Faith and Fun in Naples, Pompeii, and Orvieto

While many of our BC students were scattered throughout Italy and Europe this weekend, yesterday we Ramages returned from a refreshing weekend trip to southern(ish) Italy. As is usually the case, I have alot of pictures from this trip and have even more that I have gathered from the web after returning. Below I’ve posted a small chunk of these — though likely even still there are more than you will care to digest.

Highlights of the trip:

  • An impromptu private tour of excavations under Orvieto’s church of Sant’Andrea. Underneath this medieval church lie yet three more layers of history — a paleo-Christian church, an older Etruscan city, and an even older Villanovian town. Why doesn’t Rick Steves mention this gem? Maybe because it’s not something you’d really expect from the outside and not something you find in ads. Amazing piece of history!
  • Walking unhurried through the romantic streets of Orvieto with our family
  • Eating a nice meal of wild boar and honey-chesse lasagna (Jen’s highlight of the trip)
  • Orvieto’s magnificent Duomo with the artwork inside and out. This semester I am particularly obsessed with Last Judgment scenes relevant to Dante, and this cathedral fed my appetite.
  • Eating pizza in Naples, the city where Pizza was invented
  • Naples’ duomo with the blood of St. Januarius and Europe’s oldest baptistery
  • The extensive excavations of Pompeii, especially the haunting bodies visible for viewing which were frozen in time giving us a view of the very last breathing moment of these persons. It was yet another chilling reminder to remember death daily and that the Lord will come to all of us like a thief in the night.
This weekend we have a BC school trip to Assisi, Norcia, and Perugia. In the meantime, time to go discuss Pope Benedict’s discussion of the Sermon on the Mount in his Jesus of Nazareth.

In Florence in Search of Dante

Our BC group has been blessed to visit some great Florentine sites in the past couple of days. Here I’m going to highlight mainly how what we saw relates to the life of Dante, as the Divine Comedy has been my principal academic interest this semester and a course I’m co-teaching with my wife. Our students have been doing a great job of reading and discussing Dante so far, and it has been a joy to prepare this course while living in Dante’s town.

The first site I want to mention is the church of Santa Croce in Florence. In this famous church lie buried men such as Galileo, Michelangelo, and Machiavelli. Its museum, formerly a Franciscan convent, houses art from Cimabue and Donatello among other greats. As for Dante, there is a huge statue of him outside in front of the church, and then inside there is a “tomb” of Dante. Dante’s body is not actually there–it’s in Ravenna where he died after he was exiled from his beloved Florence. The Florentines tried to get him back, but Ravenna told Florence, “If you didn’t want him when he was alive, you can’t have him now that he’s dead, either.” I really enjoyed praying a bit at this site. I can’t say if Dante is a saint in Heaven you can pray to, but certainly we can all strive to enter into the mystery he presents in the Comedy, that great journey out of the hellish pit of our sins through the mountain of purgation unto the celestial heights of virtue and union with God.

The second site I’d like comment on is the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. In a side chapel you can find panels depicting the Last Judgment and the Comedy’s three realms, Hell receiving the most attention. The works are deeply in need of restoration but are still great. In this church you can also find masterpieces such as Masaccio’s Trinity–the first of the Renaissance to use perspective–as well as crucifixes from Giotto and Brunelleschi. Below I have posted a complete view of Giotto’s crucifix and a close-up of its bottom wherein Christ’s blood drips upon a skull, traditionally understood to be that of Adam. This is one variation on a common theme in Western and Eastern art–that of Christ harrowing Hell and raising Adam, Eve, and the patriarchs. In Jerusalem, there is also a chapel of Adam and Eve under the site of Golgotha in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Here you see a fissure in the rock directly below the crucifixion site which is described as the place where Christ’s blood dripped down to reach those in limbo who awaited his coming.




Jesus and Julia

Great news, everyone: Pope Benedict’s final volume of Jesus of Nazareth on the Infancy narratives is set to come out in time for Christmas! You can bet that I will be posting many times on this work in the Spring after I get the chance to read and digest it. I can’t recommend these books by Benedict enough. The first time I read Volume 1, I thought, “Same old stuff I already knew about Jesus.” However, after re-reading more meditatively and teaching with the books, I have found them to be one of the greatest written gifts given to the Church by Pope Benedict.

In other news, I thought some people might enjoy this video of my toddler daughter Julia singing the Salve Regina. I can never get her doing the whole thing when she knows she is on camera, but I found this video from July on my computer last night and found it pretty good. One of my colleagues told me it should go on Youtube. A student here in Florence also told me that hearing her sing the Salve has shamed him into learning it, so perhaps this will do so for others as well!

A Whirlwind Week in Florence & Venice

The past week has been yet another wild ride for us Ramages and our BC group. This weekend students went all around Europe, with some going to Germany, others to Spain, others to Poland, and others–like us–traveling within Italy. Our choice for the weekend was Venice, which more than surpassed my expectations. Unlike some other Italian towns, the cat has long been out of the bag when it comes to Venice’s beauty. Indeed, the hordes of tourists and cruise ships that pile into the island town daily can be annoying, but once you remember that you too are one of those tourists and just accept that most great sites are like this, it is no problem.

For me, the best part of Venice is just walking around and taking the vaporetto (boat) around the lagoon to take in the rustic beauty of the old palaces and churches sitting on the water. Saint Mark’s Basilica is of course great. I am a big fan of Eastern-style churches and art, and this one fits the bill as it was constructed with the experience of Venetians who knew the East and who had gone on Crusades. (In fact, some if the infamous deeds of Christian Crusaders were committed precisely by the Venetians!) It’s great to go into an Italian church and see icons of the Pantocrator and the Descent into Hades. Then of course St. Mark is buried there, having been “rescued” from Alexandria by the Venetians who needed a big saint for their big empire.

Another one of my favorite parts of the weekend: Sopresa Veneta. No, it’s not a church. It’s meat, a specialty of the region which we bought on the cheap along with some cheese and bread for an outdoor lunch in front of the train station on our way home. The simple things in life, like a nice view of a body of water or a tasty panino, are sometimes the best.

Oh, by the way: some pictures below are of a BBQ with some new Italian friends of ours. It was a bizarre and providential feast. So Jen goes on the internet looking for some kids Julia can play with, and she finds a site with an Italian mom asking to see if any English-speaking toddlers in Florence would be around to play with her kid. We give her a call, and she says to come over the next day for a BBQ. I wondered what she meant by this term. When we arrived, it turned out that this day was this family’s annual “American BBQ” day, wherein they all dress in red, white, and blue, put out American flags, and grill out American style. It was a welcome treat to have chesseburgers and hot dogs in the company of America-loving Italians.

The Fascinating World of Dante’s Limbo

Most people today don’t quite know what to make of the old doctrine of limbo. Is it a place of eternal natural happiness or a place of hellish torment? Does it even exist, or is it just a game we play at wedding receptions? In Dante’s Divine Comedy limbo makes its appearance in the realm of Hell. Today I’ll take some time to reflect on Dante’s choice in placing it here as well as where limbo fits into contemporary Catholic theology.

In the Inferno’s fourth canto, Dante’s Virgil gives us the inner rationale that determined the fate of souls in limbo.

They did not sin. If they had merits, these

were not enough–baptism they did not have,

the one gate to the faith which you [Dante the pilgrim] believe.

And if they lived before the Christian faith,

they did not give God homage as they ought,

and of these people I myself am one.

Here Dante reveals the presence of souls in limbo who shuffled off this mortal coil both before and after the advent of Christ. These souls receive the least brutal of Hell’s punishments since they did not sin on earth, but the fact remains that they had to go to this place because they lacked baptism, which gives the soul the sanctifying grace necessary to participate in the life of Christ and so attain the Beatific Vision. In connection with this I am reminded of a statement from Frank Sheed to the effect that Hell is not the result of God arbitrarily meting out punishment to mortals, but rather a matter of whether at the time of our deaths we have power to live in Heaven or not—a power bestowed on us precisely when original sin is washed away and we become new creatures in baptism.

Dante sometimes pushes the theological envelope in his work, and here you see that happen when Virgil reveals that he–Dante’s beloved Teacher and guide–himself resides in Hell even though he was granted leave to guide Dante through Purgatory (but not Heaven). It’s almost as if Dante is saying, “My theology can’t justify putting you in Purgatory, but I’m going to find some genius way to make it happen!” Since Virgil is here, that means Dante logically also have him accompanied by Aristotle, “the master of all those who know,” he whom Dante’s master Thomas Aquinas called simply “The Philosopher.” Here of course also must dwell Socrates, Plato, and other great minds of antiquity.

Incidentally, we also find great Muslims in limbo–the sultan Saladin who impressed Christian Crusaders with his savvy in addition to the philosophers Avicenna and Averroes. Aquinas, whose work is reflected here in Dante’s speech, referred to the latter simply as “The Commentator” because his Aristotelian commentary and translation was instrumental in reintroducing this giant of antiquity to the medieval Christian world. Thus, although Dante depicts Hell’s inner city of Dis as spotted with the minarets of Muslim mosques, what he thinks about the religion of Islam as such doesn’t mitigate his immense respect for these individual Muslims who earn the same place as the man whom Christians such as Erasmus story have called “St. Socrates.”

At any rate, Virgil explains to Dante that, while committing “no crime,” he and these others remain lost and suffer only the reality of hopelessly living forever in desire of something greater. In this connection, I think Dante’s placement of limbo in Hell rather than in the Purgatory’s earthly paradise makes a lot of sense. If limbo were really a matter of forever possessing only natural happiness, as some versions of the theory have held, to my mind it would be tantamount to Hell itself since souls there would always retain that “God-shaped hole” in our hearts, restless because our hearts rest only in God, as St. Augustine says.

Another aspect of limbo revealed by Virgil concerns the fact that some of its inhabitants resided there only temporarily:

I had just entered this state

when I saw coming One of power and might,

crowned with the glorious sign of victory.

From us he took the shade of our first father,

the shades of his son Abel and of Noah,

of Moses, who, obedient, gave the Law…

and many others, and he made them blessed.

And I want you to know that, before these,

salvation came for not one human soul.

The image evoked here is that of the limbus patrum, the limbo of the fathers or patriarchs. The theological reasoning behind this last statement was that the Paschal Mystery of Christ alone opens the gate of salvation, and so anyone who lived chronologically before this had to wait for redemption. Thus at one point in time Moses would have sat next to characters such as Cicero in limbo, but after his crucifixion Christ released the former, having “preached to the spirits in prison” (1 Pet 3:19). The Byzantine iconographic tradition, present also in the West in some places, depicts Christ’s harrowing of Hell in the vivid image of Christ breaking the bars of limbo and lifting Adam and Eve up to be with him forever.

In the Apostles’ Creed we also profess that Christ descended into Hell, but the word used here is Hades (Greek) or infernos (Latin), not limbo—a term which might be best translated as “the lowest regions,” i.e. the underworld or netherworld. This is a brief way of illustrating that deciphering the nature of limbo is anything but a simple matter. It has to be done while also considering related but distinct terms such as Sheol (the early Hebrew word used in the Old Testament to describe the fate of all the dead), as well as Hades (classical Greek god/realm of the underworld and the Septuagint’s way of translating Sheol).

All this is not even to broach the question of whether or not unbaptized infants would be found in limbo. Often in church history, theologians have held the sententia or opinion that infants who died before receiving baptism would go to a place of eternal natural happiness for the reasons given above by Dante (Indeed, Dante himself briefly mentions the presence of infants in limbo). This has never been an official teaching of the Catholic Church. I have looked through the popes and ecumenical councils, and have not been able to find any magisterial statements affirming limbo’s existence. The only related thing I’ve found are statements of the Ecumenical Council of Florence which would appear to deny the possibility of anyone being saved without baptism–but the council remains silent on limbo. But please, if you have found anything on limbo itself, let me know as I am always looking for some new theological challenge to take up.

Even if it was commonly taught by theologians in the past, limbo does not appear in the Catechism today. Instead, the CDF and Catechism both have indicated that we should entrust these children to the mercy of God and continue to offer funerary rites for them as we do for adults, thus leaving open hope for their salvation. I may post on this last document some day in the future, but for now let me also link to a germane work of the International Theological Commission which I read and found illuminating when it came out several years ago It gives a historical overview of the Church’s teaching on limbo and offers plausible reasons why today we may have firm hope that infants who die unbaptized are with God in Heaven, not merely in limbo. It is not a magisterial document per se and reminds us that the eternal destiny of unbaptized children is not a reality that has been revealed to the Church. Nevertheless, I think the document accurately reflects the mind of the Church today on this matter. Indeed, the fact that Pope Benedict XVI signed off on it indicates that he considers it in conformity with sound Catholic doctrine.

All that from just a few lines of Dante, and I could have said much more. Alas, I have other things to do, so for now and enjoy until I write again.

5 Lessons from the First 5 Canti of the Divine Comedy

As my family is living in Dante’s home of Florence this semester, one of the courses I am co-offering with my theologian-wife is a seminar on Dante’s Divine Comedy, the foundational work of the Italian language which remains as relevant to our Christian lives today as ever. Throughout the semester, I’ll post thoughts on the work that emerge from our class discussion and my reflection. The translation I’ll be quoting from is a great newer one by Anthony Esolen which contains Dante’s original Italian verse on the left and the English on the right–I highly recommend it. Here are today’s five.

1. “Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself in a dark wilderness, for I had wandered from the straight and true.” All of us who read the opening lines of the Comedy have wandered from the narrow way and find ourselves–to one degree or another–immersed in the hellish mire of sin. Dante wants to sear this reality in our minds as we read his work and are invited to join him in a grand journey through the realms of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. If you read the Comedy on a superficial level, you miss the fact that Dante purposely intended it to contain multiple levels of meaning–“spiritual senses”–as we call them in Sacred Scripture. Thus the Comedy depicts Dante’s physical journey through Hell (literal sense), but, as Dorothy Sayers observes in her masterful Thomistic notes to the text, this is actually the least important part of the work. What goes on here represents the final state of man’s perdition (anagogical sense). It further signifies Dante’s–and in turn our own–downward journey through ignorance and sin (moral sense) before we begin to ascend the mountain of conversion in the Purgatorio. Applying this to our lives, we can benefit a great deal already from this opening canto: “How I entered, I can’t bring to mind when I first left the way of truth behind.” Dante’s descent into Hell (the vicious cycle of sin) begins almost imperceptibly, as in a dreaming state. Every one of us often falls in this same way. We start with something “small,” something that hardly seems a sin, and before you know it you’ve ended up with a seemingly unbreakable vice. If you read C.S. Lewis, in particular his Screwtape Letters, you see the markings of Dante all over the place, as when he has the master demon instructing his understudy not to cast great temptations before Christians at first, lest they notice that they’re being tempted and fly to God. This line of Dante also reminds us of the reason the Church Fathers, in commenting on the disturbing words of Psalm 137, emphasize that we need to bash nascent sins, to nip them in the bud before they flower into abhorrent, eradicable vices. Thus Dante bids us to ask: what sins are we slumbering in, and what evil in our lives do we need to bash this day.

2. The souls in Hell “have lost the good of intellect.” Man’s Last End is the Beatific Vision, which, as Aquinas tells us, is an act of the intellect, i.e. contemplation of God. “This is eternal life,” Jesus says “to know the one true God.” Here the damned do not know God and do not see themselves rightly. This is especially true in the case of Francesca, the damned lover who still thinks she loves even though she clearly hates her husband (whom she cheated on). As Christians we can ask a spiritual director or a spiritual friend for advice on a matter that is plaguing us. We can put little resolutions into practice every day to tame our desires and keep us from being tossed about on the whirlwind of our passions like Francesca.

3. In Dante there is a special place in Hell for those who refuse to choose between the Lord and some other god. Canto 3 is interesting because here–outside of Hell–Dante creatively places “those sad souls whose works in life merited neither praise nor infamy, who were for themselves alone, not rebels, and not faithful to the Lord.” In this vestibule reside the people who knew the demands of the Gospel and didn’t outright reject it, yet they were not brave enough to stand up for what is right and take up their cross to follow Christ. How many people today say that they are “personally” in favor of virtue and against evils like abortion, but never really make up their minds to speak or do anything about it! Dante’s third canto is a chilling reminder that we can’t sit on the sidelines of this life if we want to be happy in the next. As for the “paltry souls” in this canto, the punishment that fits their crime consists in the fact that they are “pricked to motion now perpetually by flies and wasps” as they “leer with envy at every other lot,” i.e. the lots of those who made a choice in life for good or evil. Hence, although these “worthless wretches who had never lived” are not technically in Hell, they wished they were in Hell, which Dante wants us to consider as perhaps being even worse.

4. Charon, the ferryman of the dead in classical mythology, makes his appearance in a similar role in the Comedy, as do many other figures of antiquity. For me the lesson here is simple, and it is readily illustrated by spending a few minutes in meditation upon his figure in Michelangelo’s portrayal of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. The lesson is: have fear of God and don’t do the sin you want to do, or else you have to meet this guy. Actually, the reality behind Dante’s image of “crossing the melancholy shores of Acheron” is infinitely worse, but the image is sufficient enough to give my untamed will pause for at least a little while.

5. Our disordered passions are like a “hellish cyclone that can never rest.” Canto five hauntingly reminds us to keep our desires subject to our reason and not the other way around. The lustful punished here are not in the depths of hell–their corruption is, in a certain sense, not as disgusting as the corruption in those whose intellects and wills are perverted–”yet they remain in Hell nonetheless and have no hope for rest, lashed and scourged in the black air.” How easily do we today let ourselves be tossed about by our passions, naively believing like Francesca that we ought to follow every whim of our passions for love’s sake! We get divorced because we no longer feel the passion of love as we once did, we have premarital sex because Cupid struck us with his arrow and “couldn’t help it,” and we put ourselves in situations where we’re doomed to fail–like Francesa and Paolo who claim to be “alone and innocent” reading about Lancelot’s affair. We, too, all too often find ourselves caught in situations where we say with Francesca, “That day we did not read another page.” Behind Dante’s playful euphemism here stands a lesson for us all to live by. Let us today avoid the near occasions of sin and ask God to help us see ourselves as he sees us, so that we can ever more dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell.

Until next time, ciao from Florence and greetings to all in the USA!


Florence and Pisa Fun

Life in Tuscany was not so sunny the past couple days, as the weather turned unseasonably cool and windy. It was actually a welcome relief from the merciless heat we had in Rome last week and it made hiking around with kids and baggage more pleasant. Two days ago our family spent some time in the Duomo in downtown Florence, and yesterday we took a day trip to the lovely town of Pisa. I was astounded at how beautiful the town was, from its almost Venetian river scene to its famous Campo dei Miracoli featuring the one-of-a-kind “Pisan Romanesque” style. I particularly enjoyed the baptistery, built in 3 successive periods as you can see when looking at it from the bottom up. On the inside, a note you sing will echo for 10 seconds, and every 30 minutes a guard does a demonstration wherein he sound 3 consecutive notes and makes a chord. Very unique auditory experience.

The highlight in Florence for our visit that day was a painting of Dante inside the Duomo which has him standing alongside his beloved town of Florence and the 3 realms he portrayed in the Divine Comedy. Next time I post I’m hoping to do some theology for a change, highlighting some key points from our BC class’s discussion of Dante this past week.

La Dolce Vita

We’ve been in Florence a few days now, and at long last I can say I am caught up on my writing here. I still have many good pictures of Greece, Turkey, and Rome to post once my dad’s package arrives in the mail (he has a great camera and mailed me a jump drive w/ over 2000 pics; my camera, meanwhile, has had a smudge on the lens which makes pics blurry at times, but I think I’ve fixed it)

We say BC’s program is located in Florence, but technically it is situated in Settignano, a little town connected with Florence but not downtown next to the Duomo. And wow are we glad that it is here! Two popular American cliches about Italy are actually reality here: “under the Tuscan sun” and “la dolce vita.” The place we are staying, a former Benedictine monastery, is so picturesque it seems as if we are in a movie (it’s kind of like being in Santorini, where you have the feeling someone’s going to take a picture of you that will end up on postcards all over the world)

Below I have posted some pictures of our villa, the walk around it, and our little town which is about a 20-min bus ride to downtown, commercialized Florence.

Yesterday was the first day of both classes I am teaching this semester, Theology of Benedict XVI and Dante’s Divine Comedy. The students did great, and I am looking forward to working with them all semester.

BC Rome Pictures

Now that I’ve had the opportunity to tell our group’s Rome story a bit in writing, now I’ll tell it visually. Enjoy the photos. I’ll keep posting them as I get the time to sort and write captions.

BC Pilgrimage/Class in the Eternal City

I’m now getting closer and closer to caught up with my documentation of our group’s travels in Europe. Today I’m posting on our first few days in Rome, a whirlwind tour of awesomeness. (Note, I’m not even pretending to proofread these posts or sound too sophisticated, as Italian internet doesn’t offer me the luxury of much time to work).

Day 1: We arrived in Rome and caught our bus to Residenza Buonamici for our 10-day stay in the Eternal City. After checking in at our temporary residence, we quickly left and headed out for the night, wasting no time even though we had just come from a whirlwind tour of Greece and Turkey. Tonight we did only two things. First, we stopped at the Flaminio metro station and got out to see the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, a gorgeous church which boasts two Caravaggio paintings, one of St. Peter’s crucifixion and the other of St. Paul’s conversion as he fell off his horse. Then we took the tram to the former Olympic Village where I used to live in Rome when discerning religious life. As the name suggests, this area of town is located near the city’s Olympic stadium and is also right next to the famous Milvian Bridge where Emperor Constantine had a vision of the Cross which eventually led him to become Christian and to legalize Christian practice in the empire in 313 A.D. This evening the Apostles of the Interior Life hosted us for a wonderful dinner. We got to assist at mass with the community’s founder, Fr. Salvatore Scorza, a man from whom I have learned a great deal–not the least of which is his teaching on the need for equilibrio or “balance”–a teaching I still heard him giving his novices today. After sipping some espresso and limoncello, we grabbed a taxi and headed back for some sleep. The only downer of the day was that I couldn’t sleep that night because it was extremely hot as well as loud outside of our window, and the hotel had no A/C. The next day we got a fan!

Day 2: Today we visited 8 churches. I’ve lived in Rome before, but we went on this escapade because I wanted to cover some crucial sites before my parents had to leave and go back to the USA. We started off the day at St. John Lateran, one of Rome’s four major basilicas and the official church of the pope even though he resides at St. Peter’s these days. The inscription on front of the basilica reads that this is the head of all churches in the city and in the world. Inside you find relics of St. Peter and St. Paul (their heads). The baptistery next door is fantastic, and you have the Holy Stairs right across the street. These were taken from Jerusalem by St. Helena, Constantine’s mom, and were the stairs Christ ascended as he went to meet Pilate. Next to the church you also find the Pontifical Lateran University. I persuaded the guard to let us in for a peek since I used to study here. From here we walked down the street to the Holy Cross Basilica, where substantial relics of the True Cross and a cool copy of the Shroud of Turin are found. We took a quick lunch break at a nearby bar, and then headed off to our next major basilica, St. Mary Major. This church, which I believe was built after the proclamation of Mary’s divine maternity in 431 A.D., boasts the manger of Christ brought from Jerusalem as well as an early icon of Mary which some claim was painted by St. Luke the apostle himself. Walking down the street, we popped inside a random church, St. Alphonsus, and then made our way uphill to St. Peter in chains. This is a great church and worth the hike because it contains the chains with which Peter was held in prison as well as Michelangelo’s masterpiece statue of Moses. On the hunt for more masterpiece art, we came to the Pantheon neighborhood and started with St. Louis of the French, one of my favorite churches in the world because it contains a chapel with not one but three Caravaggio pieces on the life of St. Matthew–his calling, his inspiration, and his martyrdom. The calling of Matthew may just be my favorite single piece of Western art, as it portrays Christ holding out his hand to the tax collector in a gesture imitating that of God reaching out to create Adam in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. Thus the calling of Matthew is for him a New Creation wherein he dies to his old sinful way of life and rises to newness of life in Christ. Walking behind the Pantheon, now a church but once Rome’s temple to “all the gods,” we spent some time in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, “Saint Mary above Minerva (Athena).” There used to be a temple to Minerva and, like many ancient temples, was destroyed and replaced with a church. Here lies the body of St. Catherine of Siena. Finally (to my recollection), we visited the Gesù Church, an ornate Jesuit masterpiece where you can venerate the body of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, and the hand of St. Francis Xavier, one of the greatest missionaries of all time.

Day 3: Today was Sunday, and we began the day with mass our cozy modern, but still nice, parish down the block from our residence. It is nice sometimes to get away from the tourist spots and see how real Italians practice their faith, and this was a nice mass with a good homily and music. After taking the metro to a bar and grabbing some lunch, we made our first stop of the day at Santa Maria in Trastevere, one of Rome’s most ancient churches, used even before the religion was legalized. This is an awesome church in a fun neighborhood. It looks Byzantine because of its mosaics and because of their content, for example the massive icon of Mary’s dormition to the right of the altar. From here we walked across a bridge to the other side of the river to wander through the Jewish ghetto, another cool neighborhood. This is the place from where we get the name “ghetto” in American use today, and the reason–like today–was not a pleasant one. Christians segregated Jews and persecuted them for centuries, and in 2000 Pope John Paul II famously visited the synagogue here and asked forgiveness for the sins of Christians against Jews over the centuries. As it was Sunday, there was free admission in the Jewish museum, so we spent some time in there and then sat down outside at a café for a while to rest. Across from the café was an old school with a sign that memorialized the 200-some Jewish children who were taken from it during WWII and sent off to concentration camps to be murdered. Next up came an unexpected visit to the Church of St. Bartholomew where the apostle is buried. I knew it was located on an island in the middle of the Tiber River, but I had no idea it was right in front of us until we walked right into it (this seems to happen a lot in Rome!). At this point we hopped on the metro again and headed to another major basilica, St. Paul Outside the Walls. All the popes from St. Peter to Benedict XVI have their pictures displayed above the inside pillars of this great church, and under the main altar you can venerate the body of St. Paul who was killed nearby and buried within. One cool thing about this particular visit to St. Paul’s was that Jen and I ran into a former student of mine at BC in the courtyard as she was on pilgrimage in Rome by herself. I always say–and I am not the only one–that you always run into someone you know in Rome, and this proved the rule. In fact, we again ran into someone we knew a couple days later on a random side street near the Pantheon–Jen’s grad school room mate, who is now a nun. Our last stop of the day before we completely ran out of energy was a quick visit to the “bone church” of Santa Maria della Concezione, an awesome little place with a Franciscan museum and a small crypt which the friars have decorated hauntingly with countless bones in ways that remind visitors of the transience of life and the imminent reality of our death and judgment by God. One unexpected perk of this stop was that the museum you visit on the way down to the crypt happens to contain Caravaggio’s awesome portrait of St. Francis meditating on death as he contemplates a skull.

Day 4: At long last, today we made it to our fourth and final major basilica, the granddaddy of them all: St. Peter’s. We had a guided tour which walked us through the 3 phases of the church’s history beginning at the time it was constructed over a former circus (in the Roman, not modern sense) where Peter was killed and buried. Last time I visited St. Peter’s, Pope John Paul II was in the crypt, but now his tomb is in the main church along with the (visible) body of John XXIII, Michelangelo’s Pieta, Bernini’s baldacchino, and all the other masterpieces within. After a sack lunch in St. Peter’s square embraced by Bernini’s impressive colonnades, we embarked on a walking tour of Rome, visiting Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, and some other churches we had already visited once before. One unique church we covered today was that of Sant’Ignazio, a cool place because it has a faux dome on the inside; that is to say, they were unable to make a real dome, but they managed to paint the top of the church in such a way with perspective that you can’t tell it’s not domed! Another awesome feature of the church is that St. Robert Bellarmine, a bastion of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, is buried there.

Day 5: From here on out, our days starting to get somewhat more relaxing. In the morning, we had a guided tour of the Colosseum and Roman Forum. This was spectacular for me. I had walked and driven by these places countless times, but had never actually been inside them. It was a cool and rainy day. The GPS I had zipped in my backpack got ruined from water damage. Still, we didn’t have it as bad as all the Christians who were martyred in this place in the years before Christianity was legalized. One highlight of the forum that struck me was getting to see the Arch of Titus up close. This war memorial was built in celebration of the Roman’s conquest of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. You can see the Romans carting off the Temple’s menorah and taking its citizens as slaves after the defeat. In turn, these Jews were used as slaves to build the Colosseum, which in turn was used to kill Christians. Thus it is a glorious place from one perspective, and an eerie, hallowed place from another. In the afternoon we had some pizza and came back to the hotel to relax.

Day 6: This morning we were blessed to assist at the Papal audience of Benedict XVI in the Paul VI Hall inside the Vatican. It’s always great to see the pope, be engulfed in the emotion of the crowds, and learn from his catechesis. This particular visit was spectacular because our son became famous in the middle of it as he made his way onto the jumbotron of the audience hall and subsequently into the headlines of Catholic News Service. After receiving dozens upon dozens of greetings from his admirers on the way out of the hall, Joseph accompanied Jen and me to the Capitoline Museums where we caught the tail end of an extraordinary temporary exhibit displaying the recently unveiled Secret Archives of the Vatican. Among the pivotal documents we got to see for ourselves first-had were:

  • The proceedings of Galileo’s trial, with the legendary scientist’s signature at the end
  • John XXIII’s unexpected decree convening the Second Vatican Council
  • The document opening the Council of Trent or the Catholic Counter-Reformation
  • The University of Cambridge being granted licensure to teach by the pope
  • Letter to the pope proclaiming victory at the Battle of Vienna
  • Letter to the pope proclaiming victory at the Battle of Lepanto
  • The petition sent to the pope by the British parliament asking for Henry VIII’s marriage to be annulled
  • The pope’s letter recognizing the Franciscans as a religious order
  • A letter from Voltaire to the pope
  • Proceedings from papal consistories/elections
  • Decree of excommunication of the Knights Templars
  • Excommunication of those on the Fourth Crusade for having sacked the city of Zara
  • Letters documenting the defeat of the Papal States and the creation of the nation of Italy
  • Communications between the pope and Chippewa Indian leaders
  • Communications between the pope and the Dalai Lama
  • A letter of St. Teresa of Avila to the pope
  • A decree of the Council of Florence in Latin & Greek side-by-side
  • The concordat between Orthodoxy and Catholicism (East/West) and the Second Council of Lyons

This was truly one of the unique experiences I’ve enjoyed in Rome in my visits there. Later in the afternoon, I also got to see some things for the first time, such as the glorious Santa Prassade Church which contains a large relic of the pillar upon which Christ was scourged, as well as astounding Byzantine-style mosaics. Finally, I want to mention our visit to the Church of San Clemente, a fascinating edifice because it has 3+ layers of history through which you can walk: an upper church built in the past millennium, a now-underground church from the 4th century, and a Roman house that once served as a temple to the god Mithras in the first century. St. Cyril, the great apostle to the Slavs, is buried here, and an amazing funerary icon-mosaic of Christ’s descent into Hell has been uncovered and cleaned at the site.

Day 7: Awesome day out of Rome and out on the paths St. Benedict walked. Today we took a very bumpy bus ride from Rome to Subiaco out in the mountains. Julia threw up on two chairs in the bus, but then was fine and slept for a while. Subiaco was, not surprisingly, outstanding. Perched on a mountainside, the monastery is built over the cave where St. Benedict spent years in meditation, and you can go in that very cave and pray for his intercession today. I was very moved by this, being a professor at Benedictine College and a devout follower of Pope Benedict, who chose the saint as his namesake. The frescos inside are spectacular (see pictures for a couple profound and chilling ones on the subject of death). Among them stands the only portrait of St. Francis painted in his presence while he made a visit to the cave. After singing the Benedictine “Ultima” chant which we sing on campus after Friday daily mass, we continued on the bus for another couple of hours to Monte Cassino, the site perhaps most connected with the life of Benedict and the spot where he lies buried with his sister, St. Scholastica. The church complex is relatively new, as it was bombed during World War II. Great reconstruction and great atmosphere, but I have to say I have a thing for the old and rustic which you find in Subiaco.

Day 8: This is where our energy really began to drag, which gave us the providential opportunity to get some rest, let the kids play in the park across from our hotel, and revisit some sites at greater length. The highlight of this day for our group was a tour of Scavi underneath St. Peter’s, which is located directly under the main altar of the church and where you can see the bones of Peter. I actually skipped out on this. I had seen it before and didn’t feel crushed by not doing so, but the real reason I didn’t go is because someone needed to watch our kids during the tour (kids aren’t allowed down there). I spent this time running them around in St. Peter’s square desperately trying to keep them happy!

Day 9: Today we had a splendid tour from an art historian in the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel the next day. Raffaello’s papal signing room with its twin frescos highlighting the unity of faith (La Disputa) and reason (The School of Athens) is about my favorite place to be in any museum, period. The Sistine Chapel is great to see, though it is always full of commotion and guards yelling at people to stop taking pictures. I really enjoyed how our guide helped us see the antecedents of Michelangelo’s Renaissance art in classical pieces of Roman sculpture. One random thing I really enjoyed as well was seeing an ancient statue of the goddess Artemis. Since we had just been at her temple in Ephesus a week or so earlier who no longer had statues, it was fitting to see her here in Rome. Thank God and the Vatican for preserving not only Christian art but also much great classical art which can be appreciated for its own sake as art. Sadly, the kids were shot and we were mentally exhausted, so we spent less than two hours in the museum and, after a quick picnic in Villa Borghese, returned to our residence for some rest and play with the kids.

Day 10: From Rome to Florence — to be continued. Pics also forthcoming.


More pictures from Greece and Turkey (several group shots)

I finally got pictures from my other camera loaded on the computer, so here are a few more pictures that tell a kind of photo story of our BC group’s travels.

Complete Greece & Turkey Itinerary

I actually have a few free minutes now, so I’ll recap the events of our Greece and Turkey pilgrimage class:

Day 1-2: Departure from USA

Day 2: Arrival in Athens and visit to the Byzantine Museum with artifacts covering the entire span of the Byzantine Roman Empire, including many ancient mosaics and icons.

Day 3: Left Hera Hotel at 8 am and got on our bus traveling to Corinth, whose church received two letters from St. Paul preserved in Scripture. We took a tour of St. Paul’s Orthodox Church in the new part of Corinth, where our guide, Jen, and I explained to students the significance of the various icons in Eastern churches. We waled in the ruins of Corinth’s agora and set foot in the place where Paul preached to the Corinthians, and stopped to overlook the impressive Corinth canal. Upon returning to Athens, we took pictures of the Panathenaic stadium where the first modern Olympics were held. In the afternoon we made the trek up Athens’ famous acropolis and visited the Erechtheion temple as well as the Parthenon, temple to the city’s patron goddess Athena. At the end of this long day we ended up at the incredible Acropolis Museum, which houses many of artifacts that once stood in the temple. We then went out for some gyros, in some ways the Greek equivalent to American fast food, but better in my opinion (unless you compare it to Chipotle).

Day 4: Began the day with a 1.5-mile uphill trek to Athens’ agora. My dad described this challenging hike as one of the most grueling physical feats he accomplished in his life. (My 60+ year old parents, who came along with our group on this trip, were very impressive for making these walks!). On the way to the agora, we walked by the well-preserved Odeon (music amphitheater) of Herodes Atticus. We then walked around the Temple of Hephaistos, the most well-preserved of Athen’s ancient temples. Making our way to the Stoa of Attalos, we walked by the site of the prison where Socrates was held before his execution–very cool to think we were standing in the place he stood awaiting his death sentence. Then we headed for Mars Hill or the Areopagus, where Paul preached as recorded in Acts 17. The altar to the “unknown god” which Paul alluded to in his speech is no longer present in the agora, but it stood here somewhere. I got to proclaim Paul speech atop this hill and give a catechesis on its relevance for the relationship of faith and reason. Very powerful getting to stand in the footsteps of Paul in this way. In the afternoon we returned for lunch and caught our bus to head for the port of Lavrion and board our cruise vessel.

Day 5: Spent about 20 hours sailing to Istanbul, arriving in the early afternoon. The time flew by because we were exploring the ship, getting served royally by its staff, and sleeping. The cruise was the only way to hit all the spots we wanted to visit, and it was so great to do our traveling why we were sleeping. The afternoon entry into the port of Istanbul was spectacular. This is one of my favorite cities in the world to visit. You enter the Bosphorous Strait, and you have Asia on one side and Europe on the other. You get to see the great Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque as you approach. The ship did some 360-degree turns in the water just to give us all a view of this impressive city. For the evening, we got hooked up with a private bus which brought us to St. George, the head church of Orthodoxy and see of the Patriarch of Constantinople now that Hagia Sophia is no longer a church. We then went to the Grand Bazaar, sipped some Turkish coffee, and let ourselves get lost in its countless avenues of vendors. Afterwards our bus dropped us off at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church for evening mass and a private talk with the priest, Fr. Julius. The night concluded with a stroll down Istiklal Street, a major nightlife hub in the city, and a long walk downhill towards the port for a snack and long-awaited sleep.

Day 6: Our day tour of Istanbul began when we disembarked the ship and met our guide who brought us through the old city to the Hippodrome, the ancient arena where races were held in Constantinople. In this place still stand obelisks brought to the city by the Romans as a show of their power and conquest of Egypt. On either side of this piazza stand the Blue Mosque, one of the top mosques in all of Islam, and Hagia Sophia, once the grandest church in Christendom. We took a fairly quick walk through the mosque because, like most mosques, it is fairly barren, seeing as Muslims do not allow images to be displayed within them. Instead, you find calligraphy and beautiful mosaics. The exterior is much more impressive, with its several minarets which dominate the city landscape. Just across the street stands Hagia Sophia. We took a prolonged walk and tour through its two levels, admired the remaining mosaics, and lamented the loss of the vast majority of them which were covered up (for the reason given above) when it became a mosque in 1453. It remains one of the grandest buildings in the world. I particularly love its exterior. Even the minarets added to the outside by Muslims look great. I think they even enhance the place. Starving, we ate lunch across the street at the famous Pudding Shop. President Clinton ate here, as did countless hippies who met here in the 60s and 70s on their way to India. After lunch everybody went to the palace of the Sultans, Topkapi Palace. Very impressive site, the highlights of which (for me) are Hagia Irene Church, site of the First Council of Constantinople, and a room housing alleged relics brought from Jerusalem after the Muslim conquests of the Holy Land. They claim to have 1) Moses’ staff 2) David’s sword 3) Joseph the patriarch’s turban 4) John the Baptist’s head and arm 5) Muhammad’s beard, and more. Whether any of these is authentic is another question, but if any of them are I think it is awesome. I give some credence to David’s sword and John’s arm because they were taken from Jerusalem, where you’d most likely find the items preserved if they indeed were.

After this tour everyone was tired out, but a few of us went on to tour the underground Cistern Basilica before getting on the ship. This is an amazing site, and I was thankful some students volunteered to watch our kids while we went in. It is all dark and lit only a little bit in a haunting and mysterious sort of way. It is one of many cisterns in the city which used to be completely filled with water. They drained this one and made it into a museum because of its impressiveness. For centuries the Ottomans somehow had forgotten these things existed. The pillars in Hagia Sophia seemed to sweat and citizens of the city seemed to have magic springs in their yards, but it turned out this was all due to condensation from the cisterns underneath. After nearly collapsing, we got ourselves back to the boat and set sail for Izmir, Turkey.

Day 7: Docked in Izmir (ancient Smyrna) at 1:30. This is where St. Polycarp, disciple of St John, was bishop. We still have a marvelous account of his martyrdom and correspondence between him and St. Ignatius of Antioch which I assigned to students in preparation for the trip. From Smyrna we took a bus to ancient Ephesus, probably the best preserved ancient site in the Mediterranean, which is quite a claim. The whole town had been buried due to earthquakes and other things, but it has been spectacularly excavated. Along the great main drag you can still enter the remains of the Celsus Library, the massive Amphitheater, and more. Our BC students sang the college’s fight song from the platform in the massive hall and sent the video to our institutions president for his enjoyment. As if this were not enough, we then drove to the nearby location of Mary’s House, discovered again only a little over 100 years ago through the efforts of the French nun and Servant of God, Sr. Marie de Mandat-Grancey. The story of how she discovered this place is fascinating, and you can read about it in this book. Her beatification cause is currently in the works, and I am blessed to serve on the theological commission which examines her writings to verify their correspondence with Catholic doctrine. The site thus had a unique meaning for me, but it did so for the whole group because this was the place Mary and John lived and quite possibly where she was assumed into Heaven. Popes have made pilgrimage and celebrated mass here, and we got to pray part of the rosary inside. Finally, our bus then took us to the Basilica of St. John, site of the apostle’s burial. It was largely destroyed by natural disasters but is being restored. You can walk along and imagine how grand it once was, and then they have a replica in glass to give you an excellent idea of its appearance. On your way to this place, you happen also to be walking nearby the site where the Council of Ephesus was held in 431 A.D., the council which proclaimed Mary as Mother of God or the theotokos in Greek.

Day 8: Started our morning bright and early at 6:30 as we tendered over to the small island of Patmos. We first visited the cave where John dictated the Book of Revelation to his disciple Prochoros. The icons in the cave and on the exterior of the building testify to this tradition. Inside some Orthodox monks were chanting the liturgy, which provided a solemn atmosphere to the brief visit in this tiny cave. Afterwards we made the hike up the island’s roads to the monastery and museum where monks continue to pray for St. John’s intercession in the very place he was exiled around 95 A.D.

In the afternoon we had to skip our scheduled visit to the island of Mykonos due to rough seas, and instead we docked in Syros, a small but beautiful island where we walked around its friendly streets, ate a light dinner, and bought an inexpensive icon.

Day 9: We were blessed to have a private mass with the island’s Catholic priest who is a Franciscan from the order that has custody of the Holy Land. The Franciscans came to Rhodes at various times throughout their history to serve the needs of the island’s believers, and were present along with the Knights of St. John, the Hospitallers, after the Crusades. These knights later moved to Malta and became the Knights of Malta. We took a tour of the Palace of the Grand Master of this order and walked down the famous Knights Street in the town. We spent the afternoon in the turquoise green waters of one of the island’s beaches, and we walked back to our ship along its beautiful harbor, passing through St. Paul’s gate, which is a fortified watchtower named after the Apostle who was shipwrecked there.

Day 10: Today we visited two islands in one day. First was the city of Heraklion in Crete. You can go visit the island’s famous Knossos Palace, cradle of the Minoan civilization which preceded classical Greek civilization. However, we bypassed this since it is under some renovation, and opted instead to walk around the town. We went into a handful of astounding churches, especially the Church of St. Minas, and were surprised to happen upon the Church of St. Titus who was bishop here after Paul commissioned him for the task. Our last stop before heading back to Athens was then Santorini, the archetype of Greek islands with its quaint whitewashed buildings and cobalt roofs. We paid to get transferred to the city of Oia on the island, walked around, took pictures, and sipped its famous (and tasty) vinsanto or “hole wine.” Tendering back to our cruise ship from the island was one of the most picturesque experiences of our lives. We were in a small boat in the middle of a body of water sitting above an active volcano which blew its top and created the shape of the island in 1628 B.C. From here as we got bashed around by some waves, we could see the sun sent and the moon rise at the same time. For me, the exquisite beauty of such a vista makes it no surprise that many think this sunken part of the island represents the mythical lost city of Atlantis.

Day 11: Sailed overnight from Santorini to Athens. We arrived early in the morning, disembarked our ship-home, and were transferred to the airport on our way to Rome. What a trip, and yet how much more we had in store for us!

My famous son

My wife and son made the front page of Catholic News Service today. We attended the general audience of Pope Benedict XI on the Book of Revelation yesterday. Jen, holding Joseph accompanied by a sign that read, “My name is Joseph, too,” got caught on the jumbotron in the Paul VI Hall where the event was held. CNS got a hold of it, and now he is famous! See also their Facebook page and the story may be on their still.



In the Footsteps of the Apostles

It’s been over 2 weeks since I’ve been able to write a blog post, but not for lack of desire to do so. Today marks day 15 of the Benedictine College whirlwind Europe tour in which we are following the steps of the apostles and more. We’re actually in Rome right now and were just standing in St. Peter’s Basilica yesterday, but I want to work chronologically to share our group’s experiences with you. The first 10 days of the trip consisted in an amazing land and sea tour of Greece and Turkey. Among our group were people ranging from under one year old to over seventy, including six Benedictine College students, my immediate family of four, my parents, one student’s grandmother, and a few family members of another student. The map below traces our itinerary.







As the title of this post indicates, we have seen several key sites in the early Church over the past couple weeks. We began in Athens, where we were able to preach from the Acts of the Apostles on the very spot where Paul proclaimed Christ’s resurrection to the Gentiles (Acts 17). We immersed ourselves in Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, site of ecumenical councils and for centuries the most exquisite church in the world. We prayed the rosary in the very house where Mary lived in Ephesus, and we stood inside the cave on Patmos where St. John wrote Revelation. We basked in the sun on a beach at Rhodes, near the very place where St. Paul was shipwrecked (a different kind of experience, granted!).

As if this was not enough, the trip was actually more than a pilgrimage. I was asked a great question by one traveler: “What would you say is the highlight or main point of the trip?” As I see it, this particular trip had not one but three focuses due to the uniqueness of the sites we encountered: First, it was a pilgrimage of faith in which we set ourselves in the very places some of the apostles lived and prayed for their intercession. We also arranged masses and talks from local priests who shared their insights into the Church in Greece and Turkey, the relationship of Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy, and the life of Christians in their region today. Like other pilgrims, we had to battle elements such as the heat, seasickness, long days, small quarters, and–in the case of my family–tired and needy children. As with other pilgrimages, I think much fruit came about through these trials. I get so much joy from witnessing the wonder and edification of pilgrims in these places. Second, it was an academic experience that put us in touch with the roots of Greek culture, the Church, and Western civilization which was born through the fusing of the two. When we stood on Athens’ acropolis and in its agora, we were retracing the steps of those whom we have to thank for democracy and philosophy. In preparation for the trip, students read Greek myths in order to comprehend the significance of the temples and statues we saw, and they read the philosophy of Plato and Socrates to examine their critiques of these myths. They then read from the Acts of the Apostles to get a grasp of Paul’s journeys and preaching in addition to the Pauline epistles associated with the sites we visited (Ephesians, 1-2 Corinthians, Revelation). By this time they were probably tired of reading, but I had them next read some works of St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Polycarp of Smyrna since we docked in nearby Smyrna (modern day Izmir). These men were “apostolic fathers,” meaning that their lives and writings show us what Christianity looked like in the generation following the apostles. Polycarp, for example, was a disciple of John, and if you read the epistles of Ignatius they sound a lot like Paul – as well as Catholicism today!

But the intellectual significance of these sites does not stop here. Students also read and heard about the ecumenical councils of Nicea, Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), and Ephesus. We owe our articulation of the Creed itself to the work of the Fathers at these councils. I was particularly moved when standing in the sites where the early Church labored and gave birth to the doctrines we still profess every day today. Finally, students read from the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the principal liturgy of Greek Orthodoxy which has remained fundamentally unchanged for centuries upon centuries. This gave those who read from it the ability to better appreciate the similarities and differences between Eastern and Western Christianity as well as their respective beauties. During the trip, my wife and I also took many opportunities to admire the iconography of the Greek churches and to unfold its meaning to the group. I also, of course, had to buy a couple inexpensive icons along the way. Third, the trip was just plain fun. It so happens that the only way you can really get to all the sites we visited with a group is to take a cruise. Thus we got to enjoy the thrills of group meetings on the deck overlooking the crystal blue Aegean sea, astoundingly beautiful arrivals into some of the greatest ports in the world, and having a glass of wine next to a pool (I hardly drank any, but the wine was actually much cheaper than the beer–can you believe it?). The cruise was also great because we traveled while we slept at night and would often arrive in port at our next destination at 6:30 in the morning ready for another full day. It was also a life-saver because we didn’t have to change hotels and carry around our 3-month supply of goods needed for a small family’s survival.

Oh, and did I mention that, since we took the cruise, we “had to” stop at a couple places for their beaches and vistas? Santorini, for example, is the quintessential Greek isle. When we were there we felt like we were in a postcard–because that’s where all the postcard pictures actually come from. When we tendered back through the center of the island which has been all water since the volcano blew its top a few thousand years ago, we could see the sun setting on one side and the moon rising on the other. We were sitting above a live volcano, one which once witnessed one of the greatest explosions of earth’s history whose ashes reached all the way to Greenland. I couldn’t help but think both, ” hope this experience will never end” and “Get us outta here before she blows again!” With that said, this post has gone on long enough and the reader who has come this far is probably likewise ready to move on from here. Over the coming days and weeks I will be posting a lot of pictures from this trip and from our experience in Italy.