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Rome Notes: May 1, a Study in Contrasts; the Cross, Then and Now

5/6/2005 - 6:00 AM PST

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Pope's Appearance Underscores a Day's Christian Meaning

By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, MAY 6, 2005 (Zenit) - After the rollercoaster of events last month, Rome has returned to semi-normality. Only a few posters bidding farewell to Pope John Paul II with phrases such as "Thank you, Holy Father" or "A Good Man" remind passers-by of the sorrowful days past.

Spring is a time of new beginnings. As our first sunny days bring hints of summer, so the first encounters with Benedict XVI have whet our appetites for more.

Sunday was the Holy Father's first appearance over St. Peter's Square for the Regina Caeli address. While some pilgrims traveled all night to be present, for the Romans, the brief appearance at the window is like an informal Sunday visit to a dear relative. Whether walking their dogs, riding their bikes or pushing baby carriages, they stop in the square, wave at the Pope, then leave.

On May 1, Rome saw her new Bishop in this familiar fashion. The Pope spoke from the same window as John Paul II, at the same time, noon, and the city fell back to its everyday "Gospel of work." In the Catholic calendar, May 1 marks the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, a reminder of the value of human work and the virtues associated with it.

On the other side of the city, by the Forum and Colosseum, Rome was also celebrating. The secular holiday was May Day, the European version of Labor Day. As the result of a strike, all monuments were closed, and only a paper sign tacked to the Colosseum door informed baffled tourists what was going on.

The dual memorials, on one hand a joyous celebration of Joseph the worker and on the other a last minute strike causing widespread dismay offered the chance to reflect on the nature of the two holidays.

May Day was established at the First Paris Congress of the Second Socialist International in 1889 as a way to protest in favor of the eight-hour workday for laborers. The date was chosen to remember the Haymarket Massacre of 1886 where laborers demanding better working conditions were killed.

Polish-born Rosa Luxembourg, a Marxist activist and author, dubbed "Red Rosa" for her ceaseless efforts in furthering Communism, wrote on the origins of the "happy idea of using a proletarian holiday celebration as a means to attain the eight-hour day."

She declared that "as long as the struggle of the workers against the bourgeoisie and the ruling class continues, as long as all demands are not met, May Day will be the yearly expression of these demands."

Result? Unannounced closings and frustrated visitors.

Recognizing the need to celebrate the working man (and woman), and attempting to veer this holiday away from its decidedly Communist origin, Pope Pius XII baptized the feast by establishing a day in honor of St. Joseph the worker. Last Sunday marked the 50th anniversary of the institution of this memorial.

On the first day of the month dedicated to Mary, Catholics now remember her hardworking husband as well as the father who taught Jesus the trade of carpentry. Pius XII stated that this feast should serve to enhance the "dignity of human labor" rather than "incite hatred and seek disputes," thereby separating the wheat from the chaff of May Day.

* * *

Relics of the Passion of the Christ

May 3 was once a great feast in Rome. For many years Romans celebrated the finding of the True Cross on this day. I went to visit the church that was built 1,600 years ago to house the Cross and commemorate this event.

The Church of the Holy Cross nestles right inside the Aurelian walls near the cathedral of St. John Lateran. The curving travertine facade forming a triumphal arch is a holdover from the Baroque era and gives the impression of a modern (by Rome standards) church. A second look reveals a Romanesque bell tower which speaks of a medieval presence. Only inside, among the massive granite columns or in the crypts does Santa Croce reveal its ancient origins.

The church was built in the fourth century by the Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine. Although her factual history is obscure, her story was charmingly narrated by Evelyn Waugh in his marvelous little novel "Helena." Waugh paints a colorful portrait of a strong-willed Englishwoman determined to prove the reality of Christ's crucifixion by finding the Cross. Against skepticism, deception and open opposition, she doggedly tracks down the Cross to bring it to Rome (stopping to cart off the Holy Stairs on the way).

Whether or not the circumstances were as described by Waugh, tradition holds that St. Helena found the Cross sometime around 325. On her own land, a stone's throw from St. John Lateran cathedral, the first Christian church built by her son in 313, she ordered that a shrine be made to ...

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