Sunday, August 31, 2008


Orientation has begun here at the North American College for the Class of 2012. After returning to Rome on Wednesday, we were able yesterday to welcome the ten or so members of our class that had not yet arrived in Italy as they stepped off the bus from the airport. The bells here on campus tolled as we processed through the main gate as a new class. We were told they will not ring again for us until we leave Rome for the last time and return to the States to be ordained priests. Gave me goosebumps.

In addition to all the meetings, tours, explanations, and evaluations that are an expected part of any orientation, the orientation team has also put together some pretty neat activities and excursions to help our class of 61 grow in fraternity and also to introduce us to Rome and its many spiritual riches. Thursday, for example, was the feast of St. Augustine, the great bishop and Doctor of the Church, and we were given the opportunity to visit his namesake church here in Rome. The church contains the tomb of St. Monica, Augustine's mother and a key instrument in his conversion, and we took the opportunity to pray for our own mothers and all those that have helped form us in our faith. On Friday, the NAC arranged us for us to have Mass in the crypt of St. Peter's Basilica and next to the tomb of Saint Peter himself. About half of the 265 popes are interred somewhere in the basilica, with many of the more recent ones in the crypt near St. Peter, including John Paul II and Paul VI. It was quite moving to be so close to the men that have for two millennia guided our Church, the Church for which I am now studying and preparing to serve as a priest. It was, er, quite the motivational moment.

Today, though, was certainly the best experience thus far. We were able to attend the Sunday address and Angelus with Pope Benedict at his summer villa in Castel Gandolfo, located only about 15 miles southeast of Rome on Lake Albano. The papal residence dates from the 17th century and has traditionally been used by popes as a break from the stresses and heat of Rome in the months of July, August, and September. It also is the location of some 140 acres of Vatican gardens and farms, land that was appropriated to the Holy See as part of the Lateran Accords in 1929.

Arriving in Castel Gandolfo mid-morning, our group was ushered through some backdoors until we arrived at a side entrance to the courtyard from which the Pope makes his Sunday address. The courtyard is not very large -- perhaps 50 yards square -- but hundreds were able to pack in, including groups from Germany, Spain, Brazil, France, and a bunch of nuns from Poland. We waited in the square about an hour, and the atmosphere was, as you might expect, quite dynamic, with flag-waving, song-singing, picture-taking, and extended chants of "Benedetto!" filling the time.

Waiting ...

At noon, the Pope appeared and delivered a reflection on the Gospel of the day, assuring us that suffering must be a part of the life of every Christian -- not for its own sake, however, but as a means by which we come to share in the Resurrection of Christ. His Holiness also remarked on the modern problem of immigration, noting especially the recent tragedy in Malta. After his remarks, we joined him in praying the Angelus, and he then greeted the various groups gathered below him in their native tongues. After speaking in English, those of us from the NAC sang "Ad Multos Annos" ("May you live for many years") which is apparently a kind of fight song for the school and was, of course, appropriate for the occasion.

Pope Benedict XVI smiles as the NAC sings to him.

After the Pope retired to his villa, we had lunch at a restaurant overlooking Lake Albano, and then were treated to a tour of the papal gardens. Archbishop James Harvey, Prefect of the Papal Household, is an American from Milwaukee and has always been very generous to the students of the NAC in allowing us access to these gardens, usually visited only by visiting heads of state and other guests and by the Pope himself. Archbishop Harvey proceeded to give us a personal tour of the gardens. Occupying a relatively narrow but long piece of land, they were built on the site of what used to be a private villa of the emperor Domitian, and there remain many ruins in the garden, most notably a long gallery that was used as a sort of promenade in imperial times. In more recent years, Pope Pius XII used it to hide thousands of Jews when the Germans moved into Lazio.

In i giardini del papa.

Archbishop Harvey was a delight to listen to and shared many interesting and moving stories about the customs and habits of the two most recent popes. I'll share two. First, he mentioned that John Paul II used to enjoy the gardens very much, especially the swimming pool which he would frequent at least twice a day in the early part of his papacy. Even as his health began to deteriorate, he still would trek out into the gardens using a cane. In the last year of his life, although he was now being driven around the gardens, he still visited a Marian shrine every day where he would sing, alone, a traditional Polish hymn to Our Lady.

The Marian shrine that Pope John Paul II prayed at each day and where Benedict prays his rosary today.

Although Benedict XVI doesn't swim himself, he does enjoy the lawn that was constructed in front of it, and often likes to sit there and visit with his older brother, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger. The latter is legally blind, and the Pope apparently takes the time, when the two are together, to sit with him and read the newspaper to him. I found both stories quite touching, testimony to the humanity of these larger-than-life men.

It was a great day, and one of those rare and powerful experiences that only being in Rome can provide. Life here certainly has its challenges, many of which I've learned in the few short weeks I've been here, but it's days like today that make one truly grateful to be given this opportunity. Not to mention that, like with the tomb of St. Peter, it's reassuring for one's vocation when you see the Pope smiling down at you.

Happy Labor Day to all of you in the States. We're celebrating it here by starting the second round of Italian classes tomorrow. And I'm sure you're already quite aware, but be sure to keep all those folks down in the Gulf in your prayers as Gustav sounds like it could be quite the storm.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Ciao Ciao, Verbania

My time here in the Lago Maggiore region is swiftly drawing to a close. Classes ended last Friday -- both my insegnante promptly left for vacation which, I'm told, is nonetheless not a knock against my performance as a student -- and we depart for Rome tomorrow. The month here has just flown by, and I've really enjoyed it. While I'm excited to get back to the Eternal City, I'm sure that in a few weeks time, I'll be wishing I were back here, spending the mornings chatting in Italian, swimming in the lake in the afternoons, or trying to decipher one of the earnestly shouted but incomprehensible questions from the anziani staying here. I've been able to see and do quite a lot, and at a much more relaxed pace than I imagine Rome will be, and for that I'm very grateful.

Il Chiostro with its proudly displayed 3 star rating.

The Il Chiostro hotel has also been very hospitable to us students and a great place to spend a month. The atmosphere here is quite friendly and relaxed, and there's a certain vivacity that, despite the age of most of its patrons, seems to emanate from the place. I'm not exactly sure what it is. Perhaps it's the wait staff, who are always friendly and courteous. Perhaps it's the large groups of animated and ever-garrulous foreigners that swarm the place for a few days of organized sightseeing and then, just as swiftly, are gone. Or, as I think, perhaps it's the soundtrack here which I've decided is used as a kind of subliminal reminder for the old folk as to the time of day. In the morning, for example, you're likely to hear such get-up-and-go songs as the theme songs to Footloose or Austin Powers, "Bicycle Race" or "Under Pressure" by Queen, or the title track from the musical "Mamma Mia." Mind you, these songs aren't being played just in the bar or the lobby but in the restaurant and hotel corridors as well. Evenings are generally a bit more subdued, usually jazz or classical, although we did get some strange German techno pop once for about two hours during dinner. It's that kind of randomness that makes this place endearing.

L to R, Paola, me, and Monica -- thought this was worth posting despite the blurriness.

Of course, my primary objective while here has been to learn Italian, and I feel I've fared fairly well in that. I've certainly progressed quite a lot from where I was when the month started, and thanks to the great instruction from my teachers, Paola and Monica, I'm generally able now to get the gist of what's being said to me and, more or less, respond appropriately. There's much more work to be done, of course, principally in the areas of vocabulary and conditional tenses, but it's not a bad start, I think.

The cloister where we had our lessons each morning.

I was able to do some traveling in the region in the last few days, and though I'm a bit short on time right now, I'll try to recap those small trips soon. Next time, from Rome!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Swiss Reflections

First things first, thanks to all of those that have passed along compliments and encouragements lately, both for the blog and for the vocational choice, both here and elsewhere. Much appreciated. Although I feel a bit self-absorbed at times, I hope this site keeps you updated on me and, perhaps, keeps me in touch with you. As for the path I'm on, I'm just trying to follow what I think is a personal call from the Big Guy himself. It's amazing sometimes what I've done and what I'm doing in response to that call, but as St. Paul said, "I can do all things through him who strengthens me."

This past weekend I made a pilgrimage to Einsiedeln Abbey, located in northeastern Switzerland, about an hour south of Zurich near Lake Sihl. The abbey has many claims to fame: it was founded on the martyrdom site of Saint Meinrad, a ninth-century hermit and spiritual teacher; according to tradition, it was reportedly founded by Christ himself; it houses the miraculous statue of Our Lady of Einsiedeln; and, for all these reasons, it was one of the major medieval pilgrimage destinations, along with Rome, Compostela, and Canterbury. It also happens to be the motherhouse of Saint Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana, where I did my pre-theology work.

The front of the abbey church of Einsiedeln and the Lady Font on the right

Because of the long weekend and my currently close proximity to Switzerland, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and make a pilgrimage myself, and I’m very glad that I did. My three days there were quite restful and prayerful. I was very grateful to be able to stay at the abbey (only a few doors down from the abbot actually), and attend Mass and prayers with the monks, although my inability to speak any German made it also a bit frustrating and, at times, lonely. I was happy to have the opportunity to speak Italian with some of my fellow pilgrims and to speak broken English with a Frenchman, experiences I’m not sure I would have enjoyed much otherwise.

Monastic life is an interesting thing, at least from my perspective as an outside observer. There is a beauty and simplicity to it and a deep sense of reverence for a tradition older and greater than yourself, all of which I find very appealing. Time seems to pass differently at a monastery, more deliberately and more purposefully, and certainly the idea of renouncing or removing yourself from the contemporary, outside world can be quite appealing at times. And, yet, I always leave monasteries with the firm conviction that I myself am not called to that way of life. To see young men, several of whom were no older than I, committing themselves to this difficult monastic vocation was very inspiring and yet a bit bewildering as well. Here were men of my age living out the same faith at the same time in history, and yet in a vastly different way. We shared much in common but had responded to very separate callings.

Looking SE toward Gross, Gross Aubrig, and the Glarus Alps and Appenzell Alps

Perhaps that’s an important experience to have, at least occasionally. It helps us to appreciate the various and personal natures of living out our lives in faith and gives us a glimpse into the beauty and the hardship of lives other than our own. Again, I’m reminded of the words of St. Paul: “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”

Hope this Wednesday finds you well! God bless.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Day Tripper

I know it seems like all I do here is update you on the recent travel opportunities I've had, but frankly, other than speaking and studying Italian, there's not much else happening at the moment. (Unless you want to hear about how annoyingly loud the four Frenchmen in this Internet room with me are being.) I suspect, come autumn, the travel anecdotes will be far less frequent. Hopefully, the posts in general will not follow suit.

The Duomo in Milan

On Saturday, a large group of us headed into Milan for the day. The quickest route was taking the ferry across the lake to Laveno and then catching a train from there, about a two-hour trip altogether. After arriving, we first headed down the Via Dante to see Milan's most famous site, the Duomo. Although started in 1386, the cathedral took various forms throughout the next 400 years or so as different archbishops and their different architects made the structure look more Gothic or less so, more breathtaking or less so, etc. Eventually Napoleon Bonaparte ordered it finished in 1805, and today it is generally considered one of the greatest churches in Europe and is the second biggest in Italy after St. Peter's. It's most known for its spires, of which there are some 130 adorning its façade and roof. Although I debated whether to do so, I'm very happy that I paid the seven euro or so to ascend the steps to the terrace to view the spires more closely.

Walking the grounds of the Castello Sforzesco

After touring the Duomo and the surrounding area, which includes the famous Galleria and La Scala, I ended up getting separated from the rest of my group and spent the rest of the day alone. However, armed with a map and a desire to walk a little faster around town, I wasn't worried. I retraced my steps up the Via Dante (a quite picturesque, pedestrian-only road that reminded me a lot of Paris) to the Castello Sforzesco, a 15th-century castle originally built to defend the Milanese from the invading Venetians. It's enormous (and used to be even bigger) and now houses more than ten of the varioius civic museums. Deciding to use my feet a lot that day, I also made the trek around the city to see the Basilica of Saint Ambrose, originally built in the late 4th century by the bishop-saint for the martyrs of that area of the city but later renamed after its founder. I was also fortunate enough to see the Basilica of Saint Lawrence, the oldest church in Milan, erected on the site of Constantine's Edict of Milan in 313 which legalized Christianity. As you might have realized by now, Italy is just packed with sites of religious importance. I'm fortunate to have seen so many in the month or so that I've been here.

A statue of Constantine in front of the Basilica of Saint Lawrence

On Sunday, I had to venture into Switzerland to pick up some tickets for an upcoming trip I'm making to Switzerland -- yes, that doesn't make sense, but that's Europe. Instead of spending three hours on a train for no reason, I decided to make an afternoon trip out of it in Brig, a small, quiet, and very picturesque mountain town set along the Rhone in the Simplon Pass, one of the more important passages through the Alps (connecting the Pennines with the Lepontines). Its most famous citizen was one Kaspar von Jodok Stockalper, a baron/businessman/soldier/politician who long controlled the silk and salt trades through the Simplon. He built himself a huge palace, the Stockalperschloss, which now is Brig's only real historical landmark. I walked around a bit more, checking out the impressive canal system that Brig (and presumably the rest of Switzerland) has to divert glacial melt, in this case, to the milk-colored Rhone. After about three hours of raising the eyebrows of many of the locals to the presence of a foreigner, I headed back to Verbania.

The Stockalperschloss in Brig with the Fusshörner peak in the distant background

Feragosto is the general name for the vacation nearly every Italian takes, to greater or lesser degree, during the month of August. Many often plan their trips around the 15th of August, the Feast of the Assumption for which nearly everything is closed. This includes our Italian lessons, of course, and so to make up for the missed time, a couple of our instructresses took our group on a little afternoon jaunt yesterday to Lago D'Orta, a lake nearby that's quite a bit smaller and quite a bit quieter than Lago Maggiore. We stopped at the Island of San Giuglio, known for its quite lovely basilica that houses the relics of Saint Julius of Novara. According to tradition, the brother-Saints Julius and Julian preached in the Novara area of Italy in the 4th century and took as their mission the task of building (or converting) churches, dedicating them to the apostles. After Julian's death, and close to death himself, Julius arrived at Lago D'Orta and decided that, despite the fierce dragon that lived there, the island in the middle would be a fitting place for a church. Julius drove off the dragon and founded on the island his 100th and final church.

Our group trekking around the Passage of Silence on the Island of Saint Giuglio

So, three excursions in three days. I'm enjoying it while it lasts though for, as I said, it ain't gonna last forever.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Lago Maggiore Express

It’s been a busy week! After a relatively relaxed first week, school is now in full swing and thus our lessons and our homework have increased in difficulty. Just when I think I'm getting a good handle on the language, my teachers apparently come to the same conclusion and thus start speaking faster and in more complicated ways. Anyway, as a result, I’m just now getting around to putting up some pictures from a trip some of my fellow students and I took last weekend on the Lago Maggiore Express.

Looking NW from the Pallanza peninsula toward the Pennine Alps and the Monte Rosa massif

First, here’s a little info on the lake itself. The northernmost province of the Piedmont region of Italy is known as Verbano-Cusio-Ossola, and it is dominated, both geographically and economically, by Lago Maggiore. About 130 square miles (with an average depth of more than 500 feet), the lake has been a major agent of both trade and conquest throughout its history. Several major navigable rivers find their headwaters in the lake, and the region as a whole is one of the most popular tourist sites in Italy, especially for those from neighboring vicinities. Promoted both by the Verbano-Cusio-Ossola province and by the individual towns, the Lago Maggiore Express (via train and ferry) is without a doubt the best way to get a quick and relatively cheap overview of the area.

The Saturday market in Domodossola

Although it starts out a little south of us in Arona, we joined up with the Express here in Verbania and took the ferry back south around the Verbania-Pallanza peninsula to Baveno across the lake. From there, we went by train to Domodossola, one of the major towns in the Verbano-Cusio-Ossola province. The city is at the height of its activity on Saturdays with the primary area of attention being the weekly market in the Piazza Mercato, a tradition that apparently dates to the tenth century. We didn’t know this, of course, until we arrived so trying to navigate our way through a sea of people shopping for clothing, jewelry, and other assorted items was a bit of a task. Still, the town was lovely and had it been a little quieter, probably would have been very much in keeping with the peaceful alpine setting surrounding it.

A tiny mountain hamlet on the way to the Val Vigezzo, captured from the train

After about an hour in Domodossola, we returned to the train station and headed northeast into the Val Vigezzo, one of the seven smaller valleys that branch off the Val Ossola where Domdossola lies. Famous for producing both quality chimneysweeps and also skilled landscape artists (it is also known as the Valley of the Painters), the Val Vigezzo offered some stunning views of the surrounding mountains. While in the valley, we stopped for about an hour in Re and visited the beautiful basilica there that houses a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary.

The Sanctuary of the Madonna of the Blood in Re

The Val Vigezzo near Re

From Re, our train crossed into Switzerland and eventually ended its run at Locarno, on the northern shore of Lago Maggiore. After a leisurely two hour ferry trip south along the Lago, we returned to Verbania tired but very satisfied. The weather, sights, and scenery were well worth the nine hours and 30 €. If you’re ever in the Lago Maggiore region of Italy, I’d highly recommend it.

On the ferry back from Locarno

Monday, August 4, 2008

A Good Reminder from a Great Example

August 4 is the feast of St. John Vianney, the Curé d’Ars, patron saint of parish priests and confessors, d. 1859. He was, by all accounts, a rather simple man and was only allowed to be ordained after overcoming many difficulties and obstacles. Yet, what he lacked in intelligence or élan, he more than made up for with attention to prayer, piety, penitence, and a general dedication to his ministry as pastor of a small country parish. As with any good priest, he took his roles as preacher and confessor very seriously and was well known throughout France for being wonderful at both.

Living for a month at the foothills of the Alps and studying a new language is great, but it’s nonetheless important to remember exactly why it is I am here. Today’s feast is a great aide-mémoire. An excerpt of St. John Vianney’s catechetical instructions are included in the Office of Readings for today, and I was struck by his simple yet beautiful wisdom which is, I think, a good reminder for us all. A few good bits:

My little children, reflect on these words: the Christian’s treasure is not on earth but in heaven. Our thoughts, then, ought to be directed to where our treasure is. This is the glorious duty of man: to pray and to love. If you pray and love, that is where a man’s happiness lies. Prayer is nothing but union with God.... [Y]our hearts are small, but prayer stretches them and makes them capable of loving God....

How often we come to church with no idea of what to do or what to ask for. And yet, whenever we go to any human being, we know well enough why we go. And still worse, there are some who seem to speak to the good God like this: “I will only say a couple things to you, and then I will be rid of you.” I often think that when we come to adore the Lord, we would receive everything we ask for, if we would ask with living faith and a pure heart.

Words to live by. St. John Vianney, pray for us.