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.