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.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter Greetings

Happy Easter, everyone! I hope this holiest of days finds you and yours well and able to share in the joy and peace of the Risen Christ.

I'm back in Rome for a brief respite between trips. I had a great time in France (details to come) and was able to make it back for the Easter Vigil Mass at St. Peter's Basilica last night. And I'm looking forward to spending this coming week in the land of my mother's side of the family, southern Poland. In fact, although my family has some very experienced world travelers amongst us, I think I'll be the first to venture there, which is exciting. It will be my first trip into a country of the former Eastern Bloc, and I speak even less Polish than French, so it should be interesting to say the least.

I had hoped to write a short reflection on this central feast of our faith, but finding myself a bit short on time, I'll just link to the Holy Father's words from last night and this morning, which are much more profound than anything I can offer. As he says, it is because Christ's resurrection is not a fairy tale or a myth but indeed the truest of realities that sin is for all time conquered. Because of this, we his disciples, more truly his friends, are called to be witnesses and symbols of his new life and through his Spirit to "renew the face of the earth." O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which won for us so great a Redeemer!

Buona Pasqua
, friends.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Christmas Travels: Amsterdam & Luxembourg

Hope everyone is finally getting to enjoy some nice spring weather as the calendar turns to April. It's warm and often wet now in Rome, and I'm reminded of how much I'll miss having air conditioning here in the early summer months as the heat and humidity continue to rise!

Aerial view of Amsterdam's canal system (and obviously not my picture).

To close my Christmas series, I wanted to recount two day trips that I made to places outside of Belgium, namely Amsterdam and Luxembourg. Starting with Amsterdam, I was a little unsure that I would be able to fit a visit to the city into a day trip since it's located 200+ km north of Leuven and a little more than three hours away by train. But, feeling adventurous, another seminarian and I decided to make the trek to the capital city of the Netherlands. (Interestingly, although Amsterdam is officially the capital of the Netherlands, the country's seat of government, the parliament, and the supreme court are all located in The Hague.)

Montelbaanstoren, a 16th century defensive tower

Amsterdam is the youngest major city in Europe and much younger than other Dutch cities like Rotterdam or Utrecht. The area around the city does not seem to have attracted much interest until the early 13th century, when local Dutch fishermen settled around (and took over) a castle of the Van Amstel dynasty, located on a dyke on the Amstel river. Hoping to create some secure and fertile farmland, the fishermen built a dam bridge near the spot where the Amstel emptied into the IJ, a section of the Zuiderzee or the large, shallow inlet of the North Sea which extends even today some 100 km from the coast to the city of Amsterdam. The village of Amstelledamme -- "dam on the Amstel" -- was soon recognized as an ideal trade location, and because it was exempted from local tariffs and taxes, it became a prominent member of both the Hanseatic League and the Confederation of Cologne in the mid-14th century. Also, in 1345, Amsterdam was the site of a Eucharistic miracle when a consecrated Host did not burn when cast into a fire, and the city became a major pilgrimage destination for northern Europe until the Reformation, adding to its prominence and prosperity. After gaining independence from Spain at the conclusion of the Eighty Years' War, Amsterdam became the richest city in the world in the 17th century, when it possessed the dual distinction of being both the world's financial headquarters and Europe's center for trade. Much of the reason for both came from the city's extraordinarily prosperous shipping corporations, most notably the VOC (Dutch East India Company) and the GWC (Dutch West India Company), as well as being the site of the world's first stock market. The success of the shipping industry helped the Netherlands become one of the major players in colonization, with important settlements in North and South America, Africa, and Asia.

The Royal Palace in Dam Square

Damrak street, which follows the original route of the Amstel from the dam to the IJ bay

In the modern era, the city has continued to thrive. The Amsterdam-Rhine Canal and the North Sea Canal were constructed in the 19th century to further facilitate trade access to the city, and the Zuiderzee Works in the early 20th century (most notably the Afsluitdijk, a 30 km causeway that protects the freshwater IJselmeer and the land around out) aimed to prevent flooding from the North Sea, drain and reclaim marshland, and provide hydraulic energy to the country . The canal system of the city itself is preserved in much the same way as when it was constructed in the 17th century, with a series of four concentric half-circle canals connecting at the ends to the IJ bay, Amsterdam's waterfront (the Amstel river has now been largely covered over). While originally built to spur residential development and for defensive purposes, the canals today add a distinctive flavor to the cultural identity of the city; practically everywhere you turn, you're running into a canal. It adds a nice charm to the town, often called the "Venice of the North."

Looking down a canal to the Waag, a medieval defensive fort

I found Amsterdam a really nice city to walk around in, probably because the canals limit the need and access of cars to the city's interior. Bicycles are the preferred means of transport, and I saw literally thousands of them as I walked along. The canal system of the city makes it a pleasant place to stroll around, and it also lends it a kind of picturesque uniformity that I appreciated. The city has a bustling but congenial air about it; I also found the people to be very friendly and, without exception, excellent at English. Most Belgians that we ran across could speak it well enough, but there was always some kind of accent there, but not with the Dutch; they spoke English better than most native English speakers, which makes sense considering they probably learned it correctly in school and from a young age.

The Postkantoor: once a post office, now a shopping mall

These impressions were a bit different from what I had expected, since as you may know, Amsterdam has a bit of a seedy reputation, primarily due to its famous red-light district and the abundance of coffee shops, where marijuana is legally bought and sold. We decided to take a walk through the red-light district in the morning, thinking that this would be the safest time to do so. It's located in the oldest part of the city, known as De Wallen (the quays), and is the nightlife part of town, with a lot of restaurants, clubs, and bars, as well as the more risque offerings. Although it was pretty dead in the morning, there wasn't much to interest us, so we moved on to the center of the city, or Dam Square, the original site of the dam from which the city gets its name. Dam Square links the streets Damrak and Rokin, which were built over the original course of the Amstel. The Royal Palace is located in the square and is one of four palaces in the Netherlands that its parliament has given to the monarch, currently Queen Beatrix.

The highlight of our visit to Amsterdam, albeit a sober one, was certainly 263 Prinsengracht, also known as the Anne Frank House. It was in this location, in a rowhouse on the Prinsengracht canal, just a block down from the Westerkerk, that Anne and her family (who were Jewish) hid for more than two years during World War II to avoid Nazi persecution. Originally from Frankfurt am Main, the Franks fled Germany in 1933 after the rise of the Nazi party and moved to Amsterdam, where Otto Frank ran a successful spice company. When the Germans invaded the Netherlands in May 1940, Otto Frank, immediately realizing the danger his family was in, began constructing an Achterhuis (literally, "back house") or secret annex behind the business office of his company and above its main warehouse and production facility. In July 1942, the Franks and another family moved into the location, which was ideal due to its nondescript appearance and its concealment from the small quadrangle in the back of the house. The secret annex consisted of a total of four very small rooms on two floors connected by a ladder; its entrance was hidden behind a bookcase in the business office, and its windows to the outdoor quadrangle were blacked out with tarp. Although the company's workers were not aware of the family hiding above them, four of Otto Frank's business office employees did know of the family's situation and risked their lives by bringing food, supplies, and news of the war. The confinement was naturally difficult on everyone, especially Anne and her older sister Margot. Anne recounts much of the emotional suffering of their isolation in her moving diary, which she kept for the two years they were in hiding.

263-267 Prinsengracht. The Franks' original house is the one withe black front and just to the right of the red canopy, though the museum now includes the two buildings to its right as well. You can see the museum queue at the bottom right.

The bookcase, concealing the entrance to the Achterhuis

Sadly, the family was arrested in early August 1944 by the Gestapo after having been betrayed by an unidentified informer, possibly one of the company's warehouse men who somehow found or heard evidence of the Frank family above. The Franks were separated and transported to concentration camps in Germany, where all eventually died except for Otto, who survived and returned to Amsterdam in 1946. Several of the effects of the family were found, including Anne's diary, which Otto published in 1947. It became, of course, an international hit and helped to pay for the purchase and renovation of the old house which became the Anne Frank Museum, serving as both a memorial to the Franks' bravery and as a testimony to victims of the Holocaust. Indeed, the story of Anne Frank is in many ways a microcosm of the experience of Dutch Jews during World War II, which was the cause of deep division for the city's populace. Its Jewish community was wiped out, with more than 100,000 deported by the end of the war. While many non-Jews opposed such persecution and some, including the friends of the Frank family, actively opposed it, some 120,000 Dutch were prosecuted for complicity with the Nazis in the years following the war.

A memorial statue of Anne Frank, a block from her house in front of the Westerkerk

Walking through the annex was a very moving experience. To stand in the tiny rooms of the annex or to see the blackened windows preventing sight from the quadrangle, I understood in a new way Anne's deep desire to play outside after more than two years of confinement, as she wrote in her journal. To see the desk on which she composed her diary, and to see the diary itself, gave me a new insight into the beautiful spirit of this young girl who captured her own thoughts and dreams so memorably before her tragic fate. The whole complex stands not only as a memorial to her and her family; not only as a stark reminder of the evils wrought by fear, prejudice, and hatred; but also a symbol of the human spirit, the power of which is not vanquished by adversity and the memory of which is not extinquished by death. This is the lesson I learned from visiting Anne Frank's house, and I can't imagine a better way to have spent my afternoon in Amsterdam.

* * *

Our final day trip was to Luxembourg, one of Europe's smallest countries and the richest in the world, based on GDP per capita. After another lengthy train ride, we arrived in the capital of Luxembourg (City) on the coldest and clearest day of our two weeks in the Low Countries. Like Amsterdam, Luxembourg is a great city for those who like to stroll around and, due to its unique topography, is one of the most interesting cities in Europe.

Luxembourg, from the Adolphe Bridge

Luxembourg's Grund district, from Judiciary City

The city is situated on an outcropping between two gorges, formed by the confluence of the Alzette and Petrusse rivers. A Roman fortress was located here, and the two Roman roads which it joined were probably used as trade routes in early medieval times. In 963, the surrounding lands were given to Siegfried, count of the Ardennes, who built his castle Lucilinburhuc ("little castle") on the Bock, a large sandstone cliff above the gorges. The town of Luxembourg slowly grew around this castle, and soon fortifications for the town were needed, as its location and unique geography made it both a highly desirable and highly exposed position. By the 16th century, its tiered walls and strong fortifications made it one of the strongest fortresses in Europe, and Luxembourg became a major military stronghold for more than a dozen different groups in the next 300 years. The Spanish added, and the French expanded, a series of casemates in the walls and cliffs of the city, further adding to its reputation as the "Gibraltar of the North."

The Bock, looking up from the Grund

The Grand Ducal Palace

In 1867, the Luxembourg Crisis nearly led France and Prussia to war over a dispute over who owned the city's fortifications, and as a result, Luxembourg's neutrality was decided by the Treaty of London and its fortifications were dismantled. In the late 19th century, the country became officially independent and remains today the only sovereign Grand Duchy in the world. Despite its neutrality, Luxembourg was occupied by German forces in both World Wars I & II, and as a result, it ended its neutral status. Since then, it has played a prominent role in European politics, and the city has served as the headquarters for many supranational bodies that prefigured the European Union, including the influential European Coal and Steel Community.

Today Luxembourg has retained its importance in the region, serving as the headquarters for the secretariat of the European Parliament, the European Court of Justice, the European Investment Bank. Because of these bodies, the city is in general a center for international banking and diplomacy; it is the second largest investment fund center in the world (after the U.S.) and is the biggest private banking and reinsurance center in Europe. Luxembourg is also well known for its major media and communications corporations, including Radio Luxembourg, the RTL Group, and SES.

The Adolphe Bridge

Walking along the wall of the Ville Haute quarter

Luxembourg has a complex geography; it is constructed on several different layers because of its rocky terrain and spreads down into two deep valleys which flank the city center. We crossed into the old part of the city across the Adolphe Bridge and walked around the Saturday market before stopping for a cup of gourmet hot chocolate (it was bitterly cold). We saw the changing of the guard at the Grand Ducal Palace and then visited St. Michael's Church, located along Fishmarket street in the heart of the Ville Haute quarter, the oldest part of the city. St. Michael's was a nice and quiet place for a little prayer, which makes sense as it was the oldest religious site in the city, built in the late 10th century as the castle chapel for Siegfried.

Looking down into the Grund from the Ville Haute, with the Bock to the left and Neum√ľnster Abbey to the right

Looking up to the Ville Haute from the Grund

From there, we visited the ruins of Luxembourg Castle on the Bock and walked along the gorge to Judiciary City, the seat of Luxembourg's judicial buildings. After descending via elevator, we walked through the Grund, the quarter of the city located in the Alzette gorge, following the river to Neum√ľnster Abbey, a medieval Benedictine monastery that has been transformed into a cultural center and meeting place. Before leaving Luxembourg, we returned to the upper part of town to visit the Notre-Dame Cathedral, originally built as a Jesuit church but elevated to the diocesan cathedral by Pope Pius IX in 1870. That all may sound like a lot but actually Luxembourg is not at all a large city and can be easily seen in a day. Its interesting geography and large number of parks and public spaces made it a really enjoyable visit, and despite the cold, it was probably my favorite stop of the trip.

From the train station - beautiful, no?

So, that wraps up the account of my 2008 Christmas travels. Though long delayed, hopefully they were interesting -- I certainly enjoyed going back through them and writing about them. Be sure to stop by soon for more travel news. Starting tomorrow, we get two weeks off for Holy Week and Easter, and I'll be making some more viaggi through southern France, Lourdes, and Poland. Hopefully it won't take me three months to write a little about each of them. :)