Dio Padre Misericordioso is a 21st century parish and titular church at Largo Terzo Millennio 8-9, in the southern part of the suburb of Tor Tre Teste which is in the Alessandrino quarter. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
The dedication is to God the Merciful Father.
Jubilee church project Edit
This church came about as a result of a project announced by the Diocese in 1995, the aim being to build fifty new churches in Rome’s suburbs as a celebration of the Holy Year of 2000 (the Great Jubilee) -Cinquanta Chiese per Roma 2000.
The Diocese had maintained an adequate building programme of churches during the city's suburban expansion from 1870 to 1940. However, after the Second World war expansion of the city's suburbs had become more rapid and the newer suburbs were often inadequately provided with churches. Also, parishes were being founded which were forced to worship in temporary accommodation for years (the earlier practice was usually to found the parish when its church was at least under construction). There is a Roman parish in 2015 which has been forced to worship in a tent for several years -see Sant'Agostino Vescovo a Stagni di Ostia.
Further, it was conceded that the architectural standard of new churches after the mid 20th century was often proving mediocre, and that the pool of available architects was being restricted by cronyism.
The nadir was the idea in the 1960's that churches could permanently occupy shop premises in the ground floors of apartment blocks -a truly repellent delusion that Pope St John Paul II rejected. See Santa Brigida di Svezia.
The inadequate provision of churches was often an aspect of a larger problem, in that many of the newer suburbs for working-class people lacked decent social amenities of any kind. So, the proposed fifty new churches were to have attached community and sports facilities. Even so, there has been opposition among anti-clerical elements in the city to the spending of any money on new churches rather than on schools, sports ground and so on -and this not only in the poorer suburbs. See San Tommaso Apostolo ad Infernetto.
The parish was founded in 1989 as San Silvestro Papa a Tor Tre Teste, and was dedicated to Pope St Sylvester I. This was one of the late 20th century parishes which were founded without a firm project in place to build a new church. It was carved from the territories of San Cirillo Alessandrino (now also with an interesting new church) and San Tommaso d’Aquino ad Alessandrino.
However in 1996 the dedication was changed at the personal initiative of Pope St John Paul, and the proposed church chosen as the flagship and progenitor of the Cinquanta Chiese project. The new dedication recalled the pope's 1980 encyclical Dives in Misericordia, as well as anticipating the proclaimed Year of the Father in 1999 when it was hoped that the church would be ready. Dives in Misericordia had as its theme the divine mercy, so the dedication of this church emphasized a theme which the Church has continued to stress, especially in the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy in 2016 proclaimed by Pope Francis.
(It may be noted here that Dives in Misericordia means "Rich in Mercy" not "God the Merciful". It is NOT the Latin equivalent of the church name -Italian journalists take note!)
In 1993 a general appeal had been made for proposed designs, but this did not work. A total of 534 designs was allegedly received, but none was judged suitable.
In 1996, the Vicariate of Rome took the unusual step of selecting six architects with international reputations to submit competitive plans for the proposed church. It was noteworthy that none of them was a specialist in designing church buildings. The winner was Richard Meier, a Jewish American architect with his own firm based in New York. Construction began on 1 March 1998. The time estimated for completion was hopelessly optimistic, and the church was only finished in 2003. A brave face was put on the delay by coinciding the opening with the 25th anniversary of the papal accession of Pope St John Paul.
Owing to a serious budgetary overrun and the extended delay in completion, the Diocese had intervened in the person of its consultant engineer, Ignazio Breccia Fratadocchi. He oversaw alterations to Meier's plans as regards the parish and social centre, which was substantially reduced in size.
Design motifs Edit
This particular church has a spectacular high-tech design which has made it internationally famous, and is the only modern church in the Roman suburbs which has become a tourist attraction in its own right. As a result it has been nicknamed the “Jubilee Church”, which is rather unfair to the other new churches -some of which are also of high architectural quality and interest.
The setting of the church involves a formally laid out paved piazza, intended as a sagrato. The intention was to imitate a churchyard in mediaeval Italian towns, in which people would congregate and socialize. This in turn was a direct descendent of an atrium attached to an early church building such as San Clemente. The social aspect is furthered by the inclusion of sports and social facilities in the complex.
The architect stated that a major inspiration of the design was the Roman Catholic Church as a boat, sailing into its Third Millennium. This is a very old iconographic tradition, known in English as the Barque of St Peter. A major part of the structure of the church is a set of three nested free-standing white concrete walls, described as alluding to the sails of a ship. This threesome also symbolises the Trinity.
Meier is well-known for his "white and light" motif, whereby his buildings are dominated by bright white surfaces both inside and outside, with extensive fenestration in clear glass to flood interiors with light. He claimed that the motif was sufficient iconographically to give spiritual meaning to the interior of the church ("The light of revelation to the Gentiles" Lk 2:32). So, controversially, he refused to have any figurative artworks within apart from a crucifix over the altar.
Until the 1960's, new churches in Roman suburbs were substantial buildings on a basilical plan, capable of seating large congregations as it was expected that a majority of local residents would attend Mass. However, the proportion of church-goers in the total population began a steep decline in the 1970's and so modern churches are now quite small. The one here was planned to hold a congregation of about 500, with a total population in the parish territory of about 8000.
Photocatalytic concrete Edit
One obvious problem is that white concrete surfaces are notorious for going grey from air pollution, and small lifeforms such as algae and lichens finding a place to live and using the accumulated pollutants as food-sources. Meier specified an unusual mix for the concrete, using aggregate made up of crushed Carrara marble for the whiteness. To the mix was added a specialist cement obtained from the firm Italcementi di Rezzato, branded as TX Millenium (now TX Active) which had its first commercial use here. Meier claimed that the photocatalytic properties of this cement would keep the church's outside surfaces clean and white.
TX Active contains titanium dioxide, which is a very white compound. Also, it photocatalyzes under ultraviolet light so as to break down water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen radicals. These radicals, in turn, convert nitrogen oxides and organic atmospheric pollutants (so-called VOCs or "volatile organic compounds") into carbon dioxide, water and nitrogen gas. The process was described by the Japanese chemist Akira Fujishima in 1972, and is known as the "Honda-Fujishima effect".
This property of titanium dioxide has been the subject of much commercial interest and application since its first use in this church. However, it should be noted that the ratio of cement to marble used was rather low -three parts of TX Active to thirteen parts of marble. This seems to have caused problems -the photocatalytic effect is not as strong as expected.
The church was not without criticism even in the project stage. These criticisms have proved to have had some substance:
To begin with, the original budget for the complex (church and social centre) was five million dollars. The end cost was five times that. (To be fair, the innovative nature of the design meant that reasonable budgeting would have been impossible).
The "Fifty New Churches" initiative has stalled. Although the new churches opened by the Diocese in the last few years have been of good quality, the number has been few and the rate of completion of new parish churches in Rome is as bad as it was before the Millennium. This church project has been criticised for swallowing the funds that would have paid for five new churches, and it remains for history to judge whether the special expense was worthwhile.
As mentioned, Meier excluded any representational artworks (apart from the altar crucifix) from the new church. This ban included statues and Stations of the Cross, and ordinary parishioners were not happy. Over the last few years, a traditional statue of Our Lady, a bas-relief of God the Father, a set of Stations and several icons have been introduced. Also now flourishing in the high light levels are several pot-plants. Whatever Meier and architectural devotees might think of this, it is the parishioners who have to worship here -and they have "reclaimed the territory".
Criticism at the project stage also focused on the lack of a cross finial identifying the edifice as a church. The Diocese has insisted for centuries that every one of its churches has a finial in the shape of a cross somewhere visible on its roofline, and had intervened to enforce this requirement in the past. A compromise took place, whereby a metal cross was erected at the entrance to the piazza but not actually attached to the church.
The use of photocatalytic cement to keep the exterior white has not worked very well. A decade after the church was opened, the former bright white exterior has become faintly yellowish and, more seriously, is suffering blackish streaking from colonisation by algae and simple fungi. Compare the photo here, taken recently, with the one here taken when the church was opened. Ouch!
Most seriously, the church has proved not to be weathertight. The weightiest criticism at the project stage was not to do with religious symbolism or aesthetics, but with structural integrity. The unusual shape of the major components of the proposed edifice had led to the concern that Meier's firm was not going to be able to work out the complex mathematical calculations which were necessary to predict how the edifice would be affected by thermal expansion and contraction in reaction to changes in temperature. Especially, the nested curved concrete walls would slightly change their separation as they heated up in the day and cooled down at night. The worry was that the thermal flexing of the "sails" might compromise the glass screens with time, leading to leaks. The worry seems to have been justified. The writer visited the church in 2013 after heavy rainfall, and found rainwater on the floor inside.
Something went wrong with the capacity. The project originally allowed for a congregation of 500, but when the church was opened this had reduced to a claimed 400. However, the parish priest is on record as saying that the actual capacity is 300 with an extra fifty possible by the use of stacking chairs.
The underfloor heating is inadequate, and expensive to run. In fact, overall, the parish is unable to meet the cost of running and maintaining the church and is receiving a subsidy from the Diocese.
The acoustics are dreadful! It is not good enough to design a church with (apparently) no research having been done on the acoustic properties of the proposed space.
The hope that the formal piazza in which the church is situated would become a social focus of the suburb has not materialised. If the suburb has got a place where ordinary folk mingle, it is at the casual market operating to the north-east, off the Via Davide Campari. If the planners had allowed the market to spring up near the church, the piazza could have become much more like a mediaeval Italian churchyard. As it is, it is usually dead.
The church was made titular in 2001, as a diaconate, before it was finished. The first cardinal deacon was Crescenzio Sepe, who became cardinal priest pro hac vice in 2006 (this means that he is a priest as a personal honour, but the church remains a diaconate).
The church is part of a social amenity centre, and stands in a domain surrounded by a white concrete wall. A large car park is beyond this, to the west. In the south-east (far left) corner of the enclosed area is a small secure car park for the priest and parish employees, and next to this going north is a soccer pitch followed by a hard-standing. In the northern corner is a garden with trees, and grass with trees occupies the north-east boundary returning to the entrance.
The parish centre is attached to the church to the north (right hand side), and is a four-storey flat-roofed block of minimalist design and no special interest. In between it and the church proper is a thin glass atrium, and a single-storey extension occupies the far right hand side. This parish centre was proposed by Meier to be much bigger, but his proposals were cut back during construction and the edifice as it now stands is arguably not his design. The campanile is attached to its east end, to the right of the church entrance.
The church proper is surrounded on its other three sides by a paved piazza in the shape of an irregular pentagon. The paving is of very high quality, of polished limestone slabs. Because of the lack of seating, it has not functioned well as a place for social gatherings and is basically a foil for the church.
There are four other spaces in the domain to mention. Beyond the main parish block is a grassed Garden of Remembrance (as is standard in Rome, the church has no burial rights), and to the north of this is a clay basketball court. In between this and the single-storey wing is an odd square asphalted court which looks unused. In the angle of the L of the parish centre there is another enclosed asphalted court, apparently intended as a meditation area (risible if true).
The main entrance to the piazza has a pair of solid white gates, which when closed match the domain wall. The left hand side of the entrance is a vertical surface in the form of a rectangle with its major axis horizontal, made of two concrete slabs joined together, bearing the text in elevated metal letters: Ad felicem magni iubilaei recordationem anni MM ("To the happy recall of the great jubilee of the year 2000"). Some of the letters are going missing already.
The other side of the gateway has two vertical concrete slabs standing parallel to the church's major axis and with a slight gap between them. The nearer, narrower one has a horizontal corbel bearing a stainless steel cross. This is in lieu of the traditional cross finial which the church lacks.
In front of the gateway, outside the church's domain, the polished limestone paving is continued over a triangular area next to the street as a kind of outer piazza.
The campanile has been described by critics as "disappointing". It is attached to the near end of the parish annexe, and is an L-shaped structure in solid concrete slab twenty metres high. The long arm of the L faces outwards, and has a long vertical slot cut in its top left hand quadrant. The five bells are hung in this slot, one above the other.
The parish are proud of their bells, and have had them dedicated individually. The set was cast at the Pontificia Fonderia Marinelli, and comprises five bells each with an inscription. The largest is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and to Europe, and the inscription lists all the Church's Jubilees since the year 1300 as well as the date of the first parish Mass celebrated in the church. The second is dedicated to SS Peter and Paul and to the Americas, and bears the date of the first baptism in the church. The third is dedicated to St Charles Borromeo (the baptismal patron of Pope St John Paul) and to Africa, and bears the date of the first funeral. The fourth is dedicated to SS Cyril of Alexandria and Thomas Aquinas, the patrons of the parishes which donated the territory for the new parish here, and to Oceania. It bears the date of the first wedding. The fifth is dedicated to SS Francis Xavier and Teresa of Lisieux, the patrons of overseas missions, and to Asia. It bears the date of the laying of the foundation stone.
The bells are hung with the largest at the bottom and the smallest at the top, and are visually attractive in their own right.
Layout and fabric Edit
The layout of the church is actually quite traditional, with the entrance at one end, the altar at the other and the pews arranged rectilinearly in between. The plan is described as boat-shaped, but is actually asymmetrical with a strong curve to the left for the main body of the church and a slight one to the right.
The main body of the church is made up of three concrete so-called "sails", which look like three segments of a torus or a cylinder curved along its axis. The radii of the three segments are the same, but their height and length decrease with distance from the vertical wall. The first sail (25 metres high) is placed symmetrically facing the right hand wall, but the other two are placed asymmetrically so that their edges step back from the entrance.
The right hand wall is parallel to the main axis, and the very slight curve to its exterior is obscured both in the church's interior and also by the narrow atrium connecting it to the parish centre. Its ends are in the same style as the sails, made up of concrete ashlar blocks.
The sails are free-standing. The rest of the fabric of the church comprise clear glass wall-screens, which flood the interiors with light. These screens have large panes set in thin metal frames. There are separate screens for the entrance and altar ends, also in between the first and second and in between the second and third sails at front and back. These wall-screens are inserted some distance from the ends of the sails and the right hand wall at both front and back, so that these elements protrude from the actual church edifice.
The roofing is also in glass, with the three separate roofs each tilted at an angle so that they are radial to the curvature of the sails.
The void between the first sail and the right hand wall is the main church. Enormous rectangular apertures exist in the first and second sails, and in the space thus created is the ferial chapel (for week-day Masses) and the baptistry. These apertures are not visible from outside.
At the back of the church, a free-standing roughly cuboidal structure in white concrete is the sacristy block, completely surrounded by the far main window screen wall and attached to this. Low down in its back wall is a striking window embrasure in the form of a truncated pyramid on its side, and this feature echoes the light-funnel over the altar inside the church.
Erection of the sails was a triumph of civil engineering, and the whole design was both radical and risky. The sails are made out of a total of 256 white concrete ashlar blocks, individually pre-cast elsewhere to the right curvature and then brought in for assembly. A special crane had to be designed from scratch to do the job, and it was found that only two or three blocks could be secured in a working day. This was a major factor in the delay in finishing the church.
There is no entrance façade as such, and the frontage is dominated by the clear glass screen wall in between the first sail and the right hand wall. The roof of the entrance porch is a horizontal concrete grid with deep eaves and four rectangular glass panels lined up transversely. This fixes to an upright slab to the right, and is supported by a column placed well within to the left. There is an epigraph in raised metal letters on the eave: Misericordiarum Patri dicatum AD MMIII, pontificatus XXV ("Dedicated to the Father of mercies, AD 2003, 25th year of the pontificate").
Near the main entrance is the architect's epigraph. As a telling sign of the times, it is in English: This structure is a testament to the monumental work of men in the service of spiritual aspirations. Richard Meier, architect.
A little side entrance to the left, in between the first and second sails, will lead you directly into the baptistery. It has a vertically gridded metal door.
The interior is best visited on a fine day, when the experience is overwhelmingly of white concrete and blue sky as the architect intended. However, the architect has also used polished travertine limestone to good effect -and beechwood (less happily). The carved travertine holy water stoups at the entrance portals are worth a glance.
Just within the glass wall forming the entrance frontage is a small entrance lobby, with access to left and right as well as straight ahead. In front of you here is a screen wall in travertine of a pale brown hue, and on this is placed the organ gallery which is over and to the right of the entrance into the church proper. It is an open box frame assembled from entirely white panels of differing widths and without joins, and incorporates a cantilevered balcony supported by a slab pier reaching up over its front and up to the top part of the frame. This pier stands to the left of the entrance.
The back of the gallery is a solid panel containing a window strip in the shape of an inverted L, which recalls the plan of the campanile and so is being used here as a symbol for sacred sound. You can see this L from outside, through the glass wall above the entrance.
The organ is a good instrument by Organaria Romana, but the bad acoustics of the church rather spoil its effect.
The right hand side of the nave has an aisle, the slightly curving wall of which is revetted in travertine of a slightly deeper hue than that of the entrance wall. The revetting is done in slabs of varying sizes, to give the clever effect of ghost pilaster strips. This wall contains square ventilation grilles which exit to the walkway atrium in between the church and the parish centre. Each grille consists of a travertine slab with a grid of round holes drilled through it. The ceiling is flat, and at the far end is a doorway leading to the parish centre. Above the ceiling is a very odd tall gallery void, divided from the main body of the church by vertical beechwood lathes placed with one narrow edge facing out and with gaps between them. What was this space intended for?
The aisle and gallery are located within the thickness of the right hand side wall of the church.
The church floor is also in polished travertine slabs. The type of stone used in the piazza outside continues into the entrance vestibule and to a square just inside the portal through the stone screen wall, but the rest of the nave is paved in a stone of a paler shade.
Perhaps unfortunately, the pews in the church look like standard off-the-shelf jobs in beechwood -although allegedly Meier designed them (perhaps the rounded edges to the fronts of the seats is an indication of bespoke!). The finish of some has been seriously damaged by water, presumably leaking through the roof.
Stations of the Cross Edit
As mentioned, initially the architect tried to rule out any figurative religious artwork apart from the main crucifix, and this ban included a proper set of the Stations of the Cross. You can see simple crosses in stainless steel on wall surfaces around the church interior, and these seem originally to have been consecration crosses. Meier's hope that worshippers would be happy also to use them as Stations was, however, mistaken. The devotion has an indulgence attached to it, and a condition of this is that the various scenes are figuratively represented so to be looked at.
For Lent 2014 and again in 2015, the parish commissioned the iconographer Claudia Rapetti to paint a portable set of Stations which was hung on the aisle wall. These pictures were different for the two Lents. A third, different set was in place in August 2015 so it seems that a proper set of Stations will hopefully now be on permanent display.
The sanctuary is raised on three steps.
The altar itself is free-standing, in travertine limestone, and is in the shape of one of the ancient Roman baths to be found re-used as altars in ancient Roman churches. However, Meier described it in his design as recalling a boat. The other sanctuary furniture is a matching set with this. To the left is a lectern or ambo with a president's chair up against the far wall behind, and to the right is a long bench for the other celebrants. Against the wall to the right behind the altar is a credence table. These items of sacred furniture, unlike the altar, are designed in slab mode without curves.
The sanctuary is dominated by a light-funnel over the back wall. This is in the form of a rhomboidal truncated pyramid ending in a little rectangular window, and with two L-shaped slots cut out of the top right hand edge which give a visual echo-effect to the window. The window light is directed onto a hanging crucifix, which is 17th century. The cross is wood, but the painted corpus is papier mâché. This item was a donation from "another Roman parish", and is the only figurative artwork that the architect wanted in his church.
However, the parish has commissioned an altarpiece bas-relief in marble depicting God the Father. It is by Massimo Galleni, and is a copy of a fourteenth-century work originally in Old St Peter's and attributed to Giovanni Dalmata or Mino da Fiesole.
At the entrance to the sacristy, behind the far wall, is a display case containing sacred vessels designed and executed by Bulgari.
Blessed Sacrament Chapel Edit
To the left in the main body of the church, the largest of the three sails has an enormous rectangular void and the second sail behind it likewise. These make space for two side arenas for worship, a Blessed Sacrament Chapel to the top left and a Baptistery to the bottom left near the entrance.
The Blessed Sacrament Chapel is used for weekday Masses, and so is also called the Ferial Chapel. It is screened off by a free-standing wall made up of a linked row of white rectangular forms rather like a pylon. This has a rectangular aperture, and there is also an ingress gap at the far end.
The little chapel can seat twenty-four people. It has a little rectangular altar, and a lectern and president's chair to match those at the main altar. The tabernacle is a gilded bronze cube on top of a travertine pillar, with a circular door in two vertical halves which are deliberately tarnished in brown. This tabernacle replaced Meier's original design, which was judged not to be suitable.
The church's confessionals are small rooms at the back (near end) of the altar. They have wooden doors, and are designed for "face to face" confessions. This removes the opportunity of anonymous confession, which is not the mind of the Church and a "traditional" confessional is apparently to be provided.
The baptistery is at the lower left hand side. The font is a trapezoidal block of polished travertine, small end down and with one diagonal side. The actual basin is cut into the top, rather like a baby's bath (the architect stated that babies could be baptized by immersion in it).
In contrast to the terrazzo floor elsewhere, which is a pale brown colour, around the font the paving is in grey stone. Also, the floor here is sunken, with a step down. Perhaps the architect wished to recall symbolically the days when baptism involved full immersion of adults, but he has created a trip hazard which has had to be roped off.
The baptistery is also the church's shrine to Our Lady. A mediaeval painted wooden statue has been provided of the Madonna and Child, under her title of Our Lady of Divine Mercy. It is described as a product of the so-called Scuola Campionese, and is dated between 1310 and 1330.
The church is open:
Daily 7:30 to 12:30, 16:00 to 19:30.
Tor Tre Teste is the next suburb out after Centocelle to the east, in between the Via Prenestina and the Via Casilina. Even its inhabitants are liable to describe it as a cesso.
The best way to get there is perhaps on a scooter (except in winter). By public transport, you take the old 14 tram from its terminal at the side of Termini station, and get off at the other end of the route. Cross the main road, and catch the 565 bus which will take you to the church.
The church is actually on a one-way loop. To get the return bus, you have to walk down the hill to the north from the entrance, to a road junction where the return bus route emerges from under a block of flats on the right hand side.
Mass is celebrated:
Weekdays 9:00, 18:00;
Sundays and Solemnities 9:00, 10:00, 11:30, 18:00.
Times may change in high summer.