Friday, February 22, 2008

A Weekend in Terni

This last weekend we went and stayed at an old farmhouse outside of the city of Terni in Umbria. We left right after school and enjoyed the drive to get there through the rolling countryside north of Rome.

This is the view of the farm out our window.

The town itself was heavily damaged during the war, so much of it is rebuilt. We enjoyed some good food and had fun exploring old churches.
We also went 7km outside of the city to take in the natural beauty of the Cascata della Mamore. These waterfalls are the result of the ancient Romans redirecting water to drain a swamp area. Today the water is used for hydroelectric power, so the waterfalls are turned on and off twice a day when the water is not being used for the generators.

The town seems to be most famous for their bishop, Valentine. Yes, he is the saint celebrated on February 14th. (We arrived after all of the big festivities.) Valentine was a Christian medical practitioner, who often cared for the poor and those in prison. He was also a bishop in the early church. There is a legend that while Valentine was in prison awaiting execution for his Christian faith, he converted the jailer by restoring sight to the jailer's daughter.

I found this story of Valentine at
In the Roman empire wars broke out. The emperor Claudius summoned the citizens forth to battle and year after year the fighting continued. Many of the Romans were unwilling to go. The married men did not want to leave their families. The younger men did not wish to leave their sweethearts. The emperor was angry when soldiers were too few. He ordered that no marriages should be celebrated and that all engagements must be broken off immediately. Many a young Roman went off to the wars in sorrow, leaving his love. Many a Roman maiden died of grief as a result of this decree.

Now the good priest Valentine heard of the emperor's command and was very sad. When a young couple came to him, he secretly united them in marriage. Another pair sought his aid and in secret he wedded them. Others came and quietly were married. Valentine was the friend of lovers in every district of Rome. But, such secrets could not be kept for long. At last word of Valentine's acts reached Claudius. He summoned his soldiers. "Go! Take that priest in the temple! Cast him into a dungeon! No man in Rome, priest or not, shall disobey my commands!"

Thursday, February 21, 2008

2nd Week of Lent: Basilica di San Clemente

I grew up in the California beach town of San Clemente. We had a house overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the sound of the waves lulled me to sleep at night. My mother loved to work in the garden that surrounded our home and there were colorful flowers blooming all year. She liked to stand at the kitchen sink and look out the window to the ever-changing colors of the ocean and the sky. When we were kids we took our natural surroundings for granted. My mother always marveled at the beauty of God’s creation. I remember the words that she quoted from somewhere... "We are little boats on the big sea."

The last time that I saw my mother was on Ash Wednesday, 1991. She was in a coma and I was at her bedside when the parish priest came to the hospital room and made a cross of ashes on her forehead with the words: “Remember Dorothy that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” He then repeated the words to me, placing a cross on my forehead. My mom died less than a month later. After her funeral, my brother and I took her ashes and scattered them into the Pacific Ocean from the end of the pier just up the beach from our home.
My mother was very much in my thoughts as I recalled the words of the beatitude and entered the Basilica di San Clemente, a station church for the 2nd week of Lent.

Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

My eyes were taken into the large golden mosaic of the apse as I sat on a bench in the nave of the basilica. The image of Christ on the cross is at the center, rooted in an acanthus plant, with four streams of water flowing from it, providing drink for two deer. Growing out of the acanthus are vines and branches extending over the whole surface of the apse in circular motions. Between the shots and inside the coils of the vines, the artist has depicted the rich diversity of creation. There are shepherds and peasants at work. There are monks at prayer. There are people of all kinds, rich and poor. Animals and plants make a fantasy of color against the gold background of the mosaic.

In my mother’s garden I was fascinated by the "prehistoric feeling" of the leaves and flowering spikes of her acanthus plants. They were a sharp contrast to other plants that seemed more refined. Their “wildness” added to the diversity that we enjoyed in her garden.

My mother’s life had a diversity that she shared with her children. She was very active in the local parish, and nurtured in me the sense of faith and community that are an important part of my life today. She was active in ecumenical activities in the 1950’s, one of the community's leaders for interfaith initiatives. She was a scout leader and our home was always a gathering point for the kids in the neighborhood. She gave us a respect for the beliefs and practices of our Muslim bread man. Often on Sunday evening, she put us in the station wagon and drove us to a Mass that was for migrant workers in a hut in the middle of the fields that were outside of town. She felt it was important for the Mexican men to be with families when they were separated from their own wives and children.

Sitting in the Basilica di San Clemente I am most grateful for the life of my mother. My prayer is that I will always keep my eyes open to the beauty of God’s creation and appreciate the richness of diversity that God calls me to participate in. May I never take things for granted. May I always be filled with wonder and awe and accept the challenges of life that God brings to me.

Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

I encourage you to read Michael Tinker’s blog for some interesting details about the Basilica di San Clemente. Michael is a professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York, and is teaching a course in Rome this semester.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

I Found Sant' Alò!

Last weekend while visiting the city of Terni (a little over an hour north of Rome) we found a church dedicated to Sant' Alò. My middle name is Alo. It was my maternal grandfather’s first name, but no one in my family ever knew the meaning or the origin of the name.

Sant' Alò is the Italian diminuative of Saint Aloysius (Eligio), a goldsmith saint who lived in the 6th Century. Other forms of the name are Elgius and Eloi. His feast day is December 1st and is the patron of metalworkers. St Eligius was chosen to be bishop of Noyon and Tournai and died when he was 71 years old. He was known for his skill as a craftsman, his concern for the poor and his efforts at converting the people of Flanders to Christianity.

The church of Sant' Alò is one of the oldest places of worship in the city of Terni. It was built in the 12th century, on top of an ancient Roman structure dedicated to the goddess Cybele. The construction of a town-house in front of the old facade in the 13th century, resulted in the entrance of the church being moved to the right side of the structure. This small church has been used by various communities: the Augustines (13th century), the Sisters of St. Clare of Assisi (15th and 19th centuries) and the Knights of the Order of Malta (18th century). Today it is used by a Romanian Orthodox community and is also the chapel for the diocesan seminary that is next door.

The interior walls and columns are decorated with frescoes from the 12th to the 16th century.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

First Week of Lent: San Giovanni in Laterano

San Giovanni in Laterano is the cathedral church of Rome, the Patriarchial Lateran Archbasilica. It has been the site of five ecumenical councils and home of the popes until 1304 when they left for Avignon. The Roman Emperor Constantine gave the Bishop of Rome this parcel of imperial property, together with its buildings, for a church and residence in the early 4th century. The property was known as Lateran since it had previously belonged to Plautius Lateranus.

The first basilica was consecrated by Pope Sylvester I in 324 and dedicated to the Holy Savior, naming it Basilica Salvatoris. This basilica was restored and rebuilt many times because of sackings, fires and earthquakes. In the 10th century it was dedicated to St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist was added as a co-patron in the 12th century. The interior that is seen today dates from the 17th century and is primarily the work of the architect Francesco Borromini.

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Entering the basilica today, your eyes are first drawn to the front, where an elaborate tabernacle-like structure above the main altar holds reliquaries of Saints Peter and Paul. When your eyes look down, you notice that the floor is an intricate design made of marble, and as you gaze up, you behold an immense carved ceiling of gold on top of a background of blue and red. It takes awhile to settle down and pause for reflection.

This basilica and the adjoining palace are the places where the influence, wealth and power of the Church grew. It is also the "Mother Church" responsible for directing the spread of Christianity for over 1,000 years. The Lateran Basilica was the site of four Ecumenical Councils. It was where Charlemagne was baptized and St. Francis of Assisi came here and received approval from the Pope for the Franciscan way of life.

Two weeks ago the Community of Sant' Egidio celebrated their 40th Anniversary here. This lay community began as a group of high school students and are now more than 50,000 members around the world, with a commitment to the Gospel and prayer, friendship, helping the needy, dialogue and peace.

For over 1,500 years this basilica has been a place where Christians have come to meet God. During my recent visit I was sitting in the nave in front of a statue of Saint Philip. Pilgrims and tourists were coming and going in a constant flow. Some were in groups and some were alone. It was interesting to see nuns in various styles of habits - some carrying rosaries and others with digital cameras. Directly across the nave, in a side chapel, there were two dozen people praying the rosary in Italian. I heard voices singing from the front of the basilica. I thought it might be a recording, as can be heard in many Roman churches during the day. I discovered that a group of about 80 American pilgrims were celebrating the Eucharist in another side chapel.

I encountered many facets of the Kingdom of God in this basilica. How can I be "poor in spirit" so that I can have a fuller experience of the Kingdom of God?

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

These angels are in the chapel dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi.

The statues of Christ and the saints look down upon the thousands of gay men and women gathered in Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano for Gay Pride. The people may not all be religious, but they have come to this basilica to celebrate who they are.

Monday, February 11, 2008

A Journey for Lent: Introduction

When living in metro New York I was part of a Lenten Journey group for the last few years. Several people would get together once a week for a simple meal, shared reflection and prayer. This year the group is continuing the tradition through e-mail and the internet. I will be making my contribution through my blog.

For the journey, I will visit a different church here in Rome each week. I will select the churches from the Station Churches designated for that week, and I will share some reflections and images that are inspired by my visits.

One of the many pilgrimage traditions here in Rome is that of the Station Churches. A different church is designated each day during the 40 days of Lent. People travel to these churches in a tradition that dates from the fourth century, when people would gather each day at a particular church with the Bishop of Rome for the celebration of the Eucharist. In the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great designated it as a Lenten practice. The custom ceased during the Avignon papacy in 1305, but interest was revived by Pope Leo XIII at the turn of the 20th century and Pope John XXIII fully restored the custom in 1959.

(You can see an interactive list of the Station Churches at )

The structure of my reflections will be prompted by homilies I have heard the last two weeks at Caravita, the church I am part of in the center of Rome. Before Lent began, we were encouraged by Rev. Jim Hentges, OSC, to use the Beatitudes for our prayer during Lent. Last Sunday, in response to the reading of the Genesis account of the temptation in the garden where Eve gets in a conversation with a serpent and is asked questions, and Christ’s temptation in the wilderness when he gets in a conversation with Satan and is asked questions, Msgr. Don Bolen challenged us to engage in conversations and ask questions during Lent. I will try to have a time of conversation with God, myself, and the world - asking questions and seeking answers.

Sunday at the Circus Maximus

There is always activity at the Circus Maximus, and this Sunday was no different. As we were on the bus going past the site of this ancient arena we noticed a group of men dressed as Roman Gladiators. They were being led by a man in golden armor, a red cape and plumed helmet, carrying a standard with SPQR at the top. Maybe they were re-enating some event or just entertaining the tourists. At the opposite end of the Circus Maximus was a group of pilgrims gathered in prayer around a processional cross. Were the gladiators going to confront the Christians? We never found out because our bus continued on it's way toward the Temple of Hercules, the Theater of Marcello, and through the Piazza Venezia on our way to church.

"Massimo Silenzio" made by artist Giancarlo Neri, illuminated the huge ellipse of the Circus Maximus (Circo Massimo) with 10,000 12-inch globes in a changing pattern of colors. This picture was taken on Sunday, September 9, 2007, during Notte Bianca, the all-night festival celebrating the arts and the people of Rome.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Gilbert and Sullivan in Rome

This evening we enjoyed a performance of Trial by Jury. I sang this operetta with a community chorus in San Clemente, California, when I was in high school, so I was quietly singing along with all of the songs. Every October a group of people here in Rome get together to put on an operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan in February. This year Trial by Jury was paired with Cox and Box and presented in the auditorium of St. Stephen's School on the Aventine Hill. Three of my colleagues from school were part of the production.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Pharmacy

One of my anxieties about moving to Rome was getting prescription refills. When I came here in July I had a three-month mail order supply of the medications I take regularly. The director of my school told me that I probably would have no problem in getting refills. Just go to the drug store and show them the empty U.S prescription bottles and they would give me the refills. When my three-month supply was almost gone I made my way to the Farmacia San Paolo, near the Basilica of St. Paul. The pharmacist was amused at the odd collection of containers that held my medications. But, there was no problem getting refills. I did not need a doctor's prescription and I did not have to show identification. (The retail price that I paid was just about the same as my co-pay back in the United States.) Medications in Italy come in boxes that are pre-counted in pop-out foil and plastic cards. The boxes are all stored in drawers at the pharamcy, making getting a refill a very quick process. I now go regularly to my neighborhood pharmacy, Farmacia Santa Rita. You can notice the saint's icon at the top of the photo that I took of my pharamcist.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Superbowl Sunday: Stadiums in Rome

There is not much talk about the Superbowl in Rome. After lunch this afternoon we passed a bar that had this sign posted at the door. It will be open all night and serving free pasta to those who want to come and watch the game starting at 11pm.

Rome has it's own "superbowl" arena, the Colosseum. Games are no longer played there, but when it was built during the 1st Century AD, it held nearly 30,000 spectators. It is the largest amphitheater ever built in the Roman Empire and was used for gladiatorial contests and "public spectacles." It remained in use for nearly 500 years with the last recorded games being held there as late as the 6th century. The "public spectacles" included mock sea battles, animal hunts, executions, re-enactments of famous battles, and dramas based on Classical mythology. The amphitheater stopped being used for entertainment in the middle ages. Since then it has been used for housing, workshops, quarters for a religious order, a fortress, a quarry and a Christian shrine. Every Good Friday the Pope leads the Stations of the Cross in the Colosseum.

We went past the Circo Massimo as we travelled by bus to and from church today. Maybe this is even a better Roman monument to think about on Superbowl Sunday. I remember seeing images of this Roman monument when I was nine years old, during the chariot race scene in the movie Ben Hur. it was built in the 3rd Century BC and could hold about 250,000 people, a quarter of Rome's population at the time. (It was about two football fields wide and seven football fields long.) It was a track used primarily for chariot racing, although it was used on occasion for hunts. mock battles. athletic events and processions. The Circo Massimo also had the ancient equivelant of the skyboxes that we see in modern stadiums. The Emperor had a reserved seat, as did senators, knights, those who financially backed the race, those who presided over the competition, and the jury that awarded the prize to the winners. The last race held at the Circo Massimo was in 549 A.D., nearly a full millenium after the track's construction. (How long do modern stadiums last before they are torn down and rebuilt?) Today only the layout of the original circo can be seen in what is now a large grassland. Most of the original structure has been used as building material for medieval and Renaissance construction projects. Today as the bus went past we could see joggers and walkers, some under umbrellas because it was raining. There are often people playing ball games and sitting and enjoying the large open space.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Tourist and Pilgrim

This afternoon we went as tourists to see the Trappist Monastery of the Three Fountains, located about 5 km from our home, near EUR. At the end of a tree lined drive, right off the eight-lane Via Cristoforo Colombo, an open gate in an old rustic wall welcomed us into an oasis of three churches: the monastary church of Ss. Vincenzo e Anastasio, dating to the 7th century: S. Paolo alle Tre Fontane, originally 5th century but rebuilt in the 16th century by Giacomo della Porta; and S. Maria Scala Coeli, also rebuilt by della Porta. It was here in 1868 that the Trappist monks introduced eucalyptus trees to Rome as a protection against the mysterious germs of malaria. (We bought a bottle of eucalyptus liqueur made at the monastery.) While walking from the monastery church to the Church of S. Paolo alle Tre Fontane I encountered a sign that converted me from a tourist to a pilgrim. It said: In this place, according to tradition, Paul of Tarsus gave his life for Jesus Christ in the year 67 a.C.. Silence please.

So in silence I walked up the path that led to the church and site where St. Paul was beheaded. Legend has it that when he was executed, his head bounced three times as it rolled down the hill, and a spring of water sprang up from each place where his head landed. Legends are legends, some more fantastic or unbelievable than others. But, I was walking in the place where the great Apostle to the Gentiles, the writer of some of the most significant books of the New Testament, walked nearly 2,000 years ago to his death. Inside the busy baroque church I prayed for my friend Paul in New York City and I remembered my friend Rob, a saint who worked with the homeless in New York, who died from HIV ten years ago. I lit candles for both of them before I left.

Within this oasis of the three fountains and three churches there was a book store, a coffee bar/shop selling Trappist products, and a religious art store. There was also a small art studio. We peeked into the studio and in one of the rooms we saw three women, of three different generations, each painting a still life.