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!

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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.