Tuesday, July 29, 2008

You Sure This Isn't a Vacation?

Greetings from Verbania! I arrived here two days ago and have been adjusting to the relaxed pace of life here since. This small town of about 30,000 will be my temporary home as I study Italian for a month, with my "study" consisting mainly of three hours a day of one-on-one grammar and conversation with a tutor. I am one of only two New Men at the NAC to be learning Italian in this locale, although there are several Second Year men that have also come to Verbania to improve their Italian skills as well.

Located in the foothills of the Alps on the western shore of Lago Maggiore, and about 100 km northwest of Milan, Verbania was created by the merger in the '30s of two smaller towns. It is now mostly a tourist destination for Italians, Germans, and the Dutch, especially in the summer when the lake and the cooler mountain air attract those that live in hotter environs. Indeed, it is a bit difficult sometimes to remind myself that I am at school/work with an important task ahead of me. Our accommodations are a 3-star hotel (with a fine restaurant attached, where we have our meals each day) that seems to cater mostly to elderly Italian women who come in droves and for several weeks at a time. They don't seem to do much, mind you, other than eat, sit and talk in the garden or the lobby, and play bingo and '40s big band records. The place feels a bit like a swanky retirement home, to be honest. As I mentioned, class is only for a few hours each morning so the afternoons and evenings are generally free to ourselves. So much free time, coupled with the generally relaxed and jovial atmosphere of the place, not to mention the magnificent lake and mountain scenery that surrounds us -- perhaps you can understand why I'm continually trying to convince myself that I'm not on vacation.

This is quite an important month for us, especially for a New Man like myself, since it's the only immersion-like experience we'll have until at least next summer. Although we'll study some more Italian at the NAC when we return in August and although our classes at the Gregorian will be in Italian, there will be no requirement to necessarily speak or use Italian outside of classes themselves. In contrast, the teachers and residents here at Verbania know virtually no English and thus we're forced to really dig deep and attempt to, you know, learn the language. It's amazing what you can learn after only a few hours of being forced to speak and communicate in Italian, and although I'm just getting started, I can definitely see how true it seems to be that you can't really learn a language in a classroom alone.

Aside from the challenge of learning something new, and the language of the land at that, the real motivating factor for us New Men is the Italian language proficiency exam which we'll have to take in October. The pontifical universities, and the Gregorian especially, want to gauge exactly how much Italian their students know before beginning theology studies, and I can't say I really blame them. For now, though, I'm trying not to worry too much about the upcoming test but just absorb everything that I can and hope that it sticks.

The internet isn't quite as immediately accessible here in Verbania as it was in Rome, so my communiqués may be a little less frequent here than there. Still, I hope to do a bit of traveling and sightseeing before heading south again next month, and as always, I'll be sure to keep my camera handy. Ciao!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

First Week Recap

It's already fairly late here in Rome, and I have a busy day ahead of me tomorrow but I did want to offer a quick recap of the past week's events and put up a few photos of some of the sights we were privileged enough to see. The number of New Men that arrive early for language study has apparently more than quadrupled in the past several years, and thus the week preceding the beginning of the language programs (the week we're now wrapping up) has also developed accordingly. The orientation team and staff here at the NAC did a great job of both helping us get to know the others in our class (there's now 40 of us here with some 20+ still to arrive in August) and taking us out to see some sights of the city that might be of interest, both historically and also spiritually.

After arriving and getting situated, most of us were too exhausted to do anything substantial on Monday. Following some paperwork for the Italian government Tuesday morning, we headed to the Basilica of Saint Lawrence Outside the Walls in the afternoon to visit one of the more important churches in Rome and one of its seven pilgrim churches. St. Lawrence was one of the first seven deacons of the Church in Rome and was put in charge of the administration of Church property and keeping its records. When the emperor Valerian, hoping to quash the young religion, asked Lawrence to give him the treasures of the Church, Lawrence is said to have returned a day later with all of the sick, lame, and orphaned that he could find and declared, "These are the treasures of the church!" Valerian, of course, did not take kindly to this bit of spiritual wisdom and ordered the deacon to be roasted alive. Lawrence nonetheless kept his sense of humor about him for tradition says that he advised his executioner, "You may turn me over, I'm done on this side." No joke, he's still the patron saint of chefs. Built on the site of Lawrence's tomb, the basilica also is the final resting place of St. Stephen, another deacon and the first martyr for the faith. Pope St. Hilarius is also interred there as is Pope Pius IX, the longest-serving pope in history and the founder of the North American College. The basilica was one of the more popular pilgrimage sites throughout the late empire and into the middle ages.

Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Walls

Wednesday saw us taking a bus across town to the Catacombs of Priscilla, probably the best catacombs for visiting purposes in the city. Although Rome has over 60 excavated catacombs, only five are open for public viewing. The Catacombs of Priscilla were originally dug in land owned by Priscilla, a Christian noblewoman of late first-century Rome and eventual martyr by the emperor Domitian. The catacombs have three levels, with each about 20 feet below the level (or ground level) above it. Several of the frescoes of the more significant tombs and chambers remain in quite good condition, including what is believed to be the earliest extant image of the Virgin Mary. After visiting the catacombs, we were able to also celebrate Mass in the basilica church of the catacombs, accessible both in ancient and modern times only by passing through the catacombs themselves. This served as a symbol of both the progression from death into new life and also as a reminder of the price of faith.

Castello Odescalchi-Orsini in Bracciano

On Thursday, I and several of my classmates took a train to Bracciano, a small town northwest of Rome, known for the particularly well-preserved medieval castle that dominates the town and for the picturesque lake beneath it. Rather than venture down to the lake, I decided to take a tour of the castle and stroll around the medieval section of the city. Most likely originally built in the 8th or 9th century, the castle that survives today was built in the late 15th century as a home of the Orsini, one of the most powerful families in Italy throughout the Renaissance period, and later sold in the late 17th century to the Odescalchi family, who still own it to this day. When not being used as a haven against raiding nations, the castle was often the site of large celebrations and even housed a pope or two when Rome was ravaged by disease. In recent years, it was the site of the wedding of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. More interestingly, to me, it also housed the trap by which Isabella de' Medici, wife of Paolo Giordano Orsini, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, would kill her lovers after bedding them. When Orsini found out about this, he strangled her. The ghost of Isabella is still said to sometimes haunt the halls of the castle.

A view of Lago di Bracciano from the Castello

On Friday, we remained in Rome and visited two other famous churches. The first of these was the Basilica of St. Clement, a church built on the tomb of Pope St. Clement I and located not far from the Colosseum. The present 11th century church is actually built on top of a 4th century church, which in turn is built on top of a 1st century house church, all three of which are available for public touring. The apostle St. James the Greater and St. Ignatius of Antioch (with Clement, one of the Apostolic Fathers) are also said to have been interred here for some time, according to tradition, although their relics have now been moved. Directly across the alley from the house church, and also under the current basilica, is the best preserved Mithraic temple in the world. Mithraism, although secretive and elitist, nonetheless had important influence in the first few centuries AD for it attracted many of the higher ranking government officials, including several emperors, and used much of the same symbolism as Christianity. The proximity of the Mithraeum to the Christian house church is surprising to say the least.

The second church we visited Friday was Saint Mary in Trastevere, one of the oldest churches in Rome and probably the first public place that Mass was celebrated in the city if not in the entire empire. In the early 3rd century, a dispute broke out between Christians that wanted to use the spot as a house church and the owners of a tavern that wanted to cater to Roman soldiers stationed in the area. The emperor of the time, Severus, decided to allow illegal Christian worship rather than the debauchery sure to follow from the patronage of soldiers at the tavern. The iconography of the church is quite famous, especially the mosaic on the front façade of the Madonna and the child Jesus.

Finally, today we left Rome again, this time to visit the town of Orvieto in Umbria, famously located atop a rocky outcropping reinforced by a wall made from the volcanic tuff stone of the region. Known by the Romans as "Urbs Vetus," Orvieto predates the founding of Rome by nearly two hundred years and was originally a major Etruscan city, most likely named Velzna. The city was famous for its geographical and topographical features, and after the construction of a 16th century well allowed endless access to water, the already formidable city became virtually impenetrable. In 1263, Pope Urban VIII investigated claims of a Eucharistic miracle at nearby Bolsena and consequently issued a papal bull declaring the Feast of Corpus Christi a feast of the entire Latin church. The corporal purportedly stained with the blood from the host is housed in a side chapel of the Duomo in Orvieto, and we were privileged enough to celebrate Mass there. The Duomo itself is incredible; much of its grandeur was done in response to the great flocks of pilgrims that came to see the Corporal of Bolsena. Next to the Duomo is the Palace of the Popes, where Pope Clement VII fled when Rome was being sacked by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1527. Interestingly, it was from that palace in Orvieto that Clement VII first rejected King Henry VIII of England's request for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

The Duomo of Orvieto

All in all, it was a very enjoyable week, and probably the first week of vacation and relaxation (and not packing and running around crazy) that many of us have enjoyed in a while. Tomorrow we take our separate paths to language school. Another bloke and I will take the train to Milan and then on to Verbania, where we'll begin our month of Italian studies and general language immersion Monday morning. Keep me in thought and prayer because I think I'm going to need it! More from the Piedmont region of Italy next time.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Bit of Backstory

It's now the afternoon of my third day in Rome, and I'm enjoying a little downtime from our very enjoyable but very busy orientation/introduction to Roman life. I arrived in Rome early Sunday morning and I and most of the 35 or so "New Men" who have come over early to study Italian arrived at the college itself a little before noon. For the past three days, we've been finding our way around the college, seeing some of the sights of Rome, and generally getting to know each other, all with the guidance of several gracious Second Year students.

The view from my room.
For those that may not know, I'm a Roman Catholic seminarian for the Diocese of Little Rock and, God-willing, I'll be ordained a priest in the summer of 2012. Born and raised in Little Rock, I graduated from Little Rock Catholic High School in 2001. I then spent four great years at Saint Louis University from which I received a B.A. in Communications and in English in 2005. I returned to Little Rock and began a job at the Diocese of Little Rock's chancellory where I worked a few different jobs, including serving some time on the steering committee for the Year of the Eucharist. I was accepted by the diocese as a seminarian in the summer of 2006.

This past May I graduated from the pre-theologate seminarian program of Saint Meinrad School of Theology in Indiana after two years of studying philosophy. In order to continue my studies, my diocese and I decided that I should pursue my theology studies at the Pontifical North American College here in Rome. It was hard to leave Saint Meinrad, a very holy place with a lot of faith-filled people, but we agreed that the opportunity and the challenge of studying in Rome was too important to pass up. I will live and pray here at the NAC, located only about 5 minutes on foot from St. Peter's Square, but will study at the Pontifical Gregorian University, situated deeper into the Old City of Rome near the Pantheon.

Why am I studying for the priesthood? That's an easy question to answer: I believe that is what I am called by God to be. Why I believe that is a little harder to answer, but perhaps it will suffice to say that I feel the desire and the urge to witness to the Catholic faith in the world today by serving the Church as a priest. This vocation is something that I've considered and discerned for a long time and while I can't say for sure what lies ahead for me, I feel happy and at peace with my decision to continue on to major seminary.

I started this blog not so much to promote or express myself but rather to keep family and friends abreast of my time and travels here in Europe. I may at times venture into tangents of one kind or another but I hope to mainly keep this blog about what the experience of living in Rome as a Catholic seminarian is like.

It was hard to say goodbye to my home parish, Christ the King Catholic Church, and to my friends and family. Still, I feel that I am doing what God wants me to do and that, along with the knowledge that many back home are praying for me, is a great source of comfort and encouragement.

A family photo a week or two before I left.

That's about it for now. We have a few more days of orientation before we depart for our language programs. Most of the New Men will be studying at Assisi or Sienna, but I'll be studying at the Italian School Il Chiostro in Verbania, northwest of Milan on the shores of Lago Maggiore. I'll certainly send a post along from there if not before.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

And Here We Go....

After much discussion and many promises, I've finally jumped on the ol' blog train, primarily for the purposes of updating family and friends of my adventures in Europe, generally, and Rome, specifically, for which I leave early tomorrow. (How's that for an opening sentence?)

More on the purposes of this blog and my purposes across the pond later, but I wanted to jot off a short post while still here in North America to introduce things and so I wouldn't have to spend the next 30 hours in airports thinking about how I left a bunch of white space in the webosphere. So, for now, welcome! And stay tuned.