The Pantheon stands at the center of Rome. It is one of the most ancient buildings left to us by the Roman Empire. It is a tribute to the genius of the ancient Romans and today a witness to the faith of the Christian world. The Pantheon was commissioned by Marcus Agrippa as a temple in honor of all the gods worshipped by the Romans. The very same building was rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian in 126 AD.
The Pantheon remains one of Rome’s most attractive and intriguing monuments. The beauty of the Pantheon continues to draw thousands of tourists each year. This great architectural wonder has survived for nearly 1,900 years. Neither the disasters of nature such as fires, floods, lightning and earthquakes nor the destructions caused by man in the barbarian invasions have been able to strip the Pantheon of its stark beauty.
In the seventh century, when the Byzantine Emperor Phocas gave the Pantheon to Pope Boniface IV, the Pope made it into a Christian Church. Legend says that the Pope brought twenty-eight cartloads of martyr's remains from the catacombs to the Pantheon for safekeeping. This was the reason why the Pantheon’s name was changed to St. Mary of the Martyrs.
The Pantheon is one of the finest examples of Roman architecture and engineering. Its dome remains the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome. The height to the
, that is, the opening at the very top of the roof, and the diameter of the interior circle are the same, 142 feet. Everyone looks up in wonder at the oculus. It is the most fascinating feature of the Pantheon. This “eye” (oulus) opens to the sky above and, when it rains, it lets the rain fall inside the Pantheon.
Every Pentecost, Romans, pilgrims and tourists crowd the Pantheon to attend Mass and to witness a 1400 year-old ritual. Firemen climb to the top of the Pantheon and wait. Once the celebration of Mass has ended, they empty their sacks of red petals through the oculus. The people below gaze in delight as the light from the oculus filters through the rose petals gently wafting from above. This fascinating ritual recalls the event of the first Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended on the Church with tongues of fire. The faithful see visually what they cannot touch tangibly: the Holy Spirit is given once again to the Church, bringing light and joy, fire and love to those who await his coming.
At the time of the first Pentecost, the disciples were observing the Jewish festival of Shavuot. During this period of the spring harvest, the Jews celebrate the day when, in wind and fire, God concluded the Covenant on Mt. Sinai by giving Moses the Torah (the Law). The Torah (the Law) draws Israel together as a community of faith. The Torah, a gift of grace, guarantees Israel’s existence as God’s people. So, too, does the Holy Spirit bring the Church into existence as the New People of God.
When the Holy Spirit comes down on the disciples, the Spirit brings to birth the Church. “What the soul is to the human body, the Holy Spirit is to the Body of Christ, which is the Church” (St. Augustine,
267, 4: PL 38, 1231D). The Spirit himself becomes the law within each member of the Church, the interior law of love that unites all. Thus, the Church becomes a new creation, a community open to all, able to speak to all the one gospel of truth and love. From her birth, the Church is catholic.
But what the Church is made by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Church must become in every age. “It was in one Spirit that all of us, whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, were baptized into one body. All of us have been given to drink of the one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13). The Holy Spirit impels us to break down the barriers that separate us from one another in our families, in our friendships, in our places of work, in the academe and in the halls of government.
As the Church born at Pentecost, we are called to the unity of truth and love that are the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, not just on the great feast of Pentecost, but every day, we do well to make our own the words of the sequence for Pentecost:
Come, O Holy Spirit, come! From Your bright and blissful home rays
of healing light impart.
Come, Father of the poor, Source of gifts that will endure, Light of
ev'ry human heart…
Cleanse our souls from sinful stain, Lave our dryness with Your rain,
Heal our wounds and mend our way.
Bend the stubborn heart and will, Melt the frozen, warm the chill,
Guide the steps that go astray.
In answer to our fervent prayer, the Holy Spirit always draws us into a deeper relationship with Christ. He brings us more fully into the communion that is the Church. Made up of men, women and children of all races and cultures, the Church herself becomes “a sign and instrument of the unity of the entire human race. Shaped by the Spirit to conform to Christ…believers become His witnesses, sowers of hope, agents of mercy and peace,” (Pope John Paul II,
Regina Coeli Message
, May 30, 2004). “Where the Church is, there also is God's Spirit; where God's Spirit is, there is the Church and every grace” (St. Irenaeus,
, 3, 24, 1: PG 7/1, 966). Thus, where the Church is, there is always an opening, a way for God to shed the beauty of his love on all.