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History

“The Oratorio of San Francesco Saverio “del Caravita” was built between 1631 and 1633 under the direction of the Jesuit Priest Pietro Gravita originally from Terni, and financed by a number of noble families who resided in that neighbourhood near the Pantheon– the “Rione Pigna.”

Ten things you didn’t know about Caravita

The church of Caravita is tucked down a quiet street off Rome’s main shopping area, via del Corso, and is five minutes away from the Pantheon. It is a church rich in history and with its roots in charity and closeness to the poor and vulnerable.

Here are ten things you may not know about Caravita:

  1. The Oratorio of San Francesco Saverio ‘del Caravita’ was built between 1631 and 1633.
  2. Romans had difficulty pronouncing the name of the Jesuit priest, Pietro Gravita, who built the church and called him ‘Caravita’, which became the adopted name of the church.
  3. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart performed on the organ at Caravita in 1770.
  4. Caravita’s mission was consistent with the pastoral strategy of the Jesuits’ Founder, Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Ignatius and the early Jesuits were in the heart of the city, caring for the poor and victims of the plague, as well as ministering to prostitutes and steering them into houses of reformation.
  5. Caravita is mentioned in two ironic sonnets composed by Roman poet Giuseppe Gioachino Belli: ‘L’ineggno dell’Omo‘ written in dialect (Romanesco) and ‘Li frateli Mantelloni‘ (1832).
  6. A covered bridge still connects the old Roman College to Caravita in Via del Collegio Romano. Built in 1716 to allow easy access for the Jesuit professors from the Palazzo of the Collegio Romano to Caravita, it was known as the ‘Arch of the Jesuits’ (‘Arco dei Gesuiti.’).
  7. In times past, the Oratory housed nine different lay congregations including the first to admit women.
  8. During the Papal suppression of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) from 1773 to 1814, Caravita was briefly occupied by the Fathers of the Holy Faith (later called ‘Fathers of the Faith of Jesus’) who attempted to revive the Ignatian vision and Jesuit mission strategy in the absence of Jesuits who were no longer able to fulfil that task.
  9. Caravita opened its doors for its first mass in English on 15th October 2000.
  10. From the beginning Caravita has welcomed people from different faiths, people who have been away from the church and prominent figures from Rome’s religious and diplomatic communities. The community is ‘Catholic’ in its purest sense – universal and all-embracing.

Full History

Beginnings

“The Oratorio of San Francesco Saverio “del Caravita” was built between 1631 and 1633 under the direction of the Jesuit Priest Pietro Gravita originally from Terni, and financed by a number of noble families who resided in that neighbourhood near the Pantheon– the “Rione Pigna.”

Construction was inaugurated on 8th September 1631 and blessed by Bishop Emilio Altieri, an alumnus of the Roman College, who served as Bishop of Camerino in the Marche from 1627-1654. Altieri was later made a cardinal by Clement IX, and in 1670 was elected Pope, taking the name of Clement X. Work on the building began immediately and proceeded under Gravita’s leadership. Seventeenth century Romans, however, apparently had difficulty in pronouncing the name of Gravita and it soon became Caravita. When Gravita died in 1658, the Oratory took on his adopted name. In its earlier years it had been commonly called the “Santissima Comunione Generale” or the “Holy General Communion” – the name of the lay congregations that met there. It is significant in that Caravita is the first nocturnal Oratory in the City of Rome.

The Lay Congregations

After their schools, the Jesuits had probably no more effective medium for direct contact with large groups of people than through the confraternities and associations formed for the cultivation of a deeper spiritual life among the laity. From the earliest days of the Society these organizations sprang up in town after town. A striking characteristic of these congregations was the emphasis on a deeply interior and intense Christian life. While specific details varied, the rules stressed frequent Holy Communion, meditation, and examination of conscience. A second trait was the strong apostolic orientation pointing to works of charity among the poor, the sick, the uneducated, the social outcasts. A third mark was the broad spectrum of people these congregations embraced: lawyers, artisans, youth, aristocrats, magistrates, and other specialized groups. The congregations that regularly met at Caravita would come to reflect such diversity.

Of that broad spectrum and great variety, however, one especially had a magnetic appeal for the youth in Jesuit schools: the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In 1563, a young Belgian Jesuit at the Roman College, Jean Leunis, began gathering regularly in the classroom with some of his students for a brief period of prayer and spiritual reading. Leunis then organised an association in which the young men, under the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary, promised to follow a programme of prayer, sacramental life, and practical charity. The idealism of Leunis’ enterprise was contagious, and thirteen years later throughout the Jesuit schools, there were more than thirty thousand young people dedicated to life of more than ordinary holiness in the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was the Jesuit Superior General Claudio Aquaviva who obtained canonical recognition of the Sodality by the Holy See. In 1584 Pope Gregory XIII (Ugo Boncompagni) from whom the Pontifical Gregorian University takes its name, ratified the Sodality of the Roman College as the primary unit – the Prima Primaria — to which all other sodalities were to be affiliated, thus creating a world-wide organism which by its intense interior life and apostolic charity provided a richer spiritual life for thousands. During the two hundred years after the canonical erection of 1584, about 2,500 separate sodalities were affiliated with that of the Roman College. The “Rules for the Congregation of the Prima Primaria of the Collegio Romano” were eventually published in 1811.

Thus, Caravita was to be the centre of the Jesuit-sponsored lay congregations devoted to the “general Communion” – the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary among them — to promote the practice of frequent Communion through Eucharistic processions in the piazzas of Rome. The Oratory housed nine different lay congregations including the first to admit women. Prior to the construction of Caravita those lay groups always met within a Jesuit residence – a cloistered area where women were not allowed to enter. Now housed in a public Oratory, a women’s congregation was possible. Each congregation had its own meeting space within the building where they would gather separately, but on Friday evenings all nine groups would come together in the Oratory itself for communal devotions and Jesuit-led formation. Members of those congregations went forth from Caravita to serve Rome’s homeless, imprisoned, and sick poor, and then returned to the Oratory for common prayer and spiritual direction from the Jesuits of the Roman College just across the street. Even today, one finds a covered bridge connecting the old Roman College to Caravita in Via del Collegio Romano. Built in 1716 to allow easy access for the Jesuit professors from the Palazzo of the Collegio Romano to Caravita, it was known as the “Arch of the Jesuits” (“Arco dei Gesuiti.”)

Caravita’s mission was consistent with the pastoral strategy of the Jesuits’ Founder, Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Whereas monasteries and convents of monks and nuns were in the countryside, Ignatius and the early Jesuits were in the heart of the city, where alongside the elegant palazzi of Rome’s nobility, there was suffering and need. It was here that Ignatius developed a strategic programme for Jesuit ministries: hearing confessions, preaching, teaching, but also caring for the poor and victims of the plague, as well as ministering to prostitutes and steering them into houses of reformation. During the Papal suppression of the Society of Jesus from 1773 to 1814, Caravita was briefly occupied by the Fathers of the Holy Faith (later called “Fathers of the Faith of Jesus”) who attempted to revive the Ignatian vision and Jesuit mission strategy in the absence of Jesuits who were no longer able to fulfill that task.

The Reopening of Caravita as a Regular Place of Worship

On the 13th of July 2000, Jesuit Father Keith Pecklers, Professor of Liturgy at the Pontifical Gregorian University and of Liturgical History at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute was called to a meeting with the Jesuits at the Church of Sant’Ignazio who oversee supervision of the Caravita Oratory. During that meeting and in light of the numerous pilgrims visiting Rome during the great Jubilee Year of 2000, he was asked to begin a Mass in English at the Oratory since there was no such Mass offered in the vicinity of the Pantheon. However, rather than simply offering a Sunday Mass in English, Pecklers explored the possibility of building upon Caravita’s historical foundations as a centre for lay formation and ministry with the Jesuit vision and strategy for outreach to the oppressed and marginated. Hospitality would be a key ingredient, especially with the desire of welcoming those who had perhaps been away from the Church for a period of time but might be looking for an open door on a visit to Rome. Offering an aperitivo after Mass in the Atrium – a glass of prosecco or juice – would allow for the possibility of people meeting one another and mingling with clergy on the Pastoral Staff. One part of the plan was already in place: the basement which once housed several of those lay congregations was being used by the Jesuit Refugee Service Centro Astalli as a place where legal, educational, and employment counsel was offered to immigrants. Eventually the Caravita Community would come to donate ten percent of its weekly collection to the work of Centro Astalli – a practice which continues to this very day– in addition to other donations given to centres in Rome that assist the poor and homeless. Gradually the vision for a Caravita Community took shape with careful attention to a common baptism into Jesus Christ as the principal point of reference, and therefore special concern for the role of the laity within the Church along with ecumenical outreach and mission. This was made all the easier with the location of the Anglican Centre just down the street in the Palazzo Doria Pamphili.

During that summer of 2000, Pecklers formed a Pastoral Staff of four priests. He was joined by Australian Jesuit Daniel Madigan; the late U.S. Jesuit Jerome Hall; and the Superior General of the Viatorians, The Very Reverend Mark R. Francis. Madigan and Hall were also professors at the Gregorian University while Francis lectured at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute in addition to his administrative role as Superior General.

The opening of Caravita was publicized extensively throughout that summer and the Oratory opened its doors on 15th October 2000 for its first Sunday Mass in English – serving once again as a regular place of worship for the first time since 1925.

Caravita had served various functions throughout the twentieth century, including as Rome headquarters for the Sindone or “Holy Shroud of Turin” movement. On that October Sunday in 2000, the Trinity College Irish Pub adjacent to the Oratory, provided the prosecco and glasses for the first post-Mass reception in the Oratory’s Atrium, and continued to do so for several years until it was decided that it would be more cost-effective to buy supplies in bulk. Over the years the Pastoral Staff has changed and has included former official at the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity Monsignor Donald Bolen, now the Bishop of Saskatoon in Canada; Vicar General of the Montfort Missionaries Father Donald LaSalle; and Crosier Father and Rector of the Community at San Giorgio in Velabro James Hentges, who continues to serve on the Pastoral Staff today along with Pecklers and Jesuit Father Gerald R. Blaszczak. Having served as Pastor of Saint Ignatius Loyola Parish in New York City and Vice-President at Fordham and Fairfield Universities, Blaszczak is now Secretary for the Service of Faith in the General’s Curia of the Society of Jesus. The Pastoral Council – an advisory body of elected lay and religious members of the Caravita Community was founded in 2005.

Caravita Today

Music plays a significant role in the Community’s life and worship, and Caravita has been blessed with three fine music directors since its inception all of whom are composers: Slovakian Jesuit Vlastimil Dufka; Australian liturgical scholar Mrs. Jenny O’Brien; and for the past seven years, Dr. Hector Salcedo of Rome’s Pontificio Istituto di Musica Sacra, originally from Guadalajara, Mexico. When Caravita re-opened its doors for worship in the year 2000, it was a British Anglican priest – Canon John Andrew, Rector Emeritus of Saint Thomas Fifth Avenue, New York City where he served for thirty years – who donated the Worship hymnals that are still in use today. Saint Thomas is known for its accomplished Choir of Men and Boys, and so the gift of those hymnals was a touching ecumenical gesture from an a prominent Anglican church in New York to a small Jesuit Oratory in Rome. Throughout the year, concerts are regularly held at Caravita, and the Community has hosted choirs from Australia, Finland, Slovenia, the United Kingdom, and the United States among others. On 12th June 2011, Caravita hosted the Boys Choir of Saint John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota, U.S.A., and on 17th June 2012, the Saint Chad’s College Choir of Durham University, U.K. who sang Choral (Anglican) Evensong. The Very Reverend Canon David Richardson, Archbishop of Canterbury’s Representative to the Holy See and Director of the Anglican Centre Rome presided at that Evensong; and The Reverend Austin K. Rios. Rector of Saint Paul’s “Within the Walls” Episcopal Church preached.

In recent years, the Oratory has also served as a sort of bridge or centre within Rome’s diplomatic community, having had as regular members diplomats accredited to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO); the World Food Programme; as well as several Ambassadors and Deputy Heads of Mission accredited to the Holy See. Australian Ambassador to the Holy See Tim Fischer and Canadian Ambassador to the Holy See Anne Leahy were both active members during their tenure in Rome; Fischer also served a two-year term on the Caravita Pastoral Council. The British, Dutch, Irish, Slovenian, and U.S. Ambassadors to the Holy See have all been regular visitors. As a result, Caravita has occasionally hosted events on behalf of the Australian, Slovenian, and U.S. Embassies to the Holy See among others. When more than 11,000 Australians descended upon Rome in October, 2010 for the canonisation of Mary McKillop – Australia’s first saint – Caravita served as the Pilgrimage Centre for those visitors at the request of Ambassador Fischer and Sister Maria Casey, another Caravita member who served as the Postulator for Mary McKillop’s cause in its final years prior to canonisation.

The Ecumenical Mission of Caravita continues to grow, as well. Ecumenical Liturgies of the Word on Ash Wednesday along with celebrations of Ecumenical Evening Prayer are a regular part of the Oratory’s annual schedule. On 3rd February 2008, Caravita hosted the official Rome farewell for The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Representative to the Holy See, Bishop John Flack; and on 12th June 2011, the official farewell for the Methodist Representative to the Holy See, the Reverend Doctor Trevor Hoggard. Bishop Brian Farrell, L.C., Secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity presided at both liturgical celebrations. The Archbishop of Canterbury, His Grace Doctor Rowan Williams, preached at the Oratory on 20th November 2009 during an Ecumenical Evening Prayer at which His Eminence Walter Cardinal Kasper, then President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, presided. Canon David Richardson and his wife Margie are close friends of the Caravita Community, and the Anglican Centre regularly uses Caravita for its own worship celebrations when unable to accommodate people in the Centre’s Chapel of Saint Augustine of Canterbury because of a large number of pilgrims or other guests. This “Spiritual Ecumenism” as Pope John Paul II called it in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint, is further expressed each Sunday at Caravita, when the Anglican Centre’s Patron Saint, Augustine of Canterbury, is remembered in the Eucharistic Prayer along with Caravita’s own Patron. That gesture is reciprocated on Tuesdays at the weekly Anglican Centre Eucharist when the intercession of Saint Francis Xavier is invoked.

The Community’s intentional ecumenical outreach is also evident in the series “Conversazioni at Caravita.” In late 2003, it was Canon (now Bishop) Donald Bolen who suggested that Caravita should take advantage of the rich collection of interesting speakers coming to Rome throughout the year. He proposed a series of informal talks which the Oratory would host, where the Community would invite various individuals visiting Rome along with some residing here to lead one of the “Conversazioni” on a topic of their choice. Each conversazione would be followed by the usual Caravita prosecco – allowing the opportunity for those present to meet the speakers personally. March, 2004 saw the launch of the series with four “Conversazioni” held within a span of just a few weeks. On 11th March, the co-Chairs of the International Methodist-Catholic Dialogue, The Most Reverend Michael Putney, Bishop of Townsville, Australia, and The Reverend Doctor Geoffrey Wainwright of Duke University, Durham, N.C., USA, spoke together on important developments in Methodist-Roman Catholic Relations. Just two weeks later on 23rd March, the Former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord George Carey and his wife Lady Eileen Carey spoke on Anglican-Roman Catholic Relations. One week later on 29th March, the Bishop of Salisbury and Chair of the Church of England’s Liturgical Commission, The Right Reverend David Stancliffe, addressed the subject of ecumenical liturgical cooperation. Two days later on 31st March, distinguished British Anglican theologian, Professor Mary Tanner, OBE, spoke on the World Council of Churches Faith and Order Commission. A glance at the “Conversazioni” link on the Caravita website reveals an impressive array of speakers and topics over the years including the well known liturgical scholar of the Uniting Church in Australia, The Reverend Professor Robert Gribben who spoke at Caravita on 1st February 2012. His topic was “Methodists in the Middle: Dialogues with Catholics, Anglicans, and the Salvation Army.”

And Caravita draws its share of seekers. Several years ago, a visitor in his 30s spoke with one of the priests after Mass on the First Sunday of Advent. It was his first time in church in more than fifteen years, long enough, he said, to have forgotten that forgiveness was even possible. Visiting Rome on business, he attended a concert at Caravita on the previous evening. Seeing the announcement of a Mass in English, he returned the following morning but with great trepidation. The liturgy was the Catholic Mass he had remembered. But something happened during the Eucharist: he felt embraced and forgiven. In the General Intercessions, prayers had been offered for Muslims during Ramadan, for those living in exile, for those estranged from their families. He said that the Mass at Caravita had brought him back into the circle and that he had come home. Such visitors bring their own grace and the Caravita Community is richer for the presence. Several Muslim delegations from Turkey and Cambridge University, U.K. have also visited. They wished to observe Catholic worship on their visit to Rome and chose the Caravita Oratory. And there have been Jewish visitors, as well.

Today, Caravita continues to grow with a sizeable core group of regular members resident in Rome, and a significant number of visitors hailing from every corner of the globe. On any Sunday one can find British citizens and Canadians, Germans and Norweigans, Pakistanis, Ethiopians and Belgians, Slovakians and Australians, French, Brazilians, Italians and Mexicans, along with Americans from the U.S., all worshipping together. The Oratory is also shared by a thriving Mexican Community which gathers on two Sunday evenings each month to celebrate the Eucharist in Spanish.