Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Trattoria: How to Savor Italy

EDITOR'S NOTE: Do not read this if you are hungry. I am not responsible for your own behavior after reading about Italian food!

There are very few days left in Italy, and it would be downright rude and even sinful were I not to comment on the food we've discovered in this country over the past two weeks or so.

I am going to comment on a meal that Michele and I had in Firenze, at a fine establishment called the "Trattoria Ponte Vecchio." Many restaurants we've enjoyed in Italy were recommended by friends and colleagues; this one was by Fr. Peter Rocca, c.s.c., the Rector of the Basilica at Notre Dame. After you read this entry, you'll know why Peter recommended it to us!

First, the wine:
Not just any wine. We had read about Tuscany's Brunello wines – our waiter recommended a bottle of Leonardo 2007 Brunello di Montalcino: a full, robust red that complimented beef, cheese, and pasta.

Next, to get the palette jumping, a bowl of fresh cherries:
I had never heard of fruit before the meal. But our server smiled and said, "They are fresh – first crop! Wait until you try with the wine!" He was right... The newly picked fruit and the vintage had this marvelous way of combining and complementing that we had never experienced before.

Now, for ordering:
Our server (the owner himself) was outstanding! He never pushed food on us... Rather, the whole idea was "you try a little of this; trust me, it will be beautiful!" So instead of debating first and second courses and worrying about ending up with more food than we could eat, we simply reveled in our host's ideas. "Not too much!" he would exclaim, his pretty-good English dripping with an Italian accent, "just try all these tastes!"

We call them "appetizers" or "starters." Our server exclaimed with pride that the olive oil he served with his bruschetta was their very own – and he pointed to the vat in the corner of the restaurant where it was stored. Fresh, warm bread, al pomodoro fresco e basilico (with fresh tomatoes and basil), and the family olive oil dripping all around it. Still, of course, sipping on that fabulous Brunello....

Primi piatti (also called the "Main" course):
Michele: Risotto con Ortaggi di Stagione o Funghi Porcini (in this case, it ended up being e funghi)
Risotto is a type of grain, a lot like rice, but more substantial, and way more tasty if it is cooked correctly. This dish was earthy and creamy at the same time. Our waiter tried a little experiment in the kitchen, combining both the fresh, local vegetables and the porcini mushrooms into one amazing, steaming dish of loveliness.
Steve: Fiocchi Ripieni al Pecorino e Pere alla Crema di Robiola e Tartuffo.
"Fiocchi" is a kind of pasta, shaped like the old-fashioned corks on champagne bottles (kind of a cross between ravioli, tortellini, and those little bags of nuts you get as wedding favors). Inside this homemade shell was stuffed a hidden treasure: pear and cheese, which was then topped with a cream and truffle sauce. The amazing thing about this dish: your palate never seemed to tire of it... The last taste was as fabulous as the first.

When we had literally cleaned our first plates with warm bread, our server came out and announced happily "Scarpette! You honor me when I see there is nothing left!" His delight in our love of his cooking was obvious to see... And it made us enjoy an already fabulous meal all the more. (N.B. Our aural interpretation and/or spelling of scarpette may be totally incorrect; this word translates as "shoes." Maybe someone can explain this? Perhaps a colloquial usage?)

Secondi piatti ("Meat" course):
Here, because we didn't want to get too stuffed – and again, at our server's suggestion – "you split!" he exclaimed, "save room for dulce!"
Tagliata di 'Vitellone' su letto di Rucola con Scaglie di Parmigiana
e Verdure Grigliate
This dish (served with a side plate of grilled vegetables) was lean, thinly sliced beef draped over lettuce, with shaved, aged (15 years!) Parmesan next to it. The remarkable thing about the beef: it was served with a wedge of lime, which was more than a garnish. Letting the lime juice drip over the meat brought out an entirely different taste to this second plate.

Once again, our waiter cried out, "Scarpette!" and everyone was having a splendid time!

Dulce (Dessert)
A slice of Cheesecake and a slice of Strawberry Yogurt Cake (basically like a softer, flavored version of the cheesecake), Frutto di Bosco (mixed berries) sauce, more fresh cherries and slices of pineapple.
This actually wasn't on the menu... It was something the owner just concocted on the spot and put before us. "This is for you!" he said, "because you love our cooking so much!" I actually don't have the Italian for it, because we never saw it on the printed page; it was just an expression of gratitude, found on a plate.

Final thoughts: when you multiply the number of days you've lived times two or three (depending on the number of times you eat a day), how often can you say that a meal is truly memorable? Remembering, in a singular way, one particular meal, is indeed a high honor.

To the owners of the Trattoria Ponte Vecchio, and to many other places over the last weeks as well, we owe a tremendous debt of thanks and joy. They have created for us nights filled with new discoveries – their joy of food and life, the sacred act of eating, of cherishing meals and reveling in the blessing of food and wine. These we will carry with us, far beyond the boundaries of their country, and long after we have left Italy behind.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Ponte Vecchio, Firenze, Tuscany, Italy

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Duomo, Where All Are Welcome

Everywhere we travel in Italy, it seems we encounter another glimpse of what it means to be Church. In Rome, that glimpse was universal, grandiose, on an epic scale. In Assisi, almost the opposite: simple and vulnerable, rejecting the spectacular for the humble.

Now we have moved from Umbria to Tuscany, to the city steeped in medieval pride, art and history. We have settled for a few days in Firenze (Florence), and our first stop was the Cathedral church of Santa Maria del Fiore, – "Holy Mary of the Flower". Or, as the Florentines would call it, the "Duomo".

When first encountering this splendid haven of prayer, a pilgrim can be easily overwhelmed! Here are spectacular shades of marble, not inside the edifice, but rather on the outside: green, salmon, white, cream, slate grey, pearl, all combining together in an architectural chorus not often seen in a city square. And to balance the facade, two eye-popping parentheses: the ruddy, noble dome (a later addition), and the stately bell tower that stands like a sentinel over the Piazza San Giovanni.

I've become very conscious of something, as we move as pilgrims, through this landscape of Catholicism. It is how the church welcomes the many who come to pray, come to photograph, come to find healing, come to gawk. As with all things, the welcome says much about the family.

With much respect, I would like to quote from the brochure given me as we entered the Cathedral:

This church is the Cathedral of Florence, where the bishop
celebrates and preaches the word of God from his
It is also the 'Duomo', a word that comes from the Latin
domus, meaning 'house'.
The Duomo is the house of God and of His people.
But the Duomo, like every other church, is above all
"the house of prayer for all nations" (Isaiah 56:7).
So it is your house, even if you are not Florentine,
even if you are not a believer. Welcome!"

Well. Can you believe this?

I come as a pilgrim, and I am told by the Archdiocese of Florence that the Duomo is mine as well. This is the epitome of hospitality!

As well, it is a far cry from some of the diatribe I've witnessed in our own country, specifically when it comes to raising the words of the anthem "All Are Welcome" by Marty Haugen – a song banned by some dioceses in America. Yet listen to the words of the hierarchy in Firenze: "... even if you are not a believer. Welcome!"

This is an ancient seat of Catholicism in Europe. Daily, they usher thousands of people through their doors, a lot of whom probably have no interest in being there save to find another Kodak moment for their trip.

But whom am I to judge? The docents and ushers at the Duomo do not do so... They simply smile and open the door (and make sure the women's shoulders are covered). And I firmly believe our American church could learn much from this uncompromising spirit of welcome so strongly encouraged at the gateway to Firenze.

Even if you are not a believer. Welcome!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Piazza San Giovanni, Firenze, Tuscany, Italy

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Thoughts at an Assisi Bus Stop

In the year leading up to our summer of study and travel in Europe, many of our friends shared our excitement about the upcoming pilgrimage, and they did so by asking a common question: "So, tell me where are you going?"

The seasoned travelers asking this question would take in the itinerary, ask some questions (and inevitably pass along their favorite restaurants, which were legion) and give a little advice.

But to a person, when we would name "Assisi," these well-heeled pilgrims all behaved the same way. Their eyes betrayed them – a mist would come over their countenance, as if they were being taken to another place, a place that mere words or casual conversation could not adequately express. There would usually be a sigh to accompany this change of face, almost as if they were brought back to the memory of a lover or a friend.

Sitting at the bus stop this morning, waiting for our transport to the Assisi train station, I now understand the mist before their eyes.

While at the bus stop, we happened upon an American nun from Hawaii, who was also on a European pilgrimage, and quickly started up a conversation. She, too, having been to Lourdes and other holy destinations, stumbled when it came to describing what she had just experienced in Assisi. "I need time to think about this," she said.

I need time to think about the place, too. There are lessons to be learned about poverty and integrity, about the ability to think and sing and pray with a sense of abandon. Even while I'm still traveling, I need to set aside time to ponder the lessons that this dusty little village set before me.

The swallows are still dive bombing the streets in joyful formation. The bells are still marking the hours for the folk who call this place their home. Bus loads of tourists are gathering on the hill below, ready for their assault of one more place on their itinerary. The shops and houses are opening up their shutters, ready to greet the day.

And here I sit, waiting for the "A" bus, my creative soul simply wanting to sit and write and write, in order to try and capture some of the spirit of Francis through song. I bought two sets of his prayers, tiny little books, at the Basilica bookstore – one in English, the other, a translation of the same, in Italian.

Because if I can't capture how I feel about this place in words, I can sure give it a shot through music. Somehow, I think the latter is the better medium.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Piazza di Santa Chiara, Assisi, Umbria, Italy

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Little Jewel of Assisi

I like to sprinkle pictures in and around my musings, but one of the great challenges in Europe (apart from finding reliable Internet) is complying with the admonition to NOT use cameras in church.

I understand this. If there's one thing that annoys me at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, it's a busload of noisy, nosy newcomers with Nikons (how's that for alliteration?) hanging off their bellies, wanting to save the moment by way of digital memories. Don't they know they'd be better off praying?

And now – I'm one of those tourists.

So I've been very careful, for the most part, to keep the camera stashed away while in the confines of a sacred space. And this is a hard thing to do, because a lot of churches in Europe are drop dead gorgeous. But they are also hallowed places of pilgrimage, and my camera will only detract from that experience.

But every once in a while, you get lucky: 1) a church with no tourists in it, because it's off the beaten path; 2) because it's off the beaten path, there are no signs or notices warning you to keep your camera packed away; and 3) the place is simply lovely and reeks of history and beautiful imagery.

Tourist books are important in this regard, because if you bone up and know what you're looking for, that luck might just visit you more often than if you just happened to stumble upon something.

Tucked away in a quiet little lane, as you're making your way westward toward the immense Basilica of San Francesco, there lies this little jewel... Actually, it's one of Assisi's oldest churches, still completely intact, still faithfully ringing its triune church bells, almost a thousand years after it was constructed of rugged limestone from the Umbrian countryside.

This church predates Saint Francis by nearly a hundred years, having been built in the late 1100's. But the intimacy and quiet witness of the structure cannot be denied. It is the Chiesa di San Stefano, the Church of St. Steven, first martyr of the Christian community. And legend has it (always believe the legends) that at the moment of St. Francis' death, these bells began to ring, unaccountably and miraculously.

So apologies for today's blog, where you might be expecting fabulous pictures of the Tomb of St. Francis or St. Clare! This photographer obeyed the signs...

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Chiesa di San Stefano, Assisi, Umbria, Italy

This Little Town, Where Stones Are Humming

Maybe you've been to Assisi before; I never had, either. Sure, I've watched "Brother Sun, Sister Moon," but to be here, looking at a grove of olive trees that were supposedly planted by St. Clare; to walk down streets of a town whose inner walls haven't changed much since the 13th century; to taste the hot, honest air of a stone-paved piazza – this changes a person: both their vision, and their heart.

Michele and I trekked carefully up the baked pavement yesterday. Our hotel, the Umbra, is quite a ways up these crazy ascents, adjacent to the Piazza del Comune, just below the Cathedral of San Rufino.

Yes, there are churches to visit. But even before that, there is much to take in, much to absorb about this man Francesco and how his actions changed the course of the Church.

He started out in the military, yet soon renounced its power and its earthly might. He found it harder to distance himself from his family's wealth and the powerful orbit of his father, yet he walked away from that, too. And to complete a trinity of denial, he finally and utterly turned his back on ecclesial might, doing so in a gesture that left no room for misunderstanding: he simply disrobed before his bishop.

The stones of this town keep all these stories, I think. And, late at night, as you walk through Assisi, you can hear these stones, gently humming.

If Francis rejected a lot of things, he accepted as well. Legend has it that he accepted the trust of animals. And perhaps better than most human beings, he allowed the grace and beauty of creation – all of it, even death – to impact his soul. His kinship with Jesus was so strong, he allowed the wounds of his Savior to be seared upon his own body, too.

I am convinced, after walking around here a while, that the whole of creation has kept up Francis' song, long after he left this earth. It is a quiet song, one that can easily be threatened by other noises. But its melody in this little medieval hamlet is pervasive.

You can hear this song, swooping down, in the thousands of pixilated voices of the swallows. You can hear its humble thunder, in the footsteps of pilgrims – pilgrims beyond count – that quietly shuffle through the crypt which holds his tomb. You can hear its homespun lilt in the conversations of the nonas, closing up shop at the end of the day, or in the woman's voice, as she opens up her shutters above the street where you are walking, calling out to a neighbor in colorful Italian. You can hear it in the myriad church bells, announcing their duties every quarter hour.

And yes, you can hear its liturgical cadence as well, in the voices of Francis' sisters, the Poor Clares, just as we did when we joined them for Vespers.

It is the undeniable song of Assisi, and its melody continues, eight hundred years after a young man began his betrothal to a lady called poverty. No amount of "Pax et Bonum" ceramic kitsch can quell its theme, either. The song is everywhere.

Tonight, we let that song wash over our tired souls. This town has a song to offer. And we need to be attentive to its composer.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Via Macelli Vecchi,Assisi,Italy

Monday, June 25, 2012

Each Step of the Journey, Part the Next

Before we left for the Spring Tour with the Folk Choir, I made sure that there were a few maps downloaded onto my iPad, so that I could illustrate all the better each stage of our pilgrimage through Europe.

What's here is the next stage: after spending about six intense days in Rome, both Michele and I agreed that it would be best to experience some shorter, two-day journeys into the heart of faith and culture in Italy.

And so, to balance off all the hierarchical, huge, expansive and in some ways overwhelming aspects of the city of Rome, we decided the very first place we wanted to visit - in fact, probably needed to visit, was a place that was the antithesis of all that: a place that was intimate, connected with nature, close to the heart of much in my own spirituality, yet still just as much a part of and formative in the history of the Catholic church.

So we set out for:


- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Assisi, Umbria, Italy

Oh Look! A Church! Oh Look! A(nother) Church!

On one of our last nights in Rome, we were walking at dusk, heading past the Victor Emmanuel Memorial and on to the Coliseum. "Oh look!" she exclaimed. "A church!"

What had just popped out of her mouth was lunacy, and it hit her in an instant; we had seen hundreds of churches over the past five days (many of which we probably didn't even know were churches as we past them). She made a crazy face and then just started laughing uproariously.

We have, for sure, seen many, many houses of God over these past five precious days. Some have been overwhelming: certainly St. Peter's and the Basilica of St. John Lateran. And these certainly did leave an impact on us, as we moved from station to station along our Roman pilgrimage.

Some churches were almost outlandish: for example, the explosion of Bernini's artwork crammed into the little church of Santa Maria della Victoria. The intensity of the faux-golden-rays and piles of statuary inched me on to a sacramental headache. (How can anyone get past all that stuff to the heart of the Eucharist?)

Some, however, were striking and memorable in their simplicity. Sancta Cecilia in Trastevere was a beautiful space, both for worship and by way of honor to the woman who is the patron saint of music.

And we will not forget the intimacy of mosaic that was so beautifully described by our friend Paolo at Sancta Maria: Jesus, with his arm around his mother, all done in stunning mosaic above the sanctuary space. It is not often that the pair of them are depicted in such an affectionate way.

Rome was a city of superlatives: it would not be unusual to see a plaza or street intersection with sometimes up to three churches, all Catholic, crammed together. At the American church of Sancta Susannah, two others were literally a stone's throw away, including a marvelous little church run by the Trappists (and, of course, dedicated to Saint Bernard).

And there were other superlatives as well: the heat, the press of humanity, the wacky bus system that we were still trying to figure out five days later. Yet, even with all this, Rome left a lasting aura of fondness with both me and Michele. And now, after this visit, we have made some solid connections and friendships. By virtue of staying at the Villa Irlanda, we now have established a great relationship with the new rector, Fr. Kieran O'Carroll. And we will also continue to deepen our collaboration, even creatively, with the Sant'Egidio community, something that might also have repercussions for Notre Dame's own programs in the city.

Time, now, to say good bye. You all know how that is said in Italian!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:En route from Rome, Italy

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Original Folkhead

The first time the Folk Choir traveled from the campus of Notre Dame, on their maiden pilgrimage, the journey was not to some ordinary destination. Sure, we could have taken baby steps and traveled to Pittsburgh, or even Chicago, or somewhere reasonable within a days' drive of South Bend.

Nope. We traveled to Ireland instead.

A pretty entertaining thing happened in the early part of that first journey. After a couple of days on Irish soil, friends of ours from campus, Jim Lies and Cate O'Hare, happened upon our crazy band of liturgical singers. Being at least as crazy as us, if not more, they decided to make our itinerary their own.

Now, what do you call a gaggle of people who follow a bunch of musicians from place to place? Back in the 80's, the model for such epic, absurd behavior was those dedicated fans who took up with the Grateful Dead – becoming, in the annals of musical folklore, the "Deadheads".

Now Jim and Cate are pretty inventive people, and it didn't take long – maybe just a half pint of Guinness – to name themselves.

Thus became the first "Folkheads," a term they can lay claim to, with understandable honors, for the rest of their lives.

Yesterday, the honor was ours as we had the chance to join Jim Lies, c.s.c., for a very long and delightful lunch in the shadow of the Sant'Egidio community, close to the Piazza of Santa Maria di Trastevere.

Good, dear friends always seem to be able to pick up where they left off, no matter what kind of time has elapsed or how little correspondence has taken place in the intervening months or years. It was a joy to be in his company, to reminisce about the choir he had taken up with more than twenty years ago, and to look forward, in awe, to what might come next.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Piazza del Santa Maria di Trastevere, Rome, Italy

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Lessons of Sant'Egidio

When I decided to travel to Rome many months ago, one of my most important destinations wasn't just the Vatican... While I wanted to go there, and witness the "great hub" of our faith, it's almost impossible to see Catholicism up close, and observe her intimate workings with the faithful, in such an enormous landscape.

So yes, the Vatican was an important stop on the way. But the community that has seized my imagination since I heard of it is Sant'Egidio, and it was there that Michele and I traveled yesterday, walking all the way from Santa Quattro Coronati to Trastevere in the blazing (95°) heat of a Roman summer day.

First, about the neighborhood: Trastevere is a little bit like the Latin Quarter in Paris – quirky, hip, jumping with action at night, musical, filled with joyful restaurants, safe (unless you're gullible enough to get a lift in an unmarked cab).

Now, take this neighborhood back about forty years. At that time, a small band of teenagers, led by an idealistic young man by the name of Andrea Riccardi, had the audacity to ask for squatters' rights at a Carmelite convent that was about to close. What he was proposing was an unheard-of thing in the heart of Rome and its Catholic bureaucracy: an intentional lay foundation, devoted to peace and prayer.

Now, move ahead two generations, to where we are today. Sant'Egidio has become a worldwide organization. They meet daily for prayer, sung simply in beautiful harmony. (Their liturgies now take place in the glorious Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere).
Their music is a marvelous amalgamation of three- and four-part harmony, sung in Italian, and done in a choral plainchant style. The liturgy which welcomed us yesterday evening was a meditation on the Holy Cross, for which they provided beautiful bound prayer books, complete with all the texts which were to be sung.

One of the many causes they have championed: starting a community restaurant (where we ate late last night, and the meal was among the best we've had in Rome). The restaurant serves as a place of employment for special needs members of the community, as well as a showcase for artwork from the area.

They have an outreach program to Africa and support for AIDS victims. They've worked out a deal with Italian vineyard owners to sell their labels and contribute profits to those who struggle with this disease.

Last night, Michele and I had one of the most engaging conversations of our pilgrimage thus far, with community member Paolo Mancinelli. We spoke long into the night, of ecclesial trends and politics (on both sides of the Atlantic). We shared stories of the liturgical traditions of Notre Dame and Sant'Egidio. Looking ahead to our itinerary, we anticipated the visits to come, to Taizé and Tamié and Solesmes, and the musical treasures yet to discover. We spoke of the unique gift of Notre Dame students and what they bring to the world. Paolo told us, with much joy, of the workings of his community, what they have witnessed thus far, what they still hope to achieve.

All the while, an incredible meal was set before us, served with blessed hospitality by the staff of their restaurant.

So often in this spiritual world within which I work, I continue to see evidence of what Don Cozzens, S.J., calls the "great divorce": the schism between those who work in the liturgical world and those who strive for social justice. But here, in this little neighborhood on the west side of the Tiber River, there is a community of lay people who have unlocked the secret of healthy spirituality. They have woven together, with great care, a profound love of the liturgy with a rooted initiative of community service.

And if abundance is the mark of the Holy Spirit, then a resounding "yes" has been given this vision. Sant'Egidio has grown such that they now have associations all over the world. We would do well to pay attention to the workings of the Spirit, and what it means for the future of the Church.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Trastevere, Rome, Italy

Friday, June 22, 2012

A Second Scavi

Months ago, we made contact with a Marianist brother,who is also the brother-in-law of a former choir member, Jen Mason McAward. Br. Michael McAward S.M., works in Rome with his religious order, and he had agreed to guide us through a unique and ancient Catholic church, literally at the foot of the hill from where we're staying. This church is called the Basilica of San Clemente.

If only a few pilgrims know about the Scavi excavations underneath the Basilica of St. Peter's, even fewer are the numbers that would go seeking out this amazing passage through history. But travel we did, with Br. Michael's guidance.

We started our journey on the church's sidewalk, where we could look down the street, all the way to the Coliseum and the Forum Romanum. Did we know that thousands of years ago, all of this was swampland? The Romans found a way to drain and fill it, and thus created the real estate upon which they would eventually build their empire (and slaughter Christians).
As we walked into church, it was obvious that we were in a building far more ancient than anything we'd seen thus far. The hint: old doorways were plastered shut; the curves of their arches began at our feet. Clearly, this house of prayer was built upon another, much older edifice. In fact, where we stood – the "new church" – dated from the 1100's!

Then we went down a level, to the first church. Here were the oldest foundations of the chiesa, and these perfectly aligned columns, mosaic tile and masonry dated from the 4th century... All lying just four meters below the floor of the present place of worship. It had simply been lying in state for fifteen hundred years, until an Irish Dominican by the name of Fr. Mulooley decided to do some digging.

But there was more. Descending yet another level, we were led through actual city streets, deep in the earth, streets that were in existence at the time of the Emperor Nero, under whose reign most of the city went up in smoke in 64 A.D. And there, dozens of feet under the floor of the Christian altar of sacrifice, lo and behold – the remains of a temple dedicated to the Roman god Mithras.

It was a staggering walk through time, and Br. McAward led us well. Who would have guessed, at street level, that this church was sitting quietly on top of two thousand years of perfectly layered history?

And here was the final aha! moment... San Clemente has a unique dedication to Saints Cyril and Methodius – the former of which wrote a particularly lovely text, that goes like this:
"Make of our hands a throne,
So as to make a place for the King of heaven."

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Basilica of San Clemente, Rome, Italy

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Mother of All Churches

If someone were to ask you "What is the most important Catholic Church in the world?" what might your response be?

If you were thinking on your feet, you might say, "my own parish".

And you would be right.

But if you're going for the technically and hierarchically correct response to this question, you might respond "St. Peter's in Rome".

And you would be wrong.

While St. Peter's obviously gets a lot of press, and most people think it to be the Mother Church of the Catholic world, in actual fact, the "most important church" in Rome is the Cathedral Church of the Pope – the Archbasilica, of Saint John Lateran (San Giovanni in Laterano).

Visiting churches in Rome is even more challenging than doing so in Paris – sometimes they are so numerous that there are two or three in a single city block! But if the chance can be had, along with a visit to the Vatican, St. John Lateran is an important pilgrimage point. And, in fact, visiting the Lateran is actually a visit to Vatican City, because the Archbasilica is formally part of the Vatican by way of territory.

November 9th falls on a Friday this year, but if it fell on a Sunday, a curious thing would happen, one that seldom takes place in the goings-on of the church calendar: the Sunday readings and Prayers of Ordinary Time are scratched, and a whole special set of prayers and Scripture passages take their place.

This is because the Lateran Basilica is actually the Cathedral Church of the Bishop of Rome – the cathedra, or episcopal chair (and tangible sign of leadership for the bishop) is actually found here, and not in the Vatican. And therefore, worldwide, the Church celebrates this day as a major solemnity in her calendar.

So today, even though it was a challenging 95° in Rome, we actually denied ourselves a siesta and walked over to this famous place of prayer.

The church is staggering and simple, both at the same time. Huge marble parquet slabs and enormous statues of the twelve apostles usher you down the main nave:

Finally, just as with St. Peter's in Rome, there is an enormous baldacchino over the main altar, at the intersection of the cruciform sections of the nave and the apse. All of it on such a grand scale! And while not as colossal as the Vatican, it too occupies a place of honor as a Papal Basilica in the Eternal City.

With one of the photo apps from my iPhone, I was able to take this panorama of the ceiling of the Lateran, starting at about the vestibule and moving all the way down the nave. Pretend you're looking up....

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Basilica Cathedral of St. John Lateran

Il Papa!

Twice now, in my life, I've had the privilege of being in the presence of a Holy Father.

The first time was in 1993, when the Archdiocese of Denver hosted World Youth Day at Cherry Creek State Park. For that, thanks to the advocacy of my newly-appointed Director of Campus Ministry, Dick Warner, c.s.c., the entire Folk Choir traveled out to join in the choir – we were one of six ensembles that had been invited.

John Paul II was at the zenith of his papacy: robust, energetic, able to pull the young people of the world together like a rock star (his arrival by helicopter is one I won't soon forget). He came right up on the staging before the Mass, belting out "The music! The music! Thank God for the music!"

This time, of course, was very different. Benedict is aging quickly, is a quieter man with his own style. And this time, my witnessing of the Holy Father was at one of the regular Wednesday audiences, held in the great hall specifically constructed for these kind of occasions.

Yet I couldn't help but draw strong similarities between the two gatherings. For despite the differences in men and age and personality and actual venue, there was one common denominator that rooted the two assemblages in undeniable unity.

That common denominator was the People of God.

On both occasions, I was privileged to see what happens when the faithful gather around the "Pater Familias". It is one of the great gifts of the Catholic community that we have such a servant, the "Pontifex Maximus," (which is one of his official titles, my favorite, which translates "the greatest builder of bridges").

When I consider the expression of this thing we call Catholicism, it has often occurred to me that the papacy is a unique gift. In that assembly hall, there we all were, divided by language, cultural expressions, color of skin – a panoply of differences, all with their unique power to divide and cause dissension. Yet there we were, all united, tangibly, surrounding the leadership and service of this one human being. It is an awesome responsibility, a huge cross. But it is a tremendous gift to our family of faith.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Assembly Hall, Vatican City, Italy

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Layers of History, Layers of Death

Normally I start out a daily blog with some snapshot of where I've been, something that's evocative of the place or the landscape.
OK, just so you know where I'm writing from:

But, in actuality, I have no pictures to offer of the place we really visited yesterday, for we were deep underneath the main floor of the Basilica of St. Peter's, in a place removed from the hordes of tourists who were walking just a few meters overhead.
In 1940, Pope Pius XI began an excavation underneath the Vatican, in order to ascertain the burial place of the man whose martyrdom consecrated that site for all eternity, the person to whom Jesus had handed over the keys to his kingdom. That excavation led to fascinating results, the first of which was the finding of a Necropolis, one that had artifacts and artwork pointing in a straight line to the dawn of Christianity in Rome.
This trek is called a Scavi tour; only a few dozen people can do the thing daily, because it is so cramped. And, to be honest, it is not for every tourist. You need to reserve a date months in advance, and you have to be willing to put up with dank, dark, and very confined places. Count me in.

As our guide wound us along the route, she pointed out (by pointing to the ceiling) just where we were in reference to the teeming Basilica overhead. But down here, all was eerily quiet, the air was more than close – it was oppressively pushing in on all sides.

Bit by bit, we were brought back in history: to the Roman Mausoleum that first claimed rights to this small plot of land, then to the First Century A.D., when artwork began to combine the images of Christ with the Roman Sun-god Helios. We were getting closer.

Finally, we were led deep beneath the main altar of the Vatican above. Our guide explained that St. Peter's bones had been moved out of its original burial spot, that spot being a grave for the enemies of the Roman State and a place for common thieves and poor men. She explained the layers of dirt surrounding a small cache of bones that had proved to be relocated – and then she pointed to a small hole that had been carved into the wall, a hole that reverently held what is now believed to be the remains of Jesus' friend, the fisherman Peter.

Deep below the floor of the Vatican, where thousands were using sophisticated flash cameras to record their visit, we all stood in the silence and half-light of a tomb. Above our heads, marble and gold and terrazzo graced the heavenly architecture that is now the Vatican. But down here, the earthen walls quietly stood in witness to one who had humbly requested to be crucified upside down.

Christianity, when it is at its best, cannot get away from her closeness to the simple, the earthy truths, the poor, the desperate. Later on, we can glorify our heroes and heroines. But first and last, our roots are in the graves of those who died clinging, in poverty, to the richness to eternal life.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Underneath Vatican City, Rome, Italy

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Rome and Fairfield (Connecticut)

Who knew? That when I walked into the chapel at the heart of the Pontifical Irish College in Rome, the first thing I thought of was:
Fairfield, Connecticut.

OK, let me explain.

To the somewhat trained eye or ear, you can come across something and say "I know who wrote that!" or "It's the work of this artist!"

That happened in Paris – after a while, even to the untrained, you could tell the work of the Flemish artists apart from their contemporaries. You could see where the Post-Impressionist school was heading. Music is the same, in its own way.

So when we walked into the chapel and was immediately stunned by the beauty of the mosaics on the walls, I thought to myself, "I have seen the work of this artist before". Except the last time, it was at a liturgy that scarce will be forgotten, and I knew precisely where I was: in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit, at Sacred Heart University – and the work was that of Rev. Marko Rupnik and his colleagues.

That liturgy, two years ago, was our formal "Sending Off Liturgy" for the House of Brigid. Proximate to our friends the Calcutt family, the chapel has a richness and a beauty of acoustic that made for a marvelous venue as we prepared our next group of singers for their work in Wexford.
There have been times, when in Irish churches, that the simple richness of art and sensitivity to liturgical understanding have come together in overwhelming beauty. One of those times, for me, was the Choir's visit to Monaghan Cathedral. And another was today: the Irish College's Chapel is named the "Chapel of All The Saints of Ireland". In the sanctuary, there appears a chorus of men and women through the years; next to the sacrament, there is a compelling mosaic of Mary, Mother of God, cradling the treasure of the Church, set afire by the Gifts of the Spirit.

Artists who are worth their weight in gold leave their signature in their work, but in the liturgical arts their signature should always be deft; their work should serve as a window into the sacred, their own hand quietly serving in the background. It is a credit to the College that they chose this skilled artisan to adorn their place of prayer. Their chapel is a quiet but profound witness to what a sacred space can and should be.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Via dei Santissimi Quattro,Rome,Italy

On the Threshold of the Eternal City

For a week, we pretended it was summer in Paris, even though the temperatures barely crossed 60 degrees most days. But today, we boarded a RyanAir flight (and by the way, the flight was great, and yes, cheap, but the plane was clean, the airline ran like clockwork, and all the staff were courteous!) and landed, just before lunch, at Rome's Ciampino Airport.

Temperature when we landed: 84 degrees!

The land, the colors, the climate, the gelato – everything has changed from yesterday.

We are staying, at the recommendation of our presbyters friends from the Diocese of Ferns in Ireland, at Villa Irlanda, and this will be our base of operations for the next week. We are wonderfully situated about four blocks in either direction from the Coliseum to the west, and the Basilica of St. John Lateran to the east.

This visit is timely, because I'll be running into a number of priests who have either been collaborators with or who have heard of Teach Bhríde, the House of Brigid. And, of course, Dublin is just wrapping up its International Eucharistic Congress, and there will be a few that will be coming over here after all the hoopla of that event.

So Villa Irlanda serves a double purpose; it's perfectly situated, and it's also close to colleagues.

We often associate cities with their monikers, and many of them are self explanatory: windy (Chicago), mile-high (Denver), by the bay (San Francisco). But European ones seem to be a bit more elegant, and less descriptive. Paris calls herself the City of Lights (and for more than just the light show from the Eiffel Tower). Rome's is perhaps the grandest, being called the Eternal City. And I presume that the reason for this is because her identity is wrapped up with the things that last far beyond this age.

So for the next week, we are stepping into the timelessness of this place.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Via dei Santissimi Quattro,Rome,Italy

Friday, June 15, 2012

What a City Teaches

Here, on our last full day in Paris, there's a bit of a challenge: how might one find a way to convey the ways a city has shaped a person over the past week? There are lessons to be learned, and now is the time to write a few of them down, lest they be forgotten.

In some ways, we experienced Paris just like we would have encountered any other major metropolitan city: mind-numbing choices of restaurants, activities, sights to see. People (especially waiters and waitresses) who were both delightful or rude, sometimes having nothing to do with your own disposition as a tourist. Metro to be learned, places to keep seeking out for solace (the arrondissement of St. Germain des Prés).

In the midst of all this, one thing about Paris kept coming back to me. Here is a city that passionately asks the question:
"What will you leave behind? And will it help humanity?"

Paris held up examples in every category – from letters (Hugo) to philosophy (Voltaire), from the healing arts (Curie) to the warrior-saint (Jean d'Arc), from the deeply wounded painter (Van Gogh) to the sculptor of an era (Rodin), from a designer and engineer (Eiffel) to a composer (Debussy). In each, the city held forth the full measure of their accomplishments, and with just as much excitement, told the story of their weaknesses as well.

Even the foibles of the city itself! We heard, at one point this week, a guide proudly calling the Tour d'Eiffel the "international symbol of the city of Paris". Yet in the same breath, the story was told of how Parisians hated the thing with a passion when it was first introduced at the end of the 19th century – and how, in the 1920's, an attempt was made to sell it for scrap metal!

And through all of these stories – stories of artists and writers and musicians and saints and philosophers – the question still comes forth, and comes forth with the kind of passion that comes easily to this place that was once the stormy meeting grounds of the Celts and the Romans: "What will you leave behind?"

One thing I learned about the Tower – the symbol some thought should've been relegated to scrap metal – just under the first level, around the entire base, are inscribed the names of the great thinkers and poets of the French world at the time of Gustav Eiffel. Even then, I think he was asking the same question of his contemporaries.

And even if we're not able to stroll and muse along the Seine River, it's a pertinent question for us, too. And it will be the one I keep close to my heart when I think fondly upon the City of Lights.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Rue du Faubourg du Temple,Paris,France