After an absence of nearly nine years, I once again made my way carefully across several traffic intersections, navigating the zebra crossings requiring iron nerve in the face of oncoming Roman traffic.
San Gregorio Magno is the epicentre of any pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome. From here Augustine departed with twenty companions for the Kentish Coast via Francia, and to here he returned briefly a few months later to seek additional support from the Pope. He died at Canterbury seven years later, buried in his new monastery of St Peter & St Paul outside the city walls.
San Gregorio Magno Monastery looked much the same as I remembered it. Ascending the long flight of stairs from the road, I made my way around the arcade to a monastery door on the right. I rang the porter’s bell but with no success. Another priest appeared on the patio, and another, with a nun in tow. They also tried the bell, with no success either. Clearly, no one was home.
Describing the first monastery – vrp-20130513-150948.mp4
I wandered away, took some photographs, descended the stairs, and made my way around to the narrow alley, the Clivo di Scauri, running between the monastery and the home of two martyred Roman officers whose house stood on this site. A bit further on it became clear why no one was home to answer our call. A string of cars were parked on either side of a gateway to some big function taking place to the rear of the monastery, a reminder that ever was hospitality a critical function of Benedictine monasteries.
Gregory had entertained guests at an outside table almost every day, until his selection as Bishop of Rome in 590. Rome was awash with refugees from the Lombard conflict, including monks and nuns from the Community of St Benedict of and his sister Scholastica.
I called in at Gregory’s Monastery again two days later, around 11am. The porter buzzed me into the corridor and I gave her my card, explaining that I had come as a pilgrim to pray in the chapel of St Gregory.
Gregory’s papal chair (there is another like it in the cloister attached to St John in Lateran) stands in a side chapel. Leading off the chapel is his small cell and stone bed, behind a grate in the wall.
In the chapel there was a photograph of Archbishop Rowan Williams’ last visit here in October 2012, and the words of welcome given by the new Prior, Fr. Peter Hughes, recently returned from Justin Welby’s enthronement as Archbishop in Canterbury.
I read the Prior’s words of greeting, first given here by Pope Paul VI to Michael Ramsey, in 1966:
“You come to a house where you are not a stranger and that you have the right to think of as also your own. It is a joy for us to open the doors, and with the doors our hearts … Certainly St Gregory and St Augustine look down on us from heaven, and give us their benediction.”
Here we come to our roots. It is a spirit of welcome and generosity that makes pilgrimage to San Gregorio Magno not only worthwhile, but a necessity.
As I was leaving, the porter signalled me to wait a moment as she picked up the house phone, and a few minutes later the Prior, Fr Peter Hughes from England, came down the stairs. We greeted each other, spoke of plans to bring pilgrims from Canterbury on a more regular basis, and to strengthen ties between San Gregorio Masso Monastery and Canterbury. I left with a gift of a history of the monastery and also of the Camaldolese Benedictines who renewed the life of the community.