October 30, 2009
There are bicycle thieves in Rome. Sixty years ago, one of the great classic movies of Italian cinema said it was so. But unfortunately the descendents of these ladri di biciclette live on.
My housemate, David, is from Mexico. He has already got an M.D., and is here to do a degree in theology, but because his medical background lacks the basic philosophical underpinning required to study theology in the Roman system, his university has him starting all over at the beginning – baccalaureate, year one. (David’s own philosophical grounding probably surpasses the STB program here, however!) In other words, he is going to be here for a while. So his decision to invest in a durable, quality bicycle (€150) while at the Porta Portese market on our second weekend in Rome was a bit of an investment, but for three years it is a lot cheaper than riding the metro or bus every day.
Apparently, Rome’s bicycle-thieving crime syndicate thought so too. Only four days after the classes began, someone took a little too much notice of David’s bike, locked up in front of the Gregorianum. (There are no bike racks here, so everyone locks their bikes to the chains protecting the piazza from the omnipresent motorini and smart cars).
As it happened, David saw the thieves in action and gave a chase worthy of a classic adventure film. Coming down the stairs between classes, he glanced out a window in the direction fo the bikes and saw a few people gathered around his bicycle, paying a little too much attention, so he headed for the door. As he came out the entrance, he saw the lock on the ground – cut by bolt cutters – and one of the ragazzi riding off with his bike in the direction of Piazza Venezia.
David dropped his bag, books, and laptop and sped off in hot pursuit. Somehow hailing a Roman motorist sympathetic to the victim of a dishonorable theft, David jumped on the back of the citizen’s motorini, and together they continued the chase through the narrow streets of Rome.
Despite this valiant effort, though, the thief got away. Thankfully, another student saw the chase and was watching over David’s computer and backpack, or it would have been a total loss.
Remember this was only about 10 days or a couple weeks into our stay together at the Lay Centre; David was a little reticent to share the tale at first, but we are grateful he did – it gave the community an opportunity to show him what community is really about. Last Sunday, we were able to present him with a new bike – and a tougher lock – all organized by students in the house almost from the day we heard about the theft (thanks to Dimitrios for organizing!).
David’s response is worth sharing:
I am so many others. JB What a joyful surprise! I know that my first reaction was just to babble,– I was overwhelmed and felt a little bit shy and silly… therefore I now want to give my “acuse de recibo” I want to share with you what you have done and just how much this means to me, I want to thank you for it – it has made my heart thud – this sign of your friendship, in which is revealed the face of the good God; thank you – all of you – for being a spark (scintilla) with your smiles and your deep tenderness… Not only a coin I have found, a fiets, but also something even better. Thanks and rejoice with me!
October 29, 2009
Cash in U.S. Dollars: $30.00
Exchange rate: $1.56774 = €1
Exchange amount: €19.15
Service fee 19.7% = €4.90
Final Cash in hand: €10.45
Trying to argue the math in Italian? Priceless Hopeless
One more than one occasion, I have been reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie. There are no phone booths in Rome anymore, though, so it seems I’m safe for a while yet.
First, there are peacocks on the grounds, five or six, including an albino. Then there’s a flock of some kind of parakeet, about eighteen or twenty.
Monday, as I was exploring the Basilica Santa Prassede with a couple friends, we were flocked by pigeons on the piazza Maria Maggiore nearby (though, these were aided by a grizzled gypsy throwing seeds). Then, yesterday, as i was sitting on the terrace, reading about reception, i was listening to what sounded like a small army of birds in a nearby umbrella pine. Then, as though on cue, they went silent. A moment later the began leaving the tree, perhaps a couple hundred, headed in the general direction of the Vittorio Emmanuele monument. I could see three other flocks of about the same size from different origins headed in the same direction. Then, i looked west.
It took a moment to realize what i was seeing, because they were just on the edge of sight in the fading light of the setting sun -Thousands, probably tens of thousands of these birds. The flock covered the entire western horizon in a 120 degree arc; it had to have been more than a mile long. I’ve never seen anything like it. And they were all moving in the same direction. Somewhere between Pizza Venezia and San Pietro, they began to coalesce and dance – for lack of a better term. Like a swarm, they moved in and out, coalescing and separating, sometimes translucent in the colors of the setting sun. Absolutely breathtaking.
And my camera’s batteries were dead.
October 28, 2009
“Two monks were walking along in the woods one day, some time ago. As they approached a stream swollen with spring rains, they came across a woman clearly wanting to cross, but afraid to do so because of the strength of the flooded river.
“According to the rule of the order, these monks were prohibited from speaking to women – and certainly from touching a woman. After a brief pause, one monk looked at the other and said, “Ah well”. He then asked the woman if she needed assistance across the river. She eagerly accepted, and he carried her across, with his brother monk following behind. On the other bank, the first monk let the woman down, and she went on her way, in a different direction than the two brothers.
“The monks travelled on in silence for about half an hour. Suddenly, the second monk whipped around to face the first: ‘How could you?! You know the rule! You should not have spoken to that woman, and yet you even picked her up! What were you thinking?’
“’It is true’, replied the first monk, ‘In helping her cross the stream, I carried her for four minutes. But, Brother, you have been carrying her ever since.’”
The guest presider and speaker for our community evening tonight was the Right Reverend Edmund Power, Abbot of the Benedictine Abbey at the Major Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. And it was with this story that he opened a discussion on what it means to be a monk.
A monk is a man (as a nun is a woman) who stands in the night with arms outstretched waiting for the dawn – and of course the dawn in Christ. Unlike some of these “modern” orders – like the Franciscans (founded c. 1210) or the Jesuits (founded c.1534) the primary charism of a monastic order like the Order of Saint Benedict (founded c.529) is not a particular work or ministry, but the interior life of prayer and purification of the soul.
This is not to label one order as contemplative, so as to insist that others are not, or to suggest that activity is not involved in the life of a monastic. For of course, monks need work to support their life, but each monastery does whatever work is suitable to it – some farm, others make wine or chocolates, and the Abbey of St. Paul Outside the Walls serves the needs of the Basilica, mostly the pastoral and practical needs of pilgrims.
Each of the major basilicas has a Cardinal Archpriest who is, at least nominally, responsible to be patron of the basilica and an advocate for its upkeep and other needs. The most (in)famous is of course the Cardinal Archpriest of St. Mary Major, Bernard Law.
What was news to me is that until four years ago, St. Paul Outside the Walls did not have a Cardinal Archpriest. The reason being that, historically, the archpriest position was created only after the religious order at each basilica closed or withdrew from service, the last being St. John Lateran several hundred years ago.
During that time, there has remained a Benedictine abbey at St. Paul outside the Walls, and the Abbot has been the equivalent of the Archpriest. With the election of Pope Benedict, however, an archpriest has also been named to St. Paul. (It was the first cardinal archpriest who commissioned the minor excavations that were announced at the close of the Pauline year this summer confirming the presence of first-century remains in the sarcophagus believed to be St. Paul.
And speaking of sarcophagi, as one is wont to do, did you know that the most beautiful of those found underneath St. Paul, the famous Dogmatic Sarcophagus was, ah, “borrowed” in the 19th century? Yes indeed. By Pope Pius IX, for display at the Vatican Museum…
October 27, 2009
Today I was blessed with a lesson in Italian culture that I could not have asked for. I witnessed a genuine Italian election. At least, it was supposed to be an election. And I think I was supposed to vote, too.
As a Catholic and an American, I feel it is more than civil duty to be a well-informed citizen and to participate in elections. It is a moral imperative.
So, when Karina, one of my housemates, mentioned at breakfast this morning that our second class of the day was cancelled due to student elections, I was intrigued. In fact, last night was the first time anyone had mentioned the fact that we even had student representatives, or a government of some kind… though no one was really clear on what they did, who they were, or when the elections were. No mention of this is made in the 300 page, mostly bilingual Ordine degli Studi except in the Italian language calendar which indicates only, “Elezioni Studentesce (10.30-12.15)” on this day.
Today, when we arrived at the Angelicum, there were a few copies of an “avviso” pinned to some classroom doors, apparently informing people (in Italian) that elections were being held today but without explaining much else.
At the appointed hour, our professor seemed mildly surprised to learn that his class was cancelled due to elections, and did not really know where we were supposed to go, or who was coordinating them.
The Angelicum is not really that big. One can peek into every classroom in about 15 minutes, and that is about how long it took me to find no one gathering to elect anyone, anywhere.
A fellow Anglophone student who has been here a few years, Kim, found me and decided he would introduce me to Italian-government-inaction, so together we continued the scavenger hunt for clues. After another search we found canon lawyers getting ready to elect someone from their faculty, some first cycle (Baccalaureate) students who had had elections in their classes, and finally we found a Canadian Anglican priest who had been the License representative last year, but who was equally unaware of where we were supposed to be doing elections this year.
At that point, in true Roman fashion, we decided nothing could be done and headed to the student bar for a cappuccino. Naturally, it was after caffé that someone walking by mentioned that the elections for student president were going to be held in a few minutes in the John Paul II Aula Magna (the giant lecture hall which seast several hundred).
Gathered there were less than 50 people (out of about 1400 registered students), almost all of whom seemed to be Italians (probably the entire Italian student population). The proceedings were held entirely in Italian, and when they started calling for votes, our request for a translation gained only a few brief comments in English.
Apparently, the sitting president was pointing out that with the absence of either the Rector of the university or the General Secretary precluded us from moving forward with the election. Moreover, only one candidate had met the (unpublished) deadline for submitting his name. So the discussion was to either take a non-binding vote to recommend another general assembly, to refer to the rector the current candidate, or to just ask him to appoint somebody.
At that point, people just started to leave. As far as I can tell, we did not really vote on anything, or decide anything. But at least I got to see a genuine Italian electoral process in action!
If you have not seen this yet, do take a few minutes.
Blatant ethnic cultural stereotyping? No doubt. But, according to the locals, it is all true:
October 26, 2009
First stop was a pizzeria near the Gregorian rumored to have pizza at €1 per slice, but alas, for us Anglophones they could only slice €2.40 worth of pizza. But, it was still good, and the first Roman pizza I’ve had since I got here, so I think worth it.
We then ventured to the Chiesa Santa Maria sopra Minervae (Church of St. Mary over Minerva). It is the only gothic church among Rome’s 900 places of worship, and is recognizable by the small Egyptian obelisk mounted on top of a Baroque Bernini elephant, and the fact that it is literally built over (sopra) a temple dedicated to Isis, who was later assimilated in worship to Minerva. The obelisk is one of several found buried on the site.
Two Medici popes and the artist, Blessed Fra Angelico are buried here, along with a number of other once-famous Italian nobility. One of Michelangelo’s sculptures is found inside, Christ bearing the Cross.
The church is probably better known, though, for the saint who died in a small room past the sacristy and who is entombed under the altar: St. Catherine of Siena. Catherine was a lay oblate/tertiary of the Dominicans and known for her extensive reform efforts in the church, including campaigning for the return of the papacy to Rome from Avignon. St. Catherine enjoys a particular devotion from our Eveline, and we had been talking about coming to visit for most of the last week.
As a Dominican church, it was here too that Galileo was tried for his Copernican cosmology, and where he reportedly uttered his famous exit-line, “but it does move.”
Afterwards we set out east, in the direction of Santa Maria Maggiore to find a smaller but no less important minor basilica, Santa Prassede. As we were there sometime before the 4:00pm end of lunch-break, we spent some time over at Mary Major, and then opted for gelato on the Piazza in front of the church. It was there where we were flocked by birds, goaded on by a toothless Roma who wanted coins in return for having taken pictures of the pigeons he was feeding.
On returning to the basilica, I discovered a small plaque next to the entrance of the adjacent monastery. In Slavonic and Italian, the plaque identified this humble building as the place where the saints Cyril and Methodius developed the written Cyrillic alphabet and the form of the Byzantine Liturgy used by the Slavic churches, like the Russian Orthodox, during the years 867-869. (Incidentally, Cyril was born in Thessalonica, the same city where two of my housemates are from, Dimitrios and Theodosius).
The basilica was built in 822, and is filled with Byzantine mosaics, including the Chapel of St. Zeno. In addition to the two first-century saints who inspired for whom the church is dedicated, Sts. Praxeses and Pudentia, you can see Pope Paschal and his mother Episcopa Theodora.
Theodora’s image is an intriguing one, for it figures strongly in the debate about the role of women in the church, especially regarding ordination and jurisdiction.
Given that episcopa is the feminine form of the word used for bishop from the sub-Apostolic age onward (and usually translated that way in the Bible), the simplest way to read the inscription is Bishop Theodora, providing one of a handful of first-millennium images interpreted to indicate the ordination of women in the earlier church.
Current practice in both Catholic and Orthodox churches of the Byzantine tradition is that wives of clergy are given the feminized title of their husband’s order, presbytera or deaconess, and this leads to the interpretation that Theodora is so named as the wife of a bishop (and mother of another).
A third possibility is based on the fact that many medieval abbeys held more influence and jurisdictional authority than some dioceses, and the abbess could in many places be the ordinary for several parishes, and entitled to various episcopal regalia, such as the pectoral cross, mitre, and crozier. And given the early beginning of the development of this time of an ecclesiology that saw the episcopate as a jurisdictional category rather than as a holy order in itself, it seems reasonable that a woman with the juridical office basically identical to bishop might be named episcopa.
After all that, we decided it was time to head home, so we walked Matthew to Termini, and Eveline and I hoped on a bus for home. Actually, the bus we chose turned out to be an express, and we overshot our destination and ended up in Largo Argentina, so we then switched busses to get back to Piazza Venezia, the switched again to get to the Coliseo and walk home from there. A long day, but well worth the walk!
When i mentioned in an earlier post that virtually everyone in Rome has a uniform and/or title, including most of the laity, i was not kidding. (Though, about the “Almost Reverend” i was kidding. Mostly.)
The Heralds of the Gospel are one of the many new lay movements in the church, not a religious order but an “international association of pontifical right” (like Cursillo, or the Militia Immaculata). They have a very distinctive “habit”, which i first encountered on the steps of the Angelicum. I undertand, too, that “habit” is reserved for members of religious orders -and by some accounts, really even more restricted to members of monastic orders only- but the distinctive “uniform” for other forms of religious, consecrated, ecclesiastical or lay life are generally refered to only as “unusual garb”.
We also found some official clerical sandals by Birkenstock at one of the ecclesiastical shopping centers. Fairly reasonably priced, too. Just in case you’re in the market…
Last, but not least, i am told that the Caribinieri (ubiquitus military police) uniforms are designed by Armani. I have seen the officers driving department-issue BMW’s too. Carl: forget the US Border Patrol, come to Italy!
October 25, 2009
I had two great experiences of church today. This morning, i had the priveledge to join my friend Eveline at the Dutch church in Rome for the Sunday Eucharist, and this evening we joined our friend Stian at an Anglican celebration of Evensong (Vespers) at All Saints.
The Dutch church, San Michele dei Frisoni, is located just over the international border at Piazza San Pietro, on the Italy side – litteraly right out from the piazza, hang right and up the stairs. Voila! You are I the Kerk van de Friezen. The Friezen, apparently, are one of the regional cultural groups in the Netherlands, like Holland. (If that link does not work, or, more likely, if you cannot read Dutch, try this one.)
It is a beautiful language, especially when sung. I have the sense always of being just on the edge of comprehension. The common Germanic root of English and Dutch makes it as if listening to a conversation in another room, so that you feel like you can almost make out what is being said, but not quite.
After the liturgy, I was asked about differences with my experience of the mass in America and in Rome. Obviously, the language, and some small details (for example, almost no one made the small sign of the cross at the gospel). But, the mass is the mass, and coffee hour, apparently, is coffee hour.
More noticeably, though, was a real quality of the congregational singing; there was only a small choir yet every song was richly done. That and the assembly filled the church, but was on average noticeably older than what I am familiar with. They did announce a pilgrimage from the diocese of Tilburg coming next week, though, so it will be interesting to see if it is young people or older.
Speaking of pilgrimages, one of the members present was called forth for a special blessing and recognition. He had walked from the Netherlands to Rome, a journey that took him a little over three months, and about 2000 km/1400mi. I wish I knew more about his experience to share, but it was all in Dutch. Though Eveline was kind enough to translate the highlights of the homily, we decided the announcements were fine left in the original!
In the evening Stian, Eveline and I trekked to All Saints for Festal Evensong (Vespers), one of two Anglican churches in Rome. All Saints is the Church of England parish, while St. Pauls-within-the-Walls is the (American) Episcopalian parish. The church was celebrating the feast of their dedication, so there was a choir from Hexam Abbey and the guest preacher was British Monsignor Mark Langham who is the person responsible for relations with Anglicans in Rome, from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
Father Mark opened his homily by admitting that, as he sat to begin writing his remarks this week, he found himself wishing that he had been invited to preach last week – before the press conference that has made such an impression on Anglican-Catholic relations. Without ignoring the challenges posed by the announcement, the reflections genuinely focused on the community of All Saints and on the community as one of the many expressions of the unity to which we are all called.
Whether this is an aspect of British culture I am not familiar with, I do not know, but several times he employed some very good humor, and it seemed as though the three of us were the only ones appreciating it. (At the beginning he said something about the news of the week causing ripples in the “normally tranquil waters of ecumenical dialogue.” Tranquil waters indeed!)
It was enough that we were wondering how much was perhaps some latent tension surrounding the presence of a guest preacher form the Holy See in such proximity to the announcement of the Personal Ordinariates. To his great credit, Father Langham neither sidestepped the question, nor did he dwell on it, focusing on the cause for celebration, the dedication feast of All Saints parish in Rome.
The prayers of the faithful were also interesting, “Let ecumenical dialogue be honest… and charitable,” being the most memorable among a list of prayers for unity.
As beautiful as the service was, it was difficult to fully participate. The songs were choral, rather than congregational, and often in unfamiliar settings. Though my internal liturgist recoils at the thought, I suppose there can be times to sit back and appreciate the beauty of liturgy without engaging more than the receptive senses!
October 23, 2009
For the last two weeks, one of our residents has been in the hospital, including a significant amount of that time in quarantine. Tonight, we were able to welcome Kassim Abdallah Bawah back ‘home’!
Not that this could have been known two weeks ago, but apparently this all started in 1989. Kassim began experiencing symptoms then that local medical authorities in Ghana attributed to allergies or some form of asthma or bronchitis. Then, about six years ago, the symptoms became more severe, and he was given medications to suppress the symptoms of bronchitis. But, apparently that’s all it was doing, was suppressing symptoms. A few days into his stay in Rome, after a couple days of extended walking in the late, humid Roman summer, his symptoms came back with a vengeance.
When our local doctor came by he suggested antibiotics, but after a day of no effect, Kassim and our resident nurse, Ann, began to suspect Malaria. With that in mind, the doctor recommended checking into the National Hospital for Tropical and Infectious Diseases out in Trastevere. What follows is clear evidence that we are not in the U.S.!
When Donna took Kassim to the hospital, she was prepared for the typical Italian experience, would not necessarily be an improvement over staying home with a doctor and a nurse in the house. When they arrived, they found a very quiet, locked waiting room. On ringing the buzzer, a gruff Italian voice asked, “Who is it?”
“I am here with a sick person”, Donna replied, and the door opened. No other patients were waiting in the emergency room, but a doctor met them immediately, gave Kassim an initial exam and asked some questions. After 15 minutes or so, he announced, “If we have a bed, we will admit him”. Twenty minutes later, Kassim was admitted. Aside from showing his passport, there were no questions about residency, legal status, insurance or ability to pay. For the first couple of days, Kassim was visited by almost a dozen different doctors, and had regular conversation with the nurses, orderlies and other staff, where language was not a barrier. He was given a private room with a private bathroom, tv, and outside view. Several of us from the Lay Centre were able to visit on his third or fourth day. They began testing for everything – TB, HIV, HepB, etc. Then one day, they locked his door, and no one would enter without full surgical protection. Apparently, his chest X-Ray showed what was either Tuberculosis, or advanced chronic pneumonia. As it turns out it was the later, and it has been slowly killing him for the last six years at least (probably an aggravation of whatever started 20 years ago).
After treating the pneumonia and waiting to be sure it was fully taken care of, they released Kassim to Donna’s care yesterday, with the admonition to spend the next week resting, and to check in with the local doctor at the end of the week. Otherwise, he is healthy, indeed for the first time in two decades.
There was no bill.