IMPRESSIONS FROM THE CITY OF ROME: Part One, First Days
I arrived in Rome on Friday the 13th of January, 2017, at 8:30 am. To some, “Friday the 13th” is considered an unlucky day, but for me it was an enjoyable and peaceful one. The eight hour non-stop flight from Philadelphia on American Airlines was comfortable and uneventful. Watching a couple of inflight films, including “Florence Foster Jenkins,” starring Meryl Streep, as well as some TV programs, including “The Big Bang Theory” and “Black-ish,” helped the time go by swiftly. It was an overnight flight, but I didn’t sleep a wink. That is typical for me and only later, once in Rome, did I get some needed sleep.
I was welcomed at the Rome airport by two monks of our Subiaco Cassinese Benedictine headquarters, called “the curia,” located at Sant’Ambrogio in the heart of the city of Rome, a thirty or so minute drive from the main Rome airport. The day was rainy day and a bit chilly, as Italy and much of Europe has been experiencing a cold snap. This is not surprising for January, but apparently it has been colder than usual.
I recall living here thirty years ago in the mid-1980’s, and one winter it rained for ten days straight and it actually became difficult to even go outside, with so much rain on the streets and coming down. No flooding, per se, but just an overabundance of rain. Yes, even for an Oregonian like myself, ten straight days of rain is a bit much. It also snowed a few times during the winters I was here in the mid-1980’s, including one Ash Wednesday.
Normally the pope comes on Ash Wednesday to Sant’ Anselmo on the Aventine Hill, the international headquarters of all Benedictines, where I was living, to process from Sant’ Anselmo to Santa Sabina, the Dominican headquarters, to celebrate Mass for the beginning of the holy season of Lent. On that particular snowfall, I believe it was 1986, the pope (then John Paul II) cancelled his Ash Wednesday visit to the Aventine. I presume snow can still be expected during these winter months, as the season (called “inverno”) is far from over. But daytime temperatures here are already in the high forties and low fifties, so maybe the worst of the cold is past.
On my first Sunday here, January 14th, a group of us monks, including our Abbot President Guillermo Arboleda Tamayo, made a journey by car to the ancient Benedictine abbey of Subiaco, an hour from Rome, to celebrate the Lord’s Day (and my first in Italy after many years), as well as the namesday of Abbot Mauro of Subiaco Abbey. It was a great honor to concelebrate the Sunday Mass at the Sacro Speco, that is, the holy cave of Saint Benedict. This wonderful shrine is about a mile up the hill from the main abbey of Subiaco, dedicated to Saint Scholastica, twin sister of Saint Benedict, both of whom lived from 480 to about 547 AD. The majority of the Subiaco Abbey monks reside at Santa Scholastica monastery and a few are assigned to live and pray at the cave of Saint Benedict, which in fact is much more than a cave or grotto, but a complete monastery in itself. It is an architectural and artistic marvel, among the most beautiful shrines in the world, in my humble opinion.
The natural setting of both Santa Scholastica and the Sacra Speco at Subiaco is stunning to say the least, located in the mountains below a villa and artificial lake that the Emperor Nero built, though already in ruins when Saint Benedict fled to Subiaco for a life of solitude and prayer after a short sojourn as a student in the city of Rome. This would have been around the year 500 AD.
After concelebrating Sunday Mass the Sacro Speco, the Holy Cave of Saint Benedict, with some thirty faithful in attendance and a monk of Subiaco as celebrant, we monks had a short visit with Abbot Mauro and then to lunch (called “pranzo” in Italian) in the monks’ refectory at Santa Scholastica.
With the twenty of so monks there we enjoyed a delicious meal, lasting about forty minutes, then had a tour of parts of the abbey that I had never seen in previous visits there over the past thirty years. The tour was led by two monks, including Father Mariano, who had given a group of us a tour of Subiaco in 1985, when some of us student monks went there on pilgrimage. Father Mariano is now nearly seventy years old but seems fit as a fiddle and amazing in his knowledge of the history of Subiaco and continues to work in it historic and impressive library.
January 16th I went to the local police station (called the “questura”) to “register my presence,” so to speak, in the country and begin the process of an extended stay and visa, called a “soggiorno.”
Upon arrival in Rome’s Fiumicino airport last Friday, I had my passport stamped for the usual ninety day limit for Americans visiting this country. I also have a visa for one year residence, granted by the Italian government, given to me in Los Angeles. With the visa in hand (actually in my passport)), the process can begin for the longer stay, for the work I am doing here for our Subiaco Cassinese Benedictine Congregation.
I obtained a soggiorno (the extended stay visa) thirty years ago for my time of theology study here from 1985 to 1988), but a new soggiorno must now be obtained. The process has changed somewhat and I also understand that the tragedy of 9/11 has made the procedure look different than previously. Never in my wildest dreams did I image I would be going through this process again, but that is the nature of God’s sense of humor, from my point of view, calling us to do things we might never have imagined.
When I completed my studies in Rome in 1988 I fully and completely presumed that would be the end of any overseas life and work, but here I am again, at age 64, trying to do what is asked of me by legitimate authority, which we monks hold is in fact the call and voice of God in our lives. “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give the glory,” as Psalm 113 expresses it. Furthermore, “Here am I, O Lord, I come to do your will,” in the words of Psalm 39. Our Brother Andre at Christ in the Desert often muses on why the verse seems regularly to get morphed into: “Here am I, O Lord, I come to do my will.”
On January 14th I also walked to the Vatican, about half an hour on foot from our “Curia,” our Subiaco Cassinese Congregation headquarters, located at Sant’ Ambrogio. There are quite a few excellent Catholic bookstores leading up to Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. I was looking for homily (sermon) resources, as I am already preaching in Italian here at Sant’Ambrogio and soon at the Benedictine nuns that Sant’Ambrogio monks serve as chaplain each morning.
I did find some “good books” for preaching from the Lectionary (Bible readings at Holy Mass each day), containing thoughts that I can readily adapt to make my own sermons. Really, though, it is always “God’s Word,” the “Good News” (Gospel) that is proclaimed at Mass and reflected upon in the homily. In my case, homilies will never extend beyond a few minutes on weekdays and a bit longer on Sundays. Recently our Pope Francis reminded Catholic clergy to keep their homilies to the point and not have them last too long. Who today can take in and truly follow a twenty minute or longer homily?
I realize that many clergy of denominations other than Catholic pride themselves on lengthy sermons, but that is not the practice for the most part in the Catholic Church today, at least in what we call “the Western Church.” But enough about preaching!
On the rooftop of our building seagulls (“gabbiano” in Italian) seem to abound, day and night, their distinctive squawk to be heard at all hours. Seagulls in Rome? Yes, we are very near the coast and such scavengers readily come to the city in search of food, I presume. It reminds me of my spending much time on the Oregon coast as a youngster. Since rarely venturing as far as Portland, my hometown, some fifty miles from the coast, seagulls always call to mind “coastal living,” which I loved as a youth. Here I am again, reliving such memories with seagulls in my new neighborhood, the “Centro Storico” of Rome.
Speaking Italian again after decades of not doing so regularly has not been too painful, in fact a joy, and seems to be coming back fairly quickly. I still confuse some Italian words or phrases with Spanish ones, though hopefully this will diminish in the days and weeks ahead. One of the beauties of Italian is that every word ends with a vowel. What could be more poetic and sonorous than that?