Recently I have been asked, more than once, “So how was your Christmas?” Before answering the question, I would ask another. Have you noticed that Americans now begin almost every question with the word, “So”? I haven’t quite figured out why that is, but it seems all pervasive, at least from what I can gather, and it is probably an unnecessary opening to a sentence. It is reminiscent of the word, “like,” that many years ago began to be interjected between words in spoken English, without much rhyme or reason. It still appears to be pretty common. For example, “Like, how many times have you, like, walked to the Vatican over the past year?” Today it might more look like, “So, like, how many times time you, like, walked to the Vatican…?”
The above really has nothing to do with Christmas or how I spent it, but let us proceed.
Here in our Curia Sant’Ambrogio, inhabited by nine monks from seven countries (Colombia, Italy, France, Burkino Faso, Vietnam, Brazil, USA), we live the regular life as Benedictines, beginning with Vigils at 5:30 am in our house chapel, usually lasting about forty minutes.
After Vigils, there is a break for Lectio Divina, that is, prayerful holy reading from the Bible, wherever we wish to do it. At 7:00 am we pray Lauds, which lasts about twenty-five minutes. Immediately after Lauds the priests vest for Holy Mass, then Mass is celebrated, and at the end the psalms of Terce are prayed following Holy Communion. Mass and Terce end at about 8:00 am. Afterwards breakfast is available, then office work or chores or appointments begin.
At 1:00 pm we pray the Office of Sext in chapel, followed by the psalms of None, these two “Little Hours” combined last about fifteen minutes. Our main meal, called “pranzo” in Italian, then takes place in the refectory. After pranzo we do the dishes and have time for a break, either a siesta, reading, walking, or exercise. This usually begins at about 2:00 pm.
There is normally more work mid-afternoon, and Vespers is prayed at 7:00 pm and over at about 7:25. We then have our evening meal, called “cena” in Italian, do the dishes and immediately after go to chapel for the reading of the Rule of Saint Benedict pray Compline, ending at about 8:30 pm. We observe the Great Silence until the next morning after Mass. This night is normally a time of special silence and getting our rest.
The above is our basic daily schedule year around, even on Sundays and Solemnities, though no formal work occurs on those days. We do not have any organized recreation periods in the week, but have talking at pranzo and cena each day. It is usually in Italian and an opportunity to interact, and while talking at meals is not a normal part of monastic practice, it seems to be a long-standing custom at the Generate of our Subiaco Cassinese Congregation. Thankfully meals here never last more than half an hour.
Like other monasteries, our horarium or schedule is always modified for Christmas and Easter. Last year was my first Holy Week and Easter at the Curia, and more recently, my first Christmas.
Our Christmas celebrations began on December 24th when we prayed First Vespers of the Solemnity of the Birth of the Lord at 6:30 pm. That was followed by cena, beautifully prepared by our cook, Pina, who is from Sardinia, an Italian island. Pina always prepares wholesome and hearty meals, and our Christmas Eve cena (supper) was predictably delicious.
After cena on Christmas Eve, we had a break from about 8:00 pm until 9:30 pm, when we gathered in chapel for praying the Office of Vigils of Christmas. Vigils lasted about an hour. A short break followed, then we monks and Pina our cook walked as a group to the nearby Benedictine sisters, the Oblates of Saint Frances of Rome, at Tor de’ Specchi, located on the Via Teatro Marcello near Piazza Venezia and just a five minute stroll from Sant’Ambroio where we live.
One of us priests here is chaplain for Mass each morning at 6:30 am at Tor de’Spechhi. On the great days of Holy Week and Christmas Eve, we try to go as a group to celebrate Mass with the sisters. They now number just five and not young, so their long-term future is uncertain, but nonetheless they maintain their life of prayer and work until further notice, so to speak.
Christmas “Midnight Mass” began at 11:00 pm, and ended at midnight. Have you heard the old joke about people calling a parish asking the time of midnight Mass? The reality is not so much a joke anymore, as parishes and religious houses, for various and sundry reasons, have the so-called “Midnight Mass” either in the early evening of December 24th, close to midnight or not at all, until Christmas morning, for example.
After Mass the sisters at Tor de’Spechhi greeted us and offered us visitors and Pina refreshments which we took rather quickly in order to get home for some rest! We did that and rose for the Office of Lauds at 8:00 am, followed by the Mass of Christmas Day.
I should mention that we try to sing during Mass, at least the Entrance Antiphon, Kyrie Eleison, Gloria, Alleluia, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and sometimes a song at the end of Mass on Sundays and Solemnities. One we often use there is the refrain from “Anima Christi,” the words of an ancient Latin prayer, with the music by Italian Father Marco Frisina. The words and music are quite lovely, and I invite you to listen on YouTube.
After our Christmas Day Mass and Terce at Sant’Ambrogio last year, we had a quiet breakfast, then a break until 1:15, when we prayed Sext and None, then had our Christmas meal together. During the break after breakfast, some of us monks walked to Saint Peter’s Square to see and hear Pope Francis giving his traditional “Urbi et Orbi” (to the City and the World) blessing of Christmas Day.
The pope spoke briefly then gave a blessing to all. There were some 50,000 pilgrims present and like most of these short or longer gatherings with the pope, I am struck by the richness of our Catholic faith, God’s care for us in the Church, our true home, with overwhelming good, which too often is overlooked.
In his address Pope Francis, speaking in Italian, asked all to pray for every child who suffers due to war, poverty and inequality, each of whom bears the face of the Holy Child Jesus. The pope concluded his address with these words, “May we commit ourselves, with the help of God’s grace, to making our world more human and more worthy for the children of today and of the future.”
As someone who was educated for eight years in my youth by Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus from Philadelphia, I am always touched by references to the Lord in his childhood and immediately call to mind the selfless women who taught me in Portland, Oregon, and the presumably hundreds of thousands of children of Holy Child schools at one time scattered throughout the world.
My eighth grade teacher, Mother Mary Gemma, of the Holy Child Sisters, died shortly before Christmas last year, but whom I was able to visit, as well as several other former teachers, at their Motherhouse outside of Philadelphia, on my way to Rome on January 12th, 2017.
I must have expressed some apprehension about taking up work in Rome at the age of 64, and Mother Gemma told me as I left for my flight to Rome, “Christian, remember, just one day at a time.” Her words of wisdom have stuck with me and mean more to me than ever as she has completed her earthly sojourn.
Our cena on Christmas day 2017 at Sant’Ambrogio included a roasted turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, among other things, and made this American (the only one in our house at present!) very happy. Christmas afternoon was free and Vespers were prayed at 7:00 pm with a light cena after. Then some of us returned to Saint Peter’s Basilica to see the Nativity in the Square illuminated, as well as the huge Christmas tree. It was a perfect end to the day celebrating the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ!