Sausage in Poland, Turkey in Turkey, and Back in America

I’m happy to say that the Ramages are back in the USA and enjoying some needed R&R at grandma and grandpa’s house–a vacation from vacation, as it were. I’m looking forward to resume my theological posts on this blog, but in the meantime I’ll recap the last whirlwind week of our European expedition.

At the recommendation of my students, we flew Ryanair to Krakow and spent a few nights there. What a delight! This is a land of great food (especially its sausage), great saints (JPII, Faustina, Kolbe, Edith Stein, etc.), and important history (for me, especially that concerning JPII and the Nazi and Soviet occupations of Poland). This was one of the experiences we hadn’t planned on having, but it was made by possible by Providence as well as the great exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and the Polish zloty. I highly recommend traveling to this inexpensive land where most people are Catholic and are proud to say so. Poland has a fairly Western feel, but it gives you a different flavor from countries around the Mediterranean.

Flying back from Poland to Italy, we stayed a night in Bologna and paid homage to the founders of the first university in the world located there. From here we trained back to Florence, spent one last night out on the town, grabbed the rest of our bags from our villa, and flew out to Istanbul the next morning. We had been to Istanbul before the semester began, and now we were back for a couple more days to relax, revisit some favorite sites, find some new ones, and celebrate Thanksgiving. We did not get to eat Turkey for Thanksgiving this year; we just ate in Turkey. Yes, it was kind of weird eating atop of our hotel looking out at the Blue Mosque and eating kebabs, but it was good to do once. On this trip we also took the opportunity to cruise on the Bosphorus between Asia and Europe and see a couple beautiful Byzantine Christian churches–with the exclamation point being a Hagia Sophia adorned with a full rainbow overhead. Finally, we spent a morning negotiating some bargains with the intense merchants of the Grand Bazaar,. I look forward to making use of my new souvenirs from here, in particular playing chess on my new Crusaders and Ottomans set.

Well, there you have it: my last Europe post of the Fall 2012 semester. I hope to be blogging some Benedict XVI soon. Unfortunately, I just found out that the copy of Jesus Vol. 3 I ordered won’t arrive until Christmas or shortly thereafter, so we’ll see what happens..

Arrivederci, Firenze! Our Semester Comes to a Close

This morning our students took their last final of this spectacular study abroad semester. They are all excited to get home to family and the comforts of America. The Ramages have spent our last week mainly relaxing and revisting favorite Florentine sites while also inevitably discovering a few new ones. The photos below come from Florence’s world-famous Uffizi Gallery, the splendid Etruscan and Roman town of Fiesole, Florence’s baptistery of San Giovanni, Santa Maria Novella church and convent, the Dominican convent of San Marco with paintings by Fra Angelico, and the Duomo which we climbed while the kids were babysat.

In a couple days we’re off to Poland and Istanbul before returning to Chicago. So there will be at least one more post of our pictures, and then I’ll return to blogging theology. By the grace of God, Pope Benedict’s final volume of Jesus of Nazareth is due out on Dec. 4, so of course I plan to make it the subject of my consecutive posts.

La joie de vivre

Last week was BC’s Fall break, and many of our group went to France, including us Ramages. After Italy, France is perhaps our favorite country to visit. It has so much culture, so much Catholic history, so much good food, and so much else to offer. Being in France one experiences the joie de vivre, “the joy of living.”

We had planned to visit the prehistoric caves at Lascaux in the south of France, but the trains all got booked up and we “had to” stay in Paris most of the trip except for a day trip to Chartres and our last day in Toulouse. Here are some highlights of the trip, and then you can enjoy the pictures that hopefully tell the story better:

  • Jen and I commemorated our very first date in the same restaurant in Chartres, 6 years and 2 kids later
  • Visiting Toulouse and its Eglise des Jacobins, where we knelt before the tomb of St. Thomas Aquinas and prayed for his intercession
  • Getting to browse Notre Dame cathedral without a tour group and without an agenda. Lots of time soaking in the stained glass and ornate colored wood carvings on the inside, and figuring out the figures and gargoyles carved on the outside. Getting to walk around the grounds meditatively with our family, enjoying the scenic Seine river and the church’s famous flying buttresses.
  • Walking through the Rodin Museum and its lush gardens lined with statues. I was never interested in modern sculpture before, but I developed a fascinating with this 19th-century impressionist sculptor once I learned that some of his key works were inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. The gardens also offer a great view of the Eiffel Tower with The Thinker in the foreground.
  • The astounding stained glass in Sainte Chapelle, a chapel virtually encircled in glass and built by St. Louis to house the crown of thorns.
  • The Cluny medieval museum in Paris where you can see alot of great pieces up close instead of being 100 feet below them. The museum was built on Roman baths, which also gives you an indication of Paris’ place in world history.
  • Eating “fast food” crepes, croque monsieurs, croque madames in Parisian parks, and eating a few nice meals in Parisian restaurant.
  • The Eiffel Tower, sparkling gloriously in the night at the top of evening hours
  • Musee D’Orsay, where we got to spend quality time in front of Van Goghs, Monets, and Rodins among others
  • The Louvure: we spent 7 hours in this place with 2 kids! It boasts collections from Egypt, Rome, Greece, ancient Mesopotamia (biblical period and earlier findings), the Renaissance, and more. Best of all: we got to skip the hour-long security line twice because we had kids.
I have so many pictures relevant to my teaching and to the faith from this trip, I feel sorry for my students who are going to get inundated with all of my glorious illustrations inspired by this trip! Thanks to Benedictine College for offering us the opportunity to be over here, to teach great material, and to be with great students, to be students ourselves for a semester.

Etruscans, wine, old friends, and new saints

Though I was planning on a relatively laid back weekend for my family this, we ended up with on a rather action-packed journey that included the following highlights:

  • A day of wine, cheese, and sausage tasting along the streets of the Tuscan hill town of Montepulciano, located midway between Florence and Rome. For me the significance of the town lies in the fact that its cantinas are situated upon ancient Etruscan tombs and other layers of history which you can go down and see after tasting some wine (and perhaps before tasting another on your way out of the building!)
  • An beautiful cathedral and extensive Etruscan museum in the Tuscan town of Chiusi. The most striking part of this museum was its collection of funerary artifacts from 7th-9th centuries B.C. that still retained their color. When you see ancient ruins in color, it helps you imagine what alot of the marble and stone around the Mediterranean once looked like.
  • Roman connections: because of our Catholic faith, the big city of Rome sometimes seems much smaller. For example, at lunch on Sunday I found myself eating lunch with a classmate from grad school in Florida (now a prof in Rome), a classmate from undergraduate studies in Illinois (now a priest), and a girl I met while doing campus ministry in Kansas (now my wife). When in Rome, my experience has been that things like this almost inevitably happen.
  • Visiting a few Roman sites I don’t recall having ever entered before: Santa Maria degli Angeli church (formerly the baths of Diocletian), the Church of the Twelve Apostles (where St. Phillip and St. James the Less are buried), and the Casa Santa Maria (where wonderful nuns greet you to distribute canonization tickets, seminarians give tours around the grounds of the American church complex, and American priests are available for confession in English!) An added bonus at this last stop was entering the chapel to pray and having a priest saying a Novus Ordo mass in Latin facing ad orientem on a side altar. Beautiful.
  • Papal mass of canonization for seven saints, including two Americans (perhaps most notably the Native American Kateri Tekakwitha). At this mass Pope Benedict XVI also revived a couple old liturgical customs. Read this piece by Fr. John Zuhlsdorf for an interesting take on the significance of Benedict’s moves.

Dante & Galileo

This Tuesday and Thursday the Ramages got to continue being students, this time at the school of Galileo and, once again, Dante. The first museum we visited was the Casa di Dante, which was not his actual house but near it. It documents the poet’s life before and after his exile and features some cool replicas of art inspired by the Comedy among other interesting artifacts germane to Dante and the Florence of his day.

The second museum, Florence’s Museo di Galileo, traces some of the most important scientific inventions of the past 500 years and contains numerous artifacts. It documents the invention of the telescope, microscope, thermometer, and modern globes–and then it also delves more deeply into Galileo’s unique contributions to the history of science. You can see the scientist’s very own telescopes, the first editions of his controversial and revolutionary books, and his fingers. Yes, his fingers. (His body, if you’re wondering, is across town in Santa Croce church)

I have a renewed interest in Galileo because I am a Pope Benedict scholar, and it various points he has brought up the scientific revolution instigated by Galileo with the revolution in biblical studies in the modern period. Below I post a couple quotes that illustrate the pope’s thinking and the connection he sees here.

Regarding the biblical account of creation, Benedict admits that for a long time we Catholics did in fact think of Genesis as a scientific account of the world’s creation in 6 days: “[W]hen we are told that we have to distinguish between the images themselves and what those images mean, then we can ask in turn: Why wasn’t that said earlier? Evidently it must have been taught differently at one time or else Galileo would never have been put on trial” (In the Beginning).

How are we to explain the apparent about-face in the Church’s view of Genesis 1-2 and its attitude toward the modern historical-critical method that revamped the old model? In an essay entitled “Exegesis and the Magisterium of the Church,” then-Cardinal Ratzinger once wrote, “The process of intellectual struggle over these issues had become a necessary task can in a certain sense be compared with the similar process triggered by the Galileo affair. Until Galileo, it had seemed that the geocentric world picture was inextricably bound up with the revealed message of the Bible, and that champions of the heliocentric world picture were destroying the core of Revelation. It became necessary fully to reconceive the relationship between the outward form of presentation and the real message of the whole, and it required a gradual process before the criteria could be elaborated…Something analogous can be said with respect to history. At first it seemed as if the ascription of the Pentateuch to Moses or of the Gospels to the four individuals whom tradition names as their authors were indispensable conditions of the trustworthiness of Scripture and, therefore, of the faith founded upon it. Here, too, it was necessary for the territories to be re-surveyed, as it were; the basic relationship between faith and history needed to be re-thought. This sort of clarification could not be achieved overnight.”

Hopefully these two quotes are as thought-provoking for you as they are for me. I have an entire talk dedicated to the problem of how to reconcile the church’s former and present attitudes towards modern biblical criticism–the problem raised here by Benedict and which was brought to light precisely through the efforts of such geniuses a Galileo.

History & Beauty in the Five Lands, Lucca, & Fiesole

This post is eclectic, much like our travels over the past week. In the past several days, we took day trips from to the beautiful walled city of Lucca as well as to the ancient Etruscan and Roman city of Fiesole, just north of Florence. Over the weekend we Ramages celebrated our 5th-anniversary in Italy’s lovely Cinque Terre (“Five Lands”). These are five picturesque port towns on Italy’s west coast, once hidden gems but now widely known for great hiking and beautiful panoramas. While the first two towns I mentioned unveiled alot of history to us, the Cinque Terre are unabashedly all about the beauty of the small Italian sea towns.

Highlights of the week:

  • Fiesole’s surprisingly well-preserved Roman and Etruscan ruins, some dating back to the 8th century B.C. From a fairly short bus ride from our villa, you can go here to see a Roman amphitheater, Roman baths, a Roman/Etruscan temple, and a great museum with Etruscan urns, votive offerings, and more. I am currently fascinated by the Etruscan civilization, as its origin remains somewhat a mystery to scholars
  • Great anniversary dinner in Fiesole with kids at the babysitter
  • Lucca’s San Giovanni church with magnificent excavations underneath. You can literally walk through about 6 layers of history in this place–from the Roman to later Roman to early Christian to early medieval Christian to later medieval Christian to somewhat modern Christian
  • Lucca’s beautiful streets and churches, with a wonderful walk one can take atop the medieval walls still intact around the entire city
  • Walking the beautiful towns and coastline of the Cinque Terre and nearby Porto Venere. We saw 5 small towns in two days, all of which are connected by a combination of boats, paths, and trains.
  • A wonderful 5th anniversary dinner in the Cinque Terre in which we feasted on wine and fresh seafood with a toddler who behaved the best I’ve ever seen her at a meal and an infant who slept through it–thanks be to God!

Then there were two “dark” sides to the trip from which we thankfully emerged victorious. First was a typical, unannounced Italian train strike that almost left us stranded for an extra day in the Cinque Terre. By the grace of God, we managed to get out of our town of Riomaggiore and landed at Porto Venere on the only boat leaving that day. We subsequently catch a couple trains connecting us from Porto Venere to La Spezia to Pisa and finally to Florence (these were some of the few trains that happened to not be on the strike that day, and again we caught them by the grace of God). We arrived in Florence’s Santa Maria Station, caught a mass at the church of the same name outside the station, and then two buses back to our villa for Sunday dinner. Alot of work at the end of our weekend trip, but a bigger blunder avoided. Typical Italian travel story.

The second “dark” side to our week? Finishing our lovely pre-anniverary dinner in Fiesole on Thursday, we came down to the town center at about 9 pm to catch our bus, only to find the piazza closed. Closed. Why were there a bunch of EMTs and police offers out there? There happened to be an unpublicized pro bike race that night, and it literally blocked the only street that leads from Florence to Fiesole. Thus the bus we needed to return home to relieve our babysitter–as well as all potential taxis–were blocked from town until the race was over. Long story short, after asking a bunch of people what to do and ending up empty-handed, we started walking in the rainy black night down the road to Florence with bikers and their chase cars on whizzing by us in the opposite direction. After a while, we passed by the last bike, and we hailed a taxi which by the grace of God passed us. We ended up back to the babysitter about 1.5 hours late and 20 euros poorer, but at least we made it–and the kids were asleep.

So to conclude: traveling in Italy is great, but it is also work that builds virtue or at least can. Until next time, continue to enjoy the history and beauty in the photos below.

In the Footsteps of Francis and Benedict

Yesterday our BC group returned from a splendid trip to the region of Umbria where we walked in the steps of Francis of Assisi and Benedict of Norcia. In addition to visiting these two places of pilgrimage, we were able to browse the towns and country around them, including a visit to the mountain region of Castelluccio and the historic city of Perugia.

Among the highlights from the trip for me:

  1. Praying in the places where these great saints–so crucial to the Church and Western civilization–lived and ministered.
  2. Walking the peaceful small towns and tasting of their culinary delights–in particular local salami, sausage, and cheese
  3. An encounter with ruins of the ancient Etruscan civilization in Perugia–I hadn’t expected this and learned a great deal from our guide, Franceso.
  4. Climbing our way (in the bus) up the Umbrian mountains and getting out to take in the vast panoramas they provide. Our group thus got to enjoy some natural beauty straight from the hand of God in addition to taking in the man-made beauty of the local towns.
  5. A visit to the Benedictine Church of San Miniato al Monte, located atop a huge hill overlooking Florence. This was not part of our group trip; rather, the Ramages made this trek the day before leaving. It is a splendid medieval church that is intricately appointed without being overdone. It also has a sacristy that treats the entire life of St. Benedict in art.

It was great for my family to travel to these places with our local guide, as some of these sites are not on the standard tourist/pilgrim itinerary yet remain well worthy of a stop.

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.

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.

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!