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From the December, 2002
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The Bridge of San Teodoro by David Carlson

The Bridge of San Teodoro

David Carlson on East Meeting West in Rome, Part II

Sometimes called pontifex maximus, “the great bridge builder,” the popes of Rome have built many bridges over the centuries, but Pope John Paul II has sought to build a bridge of a different kind, one reconnecting the western shore of Roman Catholicism with the eastern shore of Orthodox Christianity. His recent trips to Greece, the Middle East, and the Ukraine have been very visible steps in this direction, but doctrinal differences and long-remembered wounds are proving formidable challenges to overcome.

In a small Byzantine-style church on the ancient Palatine Hill of Rome, he built the bridge a few more feet. On the feast of St. Andrew, November 30, 2000, Pope John Paul II bequeathed the ancient church of San Teodoro to the ecumenical patriarchate of Constantinople for the use of Greek Orthodox Christians in Rome. The church, as early as the sixth century at the heart of the Greek community in Rome, will be the first Greek Orthodox church in Rome in nearly a thousand years.

In his letter to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the pope expressed his hope that San Teodoro would be “dedicated to the worship and pastoral activities of the Greek Orthodox community of the city, which will then enjoy the necessary spiritual assistance for its growth and for the dialogue with Christians living in Rome.” Patriarch Bartholomew thanked Pope John Paul for the use of San Teodoro, stating that the gesture “constitutes an important and tangible manifestation of [the pope’s] sincere disposition toward the Church of Constantinople and the Orthodox Church in general.”

Greeks in Rome

San Teodoro is a church with deep historic associations for the Greek community in Rome and thus a very fitting gift. The site on the edge of the Imperial Forum housed a grain storage facility in pre-Christian times. From here and other nearby storage facilities, Rome fed her growing population. When Constantine embraced Christianity in the early fourth century, the growing Christian community made use of these storage facilities as diaconiae, or church-welfare centers, where the poor as well as pilgrims in the city could find hospitality.

The little diaconia church on this site was dedicated in the fourth century to an important saint, St. Theodore the Commander, a Roman soldier martyred earlier in that century in Amasea (present-day Turkey). In the apse mosaic (dating from the sixth century), St. Theodore is depicted on the right with a crown of martyrdom in his hand as St. Peter introduces him to Christ.

In its early days, San Teodoro stood near the residences of the Byzantine representatives in Rome and was at the heart of the larger Greek colony in the city. The nearby churches of San Giorgio in Velabro and Santa Maria Antiqua also served this community. The number of Greek Christians in Rome increased significantly in the seventh and eighth centuries when those fleeing the Iconoclasts in the East sought asylum in Rome. These “lovers of icons” (iconodules) found sanctuary in the city near San Teodoro.

Now the church of San Teodoro, after a long period of use by the Catholic Arch Confraternity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and more recent idleness, is being restored, this time for its new purpose as a Greek Orthodox place of worship and ecumenical dialogue. The challenges of this restoration are formidable, and the work has proceeded in starts and stops.

The Italian authorities must approve even the most minute decisions for the restoration, such as the color of paint or type of marble, as the church is considered a monument of the ancient Palatine Hill. The additions necessary to transform San Teodoro into a church suitable for Orthodox worship, such as an iconostasis, must be mobile and neither replace nor obscure the treasures presently in the church. The church’s persistent problem with dampness must still be solved.

As the two construction supervisors described to me the frequent interruptions to their work, as well as the challenge of adding Orthodox elements to San Teodoro’s ancient and Catholic features, I couldn’t help but sense a parallel to the complications of the larger Catholic-Orthodox dialogue.

San Teodoro is one small brick in the bridge being rebuilt between East and West. Certainly, the journey ahead for both churches is unpredictable. The recent trip of the ecumenical patriarch to southern Italy and the papal visits to Greece and the Ukraine are encouraging steps, as is the ongoing dialogue between theologians, but bridging the disagreements of the past thousand years is not proving an easy task.

Though the path will be a difficult one, the tiny, ancient church of San Teodoro should encourage both communities as they stumble forward. Through such gifts to one another, perhaps we can begin to live less in the shadows of our suspicions and more in the light of the heavenly vision of a Church Triumphant, where St. Francis embraces St. Seraphim of Sarov, where the Cappadocian Fathers are at one with St. Augustine, and where St. Mary of Egypt and St. Thérèse of Lisieux are finally members of one heavenly communion. As Jesus requested all his disciples to pray, may what is true in heaven become true on earth.

David Carlson is Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin College in Franklin, Indiana, and a member of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Church of San Teodoro is located on Via di San Teodoro 7, very near the Imperial Forum and Colosseum.

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