Fr. Stephen Huffstetter, SCJ, our general councilor in Rome, writes about a recent visit to the city’s main cemetery, Campo Verano. Approximately 20 SCJs are interred there, including two former general councilors. Fr. Steve writes:
Since my days of parish ministry in South Dakota I have developed great appreciation for visiting cemeteries. When our Vicar General, Carlos Enrique Caamano Martin, invited me to go along to Campo Verano, Rome’s main cemetery, I was delighted to accept, and wondered what I would find. When I asked at table if anyone famous was buried there, one of the Italians remarked that most of the famous people are buried in churches!
We traveled by the city’s light rail line, my first time aboard. The trip takes longer than the underground metro, but allows for a scenic tour of the city. We passed many diverse neighborhoods, monuments, museums and parks.
Our first stop was the Church of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura (outside the walls). The ancient church is much simpler than the gilded Baroque churches. There are of course beautiful pieces of art and mosaics. Here St. Lawrence was martyred by being roasted alive. A blood stained stone slab where his body was laid is preserved as a sign of his suffering and his faith. Near the altar was a picture depicting the grill he died upon. In addition to crucifixions, the authorities of the day were perversely cruel in their instruments of death.
Outside the church at the cemetery entrance were rows of flower stalls, where vendors offered visitors the opportunity to purchase a bouquet to honor their loved ones. Campo Verano is several miles across, a city in its own right. The size and scope of the artful statues, the chapels and mausoleums absolutely astounded me and exceeded every expectation. When I saw the monuments that were the size of small houses, the scripture passage that came to mind was of the man Jesus cured who was living among the tombs, because someone actually could in a place like this. Smaller spaces for graves ringed the outside wall, with ladders strategically placed so visitors could add flowers and decorations to the highest areas.
The first section we came upon had porticos and frescos as lovely as any I’ve seen. The cemetery goes back 200 years to the time of Napoleon. One large monument commemorated the Roman Jewish victims of the Nazi Deportation. While the cemetery does hold its share of people mentioned in history books, this is mainly about the everyday people of Rome, who built the city, made it work, lived and loved, dreamt and struggled and now lie in a state of eternal rest.
Carlos Enrique led the way to our mausoleum, which held a small altar in a glass enclosed room in front of a mosaic of the Good Shepherd. Two of our Superior Generals, Fr. Lellig and Fr. Govaart, are buried here, along with 17 others who have died at the Generalate.
We opened the glass doors in the front and climbed down a steep ladder, looking at the stone slabs marking the places of our beloved dead as we descended about 30 feet. While I was looking at the names and dates on the stones, Carlos Enrique snatched a broom from the corner and handed it to me. It then dawned on me that it was our responsibility to clean and tidy up, which I did with a joy and prayerful spirit. As St. Benedict was fond of saying, “Ora et Labora.”
When I was making my good-bye rounds in the US last July, I realized there would be some members of the province I might be seeing for the last time, and that has proved to be the case. One of the adjustments to life in Rome is missing the chance to be with community when we celebrate a funeral liturgy and celebrate and remember the life of those who have shared so much with us along the way. I pray for all who have gone before us and built the foundations for what we are now able to do.