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Archive for October 1st, 2018

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One Step To Wisdom

Currently we happen to be reading in the monastic refectory at Saint John’s a book whose timeliness has been perfect for me.  The Pope Who Would Be King tells the story of Pius IX, who is a good example of the right man coming at the wrong time in history — or the wrong man at the wrong time.  Whatever may have been his talents, he had the misfortune to be pope just when the Italian nationalists liberated the Papal States and created a unified Italy.  Pius IX never got over it.

For over a thousand years popes had ruled a chunk of central Italy, and after a while they could not imagine a papacy without that secular base.  Not everybody agreed with that approach, but it didn’t matter to the ecclesiastics who ran Rome.  Popes needed royal power, they asserted, because it supported their spiritual power.  The truth, as it turned out, was quite the opposite, as later popes discovered.  Shorn of the Papal States, 21st-century popes have exercised a moral authority that was unimagined by their predecessors.

FCA5AA19-F5AC-4FE5-9697-6660F0D5D8F1I say that reading this book has been fortuitous because at the moment I am part of a Benedictine Heritage tour of Italy.  It helps to know that popes were monarchs for a millennium, because it’s hard to understand a lot of what we see in Rome without that tidbit.  Why would there be papal coats of arms emblazoned on fountains and buildings and walls?  Why would the pope need a fortress and an elevated escape route to reach it?  Why would the pope need a prison and an army and thick walls to defend the Vatican?  The answers make for great reading, but after 1870 even the popes came to realize that they didn’t need any of that to teach the gospel.  But that’s another story.

I never studied or lived in Rome, so I find it very easy to get lost in the labyrinth of streets in the center of the city.  That makes a trip here all the more enjoyable, if you have the leisure for getting lost.  But as beautiful as the street scenes can be, it’s the people who fascinate.  Rome is a stunningly diverse place, all overlaying a base of Italian culture.

This time I’ve taken some moments to listen to the chatter around me, and it can be both entertaining and inspiring.  Among the lighter moments was a conversation I overheard as several of us were walking down the avenue to Saint Peter’s.  Along the way one must run a gauntlet of hawkers and street peddlers who assault you with anything that will get a reaction.  “Are you headed to the Vatican?”  Of course we are, because that’s where the street goes.  “Are you from America?”  And on it goes.  I happened to be alongside a couple from Mexico, and soon it was their turn.  “Do you speak English?”  To which the Mexican husband looked up and deadpanned:  “No, no.  We’re Dutch.”  Everyone within earshot dissolved into laughter.  And the Mexican gentleman smiled the smile of triumph.

094C3EBE-955D-432C-8084-DF9CB4D730B2More serious was a conversation between a senior Irish priest telling a young counterpart what it was like to work at the Vatican.  “In some ways it’s not changed at all;  but one thing has.  When we used to go to one of the Dicasteries [the various government departments of the Curia], we’d pose a question.  And if they didn’t have an answer, they’d give you the answer to another question that they did know.  Nobody wanted to look uninformed or unauthoritative.  Now it’s different.  If you ask them something and they don’t know the answer, they say ‘Don’t know.’  It’s refreshing to hear, and it gives one hope.”

This week our group will visit Subiaco and Monte Cassino, where Saint Benedict lived out his years as a monk.  The salient feature of his early years was that he fled Rome to seek wisdom in the wilderness.  Happily, I will leave Rome with an unexpected nugget of wisdom and hope.  If not the first stage of wisdom, then at least one step to wisdom has to include the admission that if you don’t know something, you should not be afraid to say so.  How refreshing.  How honest.  It’s almost enough to give one hope!

1EAC533F-740A-4324-90C9-327942318A4DNOTES

+On September 23rd I attended the annual meeting of the Friends of the Malta Study Center at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s.  In addition to other members, we welcomed Fra Thomas Mulligan, the incoming President of the Federal Association of the Order of Malta, and Michael Grace, president of the Western Association.  Also present was the retired ambassador of the Order of Malta to the United Nations, Mr. Bob Shafer.

+On 23 September I presided at the abbey Mass.

+On 25 September I arrived in Rome as part of a Benedictine Heritage Tour, sponsored by Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict.

+On 30 September our group went to Mass and visited at the Abbey of Sant Anselmo in Rome, the headquarters of the Benedictine Confederation.  Among those who welcomed us were Abbot Primate Gregory Polan, who lived with us at Saint John’s for three years while he studied theology.  Brother Joe Schneeweis toured us through the school at Sant Anselmo.  Brother Joe, a monk of Saint John’s, serves as head of the library there.  And joining our tour for lunch and some church visits was Saint John’s Benedictine Volunteer Kyle Munshower.  He is in residence as a volunteer for a year, and his duties include driving the Abbot Primate around Rome.  He will have nerves of steel after driving for a year in Rome.

+The Pope Who Would Be King: The Exile of Pius IX and the Emergence of Modern Europe, is by David Kertzer, who teaches at Brown University.  For the most part it has been an interesting book for us to read in refectory, though not all of the readers have equal facility in the Italian names and places.  But that has brought a few lighter moments, which is okay.

+The photos in today’s post show various scenes from Rome.  At top is the Castel Sant Angelo, the fortress where popes occasionally took refuge.  At bottom is the Farnese Palace, built by a powerful family that produced many cardinals and at least one pope.  Today it serves as the French embassy.  The other three photos show the sorts of scenes that make Rome so enchanting.

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