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.