Impressions of Rome: Earthquakes on the Mind

Less than a week in Rome I experienced my first “Roman tremors,” as seismic activity was occurring some ninety miles away. In central Italy’s L’Aquilla region, not far from last year’s destructive quakes, there was an earthquake measuring 5.3 on the Richter scale on Wednesday morning, January 18th, 2017.

On that day tremors were felt here in Rome, mostly between 10:30 and 11:30 am. Parts of the city’s Metro (subway) system and some schools were evacuated to assure there was no damage incurred and as a precautionary measure should another and larger earthquake strike. Apparently some structures in Rome have already been weakened due to age and previous earthquakes.

I had done some uneventful work for my visa extension the morning of January 18th at a local government agency that assists in getting the necessary documents to apply for a “soggiorno” as it is called, permitting one to legally reside in the country for an extend stay. Just after returning from the work (I can’t call it “in town,” as I live in the heart of Rome), the tremors began. The first one was at about 10:30 am, and the other two were felt within an hour or so.

Growing up in Oregon I am fairly used to earthquakes and aftershocks, but in a sense, one is never “ready” for the eerie sensation of a building moving (especially when one is in it) and windows rattling.

I recall once as a youngster an earthquake that struck when I was at the Lloyd Center in Portland (an early shopping mall), with large store windows shaking to such an extent that at first I imagined a train was roaring along in front of the store I was in. Luckily the quake didn’t do much damage.

However, as a west coaster, the Anchorage, Alaska, earthquake on Good Friday afternoon of 1964 was quite memorable. In addition to doing serious damage in Alaska, it caused tsunamis that had destructive force along the Oregon coast, including the beach town of Seaside, where my maternal grandparents lived. That Easter weekend Seaside’s fourth-street bridge over the Nakanukim River was washed away.

The fairly mild tremors in Rome on January 18th this year were not particularly frightening nor were they easily ignored. I am living three stories above the street and had to the think about evacuating or not. I concluded it was not necessary and grateful this was all happening during the day and not in the middle of the night. Should we expect more earthquakes? I presume the likelihood of more is almost certain and thinking they will never be felt here again is naïve. But one can always dream!

Earthquakes have long been a part of God’s creation and to be expected on a regular basis, admittedly more so in some parts of the world than in others. The Old Testament Book of Psalms and other books of the Bible contain references to the earth shaking or quaking and always understood by the ancients as relating to the power and majesty of God, Ruler of heaven and earth.

At the same time, never should earthquakes be thought of as punishment from God. Unfortunately some still teach that earthquakes are indeed God’s retribution toward sinful humanity. I don’t believe that and try to adhere to the best of Christian and Catholic doctrine, teaching that we live in an imperfect world, subject to change and decay. There are risks involved and even when lives are lost in what are usually called “natural disasters,” this does not mean that God is inflicting punishment, absent or uncaring. God loves us infinitely and at all times and places, even when tragedy occurs.

Furthermore, God does not remain remote from or indifferent to the plight of fallen creation. In Christ, the Word of God became Flesh, taking on our humanity so that we might partake of divinity. Rather than being distant from us, God draws close to us. From the Cross, our God in the Person of Jesus Christ stands in solidarity with all the pain and tragedy that humans experience. Destruction and death do not have the last word. Rather, the transformative power of Christ’s resurrection redeems humanity, meant to be anchored in hope.

After the recent Roman tremors, the next day dawned clear and bright, almost as if “nothing happened,” when in fact probably many “cages were rattled” (quite literally) in the Eternal City the day before.

This past year the world-wide Dominican Order (technically called the Order of Preachers), composed of men and women (friars as well as nuns and sisters), have been celebrating a “Jubilee Year” in honor of the 800 years the Dominican Order has been in existence. The founding (more technically final papal approval) of the Order occurred in 1216.

A solemn Papal Mass was celebrated in Rome on Saturday afternoon, January 21st, 2017, to conclude the Dominican Jubilee Year. The Mass was at the Lateran Basilica of Saint John the Baptist, technically the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome and where the popes resided in the time of Saint Dominic and his first followers. On January 21st, 1216, Pope Honorius III gave the Dominicans their official name, “Order of Preachers” (Ordo Praedictorum).

At the time this was something new and innovative, to have an Order in the Church entirely dedicated to preaching, rather than just an Order comprised of people who preached. Pope Honorius addressed them as “Friars Preachers,” and entrusted them with the preaching mission. For all these reasons the Lateran Basilica was chosen as the place for celebrating the end of the Dominican Jubilee Year in 2017. Pope Francis came for the celebration and presided at the 4:00 pm Mass.

Our Subiaco Cassinese Congregation Abbot President Guillermo Arboleda Tamayo was invited to the Dominican Mass on January 21st, but as he is in Colombia at this time, I was asked to attend and represent our Congregation.

One of my first “missions” as secretary to our Abbot President was to go to the Angelicum, that is, the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, run by the Dominicans, where I graduated in 1988. I hadn’t been there in 29 years, but on January 20th was sent to collect the ticket for the Papal Mass of January 21st. The three young Dominican friars distributing the tickets at the Angelicum, including Fra Franklin, O.P., with whom our Curia here at Sant’Ambrogio had corresponded, were all from Colombia, South America, country of origin of our new Abbot President.

This fact reminded me again of the shift taking place in the Catholic Church from predominantly European-centered leadership to an ever-increasing American, African and Asian Church leadership, from the pope (Argentina) to our Benedictine Abbot Primate (USA) to our Abbot President (Colombia, South America). The richness and breadth of the Catholic Church can never be underestimated! Needless to say, I greatly rejoice in this gift from God.

With ticket in hand (actually two; one to get in to the basilica and one to concelebrate) on Saturday afternoon, January 21st, I arrived at the Lateran Basilica around 2:30 pm. I proceeded to the sacristy along with dozens of other priests (predominantly in Dominican habits), to vest for Mass. After vesting, the concelebrants were brought in procession to the enormous sanctuary of the basilica for seating near the presidential (Mass celebrant’s) chair. The body of the church was already fairly full. Each and every participant (clergy, religious and laity) had to have the special ticket to get in, as did I. There were also many dozens of Dominican friars present who were not concelebrating, either brothers or student friars. They too were seated in the sanctuary next to the concelebrants and closer to the high altar. The enormity of the Lateran Basilica cannot be over-emphasized. I understand it is smaller than Saint Peter’s Basilica, but not by much.

With most everyone in place, at 3:00 pm the Rosary was prayed in various languages, though oddly enough the conclusion of each Hail Mary was always in Latin. I say “oddly enough,” with no disregard for Latin, but one would have expected the conclusion of each Hail Mary be in the language it began with. In any case, the rosary lasted until 3:40 pm.

I did get a chuckle out of the fact that some (presumably) Dominican concelebrants behind me were talking to each other during the entire rosary! I wanted to turn around and say (though I didn’t), “Look you guys are the ones who promoted this devotion in the Church, which I also happen to like, so why not shut up and pray it?” That would have been rude, of course, so I tried to ignore their distracting antics. Hopefully no Dominicans are reading this and cringing.

At precisely 3:45 pm the pope came into the sanctuary from the same basilica entrance that I had, and headed straight toward the sacristy to vest. Everyone rose and gently applauded. Pope Francis didn’t look up or wave or impart blessings. That seemed totally fine to me. I was struck, though, by his slight limp and sensed his being 80 years old is catching up with him.

By 3:55 (five minutes ahead of schedule) the Entrance Rite began and the Mass proceeded in its usual fashion. A choir of friars and others, men and women, sang on one side of the Church near the high altar and did a good job, though I would have preferred to hear more Gregorian chant and fewer modern tunes. The pope preached for about five minutes, emphasizing the contrast of the “carnival of choices” in the world today and the clear Gospel-choice of being salt and light to the world. Points well taken.

At the end of the Mass, before the final blessing by the pope, the current Master General of the Dominican Order (Father Bruno Cadore who is from France) stood before the pope and gave a brief talk of appreciation of the ministry of the pope in the Church today and the presence and ministry of the Dominicans in the world as well. The pope then embraced the Master General and gave him a gentle pat on the shoulders. This pope does not stand on formality!

There was a reception in the Lateran Palace next to the basilica after the Mass, but being “alone” and not really knowing others present, made be head for home. I also was pretty certain that the pope would not be present at the reception, though I may well be wrong. It may have been a breach of protocol not attending the reception, but the hoards of people at the Mass made me conclude that it would be a long time getting in and getting around the reception in any case. And as it was already dark, thought it best to return to Sant’Ambrogio to prepare for Vespers at 7:00 pm. The walk home, past the Coliseum, Roman Forum and Piazza Venezia, took about half an hour.