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.