Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas

A Nativity scene from the central panel of the Middelburg Altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden, a medieval Flemish painter

Greetings from Belgium! Some friends from the NAC and I are here for about ten days relaxing and traveling around the Low Countries. I've enjoyed the colder weather and the different feel (still European but not Italian) that this country provides. We're guests of the American College, a seminary in Leuven, and although most of their seminarians have themselves left for the holidays, the rector and staff here have been very hospitable in providing us with a proper Christmas.

I hope to detail my travels soon, but for now, I just wanted to pass along my best wishes to you on this great day. For us Christians, Christmas not only celebrates the miracle of the Incarnation, when God became man in the person of Christ, but also reminds us and prepares us for the next coming of Christ, when he will come in glory. Since God assumed our humanity, salvation dawns for us and we come to share in his divinity. St. Augustine puts it powerfully as he writes:

If God has not been born in time, you would have suffered eternal death. If he had not taken on himself the likeness of sinful flesh, you would never have been freed from it. But for his mercy, you would have experienced everlasting misery; had he not shared your death, you would never have returned to life. Unless he had hastened to your aid, you would have been lost; if he had not come, you would have perished.

Let us then joyfully celebrate the coming of our salvation and redemption, honoring the festive day when he who is the great and everlasting day came from the endless day of eternity into our own brief day of time. He has become our justice, our holiness, and our redemption. And so, as scripture says, let those who boast make their boast in the Lord.

Merry Christmas, friends! Or, as they say here in Flemish, Zalig Kerstfeest!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

London Calling

Big Ben at the Palace at Westminster

The weekend before Thanksgiving a couple of buddies and I caught a plane to London for a few days of vacation. I had visited London before in 2003, but it was a great chance to go back to one of the best cities in the world. Our trip came at a nice time for us as we were feeling the weight of the daily routine at that point, and even a few days away from it can provide refreshment and renewed focus.

The famous London Tube ... and some affectionate Londoners.

We stayed at a Catholic parish in Soho, just off Oxford Street, a locale more centralized and more lively than the district I had stayed in last time, Victoria. We spent some time visiting the familiar London attractions, including the Tower of London, the British Museum, and the Houses of Parliament. One of the best parts of the weekend was just being in a country that felt a little more like home than Italy usually does. British food generally gets a bad rap, but after weeks of pasta, it was nice to have a burger and fries (called chips there, of course) with a pint of beer for a change.

In front of Tower Bridge

We were also looking forward to hearing English on the streets, and while we did, we were astonished at how often we also heard Italian! London is of course a very cosmopolitan city, and perhaps it was because our ears were already attuned to the sounds of la bella lingua, but Italian was easily five times more common than all other foreign languages that we heard. Maybe it was because the pound was at a record low against the euro, but there were Italians everywhere!

The impressive ferris wheel at the Christmas fair

The best part of the weekend was undoubtedly the Christmas fair that we kind of stumbled upon in Hyde Park, near Hyde Park Corner at the Wellington Arch. We had been touring around west London in the early evening, stopping the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace and were about to head back east when we saw some lights coming from the park. We headed over and found ourselves in a winter wonderland of sorts -- indeed, that's what it's called. It turns out we were there on opening night, so we got the best experience possible, I think. There was ice skating, a large open-air market, booths selling holiday wares, food and drink vendors (including some with great mulled wine), and a variety of rides and funhouses. The highlight of the evening was taking a turn on a large observation ferris wheel that offered great views of the fair, the Hyde Park area, and all of London.

The whole trip was great. But since Christmas is my favorite time of year, I particularly enjoyed the fair in Hyde Park. It really gave us all a little piece of home and was just a great intro the Christmas season. Hope you're enjoying this time of year as well!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Feast and Festivity

Diego Velazquez's The Immaculate Conception (1618)

On Monday, the NAC joined the universal Church in celebrating the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, the only non-Sunday feast day other than Christmas that is always a holy day of obligation. The feast day has particular importance for our community as the Immaculate Conception of Mary is our college patroness and the day we celebrate its birthday each year. Cardinal John Patrick Foley of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre celebrated Mass for us here at the college, followed by a nice pranzo complete with toasts to Pope, country, and college. Several bishops, ambassadors, university deans, and other VIPs were able to join us in the celebration as well.

This year's feast has a particular significance in that it kicks off the year-long celebrations marking the North American College's 150th year. In 1854, concerned about the status of the Church in America, Pope St. Pius IX sent Archbishop Gaetano Bedini as a legate to the United States to assess how Rome might be able to help the Church there. Bedini returned recommending, among other things, that a college be founded in Rome for American men studying for the priesthood. A few years later in 1858 the Vatican purchased a block section of Humility Street in downtown Rome, originally a Dominican convent dating from 1598. The North American College officially opened December 8, 1858, with twelve seminarians.

In its first years, the NAC grew slowly, mostly trying to survive the various political upheavals both in Italy and at home. Though the political and social movement of Risorgimento often brought Italian nationals at odds with the Church, and eventually saw the end of the Papal States the NAC weathered the storm. Likewise, seminarians from both sides of the Civil War were present at the college from 1861-1865. In order to maintain peace and fraternity, all discussions of the war and of politics were strictly forbidden.

In 1924, the American bishops purchased ten acres of the Villa Gabrielli on the Janiculum Hill, near the Vatican and overlooking the old city, as a new site for the North American College. The old site became the Casa Santa Maria, a house for postgraduate priests studying in Rome. The new building project on the land was delayed by World War II (during which time the college in fact closed), but in 1953, the new building of the North American College opened with nearly 200 students as residents.

Since then the North American College has done well for itself, training men from America to be priests back home while still providing the vibrant experience that is living and studying in Rome at the heart of the Church. The college has been graced by the visit of various popes as well, including Pope John XXIII in October 1959 for the college's centennial, Paul VI in 1970, and John Paul II in 1980. We keep up the hope, despite the slim chances, that our current pontiff might find the time in his busy schedule to visit us during our sesquicentennial!

* * *
Thanks to all of those that sent along Thanksgiving wishes. We had a nice time here, with a lovely Mass and a huge meal, complete with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberries, pumpkin pie ... and pasta! It was quite the feast. Thanksgiving weekend is traditionally known as New Man Weekend, as it is their first time away from home for a big holiday and a chance for them to grow closer as a group. On Friday, we had a special dinner for our class and some of the staff of the college; it was a great mix of American barbecue and Mexican food, probably the two cuisines hardest to find here. On Saturday, the New Men put on the long-awaited and much-anticipated New Man Show, a variety and vaudeville comedy show of sorts, done each year by the first year students as an opportunity to have some fun and show off their class spirit. It was a rousing success. And on Sunday, in a further effort to bond as a class, the New Men participated in the annual Spaghetti Bowl, a football game between the first years and everyone else. Although we lost (it's nearly unheard of not to lose), we kept it close and competitive till the end. It was indeed a good chance to, in some sense, define the Class of 2012 for the rest of the school. I feel privileged to be a part of a great group of men seeking to serve the Lord and his Church, and I am confident that the NAC community will benefit from its presence.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Giving Thanks

When you think about it, Thanksgiving is perhaps the most American holiday of the year. It's not strictly religious nor overtly patriotic yet it's still nearly universally celebrated State-side. And it has so many great traditions -- family, turkey, football, shopping, school break, Christmas season starting, etc., that it holds for us a place of special importance.

Despite our good intentions, however, Thanksgiving is all too often merely an excuse for us to be proud of our own excesses. Rather than maintaining a focus on its theme of gratitude, that element so essential to right and healthy living, we pervert Thanksgiving to a day centered on getting more ... more whatever. It's probably a bit banal of me to preach against the evils of consumerism, and yet it remains with us, a challenge we must daily combat.

This is the first time I haven't been home for a major holiday and being away from America altogether adds to the slightly surreal feeling today has for me. The NAC does it pretty well here, but it's hard nonetheless to convince myself that today's actually Thanksgiving. Maybe it's the fact that we're the only ones celebrating it. It's an apt metaphor in general to describe the NAC as an American island in an Italian sea, but perhaps all the more so today. The rest of the city is on its daily routine, the Gregorian and the other universities hold classes, the Italian personale that work here are all here, working. And yet, we, the Americans here at the NAC, are celebrating. As we closed our turkey feast with a singing of "America the Beautiful" this afternoon, I could hear the sirens of the Italian police cars outside, the chatter of some of the Italian staff in the kitchen, the hammering of some construction being done next door.

Rather than being annoyed, however, I found this somehow fitting. Despite our American merrymaking, Italian life carried on. And despite the bustle of the usual Italian routine, we had taken time to pause and give thanks. Perhaps true gratitude is always like that, existing in a healthy tension between what we have and what we need, what we've accomplished and what we have yet to do, who we are and who we're called to become. Giving thanks, the act of thanksgiving, is never simply a reflection on all that we have but is also always a reminder that all that we have is gift. As such, though it is important to stop and give thanks, we must always also think of how this gift, these things we have and the people that we are, must be given back, given again, shared with others.

This year has, in many ways, been a hard one, for all of us perhaps, for our country assuredly, and for myself as well. For me, it's been one of preparations and transitions, realizations and new realities. I am, in the midst of it and probably because of it, thankful for so many things, so many blessings. Certainly, faith, family, country top the list, but on there as well are the daily challenges that help me to grow, the mundane details of life that require endurance, the small but real crosses that require trust in and abandonment to God. It's this attitude, one of active and humble gratitude, one of Thanksgiving, that should, especially for us Christians, envelop and animate not just one Thursday a year but every day of our lives.

To you and to yours, Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Pontifical Gregorian University

The Greg

Now in the midst of my sixth week of class, out of twelve total, I thought I'd finally write a little bit about the university that I attend. As you may recall, I'm a seminarian at the North American College, where I live and where I learn the particulars about being a diocesan priest in the United States. However, the academic work which my classmates and I must complete in order to obtain the necessary degree to be ordained is done in a normal university setting. I'm privileged to be a student of the Pontifical Gregorian University, the oldest and most distinguished example of the Jesuit university tradition. One of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the world, it's without a doubt one of the two or three greatest hubs for theological thought in the world. Needless to say, I'm lucky to be here!

Founded in 1551 as the Roman College by Saint Ignatius himself, the founder of the Society of Jesus, it was originally intended to be a place of education for his Jesuit companions in both secular and religious thought. It was an instant hit, however, and soon its enrollment expanded to include non-Jesuit students as well. Within a few years, it had gained papal approval to grant philosophical and theological degrees and thus the college became a university. In 1584, due to the now very large student body and the growing faculty, Pope Gregory XIII, a great benefactor to the university and its eventual namesake, secured a new location for the university in central Rome, near the Via del Corso and across the square from the Doria Pamphilj Palace, known today for its famous art gallery. The university was located there for nearly 350 years, all the while weathering the many political storms of Italy's history (including the fall of the Papal States and the rise of the Kingdom of Italy in the 1870s), before moving to the base of the Quirinal Hill in the Piazza della Pilotta after World War I. Even today, though technically on Italian soil, the Gregorian possesses a certain extraterritorial status as stated in the Lateran Treaty. It is, accordingly, exempt from all Italian tax, and the Italian government cannot subject the university to "charges or to expropriation for reasons of public utility, save by previous agreement with the Holy See," which in turn can administer the university "as it may deem fit, without obtaining the authorization or consent of the Italian governmental, provincial, or communal authority."

A classroom. Though long ago, the desks and teaching podium are still there.

Today, "The Greg," as it's commonly known, has more than 3000 baccalaureate, licentiate, and doctoral students from more than 150 countries. Priests and seminarians form the large part of the student body, but there are plenty of sisters and men and women lay students as well. Because of its multiculturalism, the Greg has six official languages (Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, English) but many professors also speak other languages, such as Arabic, Hindi, or Russian. Classes, nonetheless, are taught in Italian and, unlike the American university system, there is little to no student participation in class or, even, preparatory work for it. Instead, a class period consists of a 45-minute lecture from the professor. A student's grade is typically evaluated by one 15-minute oral examination covering all the lecture material at semester's end.

My classroom, modern day.

This, of course, is quite daunting, especially the first year or so. Fortunately, a long tradition of ingenuity amongst the American seminarians has produced what is reverently known as The Notes System, whereby each student has a role in transcribing, translating, redacting, or publishing the notes for each class period. Thus, every student has access to the lecture material which, in consultation with previous years' material, is generally sufficient to survive the exam. This system of learning certainly has its difficulties but, because of the lack of day-to-day assignments of the American system, it also provides us a great freedom to research more deeply those topics that particularly interest us.

The most important room in the whole place (the bar), insane for 15 minutes every hour.

One of the main reasons that dioceses decide to send men to Rome and to the North American College is because of the built-in advantage that study here affords. In addition to the great exposure which comes from experiencing life in another country and the life of the Church here in Rome, there is also a pragmatic benefit to being here. In the States, after studying philosophy for either two or four years (depending on one's prior university experience), all seminarians study theology for four years and, generally, obtain a Master of Divinity, the degree necessary for ordination. Should a bishop then want to send a man along for further studies, e.g. in moral theology or canon law, this will generally require at least two years for a graduate degree and at least four for a doctoral degree.

The European system, on the other hand, shortens this by a year. The academic degree needed for ordination, a Bachelor of Sacred Theology (equivalent to a Masters in the U.S.), only requires three years. However, because we still must complete a fourth year of formation (spiritual, pastoral, etc.) before being ordained priests, each Fourth year student begins a graduate program of some sort. He is, then, only one year away from an advanced degree (usually a licentiate, roughly equivalent to a doctorate in the U.S.) should his diocese decide to send him back. Thus, what took at least six years in the States (the degree for ordination + a specialized graduate degree) takes only five here. With the shortage of priests still a problem in most areas of the country, this is no small advantage for a diocese to disregard.

Clear as mud? In short, I'll be at the Greg for my "first cycle" (three years) studying the basic theology which everyone has to study to be ordained. After that, I'll at least start a specialized licentiate program, "second cycle," of some sort which I may or may not complete depending on the pleasure of my diocese.

My classes this semester, should you be interested, are: The Synoptic Gospels; Christology; Church History: Ancient and Medieval; Revelation & Its Transmission in the Church; Faith, Reason, & Theology; and Introduction to New Testament Greek.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Leo the Great

November 10 marks the feast day of Pope St. Leo I, also known as Leo the Great, who was Roman pontiff from 440 to 461. He was a great scholar and defender of the faith, and as such is a Doctor of the Church. As a deacon he knew and communicated with other great saint-scholars, including John Cassian and Cyril of Alexandria, and with them combated various heresies, including Pelagianism and Nestorianism. After becoming pope, he vigorously taught the humanity and divinity of Christ with a clear Christological explanation for how this is possible. His teaching was one of the primary inspirations for the definitive dogma handed down by the Council of Chalcedon, and tradition has it that the council fathers, after hearing Leo's statements on Christ read aloud, proclaimed, "This is the faith of the fathers. Peter has spoken thus through Leo." Pope St. Leo also vigorously defended the idea of Petrine primacy, i.e. the pope's preeminence and superiority over the other bishops of the Church by virtue of his succession of St. Peter as bishop of Rome.

Raphael's fresco The Meeting of Leo I and Attila in the Vatican

Leo is perhaps most well known in modern times for his skillful defense of the city of Rome. The mid-5th century saw the heights of the barbarian invasions into Italy, as the Roman Empire was in its final stages of collapse. The pope at the time was the figure of lawful authority in Rome and its guardian. Depending on which account you believe, Leo's skills at teaching, negotiation, bribery, or threat-making prompted Attila to withdraw his Hun army from the gates of Rome to back across the Danube in 452. In 455, Leo convinced the Vandals to spare much of the citizenry and treasures of the city although he could not prevent them from sacking it.

One of the longest-reigning and most influential popes in the Church's history, Leo the Great is one of only three popes to be honored with such an appellation. St. Leo, pray for us!

* * *

Tomorrow, November 11, also marks Veterans' Day in the United States, during which we honor all of those, past and present, that have served in our nation's armed forces. As our country continues to wage two wars, affecting as always many families and loved ones back home, let us continue to pray for the protection of all our armed service men and women. In gratitude for the sacrifices made by all who have defended our country, and through the intercession of Pope St. Leo the Great who himself defended the people of Rome from those who would do it harm, may God bless them and bring them home safely!

Thursday, November 6, 2008


Norcia's main square, with the Basilica of Saint Benedict in the center right.

Last weekend the other Little Rock seminarians and I took a trip to Norcia (known in ancient times as Nursia), a town in southeastern Umbria on the border of the Marche, overshadowed by the Sibillini Mountains, part of the Apennines. It was the monthly travel weekend for the NAC students, and it was a chance for us Little Rock guys to spend some time together and get out of Rome for a bit.

Norcia is the birthplace of St. Benedict, the founder of western monasticism and the author of one of the more famous religious documents in history, his eponymous "Rule" for monastic life. Not much is known of his life; the information that is known comes from a biography written by Pope St. Gregory the Great around the end of the sixth century. Benedict and his twin sister Scholastica, also a saint, were born in Norcia about 480 and probably belonged to a noble family. Benedict was educated in Rome but eventually left there disillusioned by the immorality he witnessed in the lives of his fellow students. He retired to the hills east of Rome and lived in a cave as a hermit for several years near Subiaco, named after the artificial lake that Nero built for his personal baths and summer villa, both in ruins at the time of Benedict. Eventually, because of his holiness and his reputation as a worker of miracles, he began to instruct disciples that came to him in the monastic life. He founded some twelve communities, the first and most famous at Monte Cassino, and lived at a 13th where he taught some monks personally. Though each community had a superior, he remained the abbot of all of them. If you want to know more about Benedict's life, you can read a good summary of Gregory the Great's biography.

Around the year 530, he wrote a monastic rule, a set of precepts intended to guide the monks in their monastic vocation. Monasticism had long been prevalent in the East ever since the time of St. Anthony of the Desert but, before Benedict, had never really caught on in the West in any organized manner. Benedict's rule was decidedly more moderate than many of the Eastern rules because he felt it was more important to live a simple and moderate rule well than to fail at following a more stringent manner of life. The Rule of St. Benedict taught that a monk's daily work should be occupied with two tasks, Ora et labora, "Pray and work." It also preached the virtues of obedience (to one's superior), stability (not moving from place to place), and chastity (remaining celibate). Benedict stressed that hospitality should be shown to all visitors, each of whom should be greeted as Christ himself, and that education of the youth was a worthwhile enterprise for larger communities. Because of this, the university tradition is often originally traced back to Benedict because the earliest universities were connected to and sustained by monasteries. Few men in Christian history, or even Western history in general, have had as far-reaching and long-lasting influence as St. Benedict, although it seems fairly clear that he was unaware his legacy would be so significant.

We made our way to Norcia, hoping to gain a bit better insight into this man and the tradition he started. Although the birthplace of Benedict, Norcia did not have a Benedictine community present there for a long time. About ten years ago, however, a group of American Benedictines, seeking to live a more complete adherence to the Rule, founded a community at the Basilica of Saint Benedict, built atop the ruins of the house where he was born. We were fortunate enough to experience the hospitality of these simple and holy (and English-speaking!) monks, joining them for meals and their various hours of prayer and lodging in their guest rooms.

A display at one of Norcia's pork shops -- complete with pig heads, dried bladders, dried shanks, and lots of meat

Norcia is known for its rich, hearty food. Two particular specialties are tartufi, truffles (usually black), and cinghiale, wild boar, and there are various forms of each found throughout the area. The aroma of the latter is especially prevalent around town, which is, depending on the meat's present stage of preparation, either a good or a bad thing. We sampled some at dinner one of the nights, though, and it was quite tasty, much stronger in taste than traditional pork sausage. Norcia is also known as the birthplace of norcina, a delicious pasta sauce, cream-based and made with sausage and mushrooms.

The monastic community with which we stayed is, as I mentioned, quite new and fairly small, although it is growing at a steady pace. In fact, their current quarters will not house them much longer, and thus the community has recently purchased a dilapidated 18th-century Capuchin monastery, now nearly destroyed through neglect and earthquakes, and the land on which it sits. On Sunday, we journeyed to the place, located a few miles outside of town and on the slope of the mountains. There's a lot of work to be done, as you can see from the pictures, but the community hopes that in the future the land will house a new monastery for them and thus further continue the long history that the Benedictine tradition has in the area.

The dilapidated Capuchin monastery which the Benedictines in Norcia hope to refurbish or replace.

Once an abbey corridor, now overtaken by nature.

I think the view was the selling point.

It was a nice weekend -- prayerful, relaxing, and free from the many demands and distractions which seem, at times, to be never-ending here in Rome. I was grateful for the chance to spend some time with my diocesan brothers and to learn a little more about St. Benedict and the important tradition that he founded, so influential and so central to the history of the wider Church.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Closing the Synod

Last Sunday I attended another Mass at Saint Peter's Basilica. As you might guess, it never gets old.

This Mass marked the close of the 12th ordinary general synod of bishops, which met for the last three weeks to discuss "The Word of God in the Life and Missin of the Church." Established at Vatican II by Christus Dominus, a synod of bishops is a gathering of bishops from around the world that acts as an advisory body to the pope on a particular matter. Unlike a full ecumenical council, where all bishops of the world attend, a synod is attended by only a few representative bishops from each nation. This year the U.S. had four representatives: Cardinal Francis George of Chicago; Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston; Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C.; and Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tuscon. In total, some 250 bishops from 110+ countries attended the synod.

As you can see from the title of the synod above, the theme was quite broad. Specifically, the bishops met to discuss how the Church, some 40 years after Dei Verbum (Vatican II's great pronouncement on revelation and Scripture which called for a new attention to Scripture), was doing in its post-Vatican II efforts to help the faithful become more educated about Scripture, be inspired to actually read it, and view it as an essential means of encountering God in daily life. It was meant to be an honest appraisal of how the Church can be more effective in announcing the Gospel to all peoples, especially her own, and in bringing them to a new appreciation for its relevance in daily life.

The process for the synod began more than two years ago, when the Vatican sent out a lineamenta, a set of guidelines meant to establish the basic theme for the synod and to elicit input from the bishops around the world about which specific issues to address. The bishops responded over the next year with their own ideas and, earlier this year, the Vatican published the instrumentum laboris, or the working document which served as the text and framework for the synod. During the actual three week sessions, the bishops met to discuss various parts of the instrumentum and made certain propositions for the pope to consider. These were narrowed down by vote to 55 approved recommendations, which were then passed along to the Holy Father for his review. In the next year or so, Benedict will then write a document which that will be the instructive result of the synod, accepting or rejecting the bishops' proposals and calling for new measures or offering new insights on the synod's general theme.

The Pope loves babies, especially when they're held by nuns.

A myriad number of topics were reportedly touched on by the bishops at the synod, but certain key issues were continuously raised, including: a call for the Bible to be made more available in third world countries through accurate translations into minor languages; a call for a renewal of preaching, specifically that homilies be based more on the Scriptural readings of the day while not being neglectful of incorporating catechetical elements when possible; an appeal for efforts to be made at the diocesan and parish level to stress the importance of Scripture and its daily use by the faithful; a new appeal for the Word of God to be explicitly proclaimed by the Church through its service to others, especially the poor and underprivileged; and an interesting and controversial new proposal that women be formally instituted as lectors, i.e. readers of Scripture at Mass. Women already serve as lectors in many first world countries, including the U.S., but presently only men studying for the priesthood are formally instituted as lectors. You can find more information about the 55 propositions here. A summary of the final message of the synodal fathers is found here, and here is the Pope's homily at the closing Mass.

Nice threads!

The Mass itself was quite powerful to be present for. I was fortunate enough to be actually on the aisle -- it's not so important how far up you get as how close to the aisle you are -- so I had a full view as the two hundred plus bishops and cardinals processed in, followed by the Holy Father. The Mass was very international, as you might expect, with readings in all of the major languages of the West, as well as Russian, Greek, Hindi, and Arabic. I was able to follow along fairly well with the Pope's homily. As you might read in the link above, it is, like all of his work, at once learned and practical and I very much look forward to his more definitive statements when they come out next year.

On Sunday evening, the four synodal fathers of the U.S. Church gave the NAC student body a presentation on the synod and answered questions. It was great to hear their viewpoints on many of the issues I outlined above, as well as to hear their thoughts on what topics the eventual statement from the Holy Father might reflect. Each of the bishops stayed here at the NAC during their time here, and so it was great to see them in the hallways or at meals over the last month, and thus to feel, in some way, connected to the spirit of the synod. It was very gracious of them to take time out of their busy schedules to fill us in on what this great ecclesial event had been all about. Certainly the theme is most important to our lives as Christians.

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Happy Halloween to all of you back in the States. It was always one of my favorite holidays as a kid, and even today I enjoy reading a little E.A. Poe this time of year or watching an old horror classic. This year, I had to content myself by watching online what has become a yearly Halloween tradition. However you spend it, hope you enjoy yourself!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Diaconate Ordination 2008

The North American College diaconate class of 2008 with Bishop William Callahan and other bishops

A couple of weeks ago the NAC community was privileged to celebrate probably its biggest week (in importance and in scope) of the year. On Thursday, Oct. 9, 25 men of the Fourth Year class were ordained deacons in Saint Peter's Basilica, including two from Arkansas, Dc. Edward D'Almeida and Dc. James Melnick. It was a great week, full of exciting and unique events, and I thought I'd fill everyone in, albeit a bit belatedly.

Diaconate week is the highlight of the NAC year. Visitors are, of course, always welcomed here, but between families, friends, and American pilgrims wanting to be present for the ordination, they come in droves in October especially. This year, for example, there were some 3000 guests that were present for some part of the week and attended the ordination Mass in Saint Peter's. The week kicks off with a Mass and reception here at the NAC for all visiting guests and continues with other events throughout the week as many families and guests use it as a chance to see Rome. The week culminates on Thursday with the ordination at Saint Peter's, and then the ordinands spend the weekends resting and visiting with their families.

Fresh off my retreat and having no real plans for the week, I volunteered to help the Diocese of Little Rock deacons-to-be with anything they needed help with. The first "job" was just spending a little face time with the many (over 100) people that had come in from Arkansas for the ordinations. On Monday evening I dined with a group of pilgrims from St. Joseph Church in Conway, and then on Tuesday evening I had dinner with another pilgrim group from Christ the King Church in Fort Smith. Both meals were very enjoyable and allowed me a nice chance to enjoy simultaneously fine Italian food and good Arkansan conversation. It was very evident how excited, if a bit overwhelmed, they all were to be in Rome and, at that, for the occasion of an ordination.

Pretty good seats, no?

On Wednesday I took a break from the diaconate activities and attended the papal audience in Saint Peter's square with my vocation director and a few friends from the Little Rock area. Thanks to Bishop Taylor, we procured some riparto speciale tickets, which are those that are on the same platform as the Holy Father. Arriving early to stake our claim in line, we were able to sit in the second row to hear Benedict deliver this reflection on how, in our personal relationship with the Lord, we can take as our example St. Paul who truly knew Christ, though they never met. Many of the deacons and their immediate families were also able to attend the audience -- a few even met the pope afterward -- and to them, the Pope said, "May the grace of Holy Orders enliven you to preach the Gospel of Christ with conviction and love." Although it was a warm day, and we were outside for quite a long time, it was great to get a little closer (physically and spiritually) to the Vicar of Christ.

I had a better one but it came out fuzzy! Argh.

On Thursday, the college hosted a nice luncheon for the student body, the deacon class, and their guests. After the banquet, we made our way to the basilica for the ordination itself, which took place at the Altar of the Chair, at the far end of the basilica behind the main altar. Bishop William Callahan, OFM Conv., the Auxiliary Bishop of Milwaukee and a former spiritual director at the college, presided at the Mass and ordained the new deacons. Even from my seat in the extreme rear, it was a very moving ceremony. Our New Man class and the Fourth Year men went on retreat the same week, and we were each given a member of the other class to keep in prayer for that week. Although I haven't yet gotten to know all of the Fourth Year men well, it was special to be present at the ordination of the men we'd been praying for just a week prior.

The ordinands processing to the Altar of the Chair.

Certainly, it was extra special for me to see two of my diocesan brother seminarians being ordained. If priesthood is the finish line we're all striving toward, diaconate perhaps marks the course's final turn. In many ways, it's all downhill from there, at least in terms of weighing one's options -- the promises of obedience, celibacy, and prayer are all made at the time of diaconate ordination. My friends' evident joy at giving their lives in service to the Church was inspiring. Just a step away now from priesthood, they are rightly clerics of the Catholic Church, capable of and responsible for imparting the faith to others, administering certain sacraments, ministering to the poor and underprivileged, and above all proclaiming and preaching the Word of God. It's always amazing to see and to participate in a ceremony where that kind of commitment is made, and indeed where an ontological change occurs -- that is, as in Baptism, a change in one's being, an indelible mark on the soul given by God at the time of ordination -- especially if one is preparing for such a change oneself!

Several of the priests of our diocese and our bishop were also able to make it to Rome for the ordinations, and so the happy occasions also gave me the chance to get to know them better as well. After the ordination ceremony, I attended a simple but lovely dinner held for Dc. James Melnick and hosted by the Little Sisters of the Lamb, who know him personally. The sisters live in very humble circumstances, in lodging provided gratis by the Vatican and connected with the Basilica of the Four Crowned Saints. They have few members, little money, are mostly foreigners (mainly French) and live hard lives teaching the Gospel and serving the poorest of the poor. Despite all of this, or perhaps because of it, they possess an irresistible charm and emanate with an infectious joy that is truly Christian in nature. I spent most of our dinner translating between the sisters and the American pilgrims, but I left very touched by these quiet, strong, prayerful women. I look forward to getting to know them better.

The next day was spent attending the Little Rock deacons' first Masses as deacons. James' was in the morning at the Altar of the Crib in the Basilica of St. Mary Major, while Eddie, as I mentioned before, had his in Assisi in the lower level of the Basilica of Saint Francis. It was a great week, full of blessings for all involved. Even in the few weeks since, the ministries of the new deacons have had a positive effect on the college, and I think we're all excited to know that these good men will soon be serving the people of their respective dioceses as priests back in the U.S. Please keep them in your prayers!

UPDATE: The fourth year men at my previous seminary, Saint Meinrad School of Theology in St. Meinrad, IN, were also ordained to the diaconate this past weekend. Included were several of my close friends from my time there. Congratulations to them and be sure to remember them in prayer as well!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Two Weeks Away

The big day swiftly approaches. Heck, my absentee ballot is already sitting here on my desk. I for one am glad, if for no other reason than the media coverage might, for a few months anyway, switch to a topic other than election politics. And this is in Europe, mind you -- I can't imagine what it must be like over there.

I'm sure most of us already have our minds made up. For those that don't, I doubt anything I can say would influence that. But, nonetheless, for those that may still be on-the-fence or looking for more things to consider when making election choices, I thought I'd pass along a few words from the USCCB's 2008 Voting Guide, "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship" that might be helpful. Take them for what they are -- not an endorsement of a particular candidate and not a sign of which candidate I will support but merely an aid in making good election day choices.

The document is intended for Catholics and contains some moral instruction incumbent on them. Indeed, part of the reason I felt compelled to pass this along was because you probably have heard lately a lot of conflicting opinions claiming to be from a Catholic viewpoint or, at least, from self-described Catholic individuals. This can be confusing for those of us looking for some guidance on what to consider when voting. Hopefully some words from the Catholic bishops' of the US might clarify things a bit. You can find the full text in PDF form here.

Despite being intended especially for a Catholic audience, I hope that our non-Catholic friends might also find this helpful and pertinent. I'd encourage anyone, Catholic or not, to read the whole document because it speaks to the relationship between faith and politics, not just in regards to this particular election. The document itself is intended to be read as a whole, and any attempt to look at only part of it will unavoidably give an incomplete picture of what the document actually states. Nevertheless, it is a bit long, so I've excerpted some of it below. As a reading assistance, I've highlighted certain key areas which, in my opinion (and mine alone - they are not highlighted by the bishops), are especially important to keep in mind as we head to the polling booths.

The Church equips its members to address political and social questions by helping them to develop a well-formed conscience. Catholics have a serious and lifelong obligation to form their consciences in accord with human reason and the teaching of the Church. Conscience is not something that allows us to justify doing whatever we want, nor is it a mere “feeling” about what we should or should not do. Rather, conscience is the voice of God resounding in the human heart, revealing the truth to us and calling us to do what is good while shunning what is evil. Conscience always requires serious attempts to make sound moral judgments based on the truths of our faith. As stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right” (no. 1778).

The formation of conscience includes several elements. First, there is a desire to embrace goodness and truth. For Catholics this begins with a willingness and openness to seek the truth and what is right by studying Sacred Scripture and the teaching of the Church as contained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is also important to examine the facts and background information about various choices. Finally, prayerful reflection is essential to discern the will of God. Catholics must also understand that if they fail to form their consciences they can make erroneous judgments.

The Church fosters well-formed consciences not only by teaching moral truth but also by encouraging its members to develop the virtue of prudence. Prudence enables us “to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1806). Prudence shapes and informs our ability to deliberate over available alternatives, to determine what is most fitting to a specific context, and to act decisively. Exercising this virtue often requires the courage to act in defense of moral principles when making decisions about how to build a society of justice and peace.

The Church’s teaching is clear that a good end does not justify an immoral means.... Catholics may choose different ways to respond to compelling social problems, but we cannot differ on our moral obligation to help build a more just and peaceful world through morally acceptable means, so that the weak and vulnerable are protected and human rights and dignity are defended.

There are some things we must never do, as individuals or as a society, because they are always incompatible with love of God and neighbor. Such actions are so deeply flawed that they are always opposed to the authentic good of persons. These are called “intrinsically evil” actions. They must always be rejected and opposed and must never be supported or condoned. A prime example is the intentional taking of innocent human life, as in abortion and euthanasia. In our nation, “abortion and euthanasia have become preeminent threats to human dignity because they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental human good and the condition for all others” (Living the Gospel of Life, no. 5). It is a mistake with grave moral consequences to treat the destruction of innocent human life merely as a matter of individual choice. A legal system that violates the basic right to life on the grounds of choice is fundamentally flawed.

Similarly, direct threats to the sanctity and dignity of human life, such as human cloning and destructive research on human embryos, are also intrinsically evil. These must always be opposed. Other direct assaults on innocent human life and violations of human dignity, such as genocide, torture, racism, and the targeting of noncombatants in acts of terror or war, can never be justified.

Two temptations in public life can distort the Church’s defense of human life and dignity. The first is a moral equivalence that makes no ethical distinctions between different kinds of issues involving human life and dignity. The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception until natural death is always wrong and is not just one issue among many. It must always be opposed. The second is the misuse of these necessary moral distinctions as a way of dismissing or ignoring other serious threats to human life and dignity. Racism and other unjust discrimination, the use of the death penalty, resorting to unjust war,
the use of torture, war crimes, the failure to respond to those who are suffering from hunger or a lack of health care, or an unjust immigration policy are all serious moral issues that challenge our consciences and require us to act. These are not optional concerns which can be dismissed. Catholics are urged to seriously consider Church teaching on these issues.

Decisions about political life are complex and require the exercise of a wellformed conscience aided by prudence. This exercise of conscience begins with outright opposition to laws and other policies that violate human life or weaken its protection. Those who knowingly, willingly, and directly support public policies or legislation that undermine fundamental moral principles cooperate with evil.

Sometimes morally flawed laws already exist. In this situation, the process of framing legislation to protect life is subject to prudential judgment and “the art of the possible.” At times this process may restore justice only partially or gradually.... Such incremental improvements in the law are acceptable as steps toward the full restoration of justice. However, Catholics must never abandon the moral requirement to seek full protection for all human life from the moment of conception until natural death.

The Church’s guidance on [specific and difficult policy issues] is an essential resource for Catholics as they determine whether their own moral judgments are consistent with the Gospel and with Catholic teaching. [It is] not just another political opinion or policy preference among many others.

Catholics often face difficult choices about how to vote. This is why it is so important to vote according to a well-formed conscience that perceives the proper relationship among moral goods. A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil. At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity.

There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position may decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil. When all candidates hold a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.

In making these decisions, it is essential for Catholics to be guided by a well-formed conscience that recognizes that all issues do not carry the same moral weight and that the moral obligation to oppose intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our consciences and our actions. These decisions should take into account a candidate’s commitments, character, integrity, and ability to influence a given issue.

It is important to be clear that the political choices faced by citizens not only have an impact on general peace and prosperity but also may affect the individual’s salvation. Similarly, the kinds of laws and policies supported by public officials affect their spiritual well-being.

And to close, the bishops tell us:

In light of these principles and the blessings we share as part of a free and democratic nation, we bishops vigorously repeat our call for a renewed kind of politics:

• Focused more on moral principles than on the latest polls
• Focused more on the needs of the weak than on benefits for the strong
• Focused more on the pursuit of the common good than on the demands of
narrow interests

God bless you in your decisions and God bless our country!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

In the Footsteps of Francis

Well, the retreat is over -- long over, in fact. Although we observed silence there, I didn't mean for my silence here to carry on for quite so long. Thanks for the thoughts and prayers you passed along while I was in ritiro; it was a great week and certainly much needed after all of the transitions of the first few months here. The hectic schedule quickly returned, but before filling you in all of the events of the past week, I wanted to finally detail some recent trips I was able to take in the footsteps of St. Francis.


As I'm sure you know, Assisi is the birthplace of Francis, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant who decided to reject the opulent life of the medieval upper class and instead live as a beggar. The friars minor that began following him soon became one of the world's largest religious orders (eventually several orders, in fact) and today the Franciscans remain perhaps Italy's most influential order. Certainly the devotion to Francis and to all things Franciscan is very high here (he's the patron saint of the country), especially in the region of Umbria where Francis spent most of his life. I was excited for the chance to visit Assisi, having heard of the medieval character and appearance that it still retains and knowing of the importance this small town had on the universal Church.

Originally a Roman settlement on the slopes of Mount Subasio, Assisi was an important medieval trade center as well as a later Ghibelline stronghold. It was in one of the battles against Guelphs from the nearby town of Perugia that Francis di Bernardone was taken captive and held for a year. Francis was never close to his father -- he was born around 1182, probably while his father was away on a business trip to France, his mother's native land. Tradition has it that his mother originally named John after the Baptist, in the hopes that he would be a religious figure of importance for Italy. His father, however, had no such aspirations for him (he was a Ghibelline himself) and as such renamed him Francesco, likely due to his infatuation with the hip culture of France.

Francis grew up wanting for little and was known as a lively and gregarious youth, yet he also displayed a distinctively charitable character at a young age, feeling compassion for the lepers of the city and showing charity to its beggars. After Francis' imprisonment in Perugia in 1205, he returned to Assisi but soon found himself disillusioned with his former life of excess and entered a period of soul-searching. His concern and care for the sick and the poor grew, and he retired to nature often to escape the pressures and the emptiness he found in merchant class society. He continued to work in his father's trade but the two often clashed as Francis did not display the work ethic and commitment to profit which his father possessed.

The path down the mountain to San Damiano

Around 1207, Francis was praying in the dilapidated church of San Damiano on the outskirts of Assisi when the cross displayed there spoke to him, "Francis, rebuild my church which as you see is falling in to ruin." Energized by this personal call, Francis used his personal funds to begin reconstructing San Damiano and several other dilapidated churches in the area. As his money begin to run out, however, Francis decided to sell precious cloth and other valuable items owned by his father to pay for the repairs. This, it seems, was the proverbial last straw with Francis' old man, who dragged Francis to an audience with the local bishop where he publicly accused him of insubordination, filial disobedience, and theft. Francis, realizing both his error and the brokenness of his relationship with his father, gave up his rights as heir to his father and gave him back on the spot all of his possessions, including, reportedly, his clothes. Soon after, while attending Mass, Francis prayed that he might be given to direction in his life and took as his answer the Gospel proclaimed that day, Matthew 10:6-10, in which Christ sends the Apostles out to preach without making provisions for the journey. Francis realized that he had misinterpreted the call he had heard in San Damiano: he was not to undertake a rebuilding campaign for church buildings but rather was called to renew the life of the Church as a whole.

The Porziuncola chapel where Francis died, at the foot of Mount Subasio

New orders, especially those espousing poverty and penitence, were not uncommon at the time (the Waldensians, for example, started similarly before becoming heretics), and many Church authorities saw them as a danger to the establishment and tradition of the Church itself. Francis worked quickly to outline a framework for his order and to attain approval for it from Rome. Soon, other orders started in imitation of the Friars Minor, most notably the Order of Poor Ladies, founded by Clare, a friend of Francis' and fellow resident of Assisi. Continuing to teach and lead the men who followed him, Francis also became involved in efforts to evangelize to the Muslims in the Holy Land in hopes of ending the violence there. He died in October 1226 at the age of 45. Even in death seeking to follow Christ, Francis was buried at his request on the "Hill of Hell" below the town, where criminals were executed and buried. He was canonized in Assisi less than two years later by Pope Gregory IX.

The Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi

The Basilica of San Francis, the cornerstone of which was laid by the same pope at the site of the saint's tomb, is an amazing and unique structure which I thoroughly enjoyed visiting. The architecture tends to blend various stylistic elements, most notably late Italian Romanesque and early Gothic, but it is the frescoes adorning the inner walls that are most impressive. The newer, upper basilica features a series of frescoes by Giotto of Francis' life, while the lower basilica parallels various events in Francis' life with the life of Christ, in frescoes by Giotto and Lorenzetti. Both were quite lovely, but I particularly enjoyed the dramatic beauty of the lower basilica. (In fact, I even purchased a print of Lorenzetti's "Madonna of the Sunset," named so because the afternoon sun shines on the fresco.) Assisi has a lot of great sights, including the Basilica of St. Clare, the Church of San Damiano, and more, but certainly the famous Basilica of Saint Francis is the jewel of the city.

The Hermitage of Prisons on Mount Subasio

On visiting Assisi, our group took a trip 4 km up Mount Subasio to the Hermitage of the Prisons, so named after a Benedictine hermitage on the site was given to the Franciscans who wanted to be "prisoners" of contemplation and prayer. Francis himself visited the site several times and built a grotto in the woods nearby; tradition has it that it was at this grotto that he gave his famous sermon to the birds. We were able to have Mass at this grotto and spend some time in prayer and reflection. As one who has always enjoyed nature, and found in it a medium for communing with God, it was moving for me to be where Francis himself had once prayed.

Our class was able to grow even closer to the Franciscan tradition in central Italy during our retreat in Greccio at a retreat center run by Franciscans. Greccio, about 100 km south of Assisi near Rieti, is a quiet mountain town in the Central Apennines, weather and country that felt very similar to Colorado. It was, in short, a great place for a retreat. As I mentioned before, it was in Greccio in 1223 that Francis decided to provide a new way of celebrating Christmas by reconstructing the nativity scene, known in Italy as a presepe, in a cave on Mount Sabini. From this original presepe, the worldwide tradition of the Christmas crib began.

The Sanctuary of Saint Francis in Greccio

Our retreat center was only a few minutes walk from the sanctuary and friary that developed around the cave, and I was able to spend several hours during the week praying in the chapel there and in the area. The views of the Rieti valley below were breathtaking and wandering around in the medieval chapel and the cells of the Franciscan sanctuary added a kind of timeless and mystical experience to the whole week. The sanctuary also had an extensive collection of various presepi, models of nativity scenes from around the world, each with their own unique cultural flair. It was interesting to see how this one event of Christ's birth affected and was adapted to each particular culture.

All of these somewhat disjointed experiences left me nonetheless with a new appreciation for the great figure of Francis and the imprint he left on both Italian and Catholic life. Too often he's mistaken as a kind of half-crazed hippie who challenged authority when instead he was much closer to the spirit of our Lord himself, preaching repentance, simple reliance on God, and a deep love for the poor. Through his faith and commitment, he and his friars did help to renew the Church in the Middle Ages and set the stage for greater renewal as well.

The Rieti valley, from the sanctuary on Mount Sabini in Greccio

Last week, the Fourth Year men here at the NAC were ordained to the transitional diaconate in St. Peter's Basilica, a ministry dedicated to preaching the Gospel and ministering to the poor and oppressed. The post on this is to come, but it was truly a great event, an uplifting witness of what the Lord can accomplish in those that respond to his call. On Friday, one of the new deacons for Little Rock journeyed to Assisi, with the pilgrims that had come for his ordination in tow, to celebrate his first Mass as a deacon in the Basilica of St. Francis. As I returned to the lower basilica which details the lives of Jesus and Francis, the one which I had enjoyed so much on my first visit, I reflected on how fitting it was that this place would be chosen for this man's Mass of Thanksgiving.

Francis, despite being one of the great saints and reformers of the Church, was himself not a priest but a deacon. Indeed, he very much embodied heart and soul the role of the deacon in the Church. Now, nearly 800 years later, a man from Arkansas will, at least for the next several months, serve the same Church in the same way. It was beautiful to witness the symbolism present as we celebrated his first Mass as a deacon: one man beginning his diaconate ministry in the basilica dedicated to another who had performed the same ministry so well. How wonderful it is that, even today, the witness of Francis and the tradition remains vibrantly alive in the Church today, present in new and ever more compelling ways.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

On Retreat

Tomorrow the New Men leave for a week to go on retreat. We'll be at a Franciscan retreat center in Greccio, a small town in eastern Lazio. It's known for being the town in which St. Francis in 1223 designed the first nativity scene, a tradition that has since spread throughout the western world.

I know I promised the update on our trip to Assisi, but unfortunately I still haven't gotten around to it. Perhaps a trip back to the land that Francis frequented will remind me of something that I would have previously forgotten.

We'll spend the week in prayer, contemplation, and rest, and can surely use your prayers should you wish to send them. God bless!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Checking In

It's been nearly two weeks since I've written anything here, and now that September is swiftly passing us by, I wanted to check in with some updates and reassure any of you that may be worried I'd forgotten about this little Internet endeavor.

It's been a busy but fairly unremarkable last few weeks. The weather here has cooled down quite a bit, and the itch to play some fall sports has definitely hit. Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe, on vacation for a few days and staying here at the NAC, blessed our beautiful, brand-new, state-of-the-art sports field this afternoon, which should be fully operational in just a few days. Which is good, because watching football on TV only goes so far!

Orientation wrapped up a week ago Monday, and with all of four of the seminarian classes now back in the house, the school year has officially begun. Our theology classes don't start for a few more weeks, though, so the month of September is generally reserved for workshops and training sessions for the Second, Third, and Fourth Year men, and more Italian for us New Men. After four weeks of one-on-one in Verbania, our classes here have been more traditional, with our class of 60 divided into groups of seven or eight. I tested into one of the higher groups and that has been good in pushing me to keep getting better.

The Gregorian is the only one of the three pontifical universities to require an Italian proficiency exam for its new students, and for those of us that will be attending that university, our Italian classes have been conducted with the intent of passing that exam as well as learning the language in general. That's because, apparently, one only gets three shots at the exam, with a failure to pass on the third attempt leaving the student no option but to change to a university offering classes in English. The proficiency test was originally scheduled for early November, so we all assumed we had plenty of time to prepare; needless to say, when we found out last week that the exam was going to be held yesterday, some six weeks earlier, many of us were scrambling, if not panicking. Fortunately, there were some good reasons that the exam was moved up, and thus nearly all of us did indeed take the test yesterday. I think I did alright -- could have been better but could have been worse -- but it sounds like we'll find out later this week, so I'll know soon enough whether I'll have the very great privilege of preparing for and taking the exam again.

UPDATE: Fortunately, I won't. I received word Friday that I and many of my classmates (though not all) passed. It's a little silly how relieved I am by that news. Perhaps it's because if I hadn't passed I would have to arrange some 40 hours with a personal tutor before being allowed to take it again. And that on my own dime. So, thanks be to God, that's one less headache to worry about!

Tomorrow, I'll embark on another Italian adventure as I and several of my classmates have to head to the questura (police office) to get fingerprinted for our soggiorno papers, which will allow us to effectively become 'permanent residents' of Italy and live here for the duration for our studies and travel Europe hassle-free. Some of the other guys that have already been have said it's quite a headache, but since I get out of Italian class and can bring a book, I'm not complaining.

Our class made a trip to Assisi a few weeks ago which I've yet to write on, so I'll try to do that later in the week. For now, buona sera.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Seven Years On

"God of peace, bring your peace to our violent world:
peace in the hearts of all men and women
and peace among the nations of the earth.
Turn to your way of love
those whose hearts and minds
are consumed with hatred.

"God of understanding,
overwhelmed by the magnitude of this tragedy,
we seek your light and guidance
as we confront such terrible events.
Grant that those whose lives were spared
may live so that the lives lost here
may not have been lost in vain.
Comfort and console us,
strengthen us in hope,
and give us the wisdom and courage
to work tirelessly for a world
where true peace and love reign
among nations and in the hearts of all."

- Pope Benedict XVI
Ground Zero, NY, April 20, 2008

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Birth of Mary

The Catholic Church today celebrates the feast of the Birth of Mary. While I know that not all who follow this blog share my Catholic faith, or perhaps its devotion to Mary, I think that September 8 is an important celebration for all Christians.

The Birth of Mary (1470) by the Master of the Life of the Virgin

Today's feast marks the birthday of she who is, in many ways, the dawn of our salvation. Indeed her Son's birth is called just that in the Proper of Saints today. Jesus Christ is, of course, the reality of the Christian life, the pinnacle of all history, the Word-made-flesh, the One whose divinity we ask to share in because he humbled himself to share in our humanity. And yet, it is with Mary that God first begins to fulfill his redemptive promise to mankind. Creating for himself a "house of gold" through which to enter our human world, God effects in Mary the perfection of humanity. Immaculately conceived and perfect in her response of Fiat to the invitation of God's love, Mary represents for us Christians both the model and the promise of our lives. She becomes for us the example and the guide by which we are to live out the words of her Son.

Mary, along with John the Baptist, also marks the transition from the Old Testament adherence to the Law to the New Testament conviction of the Spirit, he whose power overshadowed her to bring Christ into the world. She is, as St. Andrew of Crete writes in today's Office of Readings, the point at which "[d]arkness yields before the coming of light, and grace exchanges legalism for freedom.... [M]idway between the two stands today's mystery, at the frontier where types and symbols give way to reality, and the old is replaced by the new." That which had been foreshadowed, prophesied, and promised -- namely, the salvation of mankind in Christ -- now begins to dawn upon the world in the person of his mother Mary. Indeed, unlike all other saints, the Church celebrates the birthdays of Mary and John the Baptist, not their dates of death, because it is with their births that each gives witness to the saving action of Christ. Mary, then, should be for us not only an example and a guide in our Christian life but also a source of continuous joy for it is through her that Christ comes to us. This joy is a spiritual virtue, to be sure, but one that should animate us no matter what our current circumstance or difficulty, for as we know, "the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live for ever" (1 John 2:17).
* * *
With that said, certainly we cannot forget about the present circumstances in which we live. Thoughts and prayers to those being affected by the nasty weather, especially Aunt M in Louisiana. Mary, hope of Christians, pray for us!

Finally, for those interested, here is the full English translation of Pope Benedict XVI's address on the day that I and the other New Men at the NAC visited him at Castel Gandolfo.