The little church of Saint Theodore (San Teodoro, in Italian) of Amesa, is a 6th century Roman basilica dedicated to a 4th century Greek soldier-martyr, who died in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) at Amasa. Located on the Palatine Hill, one of Rome’s seven hills, the church is right next to the ancient Roman Forum. When I was here in the mid-1980’s the church of San Teodoro al Palatino (as it usually is called) was shuttered and unused. Things changed with the new millennium.
In November of the year 2000 Saint John Paul II, then pope, formally entrusted the church of San Teodoro al Palatino to the Greek Orthodox community of Rome. The priests and faithful there are part of the larger Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, based in Turkey. The current rector (pastor) of the parish in Rome, Father Simeone Catsinas, is Greek by birth, with a vibrant personality and welcoming spirit. You can read some more about him in my essay entitled, “Church of Santa Maria in Portico,” where some of us met him on February 2nd this year.
The church of San Teodoro is circular in shape, not very large and nicely adapted to the Orthodox Divine Liturgy (Holy Mass) and other celebrations that take place there. The unusual circular shape of the building remains somewhat of a mystery. One theory holds that the church was built on the foundations of a pagan temple, but other scholars dispute this claim. Another theory maintains that the church’s round shape was inspired by the church of the Anastasis (Resurrection) at the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Whatever the precise origin or reason for its shape, it is a gem of a church.
San Teodoro is probably one of the very few churches in Rome that you actually have to descend steps in order to enter. One must go down 50 or more steps to reach the attractive piazza in front of the church that leads to the front door. The street above, appropriately enough, is “Via San Teodoro,” in honor of the church there.
Dedicated to an Eastern Christian saint, and so near the church of San Giorgio (George) of Velabo, as well as Santa Maria in Cosmedin, which have Greek-related origins, San Teodoro church is thought to have been constructed and used by the Greek Christian colony that was in the area already. These consisted especially of merchants and their families living and working around the nearby Tiber River. An imperial military post on the Palatine Hill was also nearby.
Some of the relics of Saint Theodore of Amesa are enshrined in the church of San Teodoro. As a Greek Orthodox church, it now has an iconostasis, or icon screen, that separates the sanctuary (the “Holy of Holies”) from the main body of the church. The huge mosaic in the apse, that is, behind and above the altar, dates from the 6th century and beautifully restored in modern times. It depicts Christ seated in majesty as King of Kings with Saint Peter and Paul as well as Saints Theodore and Cleonicus, who were soldiers and martyr saints, on either side of Jesus.
Quite a number of modern icons of various saints, written on wooden panels in the traditional Byzantine Christian style, are beautifully executed and adorn the walls of the church.
The church is normally open daily (in the mornings only) for visits and prayer. On Sunday mornings, Orthros (Morning Prayer) is at 9:00 am, followed by celebration of the Divine Liturgy (Holy Mass) at 10:30 am. Visitors, whether Orthodox or not, are always welcome.
A popular custom grew up at the church of San Teodoro centuries ago of bringing sick babies and their mothers to the church to ask the intercession of “San Toto,” as Saint Theodore of Amasa came to be known in Rome. Babies suffering throat or chest ailments were especially helped by the prayers of the soldier saint, though I have not found the origin of a connection between “San Toto” with children and their mothers.
On Saturday, February 18th this year, some of us from Sant’Ambrogio, where I live, attended Vespers in honor of Saint Theodore of Amasa, on the evening before the feast of “San Toto” (Theodore). His church is just a fifteen minute walk from Sant’Ambrogio.
The Vespers service began at about 6:20 pm with the arrival at the church’s front door of Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Gennadios, Archbishop of Italy and Malta. He and several priests and deacons lead the Vespers and six or so laymen were the choir. The singing was in Greek, and called to mind my extended time on Mount Athos in Greece nearly forty years ago. Greek Orthodox chant is quite distinct, even from Russian Orthodox chant. One can easily listen to such chant online, and you know better than I how to do so.
Before the service began, Father Simeone Catsinas, rector, that is, pastor of the parish, cordially welcomed guests, including us from Sant’Ambrogio, as well as other Benedictines coming from Sant’Anselmo on the Aventine, also Franciscan friars, sisters of various order and many Orthodox and Catholic laity. Our nearby pastor, Father Davide, O.M.D., was also present.
Vespers at San Teodoro lasted about an hour and at the end, cake-like bread that had been blessed during the Vespers service was distributed to all by Metropolitan Gennadios, who also gave a blessing to each guest as he or she came forward for a portion of the blessed bread. This too was a beautiful ecumenical gesture that I keep seeing in Rome. And the cake-like bread was delicious. I was tempted to get in line for another portion, but that would not have been kosher.
Today many or perhaps most Greek Orthodox churches have pews, that is, formal seating for the faithful. In San Teodoro church, the pews are nicely designed chairs built of wood, with each row of chairs placed very close to each other, but in essence forming pew-like rows familiar to Catholics and Protestants alike. An ancient Orthodox tradition that is still found on Mount Athos, for example, is to have benches or choir stalls only around the walls of the church, for the elderly or sick to sit on, while the rest of the faithful are expected to stand during the entire Liturgy, be it the Divine Liturgy (Holy Mass) or one of the liturgical hours of the day, such as at morning prayer and night prayer.
During the February 18th Vespers at San Teodoro we were regularly invited to be seated, with the friendly wave of a hand of Metropolitan Gennados, presiding at the front of church, close to the iconostasis, and close to the right wall of the church. The Metropolitan was vested in traditional Orthodox manner, black cassock, monastic hat and veil, but also with a long cape that trailed behind, though for the most part he simply presided from his throne (as it is called), and did not move about the church except to enter at the beginning of Vespers.
After the service and visiting with some of the other guests we returned on foot to Sant’Ambrogio for cena (supper), though our other monks and guests had completed their meal. We were still back in time for Compline, albeit recited, but our modest Night Prayer to God, Maker of heaven and earth.
On another topic, Italian cuisine is an occupational hazard to weight watchers. One of the monks here has been encouraged by his doctor to shed some pounds. Walking is good, said the doctor, but the streets of Rome are not the best for this, since dodging traffic and tourists breaks the rhythm of a steady pace.
I suggested to the monk to make use of Circo Massimo (Circus Maximus), the nearby and still enormous open field in the middle of Rome, most famous for its chariot races millennia ago, and featured in such films as Ben Hur, though the film versions used a simulated track, not the real one. In any case, Circo Massimo is perfect for exercise and I see people religiously using it for such.
The monk thought I had a good suggestion and especially my part about taking a taxi to Circo Massimo (perhaps a five minute ride), doing the hour of walking and then returning by taxi to Sant’Ambrogio. In fact he couldn’t stop laughing at the idea.