jews were saved from deportation during WWII by being hidden in the crypt of the Basilica of St. Bartholomew and in the Catholic Fatebenefratelli hospital.

The ceremony inside the basilica, carried live on television, was both impressive and sober. There were scripture readings followed by the homily of the Pope. Names of dozens of the martyrs were read aloud and as each name was called out, a representative of that martyr walked into the sanctuary and placed a lighted candle into a candelabrum. Pope Francis then walked to each of the six side chapels which are dedicated to specific martyrs. At each one he lit a candle which was then placed on the altar of the chapel.

The island and its basilica are very special to me because of the research I did while writing my guidebook: Tiber Island and the Basilica of Saint Bartholomew. If you have read the book, I encourage you to re-read at least the parts which deal with the subject matter of this post and which go into much more detail and have many more photos. If you don't have the book, I recommend that you get it. You will not be disappointed! For information on how to obtain it, you can contact me at, or see the post on this blog dated December 1, 2016.


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