Saturday, December 18, 2010

Merry Christmas from the Holy Land!

Tomorrow, I and about 30 other priests and seminarians from the North American College leave for the Holy Land, the land in which Jesus Christ walked the earth, taught and healed, suffered, died, and rose again. We'll be spending about a week first in Galilee, the area of Israel that Jesus grew up in and considered his home, and then about a week in and around Jerusalem, where he died and rose and ascended to heaven. Please pray for us and for the success of our pilgrimage. Though I don't know all of the readers of this blog, I'll be keeping you and your intentions in my prayers as well.

Christ of St. John of the Cross (1951), Salvador Dali

A merry Christmas to you and yours! May God bless you with all good gifts this year at the coming of His Son into the world!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Warning: Blog Re-Design in Progress

I've been wanting to re-design this blog for quite a while. With so many great blog templates out there, the style I initially chose two years ago (intended even then to be temporary) just wasn't cutting it.

I've been trying to find one that I like when I have a free moment. Unfortunately, those are few and far between. Even more unfortunate is that I'm still pretty HTML illiterate, so while ideally I could build my own, I'm not sure that's really feasible right now.

Nonetheless, I have become so sick of the old template, I decided I needed to make some kind of change, at least until I can find/make something better. This hopefully will work for the time-being.

If you have any thoughts or suggestions on the new look, or on what look I should adopt, I'd love to hear them!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Movin' on Up: Summer 2010

A family Fourth of July photo

Greetings once again from across the pond! My apologies for the long silence over the past few months. I had planned to take a break after the close of Lent, but that break was also much longer than originally intended. The Easter season begins our busiest time of the year, and I was occupied with multiple projects, papers, exams, and the like. While I had hoped to get online and write a few times, the posts never materialized. My summer assignments, in their own way, kept me even busier perhaps than did the school year, and so while I was home for nearly twelve weeks, it certainly felt much shorter. Here we are now already in September, so I best do a little catch-up.

In August, the diocese hosted a fundraiser in Little Rock for the Diocesan Seminarian Fund called "A Taste of Faith". It was a great success! Many thanks to those who helped make it so.

I'm now in my third year at the NAC and the Gregorian University, far removed now from my days as a "New Man". Since the Fourth Year Men serve as deacons and generally are wrapping up their time at the College, it's the Third Year class that more or less runs the show. We are in charge of nearly all of the organizations for life and many of the College's institutions. For example, I am privileged to serve as the editor-in-chief for the College's magazine, a quarterly publication that seeks to keep our friends and donors abreast of what's happening at the NAC and how they might be able to help. It's a fun but demanding job, so much of my year will likely be wrapped up in its challenges.

Academically, I'm starting my final year in what's known as "first cycle," the comprehensive theology education needed to obtain an S.T.B., or Bachelor's in Sacred Theology. The S.T.B. is the basic ecclesiastical degree offered by pontifical universities around the world and is the degree necessary for ordination. It's roughly equivalent to an MDiv, given by most of the seminaries in the U.S., though the latter has a more pastoral concentration while the S.T.B. is more academically focused. Next year, I'll at least begin the "second cycle" studies toward a licentiate (or "license") which offers a more in-depth specialization in a particular area of theology. The exact plans for that are still to-be-determined, but I hope to know more soon.

The high altar at St. Edward Catholic Church in Little Rock

My favorite of the many beautiful stained glass windows at St. Edward

This summer I got an insight into what might lie in my future when I did some work at the diocesan Tribunal Office. The Tribunal handles the questions related to Canon Law in the diocese, most of which are in regard to the annulment process. It was interesting if often difficult and painful work. If it does await me in the future, I'll need some extra schooling to be academically and psychologically prepared for it. My main assignment for the summer was at St. Edward Church in Little Rock. It's an inner-city and historically important parish with a school and a healthy diversity of cultures at its service. I lived at the rectory and spent a lot of my time following and learning from the pastor. I learned a lot from him, as well as from the folks in the Tribunal Office, and I'm very grateful to both.

I was able to travel the U.S. a little this summer, a nice change from Europe. Here, with my parents, in Chicago.

We were there to visit my cousin after coming back from a conference in Wisconsin. We were able to see the great Chicago Air & Water Show.

That about wraps it up for me for now. I leave tomorrow for a retreat at Santa Marinella, a town northwest of Rome on the coast. In ancient times, it was the location of the Aquae Caeratanae, a bathing resort and community of villas along the coastal Via Aurelia. In more recent years, it was known as the favorite beach spot of Ingrid Bergman and her husband. There's a retreat house there on the beach which the Third Year men traditionally spend a week in silence and prayer. It should be a nice chance to reflect and give thanks for all that I've received over the past two years, as well as all that I have to look forward to in the years ahead.

Check back soon for more!

Update: I finally got around to uploading some pictures from the summer and from my retreat. The latter was great -- very prayerful and restful. Thanks for all of your prayers.

The view from my room. Of the three different places we've been for retreats during my time here, this was by far the favorite of our class!

The view of the Tyrrhenian Sea from the patio at the retreat center in Santa Marinella. A lot of prayer and reflection time was spent here.

I'm swamped with some classes and other obligations right now, but I hope to get on here soon and write some more. For any interested, my course load for the semester is as follows:

- Specialized Moral Theology: Bioethics, Sexual Ethics & Family Ethics
- Protology & Theological Anthropology (Human Origins as Related to the Divine)
- Christian Eschatology (Human Destiny as Related to the Divine)
- Pastoral Theology
- The Psalms & Wisdom Literature
- Themes in 20th Century Thomism (Neo-Scholastic, Existential & Transcendental Thomism)

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Seven Church Walk

The route of the Seven Church Walk. (Note: Right-click and open in new window/tab to enlarge).

A Happy Holy Week to all, and happy April as well. This is the most important time in the Church's calendar, and beginning last evening, we've now begun it's most important feast. The three-day Easter Triduum commemorates the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and, through him, the very mystery of our salvation. It's what we've spent all of Lent preparing for, a time for earnest prayer, consideration of what we hold most dear in our lives, and an invitation to draw ever closer to our Savior, before whom all pales in comparison. As St. Paul said, "I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ" (Php 3:8).

On Wednesday, the day before the beginning of the Triduum, I participated in an ancient pilgrimage here in Rome, and one which for me was a nice way to cap off the station church practice I undertook throughout Lent. Known as the Seven Church Walk, the path was first laid out in the mid-16th century by St. Philip Neri and his friends as a way of visiting the four major basilicas of Rome (above: B: St. Mary Major, E: St. John Lateran, G: St. Paul Outside the Walls, and H: St. Peter's) as well as three important minor basilicas (C: St. Lawrence Outside the Walls; D: Holy Cross of Jerusalem; F: Saint Sebastian Outside the Walls). In the succeeding centuries, it's been a way of gathering to worship with friends, spend some time in the fresh air, and see some of the beautiful religious and cultural sights of Rome all in one day. These same things were what appealed to those of us who undertook the walk on Wednesday. Our group included priests and seminarians from the NAC, American college kids studying abroad for the semester, some lay men and women who work here in Rome, and a few other colorful individuals.

Rather than disturb your Triduum with long and detailed descriptions of each place, I thought I'd let the pictures do the storytelling for a change, together with the map at the top and the links to articles about each church throughout. Note that you can right-click on the map to enlarge it a bit. If you do so, you should be able to see our path pretty well, starting at the North American College (A on the map). We left the College at 6 a.m., had Mass at St. Mary Major (B) at 7, and then began our walk. We took a short lunch break after visiting St. Sebastian (F) and then continued our journey to St. Paul's and finally St. Peter's. We finished about 4 p.m., having walked about 14 miles in total.

Crossing Piazza Venezia, heading out in the morning to start with Mass at St. Mary Major.

Along the Via Panisperna (lit. "Ham Sandwich Road"). You can see the dome of St. Mary Major in the distance.

The Basilica of St. Mary Major. After Mass and a quick bite to eat, the Walk commences.

The Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Walls. It houses the tombs of St. Lawrence, St. Stephen (the first martyr), and Bl. Pope Pius IX, founder of the NAC.

Crossing through the Porta Maggiore of the Aurelian Wall.

The Basilica of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem. It contains relics of Christ's passion, including part of the cross, a nail, and the I.N.R.I. sign.

The Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral of Rome and the premiere church in the world.

Translation: "Most Holy Lateran Church, mother and head of all the churches in the city and in the world."

Waiting to start up the walk again. This obelisk is the tallest in Rome.

Along the Via Appia Antica, or Appian Way, one of the oldest roads in Rome.

Sheep? This stretch doesn't really feel like Rome at all.

Still on the Appian Way, near several catacombs. This is also roughly the spot that Peter experienced the "Domine, Quo Vadis?" vision of Christ.

The Basilica of St. Sebastian Outside the Walls. It houses the relics of the martyr St. Sebastian and more than 200 other saints.

Walking now along the Way of the Seven Churches.

The Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, containing the Apostle's tomb.

Nearly there. Having been on our feet now for some 8 hours, the knees were really starting to ache at this point.

At last, our final destination, the Basilica of St. Peter.

Thus concludes my Lenten pilgrimage blogging project. Many thanks for reading along! I hope you found it insightful and helpful in deepening your prayer experience of Lent. Maybe some of you will find yourself one day in Rome during Lent, and you'll have the opportunity to visit the station church of the day or make the Seven Churches Walk yourself. For those who won't or can't, I hope this has given you a taste of what it's like.

Have a blessed Triduum, friends. May the Risen Lord bless each of you!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Santo Stefano Rotondo

On this final Friday of Lent -- Good Friday technically falls within the Easter Triduum ("three days") -- the pilgrim community of Rome journeyed to the station church of the day, the Basilica di Santo Stefano Rotondo. Also sometimes referenced by its location on the Caelian Hill, St. Stephen in the Round is an ancient basilica dedicated to both St. Stephen, the first martyr, and St. Stephen I, the first king of Hungary.

Santo Stefano Rotondo (19th cent.), Ettore Roesler Franz

Inspired by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, which had been built by Constantine and his mother St. Helen in 326, St. Stephen's was constructed and dedicated by Pope Simplicius in the late 5th century on the site of an old Roman army camp on the Caelian Hill. The basilica was one of the first churches in the West to be built "in the round," as opposed to the traditional rectangular style. The pastoral setting on the Caelian Hill and the basilica's circular structure would have given the church the distinct connotation of a tomb, since the tombs of emperors and great statesmen were located and constructed in the same way. The intention by Pope Simplicius was to give the Christians of Rome an experience, without leaving home, of what it would have been like to visit Christ's tomb and the church that surrounds it in Jerusalem. For a city that has such a legacy of martyrs, it was fitting as well that Pope Simplicius brought the relics of St. Stephen -- one of the first seven deacons of the Church and its first martyr -- to Rome to be placed under the main, tomb-like altar.

The original church structure was larger than the current one, which underwent heavy renovations in the early and late middle ages. Nonetheless, the basilica remains one of if not the oldest existing examples of the "in the round" style of Christian churches. For this reason, it's fairly important architecturally; I remember studying it in my high school art class! The church is also famous for the series of 34 frescoes along the outer wall which depict various religious martyrdoms in Biblical and ecclesial history. Commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII in the 16th century, the frescoes were thought to have been an encouragement to the seminarians of the German (and Hungarian) College who maintained and worshiped at this church. Because of the political and religious unrest of the time, as well as battles against the Turks in Hungary, many Catholic priests were returning to their home countries to face certain death.

The Mass readings for today speak of persecutions against those who are just, life and death situations for the righteous. Jeremiah feels his life is threatened by those whom he is prophesying against, and Jesus knows that the Jews are wanting to stone him to death. Though today we may not often face the prospect of certain death at the hands of others, we can relate with feelings of being persecuted unfairly. In our lives, whether it's for what we have said or not said, done or not done, or perhaps because of what we believe, we often suffer deeply from unjust causes or in unnoticed ways.

The Stoning of St. Stephen (c. 1660), Pietro da Cortona

Perhaps we can take some solace in today's Responsorial Psalm, "In my distress I called upon the Lord, and he heard my voice." Our faith, rooted in hope, teaches us that God will justify those righteous men and women who are faithful to his truth. Indeed, he has already done so and continues to do so through the once-and-for-all sacrifice of his Son Jesus, whose Passion and Resurrection we are preparing to celebrate. We don't always feel or see this reality daily, but we know it to be true. For those who witnessed the deaths of early martyrs like St. Stephen, it might not have looked like God had heard their voices in distress. Yet, we know that he did and we celebrate today the glory of their sacrifice. In our contemporary struggles, we have hope that we, like them, can persevere in faith, knowing that if we do, we will see what Stephen saw when he said, at the point of his death, "Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!" (Acts 7:56)

* * *
The station church practice ends next Wednesday, the day before Holy Thursday and the start of the Triduum. I hope you've enjoyed these posts as much as I've enjoyed writing them. The idea was to help give you a taste of what this Lenten practice is like here in Rome and, hopefully, help make your Lent a little more spiritual and a little more in touch with the universal Church.

Next week, although it won't be a station church post, I hope to write about another long-standing Lenten practice here in Rome. I'll be taking part in the fabled Seven Church Walk, a day-long, 15-mile trek through the city to the seven most important churches of Rome. Be sure to check back on Thursday to read and see more about it.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

San Martino ai Monti

North and east of the Roman Forum and the Colosseum lies the Monti rione, or neighborhood, of Rome. One of the largest of the 12 sections of Rome, the "Mountains" neighborhood is named thus because it covers the Esquiline and Viminal Hills and part of the Quirinal Hill. In ancient times it was the most heavily populated area of the city and also one of the poorest. It's fitting then, perhaps, that this area of the city is the location of a church named after one of the greatest patrons of the poor, St. Martin of Tours. This church, the Basilica di San Martino ai Monti, is our station for today.

The church is alternately known as the Basilica of Sts. Martin and Sylvester, the latter being the pope-saint who founded it in the early 4th century. It originally was the dwelling place of the priest Equitius and the house church took its name from him for a time, the Titulus Equitii, dedicated to the martyrs of Rome. About the year 500, the complex was rebuilt and dedicated at that time to St. Martin and St. Sylvester. The current basilica dates from the mid-9th century, when the name St. Martin's on the Mount became the most common title for the basilica. The church has been served by the Carmelite Order since the 14th century, and the facade and much of the interior dates from the 16th century.

As I mentioned, it's fitting that a church located in one of ancient Rome's poorest areas should be named after St. Martin of Tours. Named after Mars, the Roman god of war, Martin was raised to be a great soldier like his father, who served as head of the Roman cavalry in early 4th-century Gaul. At the age of 10, and to the great displeasure of his family, Martin became entered into the catechumenate, the long process of study and piety that was the process one started upon in order to be baptized a Christian. Although Christianity had recently been legalized by the emperor Constantine, it was still a minority religion with a stigma of appealing mostly to the poor, uneducated, and marginalized social strata. Martin's choice of becoming Christian would also have bucked strongly against the Mithraic cult, which was the typical religion of the military elite.

Martin gives up his career as a knight and soldier. A 13th-century fresco by Simone Martini, in the Chapel of St. Martin in the lower part of the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi.

Saint Martin and the Beggar (c. 1599) by El Greco

At the age of 15, still unbaptized, Martin became a cavalry officer like his father and served in the area around Amiens. One winter day, coming upon the gates of Amiens with his soldiers, he met a scantily-clad beggar freezing in the harsh conditions. Martin quickly and impulsively sliced his own cloak in half and handed one piece to the poor man. That night, Martin dreamt he saw that half of his cloak again, now wrapped around the shoulders of Christ, who said to the angels, "The soldier Martin, still unbaptized, has clad me." Taking the vision as a sign of confirmation in his faith, Martin was baptized at the age of 18. He continued to serve in the cavalry until the age of 20, when on the eve of a great battle he determined, "I am a soldier for Christ. I cannot fight for man." He was imprisoned for disobedience and cowardice, but though he offered to step to the front of the ranks unarmed, the sides sued for peace and battle was averted. Martin was released and left for Tours, where he became a disciple of St. Hilary of Poitiers and an ardent proponent of orthodox Trinitarian theology in the fight against the heresy of Arianism. He founded monasteries across Italy and France, continuing to argue against Arianism and other heresies. In 371, he was named the bishop of Tours, where he was known as a loving and dedicated shepherd, especially concerned always for the poor. One of the most popular saints in Europe's history, he is venerated today as the patron saint of soldiers and the national patron of France.

An icon of the First Council of Nicaea. There, the teachings of the priest Arius (in brown, foreground) are condemned.

The Basilica of Saint Martin has another interesting historical note, which also happens to relate to Arianism. The other saint for whom the church is dedicated, Pope St. Sylvester I, used the house church originally built on this site to prepare for the First Council of Nicaea. The council had been called to deal with the threat of Arianism, the heresy which denied the dogma of the Trinity by asserting that the Second Person of the Trinity (the Word, Jesus Christ) is not divine in the same way or to the same degree as the First Person, the Father. It is from this council that the Nicene Creed was written, which we still recite today in the liturgy. According to tradition, Pope St. Sylvester and his theological advisers gathered at the Titulus Equitii to examine the writings of the priest Arius and to prepare their arguments against him. After the council had ended, and Arius and others had been condemned, the Pope and his clergy gathered at the house once again to formally burn the heretical texts. The episode is remembered today as an important example of the duty of the pope and the bishops of the world to defend the Catholic faith from all moral and doctrinal error.

The Crypt of San Martino ai Monti (1806), by François Marius Granet

What the crypt looks like today.

In today's Gospel from St. John, Jesus rebukes the Jews for their lack of belief. Just as they failed to understand Moses, who -- like all the prophets -- foretold of Christ's coming, so too did they fail to see the Christ when at last he appeared. In our day, too, the temptation is ever present to abandon Christ, to see him merely as a wonder-worker who lived a holy life, or even as a prophet of social and moral virtue. Let us not confuse ourselves! "The works that the Father gave me to accomplish, these works that I perform testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me. Moreover, the Father who sent me has testified on my behalf." John testified that Jesus is the Christ; the works of Jesus testify that he is the Christ; and indeed, as he says, the Father himself, at the moment of Jesus' baptism, testified "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" and again at his Transfiguration, "This is my beloved Son; listen to Him!"

My friends, let us be ever vigilant to guard ourselves from any influence or source that causes us to doubt this most fundamental of our beliefs, that Jesus is the Holy One of God, the Savior sent to redeem us. Like Pope Sylvester and the council fathers of Nicaea, we must remember that our faith has no other foundation, no other savior, no other hope than He to whom even the Father has testified. Indeed, imagine the Apostle St. John, long after witnessing the events of the Gospel above, writing again of the same truth, a truth he himself had understood from Jesus' words: "And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life" (1 Jn 5:20).

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Acolyte Installation

This past Sunday, my classmates and I advanced another step closer to ordination as we were installed as acolytes in the College's Immaculate Conception Chapel. It's a pretty big annual event for the whole house, since it's the last formal step prior to diaconate ordination. As such, it was a great day for all of us in the Second Year class and also another hopeful reminder of the aim that we're working toward.

The Most Reverend Thomas Rodi of the Archdiocese of Mobile presided at the Mass and installation. Three of my classmates are from the Mobile diocese, so it was fitting that he was there. It was also quite nice, I must say, to hear a good Southern homily again, and delivered without a text at that. His words were encouraging and affirming and spoke of the relationship that must exist between the doors of the church and the altar. Just as the doors of the church permit us to enter and approach the altar, so too does the altar send us, now renewed by the Eucharist, back through the doors out to the world to renew it as well. All that we do at the altar, he said, must be done with this in mind.

My row and I stand and declare that we are "present" at the beginning of the rite of institution.

What exactly is an acolyte? Some background might be a little helpful here. Until about 40 years ago, acolyte was the second to last of the "minor orders" (coming after porter, lector, and exorcist and before the final one, subdeacon) which were considered the lowest of the ordained states and steps on the way to priesthood. After 1972, however, the minor orders were suppressed and replaced with two "instituted ministries," lector and acolyte. Those who have been instituted lectors and acolytes continue to have a recognized canonical status, but they are no longer considered to be "ordained" in any way and thus are laymen rather than clergy. While the provision allows for any layman to be instituted in these ministries, it's been the practice of nearly every American diocese to formally install as lectors and acolytes only those men preparing for priesthood. There is, at times, some debate about this practice, especially since many dioceses already use lay people as lectors and even occasionally as acolytes, though only temporarily and only for a particular parish, like a deputized extraordinary minister of Holy Communion.

According to Pope Paul VI, acolytes are those who are "set aside in a special way for service to the altar." The duties of the acolyte are basically those of the commonly-known altar server; or, better said, the modern altar server typically performs the duties of the acolyte, namely, assisting the priest and deacon in the celebration of the Mass. Acolytes are specifically charged with handling and purifying the sacred vessels. They can also serve as extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion and bring the Eucharist to the sick and home-bound, if necessary. Unlike the altar servers or lay Eucharistic ministers often seen in parishes, the abilities of an acolyte to perform these functions are permanent and universal, i.e. able to be done anywhere in the world. And, apparently, before 1983, an acolyte was also given power to bless things, specifically fruits, nuts, and fishing gear. I've no idea why. According to some snarky seminarian humor, "fruits" and "nuts" might be used to describe just about anybody!

Archbishop Rodi says the prayer of the rite as he hands me the paten, symbolic of the sacred vessels.

My classmates and I (front row, far right) with (from l to r) our rector, Archbishop Rodi, and Bishop Aquila of Fargo

As I mentioned, this is just a step toward priesthood, the goal we're striving toward ultimately. I recently came across this link, which I think is inspiring (maybe a little too much, even), and I thought I'd share it with you.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Santi Cosma e Damiano

Well, we've made it to the halfway point of Lent. Today's a good opportunity to reflect on our progress thus far in preparing and improving ourselves before Easter and to re-double our efforts in the second half. I hope this station church practice has been helpful and enjoyable; thanks for following along. I'm always on Thursday, but be sure to check out the blogs for the other days of the week: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. No matter the day, we've got you covered.

Today's station church is the Basilica dei Santi Cosma e Damiano. Located in the famous Roman Forum (specifically, the Vespasian Forum or "Forum of Peace"), the basilica is situated right on the Via Sacra, the most important street of ancient Rome which ran from the Capitoline Hill to the Colosseum past many important government and religious buildings. Two such buildings were the Temple of Romulus -- dating from the 4th century but possibly the site of the much earlier Temple of Jupiter Stator which Romulus himself founded -- and the Bibliotheca Pacis, a 2nd-century library which housed important literary and historical works as well as artifacts from conquered Roman lands, including apparently pieces from the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. In the early 5th century, these buildings were given by Theodoric the Great, king of the Ostrogoths who controlled Rome after the empire fell, to the Christians. Pope Felix IV combined the buildings and founded a basilica dedicated to Cosma and Damiano, or Cosmas and Damian, as they are known in English.

The entrance to the original Temple of Romulus on the Via Sacra, now the closed rear of the basilica

Born in Arabia but later living and working in Syria, Cosmas and Damian were twin brothers and doctors. They ministered to all, including the poorest of the poor, and never accepted any payment for their services, which earned them the nickname Αναργυροι, "the silver-less." They worked many healing miracles, most famously replacing a man's leg with the leg of another, according to tradition. Their charity and good work brought many to the Christian faith, yet it also drew them to the attention of the authorities. Under the persecutions of Diocletian in the late 3rd century, Cosmas and Damian (together with, according to some sources, their three younger brothers) were arrested, tortured, and beheaded. Invoked in the Litany of Saints and in the Roman Canon, they are honored today as the patrons of physicians and surgeons.

The Basilica of Cosmas and Damian became an important site for the Christians of the time, housing both a charity center for the poor and a house for those suffering from disease or injury. According to tradition, if a sick person slept over night in the basilica, he/she would be cured. Regardless of the legends, the Basilica of Cosmas and Damian was the first church to be founded in the Roman Forum, which would have been an important event for the Christians of the time. Though the faith had been legal for some two hundred years, such a moment would have marked a kind of final triumph over the pagan society which had so oppressed and persecuted them in their earliest days. The heart of ancient Rome, the center of its pagan and imperial worship, was now itself Christian.

Detail of the 6th-century apse image, the Second Coming of Christ

In the Mass readings for today, we detect a consistent theme of turning to and believing the words of God. Too often, we take for granted the good things that have been given to us and fail to recognize the loving Father who gives them, asking instead for some sign before we truly believe. The Israelites were brought out of the land of Egypt, yet they "stiffened their necks" and turned away from God. Jesus casts out demons yet people question whether he is himself from the devil. As Christian believers, our religion was persecuted by the greatest empire in the history of the world for nearly 300 years, yet it survived. Psalm 95, "If today you hear his voice, harden not your words," might just as easily say, "If today you see his hand at work, do not turn away in unbelief!"

The hand of God is indeed at work all around us, and we are invited to assist the Lord in furthering and advancing this work. The Resurrection of Christ, that which we are preparing for in these 40 days, forever changed the world; as St. Augustine said, "We are an Easter people," and it is surely now more than ever that we must remember it and live like it. Jesus tells us in the Gospel, "Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters." Let us, at this halfway point of the Lenten season, rededicate ourselves to gathering, to showing the world through the example of our lives that "the Kingdom of God has come upon you."

UPDATE: Dan from Oakland points out in the comments that the mosaic of Christ in this basilica played a key role in the conversion of Thomas Merton, later a Trappist monk in Kentucky and popular spiritual writer of the 20th century. Many thanks, Dan, for the tip! And, again, thanks to him and the rest of you for reading.