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An American Thanksgiving in Rome

When I was studying in the states, at Notre Dame and Catholic University, Thanksgiving was a welcome calm before the storm, a few days to catch one’s breath before the final push toward final exams. Here, the semester is just nearing mid-term, and of course it is not an Italian holiday. I did notice that none of the NAC residents came to class today: The North American College, the residence for diocesan seminarians and priests from the states, had their big Thanksgiving feast for lunch.

Our director, Professora Donna Orsuto and our chef, Feda, spent all day preparing a traditional Thanksgiving feast for the residents and about 25 guests. We had invited classmates and other ‘homeless’ Americans to join us. Two gorgeous roast turkeys, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn and green beans, stuffing, and even pumpkin pie. I was appropriately stuffed. We’re pretty well fed, and Feda does a great job with the Italian fare every night, but for the visitors who were used to living on their own in Rome I think getting a taste of home was truly appreciated.

It is always a nice surprise when a member of the community shares a gift that you did not know they had. The other American students in the house are a married couple, Greg and Karina, from Chicago and Houston, respectively. Karina closed our feast with a soulful rendition of Amazing Grace in a beautiful voice. You could hear a pin drop. There is much to be thankful for, being in Rome in such a community, but moments like that highlight the gifts God gives in a special way.

Happy Thanksgiving from across the pond! May you be blessed with bounty, faith, and friendship!


Life Together

My spiritual reading this Sunday was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together: A Discussion of Christian Fellowship. It was mentioned by our Augustinian guest last week, Father Bob Guessetto, as the source of the famous quote that “the person who loves his dream of community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”

Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and theologian, was a martyr of the Nazis at Flossenburg in April 1945, only a couple months before Allied victory in Europe. Prior to his capture in 1943, he was active in the Confessing Church and the German resistance, teaching in an underground seminary (like the one Karol Wojtyla attended in Poland) and ministering to the Germans who fought against Hitler’s regime.

His discussion is only about 120 pages, touching on the themes of the community itself, the day with others, the day alone, ministry in the community, confession and communion. Leave it to a Lutheran to give one of the most eloquent descriptions and defenses of confession I have ever read!  (Luther, as you probably know, was a devoted participant in the sacrament of Reconciliation, originally keeping it along with Baptism and Eucharist as truly sacraments).

He highlights the aspects/gifts of ministry in community as The Ministry of Holding One’s Tongue, The Ministry of Meekness, The Ministry of Listening, The Ministry of Helpfulness, The Ministry of Bearing, The Ministry of Proclaiming, and the Ministry of Authority.

The book is definitely worth a read, for anyone living in Christian community (including family life!) or serving in ministry. I thought I’d share a few nuggets worth expropriating:

“First, Christian community is not an ideal, but a divine reality. Second, Christian community is a spiritual and not a psychic reality.”

“Life together under the Word will remain sound and healthy only where it does not form itself intoa  movement, and order, a society, but rather where it understands itself as being a part of the one, holy, catholic, Christian Church, where it shares actively and passively in the sufferings and struggles and promise of the whole church”

“It is not the experience of Christian community, but solid and certain faith in community that holds us together. … We are bound together by faith, not by experience. … for Jesus Christ alone is our unity”

“Listening can be a greater service than speaking. He who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too.”

“The day of the Lord’s Supper is an occasion of joy for the Christian community. Reconciled in their hearts with God and the brethren, the congregation receives the gift of the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and receiving that, received forgiveness, new life and salvation. … The fellowship of the Lord’s Supper is the superlative fulfillment of Christian fellowship. … Here the community has reached its goal. Here joy in Christ and his community is complete. The life of Christians together under the Word has reached its perfection in the sacrament.”

A dialogue of hospitality

We had a few guests for dinner at the Lay Centre tonight.

That would be the “necessary but insufficient” description. Allow me to elaborate.

Ambassador Tony Hall

Ambassador Tony Hall

Former U.S. Special Representative to the U.N. agencies in Rome (and former U.S. Representative), Ambassador Tony Hall, his wife Janet, their daughter Jyl and her husband Ryan joined us for dinner. Apparently during their years in Rome, Mrs. Hall was a regular participant of the Centre’s ongoing formation program, the Vincent Pallotti Institute, and she and Ambassador Hall became regular guests and friends of the Lay Centre.

Now back home in the States, they were in Rome for a few days and were able to stop by to see the new location and meet the new members of the community. Ambassador Hall shared with us some reflections on his dedication to eradicate hunger and malnutrition in our world, and gave witness to the fact that it was his faith in Christ, and the conviction of the Gospel, that moved him to spend so much of his life in service to those most in need.

 Jyl and Ryan – who, as it turns out, is a native of Bellingham, WA –came across the Adriatic from Macedonia where they are involved in a ministry sponsored by Faith and Learning International. Between sports and art, they are reaching hundreds of youth in the context of a broader outreach in the Balkans. You can read their blog here:

Daniel Roberts, Dr. Adam Afterman, AJ, Naomi Schenck

Daniel Roberts, Dr. Adam Afterman, AJ, Naomi Shank

We were also honored to have Ms. Naomi Shank, director of the Russell Berrie Fellowship program, Mr. Daniel Roberts, director of the Institute for International Education’s Europe Office (IIE), and Dr. Adam Afterman of Hebrew University and the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. As you know, my studies at the Angelicum are being funded by one of the Russell Berrie Fellowships, which is coordinated through the IIE, and a part of our fellowship is a seminar in the Holy Land coordinated by Dr. Afterman and the Hartman Institute, so it was a particularly welcome opportunity for me to put faces with the names of those responsible for my grant.

Finally, complete with Caribinieri escort, the newly appointed U.S. Special Representative to the U.N. agencies in Rome, Ambassador Ertharin Cousin, joined us just as Ambassador Hall was beginning his after dinner remarks. Having just arrived to her post the same day I arrived in Rome, not quite two weeks ago, that she was willing to find time to join us was indicative both to the Ambassadors own commitment to interfaith and inter-cultural dialogue and reconciliation, and to the value of the Lay Centre in the life of Rome as a place where the dialogues of life, charity, and hospitality coincide with the dialogue of truth.

Ambassador Ertharin Cousin

Ambassador Ertharin Cousin

For those who do not know – and I certainly did not – the U.S. mission to the U.N. Agencies in Rome is our relationship with the U.N. Agencies for Food and Agriculture, including the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Food Program and the International Fund for Agricultural Development. It is also responsible for overseeing U.S. participation in the International Development Law Organization, the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law, and the International Center for the Study and Preservation of Cultural Property.

Ahhh, Bella Roma!

Foro Romano

View from my room: Vittorio Emmanuele monument and Roman Forum

I am in Rome. After a flight cancellation, delayed luggage, and a fairly typical (read: nail-biting) taxi ride from Fiumincino airport to my new residence, I arrived at the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas at about 1700 (5pm for us non-Europeans), just over 24 hours after Nancy dropped me off at SeaTac. Just in time for a brief tour, a moment to admire the view from my room, and a short nap before venturing to the nearby church of Santa Maria in Domenica for Mass and then dinner with the other residents.

With this blog I hope to regularly update family, friends, and insomniac internet wanderers as to my life in the Eternal City, as well as to provide reflections on the courses, research and other theological or ecclesiastical goings on. My intent is to save your inboxes but keep in touch, and to provide either catechesis or opportunity for theological discussion, depending on the reader. Please feel free to respond publicly or privately! I’m looking forward to a view of the church from Rome, though I have a long way to go on my Italian before it becomes unfiltered!

Some initial observations:

Technology: I am seriously considering investing in trans-Atlantic homing pigeons and a stock of quill pens. Our wireless connection at the residence has only worked for a few hours a couple of times over the last week and a half, apparently because of some issue with the electricity – twice the routers have been fried by the electrical system in the monastery! Likewise, the wireless at the Angelicum University has not been connected to the internet any time I have tried it, but I was able to ‘borrow’ a cable from a physics conference on campus last week. Not that it mattered too much, as my laptop crashed literally the first time I turned it on in Rome. Thankfully my files were backed up, but  I left some important software backups at home, like my Italian lessons from Rosetta Stone…

Liturgy: My first Sunday Eucharist was the Pontifical Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica for the opening of the Synod of Bishops for Africa. If you’ve been there, you know San Pietro is “in the round”, albeit in a cruciform shape, with the altar in the center – much like St. Brendan’s in Bothell. And, like St Brendan, the presider (in this case the Holy Father) was able to celebrate both ad orientem and versus populum, simultaneously. That is, to face east, one must also face the largest section of the assembly in the long nave adjacent to the piazza. Communion was taken in the hand, along the center aisle, with the Eucharistic ministers moving back and forth between about five or six rows. The cup was not offered, and we stood during the Eucharistic prayer. The mass parts were in Latin, given the international character of the liturgy, but readings in English and Portuguese, with prayers in the languages of Africa, from Ge’ez and Arabic to Swahili and French. Most other liturgy has been in the community; more on that momentarily.

Diet, Exercise, and Environment: The university is just about a 35 minute walk from our residence, and the Centro Pro Unione (Center for Union), which serves as the library for my department, is another 30 minute walk beyond that. Though, as I walk around in my shorts and shirtsleeves sweating enough to flood the colloseo, I no doubt stand out like a sore thumb, as the Romans are all dressed in black, some wearing coats already, all in long pants, and never seem to break a sweat. It must be 75 and its very humid, but apparently it’s a big relief from summer! As for food, I have never eaten so well in my life! After just a few days, I actually feel healthier. Even the cappuccino seems fresher, smaller, and less addictive.

I also really appreciate the pausa – or siesta – the break from about 12:30-3:30pm which is especially necessary on hot days. You just cannot get anything done in the heat, so why not nap, and save your energy for the more active evening time? So classes are held 830-12:30, then 3:30-7:30, and many businesses are on similar hours.

To orient yourself to my daily route, look at a map of Rome (google maps is good), start just south of the Colloseo at the monastery of Sts. John and Paul (on the site of the Temple of Claudius), follow Via Claudia north along the east side of the colloseo, then along the Via dei Fori Imperiali past the Foro Romano and the Foro Augusto to the Monument for Vittorio Emmanuele II. Turn right at Trajan’s Column, up the stairs to the church of Santi Domenico e Sisto – that’s the Angelicum “campus”. From there to the Centro Pro Unione, head back west and somewhat north to the Piazza Navona, passing the Church of the Gesù, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, and the Pantheon if you like. Just behind the Palace Pamphilj, the Society of the Atonement has their headquarters and the Centro.  Rest assured, I have already been shown the famous Gellateria La Palma nearby!

Community: I am staying at the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas, which has an interesting history. Foyer Unitas was originally founded in 1962 by a small Dutch religious order of women known as the Ladies of Bethany as a house of hospitality for any non-Catholic in Rome, just off the Piazza Navona in the same building as the Centro Pro Unione. The Lay Centre is the brainchild of Dr. Donna Orsuto and Riekie van Velzen, who had been connected to the Foyer Unitas, as a college for those of us coming to Rome who did not quite fit in to the ecclesiastical residences. The NAC, for example, houses only seminarians and priests, leaving religious to live with their orders, deacons and lay ecclesial ministers, along with other lay students, to fend for themselves. Founded in 1986, it was housed first at Foyer Unitas (hence the name) and then in the English College, the Irish College, and now at the Passionist Monastery of Sts. John and Paul.

We are 21 residents this year, from Albania, Canada, Germany, Greece, Ghana, Italy, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Serbia, Turkey, and the U.S. Three Muslims, three Eastern Orthodox, an Anglican, and the rest of us are Catholic.  We have a medical doctor, a lawyer, and a nurse all studying for new vocations. Breakfast and lunch are self serve during the week, with dinner at 7:45 followed by Compline (night prayer). Wednesdays are our community nights, with mass at 7:00pm followed by dinner and usually a presentation. During our first several days, we’ve had brief presentations during dinner each night, and a day of reflection on Sunday. We’ve already had some orientation to community life from a Jesuit, a Benedictine, an Augustinian, and a Marist, in addition to our director (Donna Orsuto) and assistant (Robert White).

The location is a profound blessing. We are in the historical center or Rome, within the Aurelian walls, but with large enough private gardens that we are removed from the street noise – something unheard of almost anywhere else in the city. We sit on top of one of the famous Seven Hills of Rome, Monte Celio, and my bedroom window looks right down on the Foro Romano, the Colloseum, and the Capitoline Hill with the Monument for Vittorio Emanuele. From our patio ledge, we can see the dome of San Pietro.

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