Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Meaning of Advent

As the song goes, "It's the most wonderful time of year." I don't know about you, but I find that it's often also the busiest. It's easy, I think, amidst all of our various activities -- wrapping up school or work before the holidays, completing our holiday shopping, arranging our travel plans to visit family and friends, emotionally gearing up for seeing family and friends, etc. -- it's no wonder that we can become distracted and even burned out even before the big day arrives. It's all too easy to lose sight of the season we're currently in. No, I don't mean Christmas ... not yet anyway. Rather, until the 25th we're in the season of Advent, a season of preparation and anticipation that, if entered into properly, increases the joy and meaning of Christmas when it does arrive. The last week of Advent ramps all this up with a more urgent call to prepare ourselves for the imminent coming of the Lord. As we begin the week before Christmas Day, I thought I'd take a little time and offer an Advent reflection that may help us to re-orient ourselves before it arrives and remember the reason for this season.

The word "Advent" comes from the Latin word advenire, "to come toward," "to arrive." It's the opening season of the liturgical year and calls us to at once remember and also prepare for the coming of the Lord Jesus. Having ended the year with reflections on the ultimate kingship of Christ, culminating with the Feast of Christ the King, and looking forward to his Second Coming, we begin our "New Year" meditating on similar themes but with a slightly shifted focus. Whereas the liturgical year ended on a triumphant note, celebrating Christ as the king of all the universe, the one who has already won the fight against evil and put an end to death, and we begin Advent recognizing that our present reality is not always reflective of this truth. The kingdom of heaven has truly come, and yet, is still coming to fullness. This is the principle -- commonly found in theology but not always easy to live with -- of living in that tension of "already, and not yet," where we know and experience in a limited way the once-and-for-all-time victory over the forces of darkness that has been won by Christ in his paschal mystery ... and yet we wait for the full flowering of victory.

Advent thus is a time to re-enter into the mystery of our existence in the here and now, i.e. after the Lord's first coming to Earth, and before his second coming in glory. In our lead-up to Christmas, we focus not only on that first coming when God forever changed human history by becoming Man, but also that second coming in which we will be drawn up into the mystery and living presence of God in a very real way. Advent is a season of preparation and introspection, examining what in our own lives is limiting us from experiencing the love of Christ and his full coming into our own lives. This is the third coming of Christ that you may sometimes here about -- the coming, the welcoming of the Lord into our own hearts.

The Visitation, Domenico Ghirlandaio (1486-1490)

Because of this, because we know the whole salvation story even as we wait for its final fulfillment, Advent is also a season of hope and expectant joy. This past Sunday we celebrated the third Sunday of Advent, popularly called Gaudete Sunday, that is, "Rejoice!" The Church invites us on this day to pause from our preparatory, even penitential, self-examination and emphasize the ultimate purpose of the season for which we're preparing -- namely, the imminent coming of our Lord, the reason for our joy. This joy is symbolized even in the lighter tone of the liturgy -- the color of the vestments and the wreath candle for the week are the lighter rose color while the readings, from Zephaniah and Isaiah and Paul to the Philippians, tell us remember our joy and confidence in God.

However, this joy, while real, is not yet full. We've not yet reached Christmas, symbolic of that first coming of our Lord in his Incarnation. And we're still pilgrims in a world full of sickness and suffering, where the forces of darkness and evil remain clearly at work before us and can seem at times to be very much still in control. We await the second coming of the Lord, when we will be "gathered together to him" (2 Thes 2:1) and when all evil shall be wiped away. Until that time, we are invited to welcome the Lord into our hearts in a very real if mysterious way. If amidst the hustle and bustle, we can quiet ourselves and reflect a bit, we can gain an understanding into what this is all about. I very much believe in the power of God's Providence, that despite the evil and pain of this present world, God is still at work in transforming us and our world. I read an Advent reflection by Fr. Thomas Rosica recently that I liked:
The message of Advent is not that everything is falling to pieces. Nor is it that God is in heaven and all is therefore well with the world. Rather the message of Advent is that when every fixed star on the moral compass is wavering, when all hell is breaking loose on earth, we hear once again the Baptist's consoling message: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God."
That "way of the Lord" that we must prepare is the highway to our own hearts -- just as God entered the world as a Man so too does he wish to enter into our hearts, engaging each of us in a deeply personal way. It is this joy that fills the season -- that it is God who yearns for us, that the creator and ruler of all the universe wishes to enter into a loving and personal relationship. Every part of our life is changed by this knowledge -- we come to understand ourselves not as powerless but with the potential to do good as children of God; we view others not as enemies or nuisances but as our brothers and sisters who deserve our concern and charity; we approach the problems of today not with bitterness and cynicism but with a hope and confidence that Providence is at work still; and we confront the realities of suffering and death not with despair or disillusionment but with faith in the salvation that awaits us in the next life.

St. John the Baptist, Leonardo da Vinci (1513-1516)

Recently, Pope Benedict gave a reflection on the importance of Advent to the sick and their caregivers at the Hospice Foundation of Rome. Though his comments were directed toward those who are experiencing pain in a very real way, I couldn't help but feel that his comments held a measure of relevance for all of us, in whatever way we find ourselves weighed down by suffering and doubt in our lives. He says:
In the light of faith we can read in sickness and suffering a special experience of Advent, a visit from God, who, in a mysterious way comes to bring liberation from solitude and meaninglessness and transform suffering in time into a meeting with him, into hope and salvation. Your illness is a very painful and unique trial, but before the mystery of God, who took on our mortal flesh, it receives its meaning and becomes a gift and an occasion for sanctification. When the suffering and discomfort are the worst, know that Christ is associating you with his cross because through you he wants to speak a word of love to those who have strayed from the road of life and, closed within their empty egoism, live in sin and separation from God. In fact, your health conditions testify that the true life is not here, but with God, where every one of us will find joy if we humbly walk in the footsteps of the true man: Jesus of Nazareth, Master and Lord.
This, I think, is the true meaning of Advent for all of us. Our lives here on earth are, it seems, a kind of extended Advent. Jesus is coming -- at Christmas, at the end of the world, and into our hearts -- and it is in him that we take comfort, in him that we have hope. We live in a fallen and unjust world, one which we must not abandon but must continue to help understand the salvation of God which comes through Jesus. Yet, the season of Advent and its progress toward Christmas help us also to remember that we are merely passing through, that we are pilgrims on the way to our true spiritual home. As Fr. Rosica points out above, our task now is much like that of John the Baptist, always pointing the way to Christ for others and welcoming him as our Lord and Savior.

May these last few days of Advent be a time of blessing and fruitful anticipation for all of us. Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Catching Up (part II): Pilgrimage to France & Ordination 2009

Prior to the ordination, looking from the Altar of the Chair backward toward the Basilica's entrance.

I've been meaning to get on here for a few weeks but time always seems to be in short supply. When the older guys said that second year is a big step up from first -- in terms of new obligations and responsibilities -- they were certainly right! Various projects keep piling up as classes head toward Christmas break, and I'm also doing some logistical planning for a visit from the family, who arrive for the holidays in two weeks. It'll be their first time in continental Europe. I'm excited to see what they think of it and to relive through them my first European experience. We're going to see a lot hopefully, but it should be a nice chance to relax and spend some time with them.

As the second part of my efforts to bring the blog up to date on events of the last few months, I thought I'd look back on the College's October diaconate ordination and my subsequent pilgrimage to France. I wrote a bit about diaconate ordination in Rome and what's all involved here last year, when two seminarians from Little Rock were ordained. This year, one Little Rock seminarian, Joshua Stengel, was ordained a deacon here in Rome though four others were ordained in the US. We're all very excited because 2010 will be the largest priesthood class in more than 20 years, as five men will be ordained priests for the diocese! The next class in 2012 is my own.

Archbishop Carlson ordains Joshua Stengel for the Diocese of Little Rock

The ordination was, of course, very nice. Several groups from Arkansas were able to come over, including some priests and seminarians, members of the Serra Club from Little Rock, and family and friends of Joshua. Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis presided at St. Peter's Altar of the Chair as a total of 30 men were ordained deacons for a host of dioceses in the US, from Orange, CA, to Newark, NJ, from Crookston, MN, to New Orleans, LA. As was the case last year, the event was a great chance to remember why it is that we are here at the NAC, i.e. to return to the United States to serve the people of our respective dioceses and preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The emotional boost from diaconate week is a great blessing for all involved, not only those that are being ordained. Whether it's listening to the bishop's homily on the meaning of pastoral ministry, or seeing the love and pride of those family members for their son/brother/nephew as he gives his life for the Church, or receiving encouragement from visiting pilgrims for those of us still working hard to reach that same point -- it goes along way to sustain us through the long year.

Joshua (far right) and fellow new deacons

The ordination weekend also afforded me the chance to spend some time with two priests and two seminarians from Little Rock who had made the trip over. Neither of the seminarians had ever been to Rome before, and so amidst the ordination events, we also took time to give them a brief tour of the city and its treasures. The weekend after the ordination we decided to make a pilgrimage to France, since students are free to travel after the ordination Mass. I had been to France several times before, most recently to Toulouse and south central France at Easter, but it had been several years since I'd been to Paris. Even more interesting for me was the chance to journey to Ars-sur-Formans, the little village north of Lyons where St. Jean-Marie Vianney lived and worked as a parish priest. You might recall might my reflection on him last year on this blog. After I wrote of it, his good example of priestly life has become even more relevant to my life since then. At the opening of the current Year for Priests in June, Pope Benedict declared St. Jean Vianney, previously the patron saint of parish priests, as the patron saint of all priests and, consequently, the model of all priestly virtues. The declaration is a fitting one since 2009 also marks the 150th anniversary of his death. As you can imagine, the chance to journey to France to see the relics of such a saint was quite opportune and fitting for the larger ecclesial context of the year.

Ars is a difficult place to get to. The Curé of Ars, as St. John Vianney is commonly known, lived a fairly unremarkable life, from an outsider's viewpoint -- he was of humble origins, was not terribly brilliant, and served as the parish priest for a very small (then and now) country town for over 40 years. Rather it was his extraordinary spirituality and his deep love and pastoral care for those he encountered that made him legendary even in his own day. Unlike a place like Lourdes, however, Ars has remained relatively unchanged since the saint's own time. There's no established tourist industry that's grown up around it, and getting there can be a chore. The cheapest option for us ended up being flying to Paris and taking the high-speed TGV to Lyons, a regional train from there to Villefranche-sur-Saône, and then a taxi from there to Ars-sur-Formans. It's worth it though. One really gets a good insight into what the town was like in the Curé's days and its serene setting in the countryside of southeastern France.

The Sanctuare de St. Jean-Marie Vianney. The saint's modern shrine was added to the town's medieval-era parish church.

After settling in at the newly constructed Jean Paul II Center for Priests, we made our way to the Sanctuaire de St. Jean-Marie Vianney, the town's medieval parish church which has now expanded to include the basilica shrine of the saint. Amazingly, we were able to have Mass at the side altar that serves also as the tomb of the incorrupt body of St. Jean Vianney. It was a powerful experience for me of what the call to priesthood, especially diocesan priesthood, is all about. St. Jean-Marie did not found any religious orders or rise to any prestigious offices during his priesthood. He worked many miracles and had legendary spiritual gifts, but all of these were given in service to the people whose souls he shepherded. His commitment to preaching, to presiding at the sacraments for many hours every day, and to sacrificing and suffering for his flock are stark reminders of the commitment every priest is called to have to those he serves. It was a very great blessing to be able to celebrate Mass gazing at the body of the man who is patron of all priests and to do it with men who I, God willing, will one day serve with as a brother priest for the Diocese of Little Rock. I thank God for that gift, and I continue to reflect on it months later.

Celebrating Mass at the tomb of St. Jean-Marie was an awesome experience.

The resting place of St. Jean-Marie. His remains are incorrupt.

We spent the rest of that day looking around the very humble home of the saint, located next door, and spending time in prayer and reflection. The next day, we made our way back to Paris to enjoy some of that city's spiritual and cultural treasures. We took advantage of some priest-seminarian hospitality and stayed at the world headquarters of the Society of Saint-Sulpice, a community of diocesan priests that specializes in training seminarians. Their center, located in the 6th arrondissement and not far from either Montparnasse or the Latin Quarter, is ideally located for quick access to many of the city's attractions. Since I was the only one who had spent some time in Paris, I acted as an unofficial tour guide as we hit some of the highlights of the city, including the Eiffel Tower, the location of the now-demolished Bastille, and the always impressive Arc de Triomphe. Watching the various people out and about enjoying the lovely fall evening, we also enjoyed a nice dinner along the famous Champs-Élysées.

Enjoying Paris' lovely fall weather.

The Arc de Triomphe. No we did not run across 5 lanes of traffic.

Though my traveling companions were spending a few more days in France than I, including a trip to Lisieux to see the shrine and relics of St. Thérèse, I had to return on Sunday to prepare for the commencement of the new academic semester that week. Before departing though, I wanted to make a stop at two of my favorite churches in Europe. The first, Sainte-Chapelle, is one of the most famous examples of Gothic art -- maybe its most famous display of stained glass -- in the world, though its often overlooked by tourists. Located on the Île de la Cité, it was built as a private chapel of King St. Louis IX in the early 13th century to house relics of Christ's passion, including, according to tradition, a piece of the True Cross and the actual Crown of Thorns. The chapel's design arises from the rayonnant development of Gothic architecture, which sought to emphasize to the extreme the effects of natural light and a weightless feel to the actual structure. The effect is striking as the whole chapel is bathed in various and dancing colors, as light streams in from the windows depicting scenes Genesis to the Last Judgment. It's a marvelous experience -- if you ever find yourself in Paris, do not miss it.

Sainte-Chapelle's amazing stained glass windows

Notre Dame and the island it sits on from the Left Bank.

Finally, no visit to Paris would be complete without a visit to Notre Dame de Paris, the city's famous cathedral. A few blocks from Sainte-Chapelle and on the same island in the Seine, Notre Dame is one of the first and one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture. Its considered a masterpiece due to its wonderful balance of sobriety and flair, gravitas and grace, material splendor and spiritual beauty. I had the good fortune to be reading a book the spiritual relevance of Gothic architecture at the time of visiting -- Fr. Robert Barron's Heaven in Stone and Glass, which I highly recommend -- and I could immediately sense the connection he describes between Notre Dame's architectural elements and spiritual themes. The whole purpose of the building is to ward off the evils of the outside world with its imposing facade and gargoyles while providing inside a warm and centering experience of the divine, through the high vaulted space, the beautiful stained glass, and the interplay of darkness and light. One could spend hours or even days wandering around and noting carefully the symbolic wonder of every sculpture or glass panel. Unfortunately, I only had an hour or so before it was time to return to Rome and the reality of a new set of classes to devote myself to. I enjoyed my time in Notre Dame though, and in Paris as a whole, and I look forward to returning soon.

I hope this holiday season finds each of you well and receiving some of the peace and hope of Advent as we approach Christmas. Many blessings!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Armistice Day & Harry Patch

The calendar has turned once again to Veterans' Day, the day on which we honor all of the US military veterans. While ever mindful of their service and sacrifice in making our nation what it is today, I think we Americans can sometimes lose sight of the larger significance of why this day falls on November 11.

For the rest of the world, especially Europe, November 11 is Armistice Day, the commemoration of that day in 1918 when the Allied Powers and the Central Powers ended hostilities with the pre-dawn signing of an accord in a railway car in the Compiègne Forest in France. The Armistice with Germany signaled the end of the fighting of World War I, a war which claimed the lives of nearly 18 million people, wounded millions more, and forever changed the face of Europe. It has various incarnations among the European countries -- it's Remembrance Day, for example, in the UK -- but is celebrated everywhere with a feeling of great gratitude and deep sadness.

This past July, the last British veteran of World War I died at the age of 111. Harry Patch, "the Last Fightin' Tommy," refused to speak about the war for some 80 years, until 1998 when the number of living WWI veterans began to dwindle quickly and he was approached by the BBC. His memories of the war are poignant and terrible, and he remained a committed anti-war advocate until his death. In July 2007, he visited Flanders to mark the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele, in which he fought. While there, he took the time to meet a German veteran of the battle, to pray at the tombs of fallen comrades, and to remark, "War is the calculated and condoned slaughter of human beings. It isn't worth one life."

A few months ago I came across the following video in honor of Harry Patch and the men that fought with him on the Western Front. I was deeply touched, both by the images and by the music. The latter is "Harry Patch (In Memory Of)" by Radiohead, a personal favorite of mine, and the lyrics are words spoken by Patch in an interview in 2005. A word of warning: the video contains some actual World War I footage, which might be disturbing for some. However, for me, it is that footage that is most poignant. For those who wish to explore further, there are several other moving tributes to Harry Patch and his comrades on YouTube which I'd encourage you to check out.

In tribute to all of our Armed Forces veterans who were willing to pay the ultimate price in service and patriotism, and in remembrance of all those who indeed did so, Happy Veterans' Day. Thank you.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Catching Up (part I): Summer in the States

Classes are heating up here in Rome, but the weather's turning decidedly colder. It's one of my favorite times of year, although the fall colors are decidedly rarer here in the heart of Rome. While our responsibilities and tasks are as numerous as ever, the daily schedule has also settled down quite a bit from a few weeks ago. I thought I'd take some time then over the next few weeks to play catch up a bit. I realize that it's not possible to recap everything from of the last few months, both in the U.S. and here in Italy, but I'd like to write on a few of the highlights anyway. This will probably be a little disjointed, but what the heck.

A few of the friends who were able to make it over for a little Inde

As you know, I returned to the States in late June. I had a little bit of time off to relax after a long year, and I was able to visit some family and friends, take a trip to see my sister in Kansas City, and celebrate the 25th ordination anniversary of my cousin who's a priest of the Diocese of Little Rock. A few days after the Fourth of July, I began my pastoral assignment for the summer. I was stationed in the northwest part of Arkansas, working with Fr. Shaun Wesley, who serves the parish communities in both Eureka Springs and Berryville. When I arrived, Fr. Shaun had already been working for about a month with another seminarian, Mauricio, who attends Saint Meinrad, my old seminary, but it didn't take me too long to situate myself and understand where I fit into the picture. The two parishes, St. Elizabeth in Eureka Springs and St. Anne in Berryville, each had their own character, with wonderful and welcoming people at both places. Each also had their own challenges as well and it was a really great insight into parish life in Arkansas to see the various strengths and the needs of each community.

The historic church building of St. Elizabeth of Hungary parish in Eureka Springs...

... just down the hill from the Crescent Hotel. St. Elizabeth is celebrating its centennial this year.

The biggest task of the summer -- certainly in my experience and likely in Fr. Shaun's and Mauricio's as well -- was preparing for St. Anne's first annual parish festival on July 25th, the eve of the Feast of St. Anne and St. Joachim. From the start, it was a lofty endeavor and a large undertaking. The aim was to provide an event that would bring the parish community together, introduce some of the other Berryville neighbors to the Catholic presence in town, and hopefully raise some money for the parish building fund. These weren't fundamentally easy tasks -- St. Anne's parishioners are about 50/50 Anglo and Hispanic, and Berryville is largely made up hard-working farmers and plant workers, most of them evangelical Protestant. Needless to say, it was going to take work to bring them out on a Saturday. Luckily, Fr. Shaun is a gourmet chef, so food was the main attraction from the outset -- beef brisket, pork ribs, baked beans, tomato & cucumber salad, and a host of homemade desserts from the parish community.

The festival was a huge hit. It had been a lot of work -- securing rentals, enlisting workers, endless logistical planning, pick-ups and drop-offs, troubleshooting, food purchase, food preparation, and so on. Much of that was, for better or worse, done in the last week before the day of the festival, but God's Providence was really with us and everything worked out well. In the end, we served nearly 600 full dinners (about 100 more than hoped for) and lots of other snacks, drinks, desserts, etc. There were kids' games, a kids' train, big bouncy castle things (which are, by the way, a real chore to roll up!), and live music. It was really inspiring to see the parish come together as we had hoped, and the event was definitely a showcase of St. Anne's to the Berryville community. And we even made some money, so in every aspect it was a great success. Many remarked about how they can't wait till next year's festival (and many wanted to the help of us seminarians again in putting it together), and I hope I get the chance to attend again somewhere down the road.

Having some water balloon fun with the teenagers from St. Anne during a trip to the Kings River.

That's just one event, and from only one of the two parishes at which I served, but it's a pretty good example of the summer experience for me. Being with fellow Arkansans, getting to know them, worshiping with them at daily and Sunday Mass, and thinking of what it will be like to serve them as a priest was very rewarding. I'm very grateful to Fr. Shaun, Mauricio, and the parish staff at St. Anne and St. Elizabeth for their guidance, advice, and fellowship in giving me a taste of pastoral ministry in Arkansas.

The summer also provided me a great opportunity to reconnect with some of my fellow seminarians for the diocese. First, we gathered in early July to celebrate the priestly ordinations of two of our brothers, Fr. Edward D'Almeida and Fr. James Melnick. Ordinations are always exciting events, but this was one was even more special since I'd studied with them at the NAC this past year. I was able to lector at the ordination itself and at the first Masses for both priests which was a real privilege for me. Both men are now involved in parish ministry in Arkansas, and our prayers go with them.

Fr. James Melnick (left) and Fr. Edward D'Almeida, on the eve of their ordination to the priesthood.

Hanging out with Fr. T.J. Hart (middle) and some seminarians at the diocese's Discernment House.

The seminarian community also gathered in August as we do every year to enjoy a few days of prayer and relaxation at Lake Catherine near Hot Springs. A wonderful Little Rock family has hosted the retreat for a few decades now, and for the last few years, priests from around the diocese have made the trek down to talk about their experiences, share some insights, and enjoy good food and some fun on the lake. For me, it was an opportunity to get to know several of the new seminarians whom I hadn't met before and catch up with those that I did know. Most of them were headed back to school directly, and since the academic calendar is different here in Europe, several of them will be priests by the time I get to return. It's exciting to see guys you've been in seminary with drawing close to priesthood and a good reminder for me of how close 2012 really is.

Attending a Royals game with the family in August. Dad's behind the camera.

The little bro wanted to spend his 21st birthday at a casino. Why not?

My last few weeks in the States mostly consisted of spending some time with family and friends and preparing to return to Rome. I was able to see much of my extended family in the area, celebrate my little brother's 21st birthday with him, make a little road trip with the family to get him moved into his new apartment at Creighton, and make some trips to see friends in St. Louis and Dallas/Ft. Worth. I also was checking off the list all the necessary tasks that had to be completed before crossing the pond again. It was a busy few weeks, and it was a little mentally draining to think about gearing up for another year. Thankfully, though, everything was accomplished, and when it came time to make the return journey, I was ready for it and thankful for a really great summer. I look forward to the next one!

Until next time....

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

From Rome and London: "Together in Unity and Mission"

I usually don't wade into the religiopolitical sphere in this blog and that's a conscious decision. It's not that the various news and events of the Church's bureaucracy don't interest me. Far from it, actually. But I know that most of you aren't interested in such things -- even if you were, there are far better places to read about them -- and this blog was never intended to become a site for relaying news and giving pointed opinion on the wider Church. Rather, it's merely a blog about my time in Rome.

Yet, in some cases, including this one, I'll make an exception, so for those that remain uninterested in such topics, please excuse the following. However, the news from Rome today deserves, I think, notable mention in that it affects not merely the Catholic Church but also some of our Protestant brethren. We've heard a lot of talk in the Church over the last 40 years about the importance of and the benefits from ecumenism, but it's rare that we see the tangible fruits of that continued dialogue with other Christian faiths. Today's announcement is a reminder that, through faith, good will, and honest communication, it is not in vain that we hope the Body of Christ -- the entire Christian community -- may once again be one. From Reuters:
Pope Benedict on Tuesday took a major step to make it easier for disaffected Anglicans who feel their Church has become too liberal to convert to Roman Catholicism.

The move comes after years of discontent in some sectors of the 77-million-strong worldwide Anglican community over the ordination of women priests and homosexual bishops.

While both sides stressed the step would not affect dialogue between the two Churches, it was clear it was taken because of the growing number of Anglicans who want to leave their Church.

The Vatican said the Pope had approved a document known as an "Apostolic Constitution" to accept Anglicans who want to join Catholicism, either individually or in groups, while maintaining some of their own traditions.

It marks perhaps the clearest and boldest institutional step by the Vatican to welcome disaffected Anglicans into the fold since King Henry VIII broke with Rome and set himself up at the head of the new Church of England in 1534.

The new structure allows for the appointment of leaders, usually bishops who will come from the ranks of unmarried former Anglican priests, to oversee communities of former Anglicans who become Catholics and recognize the pope as their leader.

"In this way, the Apostolic Constitution seeks to balance on the one hand the concern to preserve the worthy Anglican liturgical and spiritual patrimony and, on the other hand, the concern that these groups and their clergy will be integrated into the Catholic Church," the Vatican said.

Yes, that's a lot of church speak. But seeing as how so many members of the Anglican Communion were upset with recent doctrinal developments in their local churches, today's announcement responds to the desire of many (including some in the Episcopal Church in the US and the international Traditional Anglican Communion) to find some way to enter into full unity with Rome while still retaining their liturgical heritage as Anglicans. The larger ramifications of this are still to come, but the structure is in place to provide a spiritual home to those Anglicans upset with the direction the Anglican churches are moving. From the Catholic standpoint, of course, it's a time to be joyous and thankful to God that some of our Christian brothers and sisters are looking to return home to Rome.

At the same time as the announcement in Rome, a joint statement was given in London by the (Anglican) Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and the (Catholic) Archbishop of Wesminster, Vincent Nichols. Though Anglican-Catholic dialogue has been occurring for some 40 years and has even more recently been a high priority for both churches, it's safe to say such a joint press conference is not a common occurrence:

The announcement of this Apostolic Constitution brings to an end a period of uncertainty for such groups who have nurtured hopes of new ways of embracing unity with the Catholic Church. It will now be up to those who have made requests to the Holy See to respond to the Apostolic Constitution.

The Apostolic Constitution is further recognition of the substantial overlap in faith, doctrine and spirituality between the Catholic Church and the Anglican tradition. Without the dialogues of the past forty years, this recognition would not have been possible, nor would hopes for full visible unity have been nurtured. In this sense, this Apostolic Constitution is one consequence of ecumenical dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion.

The on-going official dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion provides the basis for our continuing cooperation.... With God's grace and prayer we are determined that our on-going mutual commitment and consultation on these and other matters should continue to be strengthened.... This close cooperation will continue as we grow together in unity and mission, in witness to the Gospel in our country, and in the Church at large.
In a letter to his fellow bishops of the Church of England, Williams went on to say that the move should not be construed as an act of "proselytism or aggression" against the Anglican Church on the part of Rome.

As I said, where we go from here remains to be seen. As Archbishops Williams and Nichols noted, the ball's now largely in the hands of those who wish to seek communion with Rome. But it's a sign of the Holy Spirit's continued work in the Church that the way to such communion is now open. Deo gratias!

* * *
Today's news arouses the interest and passion of many of us who are studying to be ministers in the Church. At the risk of verging on ecclesial nerd-dom, it's exciting to see the various disciplines we're studying in action in such a current and impactful way! Speaking of studies, our classes have now begun, so I thought I'd pass along my current courses as I have in the past. It's a larger workload than last spring's was but nothing like what next spring's will be! My courses are:
-The Church of Christ (Ecclesiology)
-The Pauline Corpus (on the Pauline Scriptures)
-The History of the Catholic Church in the United States (in English!)
-Sacraments I: Baptism, Confirmation & Eucharist
-Law in the Mystery of the Church (Canon Law)
-The Shape and Theology of the Psalter
Should be a fun semester!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Little Flower

Today the Church celebrates the feast of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, also known as Theresa of the Child Jesus or The Little Flower of Jesus. She is, in my humble opinion, one of the most amazing saints in recent history.

By all appearances, her life was unremarkable. Born in Alençon in Normandy in 1873, she had a fairly normal if devout upbringing. Wishing to follow her older sister, Thérèse expressed a desire from a young age to enter the Carmelite monastery at Lisieux, which she finally was allowed to enter early when 15. As a nun, she lived a life of service and prayer with her fellow sisters. In her early twenties, Thérèse's health began to decline rapidly, and she died in 1897 at age 24.

Despite the humble details of her life, she was a spiritual giant. Upon the posthumous translation of her spiritual autobiography, Story of a Soul (written at the command of her superiors), Thérèse's passionate, quiet spirituality comes alive on the pages. Her story inspired many across Europe and she was canonized a saint a mere 28 years after her death. The town of Lisieux became the second most popular site of pilgrimage after Lourdes. In 1997, Pope John Paul II named her the 33rd Doctor of the Church (and only the third woman), recognizing the spiritual mastery of this "greatest saint of modern times," in the words of Pope Pius XII.

Thérèse, from a young age, had a deep and abiding love for God and wished to express this love by committing her life to his service. Realizing that she was unlikely to show her love by suffering martyrdom or accomplishing great feats, Thérèse decided that her sainthood would have to stem from transforming the mundane moments of the day into spiritual encounters with God. She writes:

Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love.... Love appeared to me to be the hinge for my vocation. Indeed I knew that the Church had a body composed of various members, but in this body the necessary and more noble member was not lacking; I knew that the Church had a heart and that such a heart appeared to be aflame with love. I knew that one love drove the members of the Church to action, that if this love were extinguished, the apostles would have proclaimed the Gospel no longer, the martyrs would have shed their blood no more. I saw and realised that love sets off the bounds of all vocations, that love is everything, that this same love embraces every time and every place. In one word, that love is everlasting.

Thérèse's "Little Way" shows us that we need not flee to the desert or serve the poor on the street to achieve true holiness. Every action of every day can be consecrated to Christ. As Pope Benedict expressed earlier today:

Little Thérèse of Lisieux points out, as the answer to the great questions of life, the 'little way,' which looks instead to the essential of things. It is the humble way of love, capable of enveloping and of giving meaning and value to every human circumstance.... Dear friends, follow the example of this saint. The way followed by her is within everyone's reach because it is the way of total confidence in God, who is Love and who never abandons us.

I find it a profoundly hopeful thing to know and believe that human existence does have a purpose -- that our daily lives can be consecrated to that purpose -- that Love can be shown and honored in the circumstances of any life -- that, in short, holiness is possible for all of us, for any of us. Thérèse lived a simple life in rural France in the late 19th century but has had arguably more impact on the Church than any other saint of the last 200 years. She is a true model of sainthood -- daily sainthood -- that we can all follow. Let us all remember, "What matters in life is not great deeds but great love."

* * *

Thanks for your prayers while I was on retreat. It was a very restful and prayerful time for me -- a good charge-up to what I'm sure will be a tiring year. Things are getting pretty busy around here. We have diaconate ordination coming up a week from today, so guests and other VIP's will soon be arriving. The Fourth Year men are excited, I think, as are the rest of us. It's a good preview of what the future holds.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


Rocca di Papa, just over the hill from Castel Gandolfo

Just a quick post today to ask for prayers this week for myself and my classmates. We'll be on retreat, silent at that, and thus cut off from outside communication. It should be a great chance to spend some time in prayer, do some spiritual reading, and just generally work on our relationships with God as we prepare to embark on a busy year. Your prayers for a successful retreat would be most appreciated and surely felt, if you remember. Thanks very much!

I haven't been to the retreat location before, but it's near Castel Gandolfo, the residence of the Holy Father's summer villa. I did some quick research online and found this interesting story about a strange gravitational phenomenon (or, more likely, some kind of optical or physical illusion) that occurs near Rocca di Papa. Kind of interesting -- I've never heard of something like it before. I doubt we'll get the opportunity to check it out, but I do hear our retreat house has a great view!

Friday, September 4, 2009

... Don't Know When I'll Be Back Again

Greetings, friends. Long time no speak. Sorry for that. The summer's been absolutely crazy, and I haven't done nearly the job I intended to in keeping this here blog updated. I promise a report on all of the summer happenings very soon.

For now, I'm headed back across the pond to start year II of this great adventure in Rome. I go back with lots of new insights and experiences, fond memories of visits with family and friends, and a deep appreciation to our Lord for the great blessing the summer as a whole has been. The ten weeks or so flew by, and while it didn't quite seem long enough, the fact that the calendar's now at September means it's time to get back to it. I'll be returning Stateside again next summer, but the title of this post is true insofar as I don't have that return journey booked yet. Thus, you get more John Denver lyrics.

Keep me in your prayers and keep reading! I'll have more soon.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Leavin' on a Jet Plane

Sorry for the recent silence, friends. As you might have guessed, I was pretty tied up with exams, preparation for exams, recovering from exams, and all the other fun that I'm discovering the European education system to be. But it paid off, as I have successfully completed my first year of formation at the NAC and my first year of studies at the Gregorian. It's a nice feeling and a little daunting to think that it all starts up again in a few months. But it's been a great year, so spiritually enriching and culturally rewarding, and I thank God for that.

Early tomorrow I return to the USA and to Arkansas for a little down time before I start my parish assignment early next month. Many thanks for all the prayers and kind words of encouragement this year, as well as for reading my thoughts and ramblings and keeping it fun for me. I hope you'll continue with both, as I plan to give an update occasionally on what the summer brings.

So, that's it for now. One year down and many more to go, but for now my thoughts basically go something like this ...

Sunday, June 7, 2009

A Summer Shout-Out

Happy June! Although it doesn't particularly feel much different here in Rome than it did in, say, early May, summer is definitely upon us. Summer vacations are in full swing, we're back to Ordinary Time in the liturgical year, and the baseball season is well under way (though my beloved Cubs still seem content to hover around the .500 mark). Hope you're getting the chance to experience some sand and surf, fresh mountain air, or whatever your particular summer restorative of choice might be.

I'm still about three weeks away from wrapping up here, and the long year is beginning to grate on me a little. However, I don't have much room to complain since, as many of you know, I'll be returning to the US and to Arkansas this summer for a couple months. Most of my fellow soon-to-be Ex-New-Man classmates won't have that luxury. It's a kind of ancient NAC tradition/rule that a seminarian's first summer is spent abroad (i.e. anywhere but North America), engaging in pastoral work, studying a foreign language, or serving the poor. While I had hopes and aspirations of doing likewise, in the end, for a variety of reasons, my diocesan superiors and I decided it would be best that I return home for a parish assignment in Arkansas, seeing as how that will be where I will serve as a priest.

It's not what I had expected when I first flew over here, but I think it's for the best. I have precious little experience in the parochial setting for which I am preparing and this will hopefully afford me the chance to really see what the day-to-day life of a priest in Arkansas is like. As a nice bonus, I'll have a little time before and after my assignment to relax and visit with family and friends. And, after almost a year here, I'm beginning to miss the good ol' US of A so it'll be nice to be in familiar and comfortable environs again. I have to keep my excitement muted a bit though since, as I said, most of my classmates will have to wait another year for the same opportunity. I don't take it personally, but I find myself occasionally receiving a dark look or a jealous word as a response to any inquiry about my summer plans.

The North American College, from the cupola of Saint Peter's Basilica, now in quiet study as her students prepare for exams.

As I mentioned, exams are under way here and the NAC is pretty quiet as folks are either studying, chilling out, or packing up to get out of Dodge. This is the time of year when envy can start to creep in about which school one attends. The guys at the Angelicum (Dominicans) not only get to take their exams in English but they usually wrap up at least a week, and sometimes two or even three weeks, ahead of those of us that are at the Gregorian (Jesuits) or Santa Croce (Opus Dei). My exams, for example, are spaced out four or five days a part on average which is great, on the one hand, since I can take each one in stride and have a little down time before needing to start studying for the next. On the other, when you have six or seven exams, the whole process is dragged out over several weeks and can become a bit of a grind after a while.

Anyway, as I said, summer is upon us. Last week, Rome hosted the Champion's League final, pretty much the Super Bowl of European soccer but with double the global audience (likely some 300 million or so). FC Barcelona and its star player, Lionel Messi, convincingly defeated Cristiano Ronaldo and the rest of Manchester United. The city was swamped with fans for the few days surrounding the match, and although there was some violence and hooliganism, I think the Roman officials did a pretty good job of keeping things calm. A few days before that, a match of nearly as epic proportions was played on the pitch at Oratoria San Pietro as the North American College faced off with Redemptoris Mater (of the Neocatechumenal Way) in the Clericus Cup final. The Clericus Cup is an annual league for soccer teams from the various seminaries of Rome. It receives a decent amount of (albeit, slightly amused) attention from the local press and even the global press -- check these out. This year was by far our best showing thus far, as the NAC Martyrs went 8-0 in the regular season and were undefeated heading into the championship game.

Tailgating prior to the Clericus Cup championship. The Italians in attendance were fascinated by this: "We've only ever seen this in movies!"

Game day spirit. Yes, that's a real mustache.

Though the Martyrs fell a bit short, 1-0, it was a fun chance to show the kind of sports style that we in America have. We did some tailgating (sans alcohol, of course) prior to the game, and showed a lot of spirit, with inventive chants (e.g. to the ref, "One more eye and you'd be a Cyclops!") and some fun costumes, including Captain America, Elvis, Sgt. Slaughter, and a gorilla. Of course, we absolutely flabbergasted the Italians with all of this. The journalists covering the game were almost more enamored with the hundreds of cheering fans on both sides than with the game. Although we didn't win the match, a good time was had by all.

If you don't like the game, you can always admire the view.

Also, a few weeks ago, during the most blisteringly hot stretch of the summer thus far, I had the pleasure of hosting and hanging out with my cousin, Mark, who, true to our family's instinct for wanderlust, tacked on a trip to Rome to an already-planned venture to Europe. Although the heat was brutal, and a lot of my schedule was taken up by classes and unavoidable house events, it was nice to spend some time with him and catch up a bit. Of course, we sampled the big three of Roman culinary delights: pizza, pasta, and gelato. We lucked into great tickets and just about the best possible seats at the pope's Wednesday audience for that week (he was fresh off his trip to the Holy Land) and also trekked up to the top of the cupola of St. Peter's Basilica, a climb I haven't made in some six years or so.

Some sbandieratori (medieval flag wavers from Tuscany) performing for the pope.

I warned him not to wear shorts.

We hit some other highlights throughout the city, such as the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, the Forum, and the Colosseum, and though I'd seen each of these before, it was fun to see them again with someone who hadn't, especially a close relative. It brought back some memories of my first time to Rome and was a reminder (which is needed sometimes, believe it or not) of just how awesome the city and its attractions are. And of course, Rome has a special spiritual significance for us Catholics, from the relics of martyrs of old to the grand Baroque churches to Pope Benedict today, and I think my cousin was able to get a sense of that as well. My thanks to Mark for making the effort to visit! I hope you make it back to Europe soon.

Back to the books for me. I'll try to get on the promised but as of yet undelivered review of my Easter trip after my next exam.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Pentecost: The Gift of the Spirit

Pentecost (1308) by Duccio

One of the biggest feasts of the liturgical year, Pentecost commemorates the fulfillment of Christ's promise to send the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, to the apostles to aid them in preaching the Gospel. Fifty days after Easter, with the full gift of the Spirit, the Twelve (including the newly chosen Matthias) were then fully equipped to proclaim the salvation that is Jesus Christ -- and indeed they immediately begin doing so, speaking in the native tongues of the "Parthians, Medes, Elamites" and many others.

The feast of Pentecost then has a missionary spirit about it. Having fully received the Advocate who enlightened them and reminded them of all that Christ had taught, the newborn Church now goes forth to fulfill its mission of evangelization to the world. It's indeed fitting then that Pentecost is often referred to as the birthday of the Church. I thought I'd pass along some words about the importance of Pentecost from one of my favorite Church Fathers, St. Irenaeus, taken from the second reading of today's Office of Readings (originally also from Book III of Irenaeus' Adversus Haereses). It's a bit long, but very good:

Luke says that the Spirit came down on the disciples at Pentecost, after the Lord’s ascension, with power to open the gates of life to all nations and to make known to them the new covenant. So it was that men of every language joined in singing one song of praise to God, and scattered tribes, restored to unity by the Spirit, were offered to the Father as the first-fruits of all the nations.

This was why the Lord had promised to send the Advocate: he was to prepare us as an offering to God. Like dry flour, which cannot become one lump of dough, one loaf of broad, without moisture, we who are many could not become one in Christ Jesus without the water that comes down from heaven. And like parched ground, which yields no harvest unless it receives moisture, we who were once like a waterless tree could never have lived and borne fruit without this abundant rainfall from above. Through the baptism that liberates us from change and decay we have become one in body; through the Spirit we have become one in soul.

"The Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and strength, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of God" came down upon the Lord, and the Lord in turn gave this Spirit to his Church, sending the Advocate from heaven into all the world into which, according to his own words, "the devil too had been cast down like lightning."

If we are not to be scorched and made unfruitful, we need the dew of God. Since we have our accuser, we need an advocate as well. And so the Lord in his pity for man, who had fallen into the hands of brigands, having himself bound up his wounds and left for his care two coins bearing the royal image, entrusted him to the Holy Spirit. Now, through the Spirit, the image and inscription of the Father and the Son have been given to us, and it is our duty to use the coin committed to our charge and make it yield a rich profit for the Lord.

Maybe you can see why I love Irenaeus. Veni, Creator Spiritus....

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

St. Philip Neri and the Oratorians

Hello friends, sorry for the absence of late. My schoolwork has been a bit more time-consuming than I had thought it would be, and so while I'm still hoping to get up a post soon on my Easter travels (to France and Poland), it may not be as soon as I would like. We're in our final week of classes and my first exam is a week from tomorrow, so academics take a priority right now.

I did want to drop in though to share a bit about the saint whose feast the Church celebrates today, St. Philip Neri. Born in Florence in 1515, he came from nobility and was educated by the Dominicans. After working successfully as a businessman for a while under the employment of a wealthy uncle, Philip decided to turn down the offer to be his heir because he realized his deepest desires were not for worldly success or material comforts. In 1533, he moved to Rome where he continued his studies, also working as a tutor in the house of a nobleman. After about three years, however, he decided that he had learned enough, so he sold his books and gave the money to the poor. Although he never studied again, his theological knowledge was highly regarded even many years later.

It was at this time, at about the age of 20, that Philip began to devote himself to serving the poor and visiting the sick of Rome, a ministry which would later earn him the distinction "Apostle of Rome." He traversed the city to talk with anyone of any social class and share with them whatever he saw they needed at the moment -- joy, sorrow, counsel, kindness. He dropped in on the brothels nightly to encourage the prostitutes of the city to join him in praying at the local church or a nearby catacomb. He visited business districts, the homes of individuals, merchants' markets, the slums, all in the desire to share the love of God with others and to convince them of serving the Lord in their daily life. In addition to the poor, Philip often mingled with the city's nobility as well, but he himself lived a very simple, almost hermitic life. He combated the intense spiritual persecutions he suffered with long periods of prayer and fasting, though usually always in ways unknown to those around him. He became friends with St. Ignatius of Loyola and encouraged many to join his nascent Society of Jesus. Meanwhile, his own apostolates continued to spread and diversify. In 1548, he founded the Congregation of the Most Holy Trinity to minister to convalescents and pilgrims to Rome. In 1551, upon the advice of his spiritual director, he was ordained a priest. His priestly ministry was legendary in the city, especially in promoting the regular reception of the sacraments. In particular, his skill and piety as a confessor was renowned and he was said to have told many penitents the secret sins they had failed to confess.

Santa Maria in Vallicella, better known in Rome as Chiesa Nuova

In 1556, he began the meetings of the group for which he would become most famous, the Congregation of the Oratory. It began informally, a group of men or boys whom he had met and whom he gathered together for prayers, hymns, readings from the Bible or Church Fathers, and a lecture and discussion on some religious or pastoral topic. These groups multiplied around the city, the continent, and eventually the world, and the congregation was formally recognized by Pope Gregory XIII in 1575. The Oratorians continue to play an active role around the world today, most prominently here in Italy where the group began. They are involved in parish administration, campus ministry, teaching, work with the poor, and various other active ministries.

I had the chance today on the way back from class to pray in front of the tomb of Philip Neri, located at the Oratorian headquarters at the Chiesa Nuova ("New Church") here in Rome. He died in 1595 after several years of suffering and was canonized relatively quickly in 1622. He remains an inspiring model of active priestly ministry for those of us studying to be priests and a model of holiness and service to the poor and needy for all of us.

St. Philip Neri, pray for us!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Tennis Weekend

Lots going on at the Foro Italico when the Internazionali BNL d'Italia's in town

Those who know me know that I'm a big sports fan. I'll watch pretty much any sport and follow most of them closely. Over the past several years, I've become increasingly interested in and a fan of tennis, especially men's tennis. Sometimes described as like boxing from a distance, the sport's particular combination of skill, grace, athleticism, intelligence and intensity really appeals to me, and I have high admiration for the game and its players.

This weekend I had the opportunity to attend a top flight international tournament, the Internazionali BNL d'Italia or the Rome Masters for short. Formerly called the Italian Open, it's one of the nine ATP Masters Series tournaments held each year throughout the world, the most prestigious tournaments after the four Grand Slams and mandatory events for the top players. The Rome Masters is held on a clay surface and is an important lead up to the French Open, the year's top clay event. It was my first time to attend an international tournament and I was quite impressed by the size of the event. It's quite the party -- thousands from around Europe come to watch some high quality tennis and experience the international atmosphere of the sport. There are a lot of fun events and promotions as well, with booths for sports equipment, charities, and the tournament's particular sponsors. It's also a magnet for the young amateurs of the local area and so it's usually easy to find a good match, sometimes a very good one, at some of the smaller and quieter courts.

What the Stadio dei Marmi looks like normally...

... and its transformation for the Rome Masters

The tournament is held a few miles up the Tiber from the NAC at the Foro Italico, built in 1938 and originally named the Foro Mussolini after the dictator of the day. In fact, it's the only place in Rome that you can still see the name of Il Duce as there was quite the backlash against him and his legacy after his fascist regime fell in 1943. It's been expunged everywhere else since Mussolini is often blamed for the virtual civil war that Italy descended into after the '43 armistice with the Allies, a war that didn't end in many ways until the end of the anni di piombo, the "years of lead" in the '70s and '80s marked by numerous terrorist activities. The Foro Italico is modeled after the famous forums of the Roman Empire but also retains the particular fascistic and rationalistic style of its age. It's home to many sports complexes and is the prime location for sporting events in the city of Rome and hosted the 1960 Summer Olympics. The complex's largest structure, the Stadio Olimpico, is the home of the Azzurri, Italy's national team, as well as the local club teams of A.S. Roma and S.S. Lazio. The Stadio Olimpico will also be the site of the 2009 Champions League final later this month.

The tennis itself was a blast to watch. We caught the quarterfinal match between qualifier Juan Monaco and Fernando Gonzalez on Friday evening, and then returned Saturday for the semifinal matches Roger Federer v. Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal v. Fernando Gonzalez. Djokovic, the third seed, rallied to beat Federer to face the top-seeded Nadal in the finals on Sunday. It was no surprise that Nadal was there. He's the top player in the world and currently the defending champ of 3 of the 4 Grand Slams. Besides that, he's been the best clay court player in the world (and, some including me would say, of all time) for several years running. Sunday's victory over Djokovic gave Nadal a record 4th title at the Rome event, 30 straight victories on clay, and a lifetime record of 147-4 on the red stuff. As you might imagine, Rafa, as he's known, is pretty amazing to watch.

Rafael Nadal, in yellow, winding up for one of his lethal forehands in Sunday's final against Novak Djokovic

The semester is winding down here in Rome, and it's time to once again start prepping hard for final exams early next month. I'll do my best though to provide those updates on my Easter travels, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Saturday Sojourn: Tre Fontane

The Abbey to the left and Our Lady of Martyrs to the right. Between them is the path to St. Paul at the Three Fountains.

Thanks to all of you that have commented lately, either to say hello or to pass along Easter wishes. I'm glad you're enjoying the blog, and I hope you can keep reading! Sorry for the dearth of posts lately. It's been a busy week since returning from Poland, getting back into the swing of classes, formation meetings, visits with pilgrims, apostolate work, and all the other things that are part of the exciting life of a NAC seminarian.

On Saturday, I was able to travel with some of the other Little Rock guys to Tre Fontane, the site where, according to tradition, St. Paul was martyred about 65 AD. The final years of St. Paul's life are a little sketchy, but most sources agree he was arrested some time after his third missionary journey (to Ephesus, Macedonia, and Corinth), probably somewhere in Turkey. He was taken to Caesarea and imprisoned for several years there before appealing to be judged by the emperor Nero, a right he had as a Roman citizen. However, since Nero was the first emperor to actively persecute Christians and since he needed a group to blame for the fire that devastated Rome in 64 AD, and the fates of Paul and St. Peter (also imprisoned at the time in Rome) were effectively sealed. They were executed on or about the same day -- Peter, a non-Roman, by crucifixion in the Circus of Nero (part of which is now St. Peter's Basilica and Square) and Paul, as a Roman citizen, by the more humane method of beheading outside the city walls.

"The place of St. Paul, apostle and martyr, where three fountains marvelously sprang forth"

That site, located along the ancient Via Laurentina about three miles south of Rome's center, is today a quiet and prayerful place set amidst gardens and tall stone pines. The complex consists of three churches, each within a few yards of each other. The Abbey of the Three Fountains, officially the Abbey of Saints Vincent and Anastasius, is the newest of the three, dating from about the 7th century and built to house the monks who were to care for the two older churches. Our Lady of Martyrs was built atop the relics of St. Zeno of Rome and his 10,000+ legionaries who were executed on the order of Diocletian around the year 300. In the crypt of the church is an ancient Roman prison, the same one which is said to have held St. Paul in the years leading up to his death.

The third and most important church is St. Paul at the Three Fountains, the site of Paul's beheading. According to ancient legend, after the saint was decapitated, three fountains miraculously sprang up at the spots at which his head bounced three times. (There's some evidence that the springs pre-date Paul though, as the area might have been known as Aquae Salviae, "Sage Waters," even before St. Paul's death). Today, three small shrines are built along one side of the church wall, above each of the three fountains. It's a popular tourist and pilgrimage destination, especially now as the Church is preparing to wrap up the Year of St. Paul this summer.

For me, it was also a powerful reminder of both the costs and the rewards of being faithful to the Christian message. Paul has always been meaningful for me -- my middle name, the name of an uncle I never knew, the name of one of the three or four greatest saints of the Church and maybe its greatest example of conversion. As I matured to adulthood, St. Paul has been an inspiration and a model of the Christian ideal, a man who had such a powerful encounter with Christ that he radically changed his life. He became one of those believers whom he had previously been persecuting -- indeed, not just a believer, but the "Apostles to the Gentiles," revolutionizing the mission of the Church and spreading the Gospel across the Mediterranean. Looking into the cramped, dirt-floor cell where he had been imprisoned, with its tiny window looking out on the garden, I could almost hear Paul as he wrote to Timothy: "I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." (2 Tm 4:6-7). At the end of his great career, his work accomplished, he waited quietly for death and, through death, his reward in Christ. Though Paul is a famous example, we as Christians are called to respond with similar fidelity, teaching and proclaiming the truth of Jesus even unto death, indeed, embracing the Cross of Christ, for only through it do we participate in his Easter Resurrection.

That's your Rome wisdom for the day. Prayers for all of you as this Easter season continues! And check back soon to hear a bit about my recent travels to Poland and France earlier this month.