Sunday, July 25, 2010

Tridentine Mass

So, now I'm at this conference on Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church in Trent. Today I gave my paper, which went very well. But also, we had Mass in the cathedral here at Trent. The cathedral here was the site of a rather famous (in certain circles) sixteenth century Church Council that really charted the course of the Counter Reformation. It was astounding to feel the history bearing down during the course of this Mass. In addition to the ghosts of bishops past, the Mass was interesting (as is the whole conference) for the variety of language groups it included. The liturgy of the Word was principally in Italian, with parts of the homily in English, and the liturgy of the Eucharist was principally in Latin. But at some point, not only these languages, but also French, German, and Spanish were spoken or sung. Four bishops concelebrated, including the local ordinary. Really a beautiful, historic, and global occasion.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Great Dolomite Road

Up to the north of Trento, heading out northeast of Bolzano, the mountains get pretty dramatic. The road is windy but beautiful, stunning view after stunning view. I don't think I've ever seen mountains with quite these kinds of angles. (I'll try to add some pictures when I get back to the States.) We had lunch in the quaint little town of Cortina. It was a great day. And though we got back a little later than the conference started, it turned out that all we missed was some problems with the translation technology.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Pilgrim's Last Post

Writing this from Assisi, but the meter is running....

Brief recap: when last I checked in here, I had just arrived in Florence. Spent a full day there doing the Duomo, the David, the Uffizi. Cannot begin to do justice to any of it. Still processing the beauty, the sheer quantity of art of ridiculously high quality.

Did a day trip yesterday to Siena. Prayed before the head of St. Catherine for my theological friends, especially the women who have been my teachers, my classmates, my colleagues. Had a phenomenal lunch, hit a museo, the Duomo. So much beauty and holiness through the ages.

Now I am in Assisi. Arrived by train late this morning and spent the day walking my way down from the top of the town (San Rufino) to the bottom (San Francesco). Saw most of the key holy sites in the lives of Francis and Clare along the way.

Here is my thought for the day on Assisi. The cathedral, San Rufino, where Francis and Clare were both probably baptized, was named for the first bishop of the diocese (third century, I think), who was martyred. On either side of the doorway as you enter, there is a lion, faded away by time, with a tasty Christian in his jaws. I found myself thinking that that is the kind of art that makes saints. Imagine the young Francis, who once leapt up on those lions to preach, thinking as we so often do that God wants us to be safe and comfortable. I mean, what is poverty, simplicity, and even a hair shirt compared to being thrown to the lions?

Here is one other thought that I have been having as I travel through all of this beautiful scenery. I share it here even though my Protestant travel buddy was a little scandalized. The thought is: I now see why God saw fit to move his church to Italy. It really is beautiful here. The hills, the valleys, the sunsets. Everything is amazing.

Tomorrow, I head north. Train to Trento. I cease to be a pilgrim and become a conference-goer. Sigh. I have come to love the life of the pilgrim.

Monday, July 19, 2010


Had an awesome couple of days in Naples and on the Amalfi coast. Did you know that Sorrento is the legendary home of the Sirens that gave Odysseus so much trouble? They lured us in as well. We ended up staying two wonderful days in Sorrento and met some great and interesting people at the hostel we stayed at. Saw the great archeological museum in Naples, ate pizza. Then train to Salerno, bus to Amalfi (windy road but beautiful views). Then ferries to Positano and Sorrento. Beautiful views and a much smoother ride.

Train to Pompei. Amazing. What they could never convey in the history books about the sudden and total destruction of this city is its immensity. You picture a small, primitive town. It had art and culture, a theatre, an amphitheatre that seated 20,000. This was destruction on a huge scale. I sort of thought that after all the Roman ruins I had seen in Rome, that I would be unimpressed by Pompei. Wrong. Certainly worth the trip.

Now, I'm in Florence. We arrived about 7 and walked the city a bit. Clearly a beautiful place that holds several adventures over the coming days. And, computers are available in our hostel, so I'll try to update when there is no line.

Blessings to all from beautiful Florence.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Ciao for now

Well, friends, I owe you a couple days' of postings: my adventures failing to meet a friend at St. Ann's gate, suffering through bad guidance of the Vatican museums, going back self-guided and doing it a little better. I went to the Angelicum (that's the school of the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas; also known as the Dominican school here in Rome). My first solo adventure on the Roman buses figures in there with some wonderful conversations with new friends.

But all that will have to wait. My computer is going home without me tomorrow, and my travels will take me out of the relative comforts of Rome to a number of places. As I told a friend, I have some ideas but I don't really have a plan. The idea is Naples/Pompeii, Assisi, Siena, Florence, Venice, then Trent for my conference beginning the 23rd. Milan on the 28th and home on the 29th.

I may surprise you, but don't count on any more updates before the 29th.


Monday, July 12, 2010

St. Peter's Basilica

This morning, I went to St. Peter's Basilica. (Yes, for the first time. I'm always a little astounded by the friends who assume that I must have been to Rome before.) I really don't think there are any words that could do this experience justice, but I want to try to reflect a little of what struck me.

Someone pointed out to me at St. Paul's the other day something that is equally true of St. Peter's: these things were designed to accomodate huge numbers of pilgrims, so they had to be big. But they were also designed to feel more intimate than they are. It is astounding how well that has been accomplished.

We got off the bus and crossed the Tiber (I thought of my many convert friends who have done this metaphorically and was quite pleased to finally join them, more literally) along the "angel" bridge, and I got my first really good view of the domed basilica together with the courtyard. Even from a distance, you notice the statues of saints lining the roofline. It really feels like the communion of saints are gathered there to welcome you in.

After enjoying the courtyard for a while, we made our way through security and lined up for our chance to get into the basilica. I think it was at this point that I began to be impressed by the sheer numbers of people making this journey. Jim made a comment at a later point that one can see how, when American bishops or others who spend much time in Rome have no patience for American Catholics (or other Americans) who seem to think we ought to almost apologize for being Catholic, well ... you can see something else at work here. St. Peter's (like so much of Christian Rome) is a world designed as if the Catholic worldview is spot on. Saints and angels are a part of the fabric of being. Christ is king. And people are flocking to it.

Jim, who's been here a thousand times before, walked me through some of the key sights and gave me some of the highlights from his book on the place. We started in the portico, which is impressive enough. But walking through the doors into the main church, it literally took my breath away. It is hard to say exactly why; I suspect that those who have been there know, and those who have not cannot really be told. I feel like I was told before, and I don't feel like I really got it until now.

Before you even notice anything in particular, you feel both grandeur and balance at once. If you have read any Thomas Aquinas, for whom such ideas as "right ordering" and the "fittingness" of things looms large, you feel like you have entered the world as he must have seen it. And then you begin to notice the art--so many sculptures and paintings (okay, mosaics copied from paintings) of the saints. You feel that you are being welcomed in, invited to be a part of this church.

It wasn't long before I found myself before Michelangelo's Pieta, with a crowd of my new friends. I'll go ahead and admit it: I found myself in tears and I can't really give an account of why. But I want to share one thing that I noticed and one thought process. I have of course seen photos of the Pieta before. But I have never noticed or at least not remembered what (if anything) is behind it. As it stands in St. Peter's (behind bulletproof glass), on the wall behind it is an empty cross. I was so struck by the fittingness of that.

The moment the Pieta embodies is the absolute darkest moment in the history of the church. The one that the early Christians had followed was dead and needing burial, and the promises of resurrection seemed nearly forgotten. I found two questions coming unbidden to my mind. First, how could we possibly, as a church, live through that moment of humility and despair and respond to it by building all of this? And the second, more simply, how could we not?

I mean both of those quite honestly. On the one hand, it seems completely ridiculous to think that the followers of Christ (who said such things as blessed are the poor and those who fail to renounce their possessions are not worthy to follow me) could or should ever imagine such a place, let alone build it. And yet, the real historicity of the thing is astounding, too. There is a tradition of Peter's death and burial in this place, pilgrims came to venerate it, they needed a church. After several centuries, that church was falling down and we needed a new one. Who else to get but the best artists of the age over the 120 years of building the thing? How to do it except exquisitely?

It really did feel, for the most part, like the people's place. People were praying and snapping photos everywhere. I think the name (St. Peter's) suggests that you would find the pope hanging out in there lording it over people ("Look at MY church!). But I really got the sense that this is the church of the people. Sure, it houses the bones of a lot of popes and quite a few theologians (Chrysostom is there, and Gregory of Nazianzus, to name but two). But they belong to us, too.

I had a few moments of prayer in the midst of the whole thing. We slipped into a side chapel where they had Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament going on and spent a little time there. I also spent a little time before John XXIII and Gregory of Nazianzus, praying for the church and for myself and all my friends who try to live our vocations as theologians in service to the church. I also stood beneath the central dome, near the tomb of St. Peter, and prayed for the unity of the church. I thought with gratitude of all my Protestant friends who have been real witnesses to Christ in my life, and, of course, with sadness over the divided Body of Christ. May Christ use Peter's office to make us one.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

St Paul and the Forum

If yesterday was a slow day, we made up for it today.

We went to Mass at St. Paul outside the Walls, one of the five patriarchal basilicas here in Rome. Today was the feast of St. Benedict and this basilica is attached to a Benedictine community, so it was particularly fitting.

Mass was an interesting experience for me. As someone who knows a little Latin and almost no Italian, it is both funny and confusing how they switch back and forth. Actually, it's really just the Mass parts in Latin and everything else in Italian, but it feels a bit strange. Also, I think this is one of my unconscious presuppositions about Rome. I think I basically thought they would all speak Latin here, at least in church. Now, if I had every really stopped to think about it, I'm sure I would have realized it wasn't the case, but I don't guess I really stopped to think about it.

We toured the cloister and the basilica after Mass. Not unlike my experience with Catherine of Siena, I was really awed to be so near the bodily remains of St. Paul. I was also struck (more here than there) by the sense of centuries and centuries of Christians coming to venerate those bones in this space (well, more or less). I commended into St. Paul's hands the care of my brother Paul, so let's look for a miracle!

After lunch (carbonara! mmmm!), I went with my friend Jim to the Forum and the Colosseum. To me, it is really amazing to see such history before me. It is astounding to me both that they built so much that lasted so long and that it is in such a state of ruin. I am impressed at once both that they accomplished so much and so little. It certainly invites reflection on the transience of all created things, that sense that we are all dust, and to dust we return.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A slower day

We slowed down a little today, because we needed a slower day. Hit a farmer's market, did some laundry, cooked our own lunch and dinner. Took in a few sights in the cool of evening.

This is just blocks from where we're staying. I love this picture because it shows the Colosseum looming at the end of the street, but also life going on in just the way it goes on in thousands of places throughout the world.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Catherine sopra Minerva

Today, life in Rome was interrupted by a bus/train strike. We did manage to find a bus on the way to start our day (though it probably took longer to come than usual), but we ended up having to take a taxi home. My friend Jim says there's a saying that basically says, "If you don't like how we do things in this Rome, go ahead and go to the other one instead." Every city has its quirks, and Rome is certainly worth its hassles.

Today, we headed over to the area around Piazza Navona. Some highlights were the Pantheon, a couple of great Caravaggio paintings at San Luigi, the Dominican church (Santa Maria sopra Minerva), and just walking through piazzas and feeling the life of the city.

I want to say a bit more about Santa Maria sopra Minerva. As we walked in, my friend Jim was explaining (as you might see from the name) that this church was built over the site of what had been a temple to Minerva, goddess of wisdom. I made a comment about how typical it was that men can't deal with a smart and powerful woman and so they cover her up like that. Jim pointed out that it is a church named for Mary, so woman for woman, but it didn't quite strike a chord with me. I mean, Mary is certainly smart and powerful, but her more leading virtues seem to be about holiness and submission. It's a balancing act, but, well, like I said, it didn't strike quite the right chord with me.

But we got inside and I just loved the feel of this church. Before long, I wandered toward the altar at the center and discovered that the body of St. Catherine of Siena was lying right there. It really took me aback. I mean, talk about your smart and powerful (and holy!) women! I was really struck by the power of her presence there. I knelt before her body for awhile, contemplating her presence over that of Minerva, both in that space and in my life. When I was a child, I read a lot of Greek and Roman mythology and I really identified with Athena/Minerva particularly since I was in a gifted/talented program called the Athena program. Fast forward 30-plus years and I am a theologian working in a building named for Catherine of Siena. There is a strange way in which Catherine sopra Minerva is the story of my life.

I found myself asking Catherine to help me live my vocation as a theologian well. And yet even as I phrased the prayer, I found myself asking her to help me use my time and intelligence wisely in the service of the Church. The funny thing is that this was a motto of the old Athena program ("Use your time and intelligence wisely and this will ensure that you will think.")

It really is the case that Athens has plenty to do with Jerusalem, that the pagan gods are never completely obliterated, and that church and world are categories woven together too intricately to really ever be separated from one another. And perhaps there is no better place than Rome to discover the truth of that.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

I can't resist sharing one other photo, just to help you appreciate something about my journey here. The place I'm staying, I chose both because it was inexpensive and because my friends who have a history here are staying here now. I didn't know how it would work out. Maybe it would be inconvenient or something. Didn't really care. Not important. But, just to give you a sense of things, this picture is something that I walked down the hall from my room, stepped out onto the rooftop/patio, and snapped away.

You might want to notice the dome of St. Peter's, just to the left of the setting sun. Also, you can see the twin chariots atop the towers of the Victor Emmanual monument behind the Forum. It's a dang good view!

(Small note: blogger cut off the monument after one chariot. You still get a sense of the place!)

Long and wonderful day

Long, wonderful day. After a traditional Roman breakfast (standing at a bar eating a pastry and drinking a coffee) we headed out to several churches. Saw San Clemente, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major, and a couple smaller ones. Good times.

I awarded photo of the day honors to the one above, taken looking down the road from the front of St. John Lateran. What I love about this photo is that it captures something about Rome that I never really appreciated before. It is at once ancient and medieval and modern. It is pagan and Christian and secular. And the saints and their statues, their frescoes, their churches stand in the midst of it at almost every era, and at this point have marked it indelibly. And here is St. Francis boldly (and peacefully) standing in the midst of it all today.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010


Well, I've arrived safely in Rome, and I'll definitely have internet access for the next week, so I'll try to blog.

My flights etc were without real event, which was great, though I met a couple of interesting people on the plane. My seat buddy was a physician who works in a community health center, and we actually had quite an interesting talk about mental health. I also met a Baptist pastor (American) who has a mission to military personnel and others in Sicily. Good times.

The Rome airport was absolutely everything I had been led to fear in terms of 1000 people offering me rides for great bargain prices. It was pretty difficult to figure out whom to trust. But I finally got where I was going without it costing too much money or energy.

I'm staying at the Lay Centre, which in its "real life" houses lay students who are in Rome to study theology. Its summer life sees it hosting some groups (I met a group of Muslims who were here from Cambridge as I arrived and had lunch here today) and some individual visitors like me. Several friends of mine lived here as students through the years, and two of them (and their kids) are here this summer (and most summers) helping host the groups.

The place is inexpensive, the grounds are beautiful, and the location is ... well, we walked by the Colosseum on the way back from dinner tonight. The streets were also full of folks watching the World Cup semi-final outside bars.

Dinner was great. A few highlights: an appetizer of fresh buffalo mozzarella and prosciutto (among other things), a simple but great pasta/bacon/garlic dish, a dessert featuring a mousse-like substance in a white chocolate shell, and fresh figs. And plenty of vino.

Also, went to my first Mass in Rome at this little church around the corner from where I'm staying. It was of little note, really. No homily, all in Italian, probably 20 minutes. But it is amazing to think about how long Christians have been gathering in prayer in this space.

My sleep is, of course, way off. But I'm going to try to turn in now.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010


So, I leave shortly for Italy.

I'll spend about a week in Rome, then I'll have a wandering 10 days that is loosely planned to take me to Naples, then Assisi, Siena, Florence, Venice, and maybe Verona. Then I'll have 4 days in Trent, where I'll present a paper at a conference. Then a day in Milan. Back home on 29 July.

It's funny. Part of me thinks that I won't blog at all until I'm back. Part of me recalls that I started this blog when I spent a month in Amsterdam in 2006. It was travel that started that need to record, that need to tell the stories. It was travel that inspired the name for the blog.

We'll see which part of me is right.

The odd thing is, sitting here in this moment, in the safety of my own room, I don't know if I've ever been more sure that I would be changed on the other side of an experience. I feel like so much art, so much adventure, so many firsts, so many conversations lie before me. I'm a little scared (the trip is probably on the under-planned side for me) but just very, very excited for the possibilities of what might be.

See you in a couple of days, or perhaps a couple of weeks.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Church and State

The heart of an email I just sent my pastor. You'll get a pretty good sense of how Mass went yesterday from the below. It seemed good to mark the passing of July 4 with some reflections on freedom, America, and Jesus. And this is what I needed to write.

Let me begin by confessing that I am someone who goes into Mass on 4th of July weekend (and Memorial Day and other patriotic holidays) more or less expecting to be offended. Although I was raised in a "God, Country, Notre Dame" sort of way that would not have had me think twice about what I experienced at Mass today, I ended up studying with some professors who either were pacifists or who took pacifist concerns very seriously. I learned to be pretty critical of occasions where Christians seem to sacralize America, of churches where flags are in the sanctuary, and where the assumption is that American values/interests and Christian values/interests are the same.

Therefore, it won't surprise you to learn that I think there are some pretty serious risks involved in some of the directions you took in your homily yesterday--most notably the idea that we would view the true freedom Jesus gives us through the prism of the Declaration of Independence (rather than the other way around!) and that a primary example of the kind of love and service that Jesus demands are soldiers (whose great sacrifice is not simply a willingness to die but also a willingness to kill for our interests). I deeply appreciated that you also gave the example of the middle school teacher. Also, at the end you seemed to suggest a question about what sort of king we enthrone in our hearts, and I thought you might raise the question of Jesus vs. Caesar, what the gospel demands vs what the world offers, but you didn't really go there.

All that, I think, is within a realm where, although you and I might see it differently, I don't really begrudge you your choice to approach the things as you did (though I do hope this is a conversation we can continue!). After all, it's your homily, and although I would have liked to see it more focused on the Word and less on the (national rather than liturgical) feast, it's yours to do with as you will. However, I thought that having the Declaration of Independence proclaimed from the pulpit (though half was from the other microphone) crossed a line of liturgy that really should not have been crossed. I admit that I am one of these people who has probably studied just enough liturgy to be dangerous, and who has had care of portions of various communities' liturgical lives for quite a number of years. But formed as I am, it felt to me that the particular placement of the Declaration of Independence (both the place from whence it was proclaimed and its timing in the liturgy) was an attempt to communicate that the Declaration of Independence was the most important text, the one toward which all the others pointed.

I certainly don't think that that's what you meant to communicate; it would be silly to suggest that you were saying that the incarnation, death, resurrection of Jesus, the mission of the 72, etc, was all so that the American Revolution could come along and embody "true" freedom. But it felt more than a little like that today.

I really worry about these things, because, although I try to teach my students that participation in the political community is part of their obligation to the common good, I also try to teach them to be critical of a nation that fails to protect the unborn, that often engages in wars that fail to meet the traditional just war criteria, whose immigration policies are ... complicated, but clearly not simply directed to the dignity of each and every person involved. Historically, of course, our nation's credibility is even more complicated. The same revolutionaries whose vision of and sacrifices for freedom you lauded today counted their slaves at 3/5 a person and were not willing to make the sacrifices that freeing them would entail. My point is simply that, at every point in our nation's history, we have needed people who were more than just cheerleaders for the nation, but who were willing and able to give it moral vision and direction. Our best hope is that, truly formed by a gospel vision, we are sent forth like the 72, among our brothers and our sisters in our homeland, and that our love of them and love of the gospel can come together. It seems to me that the gospel must be the prism through which we see and measure and criticize and cheer our nation. And it seems to me that preaching as though America is already the embodiment (perhaps even the measure!) of that gospel really cuts off our ability to be the sort of critical citizen-Christians we need to be.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Love is stronger than death

I've been thinking about death, dying, and grief today. Actually, that's funny. I've been thinking about these things for the entire month of June.

Yesterday was the 11-year anniversary of my mom's death. As I do every year, many of the days in June are marked by certain key memories. The 8th is the day she went into the hospital for the last time; the 22nd is the day she came home. So many little markers of "lasts" in the days of June. It is really hard to believe it has been 11 years. This year, I marked it in what has become my traditional way: strawberry daiquiris. That was her drink of choice the couple of times a year she would actually drink. It's not really what I would choose, but it helps me to feel close to her.

I'm actually not just thinking about my own grief this year. Through the magic of Facebook, I was reminded that six years ago today, a friend I've known since high school lost his wife. I tend to think that my mom was too young to die (56), but Maggie was about 30 years younger, and she left behind 2 young sons.

Her husband is a witness in my life (and, if his Facebook friends are any indication, in other lives) of one of the central truths at the heart of Christianity, shown to us first in the resurrection, but again and again in the lives of the holy and faithful: love is stronger than death. It is a mystery that is beyond our mortal minds, but we know it in our hearts. The last couple of days, I've said it again and again in my mind, like Dorothy clicking her shoes together saying "There's no place like home": love is stronger than death, love is stronger than death, love is stronger than death.

I've also had a song in my head that I used to have on a bunch of mixed tapes (yes, I'm old) but I've never bothered to track down since my musical life has gone digital. It's a Bruce Cockburn song called "Festival of Friends." The lyric in my head is this one: "Some of us live and some of us die, and some day God's going to tell us why...." I go back and forth between a hope that somehow God will be able to give an account of what so often seems like stolen years and a shock at the arrogance of thinking that we might get to demand such an account. Of course, my other realization is that the whole lyric is a lie, because we all die eventually, but perhaps there is hope even in that.

Writing this has reminded me of another song, which I encountered on an album of David Wilcox's, but which was written by Bob Franke. It's called "For Real." After several rather poignant love stories (not all romantic) that draw a contrast between loving each other forever and for real, he sings this: "Some say God is a lover, some say it's an endless void, some say both, some say she's angry, some say just annoyed. But if God felt a hammer in the palm of his hand, then God knows the way we feel. And then love lasts forever, forever AND for real." (I think you can listen here, at least to a bit of it.)

In the moments when the hole left by love lost seems huge and overwhelming, these things help me cling at once to the loss and to the hope that love is forever, for real, and so much stronger than darkness, grief, and death.