Thursday, March 26, 2009

Christmas Travels: Ghent & Brussels

As I wrote in my last post, I'm doing a very long overdue recap on the travels to the Low Countries last Christmas, and I started with a bit about Belgium and the town that we stayed in, Leuven. While that was our home base, we did make some trips to other towns in Belgium as well.

Leuven was our base, and we made trips into Brussels and Ghent.

Brussels' Grote Markt

Foremost among these was a trip to the capital itself, Brussels. Because its metropolitan area is a kind of hybrid border region between Flanders and Wallonia, and thus essentially multicultural and multilingual, Brussels is one of the most cosmopolitan cities of Europe. Not founded until the 10th century, it came onto the scene later than most of the other cities in the region, and grew slowly from a fortress and chapel that housed the relics of St. Gudula to an important hub on the trade routes between Ghent, Cologne, and Bruges. This economic importance eventually made it the effective capital of the Low Countries and thus an important stronghold of the Holy Roman Empire. Upon the latter's disintegration and eventual dissolution, Brussels and its surrounding area fell under the control of France and eventually Napoleon's forces, though in 1830, the Belgian Revolution began there. In the 20th century, it played an important role in international politics, housing the headquarters of NATO and the European Union, making it the effective capital city of the EU.

Some of Brussels' fine dining options, just off the Grote Markt

Brussels is a city of contrasts. While parts of it are beautiful, especially around the medieval Grote Markt, I found it as a whole to be rather ugly (although, admittedly, it's perhaps unfair to compare it with the charm of, say, Rome or Paris). Historically Catholic (though now non-practicing), modern Brussels has one of the largest and most influential Muslim populations in Europe. And while it has important historical and cultural importance for traditional Europe, more than half of Brussels' populations is of foreign origin. Yet, despite this, more of Brussels' immigrant population has acquired full Belgian citizenship than has the migrant population of any other major European city. It's an interesting and diverse place, to be sure.

St. Michael & St. Gudula Cathedral

St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral, named after the patron saints of the city, was quite impressive. Originally constructed in the Romanesque style in the 11th century, it was refurnished about 300 hundred years later in the high Gothic style. Its façade and interior were some of the better examples of that kind of architecture that I've seen, at least since my first trip to Europe in 2003. The cathedral is renowned for its ideal acoustics, and as luck would have it, we just so happened to visit in the middle of a Christmas children's concert, which featured some excellent vocal work and musicianship by the local youngsters. With the otherworldly harmonies of children's voices and with the church decked out in its Christmas best, it was a nice place to pause and appreciate the Christmas spirit.

Brussels' town hall

Some of the guild halls

The King's House

From the cathedral, our group made its way to the heart of the city, the medieval Grote Markt, or central square, which features another outstanding stadhuis (town hall) as well as the various guild halls of Brussels. In the medieval guild system, these halls were the centers for the associations of merchants, laborers, or craftsmen for particular industries, e.g. bakers, tailors, shipbuilders, grocers, etc. The guilds controlled labor (much like modern unions) as well as trade and production (like cartels) and even apprenticeship and skills, often operating as exclusive or secret societies. Granted charters by the ruler of the area, guilds controlled the business for their particular wares, from the raw materials to the finished product, and protected their monopolies by force if necessary. The guild houses of Brussels are probably the most famous in the world and representative of the opulence and importance they had in their time. The halls themselves became symbolic of their respective guilds, and they took on colorful names as a result, e.g. House of the Swan, the Golden Tree, the Mountain of Tabor, the She-Wolf. In addition to being the economic center of the city, the Grote Markt also housed government and administrative buildings, and even a royal house, should the royalty decide to visit.

The rest of our time in Brussels was spent walking around the city. We saw the famous Manneken Pis statue, walked through the Kunstberg (Hill of the Arts) and then walked up the Coudenberg hill to the Palace of Coudenberg and the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, though unable to visit the latter. We only had a day there, so we weren't able to make it to all of the place we would have liked, including the Royal Palace and the European Quarter, that part of the city that houses the EU's base of operations. As I'm sure will be the case with many of the places I'll visit, I hope to make it back there in the future to see more.

We also visited the Royal Galleries of Saint-Hubert, one of the older covered galleries in Europe, which functions as more or less an up-scale mall. It had some amazing chocolate shops, whose wares we delightfully sampled. Brussels is famous for having some of the finest cuisine in Europe, ranking among Paris and Barcelona in this regard, and certainly the finest of the world-famous Belgian chocolates are found there. The country is also very well known for its waffles, as you probably know, and we sampled several of these as well. The Brussels waffle is lighter, crispier, and usually rectangular, while the also-common Liege waffle is richer, heavier, chewier, and often comes in a more rounded shape. I preferred the latter, but both were excellent. They also come with a variety of toppings; I liked mine with just some powdered sugar on top, but most people enjoy theirs with chocolate, fruit, or slagroom -- whipped cream.

A fine chocolate shop in the Saint-Hubert Galleries

And, of course, any discussion of Belgian food would be incomplete without mentioning their superb beer. Though major corporations like InBev mass produce standard, relatively bland lagers, the traditional Belgian brews are among the most diverse in the world. There are more than a dozen standard types, with some 500 commonly produced beers in the country. Many of the best beers though come from the smaller of the 125 or so breweries in the country; altogether, there are more than 8000 Belgian beers available throughout the year. Each of these has its own glass, and it's very bad form to drink a Belgian beer in any glass other than its own. Don't even think about drinking it out of the bottle, and as far as Belgians are concerned, there's no such thing as beer from a can. Most agree that the very best Belgian beers are still the Trappist beers, those brews that are made entirely by Trappist monks on the site of their monastery and only as a means to remain monks rather than for profit. Only seven breweries still meet this qualification. Of the ones I tried, the Westvleteren beers (especially the "12") were the very best. Apparently, I'm not alone, as the Westvleteren 12 has been rated "The Best Beer in the World" by at least two beer connoisseur websites. Considering that, I feel privileged to have tried it!

* * *
Although Brussels was nice, I enjoyed even more my trip to Ghent, located about 60 km northwest of Brussels and 90 km west-northwest of Leuven. Although still a major Belgian city, Ghent is much quieter today than it used to be. In the Middle Ages, it was one of the largest, richest, and most important cities in Europe.

A memorial to Jacob van Artevelde, with St. Jacob Church in the back right

A little more history, if you're interested. The oldest human settlement at the confluence of the Scheldt and Lys rivers can be dated to the Stone Age. There is evidence that the Romans had fortresses in the area, and the Franks drove out the native Celts from the region of Ghent around the 5th century AD, but the city was not really founded until the early 7th century, when St. Amand founded two abbeys in the area. Due to this monastic presence and the trade opportunities that existed by virtue of the Scheldt and Lys, Ghent began to grow rapidly. It attracted continual attention from the Viking invaders and was plundered twice in the 9th century. It recovered well, however, and soon became the dominant city of the region for trade, especially for English wool, and it was the European capital for the cloth industry. Because of its very advantageous economic partnership with England, Ghent and the rest of Flanders enjoyed good relations with the English. This often led to divisions within the medieval society, as the Flemish merchant class often sided with the English when wars arose, in subordination of and to the great consternation of their French lords. The most famous example of this was during the Hundred Years' War, when the local weaving magnate Jacob van Artevelde organized Flemish towns against the Count of Flanders (who was supporting France against England) in an effort to preserve the economic relationship between England and Flanders.

Enjoying Liege waffles in front of Ghent's belfry

St. Nicholas Church

The city suffered after the unsuccessful Revolt of Ghent in 1539, a reaction to higher taxes (used mostly to fund wars in Italy) placed on Ghent and the rest of Flanders by Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain. In the 16th and 17th century, too, Ghent continued to decline due to the religious wars of the time, and it passed hands several times between Calvinist and Catholic rulers. As a result of this upheaval, Ghent's importance as an international center for trade largely ended, although it recovered some of its regional influence in the 18th and 19th century with a revived (and mechanized) cloth industry. More significant to our history, the city was the site of the official end to the War of 1812 when the Treaty of Ghent was signed on December 18, 1814. However, news of the treaty didn't reach the U.S. until February 1815, several weeks after the Americans' decisive victory at the Battle of New Orleans.

St. Bavo Cathedral, and its Christmas market

Ghent is one of the most beautiful medieval cities I've been to, with a lot of surviving medieval architecture and a well-preserved central historical part to the city (sans automobiles). We tried to gain access to the impressive Gravensteen castle, but despite several brave attempts at breaching its walls, we were repulsed by fearsome city tourism officials. Ghent has several massive, magnificent Gothic churches in the city center, most of which are very close to each other. St. Jacob Church, St. Michael Church, and St. Nicholas Church are all within a few blocks of each other. The town belfry also dominates the city's skyline. Probably the most impressive structure though is St. Bavo Cathedral, just up the road from the belfry and St. Nicholas. Its single tower façade is, in a word, awesome; it has become a symbol of Ghent and its people in modern times.
The Ghent Altarpiece, closed...

The cathedral is most famous, however, for housing the Ghent Altarpiece, formally known as The Adoration of the Lamb by the brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck, completed in 1432. It's one of the most famous northern Renaissance works, specifically in the Early Netherlandish style, and one of the largest of the time, measuring some 12 feet tall and 17 feet wide when open. The Ghent Altarpiece was commissioned by a wealthy merchant and his wife for the altar of the parish church St. John the Baptist, which would later become St. Bavo Cathedral when the city became its own diocese about a century later. Most historians agree that Hubert van Eyck originated the design and began the work on it and that his younger brother Jan (who would become the more famous artist in time) completed it after his death. The polyptych has 24 compartmented scenes, each of them painstakingly designed and most of them highly symbolic. As a whole, it is a visual depiction of the Christian theology of the salvation of humanity by God.

... and open

It can be displayed two ways, either open or closed. Closed, it shows a fairly sober depiction of Gabriel's Annunciation to Mary as well as a scene of the patrons of the piece in prayer in front of statues of Sts. John the Evangelist and John the Baptist. When opened, however, it displays a vibrant heavenly scene of Christ as the Lamb of God being adored by angels, saints, martyrs, Old Testament prophets, and more, as described in Revelation 7:9-12 Above the scene, the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist flank a divine figure whose specific identity is still much debated. He displays qualities of both God the Father and Christ as King, and most art authorities today believe the figure represents some amalgamation of both and thus is a depiction of the Trinity itself as one. Upon completion, it was immediately recognized as a masterpiece and was highly revered; Napoleon, for example, thought so highly of it that he dismantled it and moved it to the Louvre Palace in Paris. The altarpiece remained closed most of the time and was only opened on Sundays, feast days, and during the Easter season. It would have been especially striking during Mass, as the Agnus Dei prayer was said immediately prior to receiving the Eucharist: "Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us." The Ghent Altarpiece is undoubtedly one of the most stunning pieces of art, especially religious art, that I have ever seen. If you ever find yourself in Ghent, do NOT miss it.

The Graslei at dusk

Before leaving Ghent, we walked by the guild houses along the Graslei and Koornlei in the old harbor district of the city, and sampled some of the local beer. It was a delightful city to visit, especially at Christmas-time, and I hope to make it back there in the future. In the last installment of this little series of mine, I'll recap some travels to Amsterdam and Luxembourg.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Christmas Travels: Leuven

Leuven's Grote Markt or central square

I know, I know -- Christmas travels in March? Yes, it's way late and probably a bit too late now, but I still wanted to write a little bit about the trip I made to the Low Countries over Christmas break. I was there about ten days total, most of that time spent in Belgium, with about equal parts sight-seeing and relaxing. While I love to travel and explore, it was also necessary to mentally relax and rest up, as well as appropriately celebrate Christmas. I'll spare you the details of the latter activities -- it mostly consisted of eating good Belgian food, drinking good Belgian beer, watching American movies at the seminary, and sleeping in. Rather than try to tell you about the whole trip together, I decided to break it down into several posts, so although it's much belated, I hope this little series will at least give you a taste of what these countries are like.

The home base for the trip was the American College -- besides the NAC, the only other American seminary in Europe. The NAC and the American College have a nice exchange program where the students of each can stay at the other for free; it allows us to cheaply visit Belgium once in a while, and their students can do the same for Rome. The American College is located in Leuven, Belgium, about 30 km east of Brussels. Leuven is the capital of the province Flemish Brabant and one of the more important cultural centers in the Flemish part of the country. Interestingly, it's also the international home to the world's largest brewer, Anheuser-Busch InBev, which made headlines in the States a few years back for buying out Anheuser-Busch. Belgium, as you may know, has only existed as a united country since 1830, when the southern provinces of the United Kingdom of Netherlands seceded and declared their independence. Today, the country remains culturally and linguistically diverse mainly because it was artificially comprised of sections of older cultural territories, most notably parts of Flemish-speaking (and mainly Catholic) Flanders in the north and east of the country and French-speaking (and mainly Protestant) Wallonia in the south and west. Since the cultural differences between Flemings, Walloons, and other groups that make up the country run deep and memories are long, relations between them have not always been peachy.

NAC men enjoying various Belgian delights

The world-renowned K.U. Leuven library

Modern-day Leuven is a testimony to this tension. Leuven has long been a university town, originally the home of the Catholic University of Leuven, founded in 1425 and the oldest university in the Low Countries. The university's language for most of its history was Latin, but after being refounded in the late 19th century, the modern languages of French and Dutch (a dialect of which, Flemish, is spoken in Flanders) were allowed. Due to the strength of French cultural influence at the time, however, French culture, French viewpoints, and the French language became the effective standard for the university, much to the displeasure of the still largely Flemish student body. In 1968, after much rancorous debate and student demonstrations, the university decided to split into two, with the Dutch-speaking contingent remaining in Leuven as the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven and the French-speaking part of the university becoming the Université catholique de Louvain and moving to Louvain-la-Neuve, a planned city about 30 km to the south. The modern K.U. Leuven has over 30,000 students (more than a third of the town) and is a major force both in Flemish culture and in the larger world of European academia. It houses, for example, one of the best university libraries in the world and is a major research university with more than a dozen major disciplines and faculties.

Leuven's historical and cultural influence in northern Europe extends back to medieval times. Originally settled in the mid-800s by Vikings, the area was taken later that century by Arnulf of Carinthia, the King of East Francia and soon-to-be Holy Roman Emperor. It became an especially important city in the 11th century as it was the major industrial center and effective capital of the Duchy of Brabant, well-known especially for its very fine linen. By the mid-14th century, Brussels had become the premiere city of the area and Leuven, in an attempt to assert its independence from the area's aristocracy, reorganized itself to make the guilds a powerful rival to the town's rich families. Leuven slowly transitioned from a center of industry to a center of learning after the founding of its university in the early 15th century, with famous scholars such as Desiderius Erasmus, Cornelius Jansen, Gerardus Mercator and Andreas Vesalius all spending some time there.

The impressive town hall, or stadhuis

The medieval beguinage, now university housing

In modern times, the town was heavily damaged during both World Wars, although remarkably the exquisite stadhuis, or town hall, escaped such harm, as did other medieval buildings. Today the town is well-known for its friendly and youthful population as well as for some of the best medieval architecture in the area. Besides the town hall, a highlight of this is the quite well-preserved beguinage, the housing of the Beguines, a semi-monastic community of lay women who flourished for a time in the Low Countries during the Middle Ages but later ran afoul of the Church because of their questionable theology and uncertain existence between consecrated and unconsecrated life. Today, the beguinage serves as housing for the university.

Interestingly, the town is also home to the relics of Blessed Damien of Molokai, a 19th century Belgian priest who ministered to lepers on the island of Molokai in Hawaii. Desiring to be a priest and missionary from a young age, Damien left his homeland to serve as such in Hawaii. Responding to a pastoral need recognized by his superiors, Fr. Damien volunteered to minister to the leper community in Kalawao County, Molokai, Hawaii, which had been quarantined there by King Kamehameha V. He served there for more than 15 years, building churches and homes and helping to establish a sense of hope and pride in the community, before dying of leprosy himself in 1889. He is considered a "martyr of charity," and is known as the Apostle to the Lepers as well as the patron of lepers, HIV and AIDS patients, and outcasts. He will be canonized a saint here in Rome on October 11 of this year.

So, that's it for Leuven. In the next installment of this series, I'll write a bit about the places we visited in Belgium.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The NAC ... now on YouTube

Hey folks, sorry for the relative silence of late. I'll have some (long, long overdue) highlights of my Christmas travels soon. For now, I just thought I'd pass along a video that was made by the RomeReports news agency last week of the station church practice here at the NAC. It explains the ancient tradtion which we are continuing as well as offers some thoughts from various seminarians. The church is Santa Maria in Trastevere, a basilica I wrote a bit about back in August. It's one of the best in Rome, as you'll see. Click here to watch the YouTube video. I believe that morning's Mass will be broadcast in the States on EWTN some time during Holy Week.

Of course, it's a big day even in Rome for all among us who are Irish or wish to be. We celebrated here with some Guinness-flavored gelato, which was better than you might imagine. Happy Saint Patrick's Day!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Peter, Moses, and Our Freedom

The nave and apse of the Basilica of Saint Peter in Chains

A quick update on the station church experience, which I wrote about last time. This morning I had the privilege to serve as the lector at the morning Mass at the Basilica of Saint Peter in Chains, located near the Colosseum on the Oppian Hill, the southern part of the Esquiline Hill (one of Rome's famous Seven Hills). I had decided to select this church because my patron, St. Andrew, was of course the brother of St. Peter and the one who introduced him to Jesus, and thus I felt it a fitting place to exercise my liturgical ministry. Some students have suggested, and I've considered, perhaps serving at the same church every year that I progress through formation, as an acolyte, then a deacon, and ultimately a priest.

The miraculous chains, with the reliquaries of the Maccabee brothers on either side

The first church on this site was probably built in the fifth century by Pope Sixtus III and reportedly enshrined the chains which were used to hold St. Peter prisoner while he was awaiting execution in Rome. Tradition says that the chains which were used in St. Peter's imprisonment in Jerusalem, of which he was miraculously freed (Acts 12:6-11), were given to Pope Leo the Great by Empress Licinia Eudoxia around the year 450. When the pope compared the two sets of chains, they reportedly fused together miraculously and the chains today remain enshrined below the altar of the basilica. Also below the altar, next to the chains, are the relics of the Maccabeean brothers, who though they lived in Old Testament times nonetheless suffered martyrdom rather than denounce their faith and thus are recognized as saints. Their martyrdom is described in the seventh chapter of 2 Maccabees. The basilica is perhaps most famous nowadays for the unfinished (and, as it turns out, unused) tomb of Pope Julius II (he was eventually buried in St. Peter's Basilica), which includes Michelangelo's famous sculpture Moses. The tomb itself is huge, dominating an entire side of the transept, and the central statue just as imposing.

Michelangelo's Moses

Despite its relatively plain outward appeareance, the basilica stands today as something of a symbol of religious freedom. The testimony made by St. Peter and the Maccabee brothers remind us of what we owe to those who gave their lives in service to the Faith which now has been passed on to us. Even the statue of Moses recalls the Exodus event, part of our spiritual heritage, in which God led Israel out of captivity, a feat he achieved for all times and all peoples in Jesus Christ. The powerful witness of these figures, our forefathers, can inspire us today. Their suffering of such trials, even to the point of martyrdom, was not in vain but rather was done in the name of freedom and for the aim of preserving belief in the Truth, even in the face of all adversity. Perhaps their example can help us in our day not to despair that our efforts to stand up for good are for naught, even if they seem to be, but rather to hope and to trust in the victory, though yet unseen, which has already been won for us. In God's time, as St. Paul tells us, "All things work together unto good for those who love God" (Rom 8:28).