Faith & Beauty in Italy — Summer 2020

I’m privileged and excited to announce that I’ll be leading Benedictine College’s inaugural “Raven Discovery Travel” trip to Italy next summer, June 15-24, 2020.  The trip is the type I usually like to lead–it’s sort of a pilgrimage…and a class…and just a great time to have some fun and experience another culture with a group of people who share the type of Catholic, Benedictine, liberal arts, community-centered vision that we embrace at Benedictine College.

Between adding new members to our family and having to undergo some major surgeries, it’s been some years since I’ve been able to lead a pilgrimage abroad.  So I’m especially excited to lead a group back to places I’ve lived, studied, and taught in years past. Although I’ve led a number of trips abroad for Benedictine to destinations including Greece, Turkey, Israel, and India, the one place I always keep going back to and bringing others to is Italy!

The trip is offered to all alumni, parents, and friends of Benedictine College as a distilled experience of our Florence study abroad program. We will be visiting the major sites of Rome, Florence, Assisi, Subiaco, and Montecassino, and my job will be to help participants discover and better appreciate the Catholic and Benedictine roots of Western culture, as well as make connections between faith and beauty in art, nature, and relationships.

More than 1,000 have participated in our Study Abroad program, thirteen years after its founding in 2006. The semester program begins in Rome, where students visit the main historical and religious sites and participate in the Wednesday papal audience. The program also includes guided visits to Subiaco, Montecassino, Florence, and Assisi.

For a detailed itinerary, cost, and more information, send me an email at or see our program’s website here.

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.

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.

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.


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.