00 8/16/2009 10:51 PM

25 years since a Pope
last visited Viterbo -
'city of Popes'

by Mario Ponzi
Translated from
the 8/15/09 issue of

The 'city of Popes' is preparing to receive yet again a Successor of Peter within its venerable walls. Benedict XVI will visit the city in upper Lazio on Sunday, September 6.

For the Viterbans,, it is an occasion to recall their millennially ancient history - Etruscan, Roman and Christian. A revisiting that is significant, because Viterbo up to now has lived more entrenched in its storied past, which has given it some sense of balance, rather than looking toward the future which is far from hopeful for a land dependent on agriculture and small peasant holdings.

Viterbo's farmlands extend between Amiata and Cimino, the two mountains that the ancient Etruscans considered as divinities that protected the farms from bad weather coming from the north and south.

Laterally, it extends from the Tiber to the Tyrrhenian Sea, enclosing a valley that receives the sun directly every day, which has always assured fertile lands and a pleasant healthy climate.

That geography has much to do with why the Etruscans decided to settle in these lands, why the Romans considered it a guaranteed asset for the imperial treasury, and why the Popes sought refuge there from an uncertain and hostile Rome.

And they all left obvious signs of their passage through the land. But what represents the most authentic synthesis of Viterbo's three civilizations is and continues to be the native pure-blooded Viterban who carries in himself the characteristics of his three ancestral civilizations - Etruscan humanism, Roman stability, and the Christian balance between divine and natural virtues.

The Viterban conserves within himself the most beautiful treasures of humanity that are his true legacy. One only has to observe attentively and look deeply into each of them - even a simple shepherd in the mountains of the Maremma - to be aware of this. They are the very traits that have resonated in the Latin classics of Virgil, Cicero and Horace.

To speak to the Viterbans today is like listening to their forefathers who left them their teachings in the form of proverbs that are preserved like a sacred treasure and as a common and sure reference point for all Viterbans.

It is evident that the people of upper Lazio have great interior riches. Of all the lords that have come and gone in their history, they remember only the Popes as fathers, benefactors, attentive pastors and generous patrons.

And so Viterbo's appellation as 'city of Popes' is not so much because it had been the residence of Popes, but because Viterbans are 'papists' at heart, who have always shown fidelity and loyalty to the Popes as Successors of Peter, whoever Pope it is.

Thus the grand welcome they gave John Paul II in May 1984, when he became the first Pope to set foot in Viterbo in 127 years. It was a one-day visit that lasted all of 13 hours, nonetheless - the longest he had ever spent in an Italian city outside Rome up to that time.

It was May 27, the last Sunday of the month. He was accompanied by Cardinal Sergio Guerri, a native of Tarquinia [the most famous ancient Etruscan city in Lazio]. The Pope had ten engagements - starting with a visit to the prison of Santa Maria in Gradi and ending with a meeting with the wards of the St. Crispin center for recovering drug addicts.

Three moments of prayer remain etched in the minds of those who followed the Pope's day: in the morning, before the urn containing teh relics of the city's patron Saint Rosa; then in the Cathedral while venerating the relics of Saints Valentine and Hilarius, who had come from the Orient to found the Church of Viterbo; and in the afternoon, at the Basilica of St. Francis, at teh tombs of two Popes, Celestine IV and Adrian V (whose pontificate lasted only 38 days, just a little more than Papa Luciani's 33 days).

"At every step", the news reports of the day said, "John Paul II came across documents and testimonials of great importance. In the Cathedral of St. Lawrence, for instance, he stopped with interest at the tomb of Pope John XXI, who was Portuguese and who died because of a fall in the Palace of the Popes. In the Augustinian cloisters, where he met with some sick persons, every stone spoke of an ancient and glorious scientific tradition of which the monk Mendel was but the principal symbol. Or his visit to the shrine of the miraculous Madonna della Quercia (Our Lady of the Oak)... The list goes on and on, and one thing was certain: by the time his visit ended in the evening, John Paul II had amassed quite a number of great sensory impressions."

His meeting with the recovering drug addicts of St. Crispin center was certainly the most socially relevant and significant event of his visit. The Pope chose to receive the patients and their parents at the historic Conclave Hall of the Palace of the Popes.

He discarded his prepared speech, and in praising the efforts by the young people to emerge from their imprisonment in drugs, he said:

"The essential success is always man himself, man who recovers his humanity, his sense of being human, and therefore, his sense of the future.... Drugs cannot be conquered by other drugs but by a serious commitment on the part of all concerned, including the community... Replacement drugs [which, at the beginning of some addiction therapy, substitute for the addictive substance but do not have their harmful effects] are not sufficient therapy but rather5 constitute a veiled way of surrendering to the drug itself".

He continued: "The way to leave the hallucinatory world of addictive drugs is the mobilization of everyone (to form) a new society to the measure of man, the education to be real men."

Today, at a distance of 25 years, the same city - which is different because it has grown and is in the grip of old and new problems, but remains faithful to its papist soul - is preparing to receive another Pope, Benedict XVI.

The logo that the diocese has prepared for his visit states that faithful Viterbo hopes to be confirmed in its faith by the Successor of Peter, so that it may be able to resist the challenges of a secularism that is increasingly invasive and increasingly more difficult to oppose.

[Edited by TERESA BENEDETTA 8/16/2009 10:56 PM]