I must first make a confession: I am something of a Catholic ‘grave hunter.’ That is, I am fascinated by the graves of Catholic giants: popes, saints, theologians, etc., especially those who are somewhat forgotten. I make it part of my travels to locate and visit their tombs and pray for their souls.
A few months ago, for instance, I was finally able to visit the tomb of Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani. Although I knew the location of his grave for many years, I never managed to enter the small church inside the Vatican where the tomb of Cardinal Ottaviani is located.
During the summer a friend of a friend on Facebook send me a message asking if I knew where Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange was buried. An excellent question because not only is Father Garrigou-Lagrange in my top 5 of forgotten Catholic giants but I also never came across any indication in the secondary literature or on the Internet as to where he might be buried.
I started out be checking anew the literature on Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange and doing a search on the Internet. I than realized that surely the archives of the Dominican province where he belonged to must have records containing such information. Another search on the Internet brought me to Fr. Jean-Michel Potvin OP, the director of the library of Le Saulchoir in Paris.
On July 3, 2014 I send him an email asking if he knew the answer to my question. I must admit I wasn’t very optimistic: even if my email would reach him and even if he were at his office during the summer, he probably had better things to do than answering such an obscure question from a total stranger, given that he most likely would not have such information at hand and would have to go into the archives to find out where Father Garrigou-Lagrange was buried.
But to my surprise he answered my email within 30 minutes, saying that he was buried in the cemetery plot of the Dominicans at the cemetery of Campo Verano, near San Lorenzo fuori le mura, in Rome. So on a cloudy but humid Monday morning in September I took tram 3 to San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, the area outside Rome which suffered heavily from air strikes in July 1943 and as a result urged Pope Pius XII to leave the Vatican and visit the area, a rare event in those days.
Given the vastness of the cemetery I trusted there would be an office where they could point me to the section reserved for the Dominicans or at least a detailed map but (once again) it appeared I had placed too much trust in Italian efficiency. After walking around for an hour or so and coming across many burial monuments for orders and religious congregations, I realized it would be impossible to find the location on my own.
Heading back to the entrance my eye caught the inscription “Ordine Domenicano”. How could I have missed it, a large chapel-like structure immediately on the left of the central entrance?!? I had reached my destination, but only to discover that it was firmly locked by a metal bar door. I comforted myself by saying that at least I now knew the exact location and that I could easily return the next time I was in Rome.
But as C.S. Lewis said, “the love of knowledge is a kind of madness,” so I started wondering about the existence of a back entrance. And indeed there was one, and it seemed to be locked by an identical metal bar door. However when I touched the door it opened easily and I noticed that the lock was broken. Now I faced a dilemma. Could it be that I had come so close only to find the door barred by a broken lock? Was I allowed to enter? Surely my intention was pious: I wanted to pray for the soul of Father Garrigou-Lagrange.
I hope the readers will forgive me, but as you will already imagine I entered the chapel. From where I was standing I had access to two floors: the ground floor and the basement. Both floors consisted of two small corridors, divided by the staircase leading to the basement. The corridors of the ground floor were dimly lit by two small windows at the end of each corridor, which were covered with spider webs in the window sills. The walls of the corridors on the ground floor were divided vertically so as to have room for six persons.
As I proceeded through the corridor on the right of the back entrance, I came across the tomb of the French cardinal and Dominican Paul-Pierre Philippe (1905-1984). At the end of the corridor, fittingly lit by the Roman sun, there was the tomb of Father Garrigou-Lagrange. R.I.P.
The corridor on the left of the back entrance contains among others the tomb of the Italian cardinal, Dominican and Theologian of the Papal Household Maria Luigi Ciappi (1909-1996).
Having come this far, I had to inspect the basement. Who knows that other giant of thomistic studies might be buried here? Using the light coming from my cell phone I proceeded to the dark basement to find the tomb of my fellow countryman the Belgian Dominican Clemens Vansteenkiste, who almost solely edited the Rassegna di letteratura tomistica until his death in 1997.
Although I still had a three-day conference to go to, my journey had already reached its destination.
Have a look at the gallery "Jörgen Vijgen's Dominican Tomb Hunt" for more pictures!