Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Reflections on Rome

Well, the semester is over, the students have returned to the US, and my own time in the Eternal City is growing short.  I hope you'll indulge a few reflections.  It has been a rich year, filled with art and culture, churches and museums, new people and new experiences.  In the last week or two before the students left, I had several opportunities to talk with them about their experiences here.  It seems that for just about everyone, their time abroad has been one of the richest, most wonderful times of their lives, but also one of the most challenging.  It is hard to be so far from home, from friends and family, from all that is familiar and to be surrounded by what is new and strange and foreign.  But it is also a wonderful thing, over the course of time, to learn to appreciate a new culture.

I think that for me, spending extended time in Rome has done two things that my previous experience here (wonderful but whirlwind week-long tour) could never have done.  First, I began to really appreciate the power of the place over the course of time.  On the whirlwind tour, you can see the Colosseum and visit St. Peter's and go see the Sistine Chapel and the Trevi Fountain etc.  And you can even appreciate to some degree what was built in Republican times or Imperial or Renaissance.  But, for me at least, in the whirlwind tour, I never quite appreciated as much as I do now that the Tiber River that I've strolled along has been here, not just for me, or for Constantine's battle at the Milvian Bridge, but also for Augustus and Livia to stroll along in their day.  Perhaps Peter and Paul walked along it.  Certainly St. Augustine, St. Dominic, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Ignatius of Loyola crossed the Tiber at some point.  The streets of Rome have been walked by such literary greats as James Joyce, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, to name a mere few.  I also think an artist or two of some note may have spent time here.  Living here over time, the history of the place ceases (a bit) to be so many extraordinary but isolated events, and you begin to get a sense of the way that the place and its collected history, the power of its stories and the character of its leaders and its people, shaped each other over time.  Each moment, each person, each work of art leads to the next.  You get the sense of space and time intermingling with one another in interesting ways.  I think every time and place I ever read about from now on will be more real, more concrete, more alive to me than had I never spent this year in Rome.

The second thing that has happened for me this year is that my world has become much smaller and much bigger.  Simply put, the whole world comes to Rome, and has been doing so for centuries.  It definitely feels like a very small world when you can run into someone from Massachusetts at the catacombs along the Appian Way.  But the other day, a friend of a friend introduced me to a man from the United Kingdom.  When he realized I was a theologian, he had to introduce me to his seminarian friend, an Ethiopian studying here in Rome.  Before long, we had an Englishman, an Irishman, an Ethiopian and two Americans all chatting about Catholic theology.  Sitting at that table, it was hard not to feel how incredibly big the world is, how full of cultures and languages.  It was also easy to feel the expanse of the thing draw in a bit, and to realize that, despite the size and diversity of the world, it is possible for us to gather together and connect. And Rome, of course, is such a crossroads for such meetings.

Every one of the students I spoke to, even those who admitted it was quite a struggle at times to be so far from home, considered this to be "so worth it" and the best semester of their lives.  I would encourage any student who is even a little drawn to the idea of studying abroad to pursue it if at all possible.  It will be challenging, but it will also expand your world in ways you won't quite be able to imagine.  Give it a chance.  There are great things to learn all over the world, so go anywhere.  But let me encourage you to think about Rome.  The whole world comes here.  Why not you?

*** A final note:  This is likely the last update I'll make to this page.  Next fall, Professor Patrick Reid will be here in Rome, followed by Professor Paul Gondreau in the spring.  I'm not sure whether they will blog or not, or whether that blog will be at this site, but if someone is blogging about PC in Rome, this site will be updated to direct you there.  If you are looking for some more information on how to study in Rome with Providence College and/or CEA, check out PC's page on Rome or CEA's.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Our last site visit for the course brought us to the Colosseum.  The picture above is taken inside the Colosseum, and you can see the Arch of Constantine as well as part of the Roman Forum behind the students.

This class was a powerful one for me.  Standing in the Colosseum, where clearly much blood was spilled, we spoke yet again of the martyrs who, according to tradition, died in this arena and in others like it across the Empire.  We talked a bit about what was going on in those games, which celebrated the Roman gods and the Roman emperors' violent power over the bodies paraded into that arena.  What must it have meant for martyrs like Ignatius of Antioch (by tradition, martyred in that very space) or Perpetua and Felicitas (martyred in a space like that), to show no fear of the death that awaited them, to show only trust, not that they would be saved from certain death, but that the love of the true God is stronger than death?

Such witnesses proclaim such a deep faith in God's providence, faith that all will come out according to God's will in the end, that I find it very inspiring.  Standing in this space and recalling such witnesses together with these great students was a great way to close our course together.  (Well, the final exam will follow, but that's a different sort of thing!)

Friday, April 13, 2012

Connecting with our Future Priests

Easter greetings from the Eternal City! It was a wonderful Holy Week and Triduum here in Rome.

Several of the students and I kicked off our Holy Week by joining the Providence men of the Pontifical North American College (NAC) for vespers and dinner. The NAC is home to about 250 men from dioceses all over the US (and a few from Canada and Australia!) who are studying for the priesthood. The Diocese of Providence has four men living at the NAC right now.

Deacon Ryan Connors (who will be ordained a priest on June 23rd in Providence) greeted us and gave us a bit of a tour of the place, and talked a bit about its history and its founding. The tour included the rooftop, with its view of St. Peter's (pictured above). As we prepared to go in to join the community for vespers, he told the students a bit about this prayer, which is the prayer of the whole Church. Deacon Connors talked a bit about what it means to him, so far from home, to know that each day he prays the same prayers as his Bishop, as his fellow priests and religious throughout the world, as the Pope does. The students were really intrigued by the universality of these prayers.

Vespers was beautiful. It is, of course, a simple service. But, for me at least, it was a very powerful thing to be in the chapel with so many young men, so palpably fervent in their faith, and to pray together with them at the beginning of Holy Week. I think we all felt that.

After vespers, we went to dinner, and were joined not only by Deacon Connors, but also by Fr. George Nixon and by Nick Fleming. Fr. George, ordained in Providence last summer, is in his fifth and final year of study here in Rome. Nick, who is actually a recent graduation of Providence College, is in his first year of study here in Rome. (Josh Barrow, also in his first year of study here for the Diocese of Providence, was unable to join us.) It was a wonderful thing for me to watch the students and the seminarians connect with one another. You never know quite what will happen when you bring two different groups of people together, but connecting was not a problem. Conversation ranged from the struggles of being an American living in Rome to discussion of the HHS mandate to questions about how one knows that one is called to priesthood or whether God exists.

The students and I said goodbye to the seminarians and headed to the Metro stop. As we walked, they were all clearly aglow with the joy of the dinner. One said how amazing it was to be exposed to such a different view of the world than her own. A couple were amazed at just how human and down to earth these guys were. But all were really glad that they had had the opportunity to connect with these men in this way.

The Diocese of Providence and the Church as a whole is blessed to have men such as these discerning a call to the priesthood and serving as priests. They are, without exception, strikingly smart and articulate, personable and generous, and unmistakably on fire with love for God, the Gospel, and the Church.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Annunciation sopra Minerva

Well, we are back from spring break. Between the students and myself, it looks like break was spent exploring Brussels, Amsterdam, Dublin, London, Barcelona, and Bosnia, not to mention more of Italy.

My course constantly explores the intersection of space and time, the ways in which a particular site has stood, constant and changing, throughout the centuries. Class this week was a particularly interesting intersection of these themes. Our syllabus included site visits to the Pantheon (also known as Santa Maria ad Martyres) and Santa Maria sopra Minerva, as well as reading Paul's letter to the Romans. But, by a happy (and providential!) coincidence, the class coincided with the Feast of the Annunciation, which celebrates the Angel Gabriel's visit to Mary, announcing that she would bear a son. The feast is conveniently exactly nine months before Christmas. (Though the fact that March 25 was on a Sunday this year means that the feast was moved to Monday. Convenient for my class!)

We began class in front of the Pantheon, talking about Augustus's building campaign about three decades before Christ's birth. The emperor built about 20 buildings developing this area from something rather rural, to a real part of the city. His buildings included the original Pantheon (the current structure was the second rebuild, about 125 AD) and a temple to the goddess Minerva, which stood just around the corner on the spot where Santa Maria sopra Minerva now stands. (For those of you not up on your Italian prepositions, that's "St. Mary over Minerva."). Both before each of the buildings and as we explored each one, we talked about the history of this space being marked out, no longer for the "pantheon" of Roman Gods, but for the God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Of course, there is a connection, too, to our frequent theme of martyrdom. Around 609, when the emperor gave the Pantheon to the Pope, and he rededicated it as "Santa Maria ad Martyres," he also had the remains of many martyrs brought in, so that this place became their resting place, and was, in turn, blessed by the witness they had given to the faith. Just as their courage and sacrifice witnessed to the truth of the Christian faith, so the re-appropriation of these spaces witnessed to it as well.

I found it particularly moving to be in Santa Maria sopra Minerva on the feast of the Annunciation. The apse (pictured above) features the Annunciation largely. But I had never so fully appreciated as I did on this day the full meaning of this emphasis. Minerva (aka Athena) was a goddess of Wisdom and War who sprung fully formed from her Father's head. Jesus, though the Wisdom of God, did not (as Paul reminds the Philippians), cling to his divinity. Rather, he became flesh, made incarnate and incredibly vulnerable in his mother's womb. He was Word-made-flesh, Wisdom-incarnate, but he was no war-god. Rather, he emptied himself not only of divinity but also of resistance to evil. He turns Minerva on her head, as do the martyrs who witnessed to the faith unto death.

I failed to get a picture that shows it well, but the rest of the ceiling in Maria sopra Minerva represents all of salvation history unfolding: prophets of the Old Testaments, evangelists of the New Testament, Apostles, popes. Toward the end of class, our discussion turned to the connections between some of the New Testament themes we have studied and the art we had seen that day. One of the students spoke a bit about the ceiling, and the ways that it seemed the Word most definitively enfleshed in the Annunciation was enfleshed by so many others throughout history, and added a sense that, if one had a chance to worship God in a space like that, maybe it would be easier to live according to the Word, to feel called to participate in that history.

Of course, people in every time and in every space are called to participate in that history. But this week, we were in a great place to get a sense of that.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Pilgrims at St. Paul's

This past week, we had class on site at St. Paul's outside the Walls. I blogged pretty extensively about that experience with the class last fall, and the experience was quite similar. In that piece, I emphasized how powerful it is for me to read and discuss the words of St. Paul at the site of his burial. Still true. But in today's post, I want to emphasize something else about this space, something that I also try to demonstrate to the students.

One of the amazing things about a site like St. Paul's Basilica is that it marks a spot that Christians have venerated since the death of Paul almost 2000 years ago. It started as a simple grave. Eventually a monument was built, then a chapel, then a basilica, and then a larger basilica. But the space that is St. Paul's marks a space that pilgrims have visited for centuries, yearning to be near this man who poured out his life--in both ink and blood--to spread the Gospel.

Like the other papal basilicas, St. Paul's received a new "Holy Door" for the jubilee year in 2000. This is the door through which pilgrims may enter to receive the indulgence associated with making a pilgrimage to the church during the Jubilee Year. Pictured here, perhaps you can see that the scenes pictured are biblical, historical, and contemporary. The artwork of the door ties together one God acting in very different times.

Standing before this door, however, it is easy to imagine it open for the pilgrims in 2000, or in Holy Years before that. And if you spend much time at this basilica, it is not long before a tour bus pulls up and about 40 pilgrims emerge, spend a little time exploring and praying, and are back on the bus and gone before you know it. Another soon takes their place.

Since Paul was buried in this space, I wonder how many people have come and said a prayer over his bones. I wonder how many pilgrims have come here, seeking to be strengthened in their trials and sufferings, to ask for Paul's help in fighting the good fight, running the good race, trying to be all things to all people. I hope that my students get a sense of that history--that this place is significant not simply because Paul was buried here but because thousands upon thousands of pilgrims have trekked here to pray, to watch, to hope.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Popolo Quiz

Before our class at Santa Maria del Popolo, I gave a little quiz, just to make sure that we're all keeping some studying in our semester studying abroad. If you have to take a quiz, what better place than the Piazza del Popolo? And, of course, there are plenty of people around, including the two Italian young men sitting in back, who were very grateful that they didn't have to take the quiz but still wanted to be in the picture.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Back to Santa Maria del Popolo

We have finally made up all the snow days, juggled a few site visits and combined a few lectures, and we're back to normal. Class this week was on the book of Acts and we visited Santa Maria del Popolo. Last semester, I blogged about the art and the class. This time around, I'll point out something different. There is something that is true of just about every church in Rome, but Santa Maria del Popolo illustrates it in a particular way. These churches have stood for centuries in this crossroads of the world, and they carry that history in some interesting ways.

One of the fun little facts to know about Santa Maria del Popolo is that it was run by Augustinian monks for centuries. And so, when a young German Augustinian named Martin Luther traveled to Rome in 1511, it was natural that he stayed with his brethren right here at Santa Maria del Popolo. And, of course, it is no accident that, eighty years after Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg, Caravaggio was being asked to fill this space with imagery of Peter and of Paul. Such art serves as a reminder both of the scriptural roots and authority of these two men, and--especially The Crucifixion of Peter--as a reminder that they both met martyrs' fates in the city of Rome. The century following Luther's visit to Rome saw not only the flourishing of art like Caravaggio's but also the renewal of interest in the catacombs surrounding Rome and devotion to the martyrs throughout the area. These stories are the stories of the church, formed and nourished by the scriptures, but also real stories of faith on their own. The city of Rome is a space on which these stories are written, in architecture, art, and tombs--in all the relics of the people who lived here, and even some who only passed through.