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.

A Reflection on Eastern Catholicism on the Feast of St. Thomas

Fr. Matthew, vicar-general of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, showing us the local St. Thomas cross with lotus flower underneath signifying that the Cross reaches out to the whole worldSyro-Malabar. Syro-Malankara. Syro-what? It would be a safe bet to say that most U.S. Catholics have never heard of these terms, let alone understand what it means to say that they are liturgical rites of the Catholic Church. Yet for the twenty million Catholics living in India, they point to the very heart of what it means to be a follower of Christ in the world today.

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India Pictures

Meeting with His Beatitude George Cardinal Alencherry, head of the Syro-Malabar Catholic ChurchSome of us took upwards of 1,000 pictures, and here I’ve posted just “a few” so as to tell our India story in a little more detail. Later I’ll collect some of the best taken from others in our group and get them up as well. UPDATE: For other pictures of the BC 2013 India odyssey, click here and here.  My travelogue can be found here and here.

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India Travelogue, Part II

Mother's Teresa's tomb is decorated with a different quote every dayWell, I woke up at 3:30 and never fell back asleep, so it turns out I was able to finish the broad strokes of my India chronicle a couple days earlier than expected. Since I have all kinds of time today and tomorrow, I should get pictures up soon as well!  UPDATE: For pictures of the BC 2013 India odyssey, click here and here and here.  My travelogue can be found here and here.

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India Travelogue, Part I

Monkey about to attack RobertThanks be to God, we are back from India and home in the U.S.A. with family, friends, hamburgers, and the rest. As India is a third-world country, I had limited access to a computer over the past few weeks, so what I’m now posting a brief chronicle of our journey in two posts.  I have my camera equipment back in my possession after my bag was returned to from Chicago yesterday. The same bag, incidentally, was lost by the airline  on the way to India and on the way back!

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India Itinerary

With another busy semester now in the books, I am pleased to present here the itinerary of the class/trip to study religions in India which I’ll be co-leading less than one week from now. For family members, this will give you a chance to follow along where we are each day. For others, it may just be an opportunity to say, “Well, I’m glad I’m not going to be in Calcutta sweating it out all day in 113-degree humid heat!” I would blog the trip as we go along, but a) we won’t have much computer access b) we’re going to simply be too busy trying to take in all that we can in our 17-day travel window.

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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.

BC Rome Pictures

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

BC Pilgrimage/Class in the Eternal City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


More pictures from Greece and Turkey (several group shots)

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

Complete Greece & Turkey Itinerary

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

Day 1-2: Departure from USA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My famous son

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



In the Footsteps of the Apostles

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







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

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

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

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