Roma Eterna, Part II

I keep telling myself November is almost over and I haven’t written anything on my blog. So before too much time goes by, I’ll write something about my second trip to Rome! Yes, that’s right. While I was in Rome at the end of September, I spent a wonderful afternoon with the friars at the Basilica of Cosmas and Damian, and while I was talking with Fr. Fernando, he gave me an invitation to the opening of St. Elizabeth’s centenary year, with a Mass in the basilica on her feast day, November 17, to be presided over by the Cardinal Achbishop of Esztergom and Budapest, Hungary, Peter Erdo, with a reception and dinner afterwards. I spent a little time wondering whether I had time or would be able to afford this trip, but in the end I made my reservation, flew back to Italy on November 15, and spent five days in Rome. I’m not sorry I did!

The Mass was beautiful. It was concelebrated by about 30 priests, including the Ministers General of the branches of the Franciscan Order. Three of the other Secular Franciscan Commissioners were there: Francesco and Antonella Mattioco (who live in Rome), and Tibor Kauser, who is from Hungary. I also met for the first time the Minister General of the SFO, Encarnacion del Pozo, who I had only corresponded with by e-mail. Francesco, who is a deacon, assisted at the altar. The Cardinal gave a beautiful homily in Italian. Several hundred people attended.

Mass for St. Elizabeth

The music, chanting by a male choir, was gorgeous. At the end, some relics of St. Elizabeth set out on their grand “pilgrimage” for the coming year among the various regions of the Secular Franciscans in Italy, starting with the region around Rome, Lazio.

Relics of St. Elizabeth

This picture of St. Elizabeth giving alms to the poor, which is the pride of the motherhouse of the TOR friars, and is housed at Cosmas and Damian, is from the nineteenth century, and was put on prominent display for the Mass.

Picture of St. Elizabeth

I met the Cardinal at the reception for about 50 special guests, and Father Higgins, the Franciscan TOR Vicar General, who introduced us, told him I had written “the best work in the world on St. Elizabeth”! The cardinal doesn’t speak a lot of English, but I know a little Italian, so we could understand each other.

We had a regular Roman banquet afterwards in the friars’ refectory, which had to have about a dozen extra tables added for all the guests. There was an incredible amount of food, including veal, roast beef and lamb for entrees. I also had the deligthful experience of sitting next to a very charming Irishman, Msgr. Liam Bergin, the rector of the Irish College in Rome, who is an old friend of Fr. Higgins, so he gets invited to all their dinners. Msgr. Bergin amused me no end by saying apropos of the large, jovial superior of the Franciscan community, Fr. Milan: “He looks exactly like Friar Tuck!” (He does, too). He pronounced it, of course, in that inimitable Irish way, “Friar Took.”

The next day the Commission members and Fr. Higgins had another big Italian dinner at Francesco and Antonella’s house with two of their sons. The third is studying in the seminary. It started with drinks and antepasto, went through pasta, a couple of meat courses, salad, fruit, cheese, pastry dessert, wine. . . what wonderful hospitality!

I stayed in the guest house, which is where we will be staying in February, which is really beautiful. There are actually two floors with a marble staircase; none of the rooms are that big, but the are beautifully decorated, with all the pots, pans, dishes and other kitchen equipment you could want — and a TV with satellite reception. So the rest of my time there I spent visiting the Forum and Colisseum and at the apartment working on my translations for work at night.

The Colisseum

At the Colisseum, I took a tour. Our guide, a cute blond girl named Paola, spoke quite good English, but with what I can only describe as an emphatic pronunciation. She described for us the bloody spectacles of gladiatorial combats and condemned criminals thrown to the wild beasts; she was fond of tossing in from time to time. “They were ter-r-r-r-rible, those Romans.” and “those cr-r-r-razy Romans.” Nothing beats a rolled Italian “r” for drama. In the end, while it was fun, I decided that she didn’t provide much information I didn’t have already. The main advantage of the tour (which costs ten extra euros) was that you can skip the long lines to pay at the entrance, as tours have their own entrance.

I’m planning to study up and give my family my own tour with commentary when I go back. In fact, what I’ve learned so far indicates that much of what tour guides (printed or live) say is often exaggerated for effect. Paola did admit that the primary image that most Christians have of the Colisseum – the martyrs thrown to the lions — was a bit of an exaggeration. In fact there are very few if any credible accounts from ancient times that indicate that many martyrs met their deaths that way. All the same, since the seventeenth century, the Colisseum has been honored as a site of martyrdom, and a cross has been set up there.

The Cross in the Colisseum

This would be a really fascinating subject to go into another time.

I’ve been back more than a week and am missing Rome already. But my third trip is coming up soon!

Tis the Season. . .

Not much time for a “real” post, but the weather outside and the general melancholy of the season have reminded me of some of my favorite lines from the most Franciscan of Jesuit poets. So here they are.

Spring and Fall

to a young child

MÁRGARÉT, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Áh! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89). Poems. 1918.

Sigh. Now I’m going to have to read all of Hopkins’ poems again and probably won’t be able to stop. So can you – if you go here.

Roma Eterna

There’s so much I can say about my trip to Rome that I hardly know where to start. One thing I can say is that it was over much too soon! I arrived at Fiumicino airport at 6:30 Monday morning after an all-night flight. A nice young man named Enrico who belonged to a Roman fraternity of Secular Franciscans came to pick me up at the airport and took me to the headquarters of the International Council of the Secular Franciscan Order (CIOFS). It is actually a rather modest apartment in a residential building in a suburb of Rome, with sleeping quarters as well as offices.

I rested in my room until the afternoon. It poured down rain all day (the worst rainstorm Rome had experienced for a decade). Benedetto Lino, a Councilor to CIOFS, soon called and said he would take me to dinner. It was still raining, but the restaurant was only a couple of blocks away, and parking on the street would be impossible, so we left wih umbrellas and rain hoods – and had to fight our way uphill against a terrible flood! But we had a lovely dinner. Benedetto speaks perfect English, since he went to high school in the States.

Most of the next two days was taken up with meetings of our commission, during which we discussed the letter we would send to the Order announcing the centenary, the program of formation, the material we would put on our website, etc. A perfect jumble of languages was spoken around the table – English, German and Italian — as we did our best to understand each other, and if not, hoped someone else at the table could translate. We shopped at neighborhood stores and ate again at the same charming local restaurant. On Wednesday, a friend of Alda, the CIOFS secretary, came and cooked a lovely Italian pranzo (midday dinner) for us in the apartment. This was a very different view of Rome from the one I had some 20 years ago, whe I stayed at a pensione close to St. Peter’s in the old historic part of the city.

On Thursday, our meetings over, I was ready for a trip to that historic part of Rome. I went first to St. Peter’s basilica for a visit to the tomb of Pope John Paul I on the anniversary of his death. Things had changed greatly in 20 years. Now, in an era of terrorism, visitors to the basilica have to stand in a long line (it stretched back to the end of the colonades) in order to go through a security check and have their backpacks, purses, etc., put through a scanner at the entrance. It was boiling hot, more like the middle of August than the end of September. We were channeled into the crypt first, where I visited the tomb of John Paul I and said a prayer. I think it’s the loveliest tomb there.

John Paul I's tomb

“Papa Luciani” as the Italians call him, was Pope for only 33 days. One of the reasons he struck me so much was that he was the first Pope whose election I was old enough to understand and follow. When he was elected, I was immediately moved by his serenity and joy. That led to me learning Italian in order to be able to read his writings, to my first visit to Italy, and to my translating his writings into English. I wanted to stay longer. But the officials kept saying “Avanti, avanti” to keep the line moving. I spent a little time inside the basilica for the first time in 20 years; a Mass was going on at the altar under the Bernini baldachino, but I couldn’t stay until the end, since I was due for lunch with the friars at Cosmas and Damian at 1:00.

The basilica and convent of Sts. Cosmas and Damian, located next to the Roman Forum, is one of the treasures of early Christian Rome. Built in the sixth century, and much rebuilt since, it is now the head church and mother house of the friars of the Third Order Regular of St. Francis. I was met outside by Father Fernando Scocca, who is in charge of planning the centenary celebrations for St. Elizabeth. I had dinner there with the friars in the refectory, including Father Ilija Zivkovic, the Minister General of the Order. We talked about our St. Elizabeth projects. The friars invited me to rest in one of the upstairs rooms of the convent, as like all Romans, they observe the afternoon siesta. Later, I continued my talk with Fr. Fernando in his little study next to his room, then he took me on a tour of the basilica. The first thing I saw on the way downstairs was this statue of St. Francis on the staircase landing.

St. Francis of the Temple of Peace

Fr. Fernando told me that the old stone walls of the staircase were a part of the first-century Forum; it seems that when the Emperor Titus destroyed the temple of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and razed the city to the ground, tne menorahs and other precious objects from the temple were brought back to Rome and placed in the temple in a newly built forum, named with what I hope was unconscious irony, the Forum of Peace. The convent incorporated these walls. I didn’t ask why they put the statue of St. Francis there, with his hands upraised in prayer; I felt I knew. The prayer of this gentle man of peace brings a sense of blessing to this spot.

The original basilica has been altered many times; it was originally one tall church; but it was later divided horizontally into an upper church and a crypt. In the apse of the upper church is one of the few parts of the orignal building that still remains; the breathtaking sixth-century mosaic showing the martyred Sts. Cosmas and Damian being led by the apostles Peter and Paul to Christ, the King of Heaven. The mosaic (which was restored in 1989) looks as fresh as if it was completed yesterday.

Sts. Comas and Damian mosaic

This is Father Fernando, standing in front of the altar under the apse. I love the twelve lambs marching in procession at the bottom of the mosaic. I believe they stand for the disciples of Jesus, the sheep that Jesus told St. Peter to feed.

Fr. Fernando

Fr. Fernando then took me to one of the side altars in the back of the church where I could see a 9th-century Byzantine crucifixion scene where Christ is not suffering, but clothed in majesty. In the crypt, we saw the original marble altar of the basilica, built at the time of Pope Gregory the Great.

It was hard to leave Rome, as I did the next day, but I know I’ll be returning in a few months. I can’t think of anything better to look forward to!

Memories of 9/11

“Where were you on 9/11 when the Towers were hit?” People have often asked me that question. My answer embarrasses me a little, because I missed hearing about the horrible event as most Americans did, by watching it unfold as it happened. I have to answer: “I was asleep at the time.” Yet this also meant that instead of watching a gradually unfolding horror, I got the full impact all at once.

In September 2001, I was doing frantic last-minute work on my doctoral dissertation, which I had to deliver to my professors in little more than a week. I was in my apartment next to Fordham’s Bronx campus, but was without roommates at the time. I worked as usual until around 4:00 a.m. on September 10, then went to bed, but couldn’t sleep for anxiety over my studies. I finally drifted off around 6:00 a.m., but slept poorly. Sometime around 10:30 or 11:00 I vaguely heard the phone ring in the empty bedroom next to mine where I had put it with the ringer turned down low to keep from being disturbed at night. I ignored it, figuring the answering machine would pick it up. Finally I fell into a sound sleep, but was jarred awake again sometime after 12:30 p.m. by the phone ringing — and it continued to ring insistently. Something was clearly wrong. When I finally stumbled into the next room to pick it up, I heard the frantic voice of my mother, calling from back home in Iowa:

“Where have you been? Why didn’t you answer the phone? Don’t you know what’s happened?” She was screaming with anger and crying at the same time. This was very unlike her. I couldn’t even answer except to stammer that I’d been asleep.

I’ll never forget what she’d said next: “All hell has broken loose. Two planes crashed into the World Trade Center and destroyed them. Nothing’s left but a hole in the ground. The Pentagon’s in flames. There was another that crashed in Pennsylvania. The terrorists have attacked us.” A chill of horror went through me, but the full meaning of what she said didn’t register. I don’t even remember what I said in reply, or what the rest of our conversation was like. Mom finally calmed down enough to say, “Turn on the TV and I’ll call you back.” She had to call other family members scattered across the country and couldn’t rest until she knew everyone was all right. She was especially concerned for me because I lived in New York, and since I didn’t answer the phone, she thought I might have been downtown. I can’t imagine to this day how, knowing my schedule as she did, she could have even imagined I’d be up early in the morning, much less anywhere near downtown Manhattan, but a mother’s fear is irrational at times.

I turned the TV in my bedroom, sat down and watched the ongoing coverage. The horror which was so impossible to absorb at first gradually took shape and became clearer. I took the cordless phone into my bedroom and talked with my family as we shared our reactions. I sat, still in my pajamas, by the TV all day, not moving, not getting up to eat — the knot in my stomach would have made it impossible anyway — not working, realizing that the entire world had changed. As I realized how many people must have died inside the Twin Towers, I was grateful I didn’t know anyone who worked in there.

The only time I had ever been inside the World Trade Center was in July 1995, the summer after my first year of studies at Fordham, when my mother and two sisters were visiting me in New York. I took them to do all of those touristy things I never had time to do myself. On this particular day, we had gone down to Battery Park to ride the Staten Island Ferry back and forth in order to look at the New York City skyline and the Statue of Liberty. We then walked up the few short blocks to the Twin Towers. We took the elevator up to the wide lobby, waited in line with all the other tourists, then a deep breath – and a long, long ride up to one of the top floors and the glassed-in observation deck with its incredible panoramic view of the city and the vast distances stretching away from it in a blue mist. There were even clouds below us! Last of all, we rode up to the very highest spot, the outdoor observation tower, and Mom took a picture of the three of us that I still have. It had only been two years previously, in 1993, that terrorists had attacked the building. We had recalled it in our talk as we walked around the deck, but we felt no fear other than the dizzy kind at being up so high. As I watched the TV coverage, I could imagine people trying to get down to that lobby where we had walked so unconcernedly, but how the elevators were out, and how the stairways we had never seen became a lifeline for many, and how many on the top floor had flames ten stories deep between them and safety. And what it must have been like for them as the towers fell. . .

As the hours of coverage wore on, other emotions joined the first horror. The tears as family members described the last goodbyes transmitted by cell phone from their loved ones trapped inside the towers. The pride and gratitude as we realized the heroism of the firefighters, Port Authority police and rescue workers, and grieved for their deaths. And the confused sense of bitter anger and pity as we learned about the young men who had been seduced into carrying out the attacks . . . and exactly who was behind them.

I remember many other people’s reactions during the following days. Someone in my apartment building put up a long, badly-spelled screed on the inside wall near the mailboxes, adressed “To Osama bin Laden . . . you have underestimated us. . . America will rise up against you. . . We will get you, you murdering bastard. . .” I can honestly say that I felt no desire for revenge. I knew that measures would have to be take to stop those who did this, but I also knew that no amount of killing people will destroy evil ideas. And hatred is useless.

Other people arranged candlelight prayer vigils and asked us to put lighted candles in our homes. I got one right away. I recalled how Edith Stein, a Jewish intellectual who had recently become a Catholic, went to her spiritual director soon after the rise of the Nazis began, and aked him if she should follow the inspiration she felt God had sent her: to become a Carmelite nun. He said: “You can so much more good against the evil in our land by your writing and your work as a professor.” A few years later, when the full horror of what Hitler was up to became clear, she asked him again. This time he said: “Yes, enter the convent. This kind of devil can only be cast out by prayer and fasting.” She did so, determined to make her life a sacrifice of love for the world and the defeat of evil. She ended up a martyr in a Nazi death camp, and is now a saint. Nothing but love can ultimately defeat evil.

I successfully defended my dissertation on October 21. My mentor, Professor Gyug, then invited me the next weekend to have dinner to celebrate with him and his wife in their Manhattan apartment near Columbus Circle. It was the first time I had ventured downtown since the towers fell. I felt comforted to see that traffic seemed normal in the city, and people filled the sidewalks as usual; there were even laughing and chatting groups sitting as usual on the edge of the fountain at Lincoln Center. A feeling of pride in my city filled me. Yes, my city. I had lived in the city for seven years on 9/11, but I can truthfully say that I became a New Yorker that day.