Far from the tourist crowds, the Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome is a haven of solitude. In a tree-shaded corner we found the grave of the poet John Keats, who died in 1821 at the age of 25. As he desired, no name is etched on his stone. “This grave contains all that was mortal of a young English poet,” the epitaph reads. “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”
Though Keats’ life ebbed as quickly as a ripple on a pond, his words endure. “A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” he wrote. “Its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness.”
There might be no better place than Rome, the “eternal city,” to consider the persistence of beauty and the brevity of life. Here the works of man have stood for 20 centuries. Towering over the ruins of pagan temples, the Colosseum, site of bloody spectacles, evokes brutal grandeur. At the Vatican, the masterworks of Rafael and Michelangelo bring biblical and classical scenes stunningly to life.
Like Keats, Rafael’s life was short, a mere 37 years. Michelangelo lived to be 88, but compared to the 2,000-year-old Pantheon, where Rafael is laid to rest, his name also was “writ in water.” As is every mortal name.
Some call the world’s great works of art “immortal.” We hope the poet was right that “a thing of beauty . . . will never pass into nothingness.” We also believe the power to create beauty extends beyond the Keatses and Rafaels of the world. Nor is this ability limited to physical things. Our acts of generosity and mercy will make the world more beautiful after we are gone.
The beauty that an artist creates may draw us closer to God. Or it might be a person whose words or actions bring a sense of divine presence.
So it was on Sunday, June 3, at the Vatican. Thousands gathered in St. Peter’s Square for Pope Francis’ weekly address. As noon approached, all eyes turned to a banner-draped window overlooking the square. The crowd cheered as the window opened and the man Catholics know as the Holy Father waved to the flock. Later we read an English summary of his remarks and learned that this was Corpus Christi Sunday. The feast of Corpus Christi, Francis said, is “a mystery of being drawn to Christ and transformed in him. . . . Jesus’ living presence in the Eucharist is like a door that is open . . . between faith and history, between the city of God and the city of man.”
In Rome, many doors between faith and history opened for us: the underground maze of tunnels in the Catacombs of Priscilla; a cross placed in the Colosseum by Pope Benedict XIV in the 18th century; Michelangelo’s finger-of-God creation of Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. But none warmed the heart like joining in the joyful reaction to the appearance of Francis, the 266th Bishop of Rome. The man who has called mercy “the beating heart of the gospel” holds a symbolic place in Christianity that transcends Catholicism. He spoke for about 15 minutes and recited the Angelus prayer, which “reminds us of how Jesus Christ assumed our human nature through the Mystery of the Incarnation.” Then the bells of St. Peter’s rang, and we became tourists again.