Saturday I took the express train to Milan and back (a total of 592 miles). Fortunately, the train moves at speeds of up to 187 m.p.h. Nevertheless, this was not the smartest thing I have ever done. Moving at breakneck speed and never stopping to eat, I did cover some of the major attractions; but I did not see Da Vinci’s “Last Supper.”
The cathedral by itself may have been worth the trip. It is just slightly smaller than St. Peter’s and in my opinion, much more attractive from the outside. For me the highlight of the trip was the fourth century baptistery in the excavations beneath the cathedral. It was there that in 387 at the Easter Vigil St. Ambrose baptized St. Augustine. Think of the effect that that one baptism has had on the church now for more than sixteen hundred years! Augustine may well have been the proverbial flawed giant, but he has had more of an influence on our theology, as well as that of Protestant brothers and sisters, than any theologian other than St. Paul.
I had previously been in Milan only between trains and this was my first chance to actually see something of the city. Wow! This is one of the great cities of the world. I was astounded at the gap between the standard of living there and here in Rome. Put simply, as a twenty-first century city, Milan dwarfs Rome. We’re not in the same league, not even close.
Friday I took a long, leisurely stroll through the ruins of the ancient Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill. This was not my first visit to these ruins, but it was the most satisfying. I am particularly proud of myself for finding what the tourist people here like to call the “House of Romulus,” the ruins some eighth and ninth century B.C. huts that were probably home to the first settlers of Rome. I generally don’t take pictures of ancient ruins, but I took two pictures of “The House.”
My ticket was also good for the Colosseum, but the lines scared me away. Besides, one you’ve seen the Colosseum three times, you’ve pretty well seen the Colosseum. Maybe for me the Colosseum lost some of its luster seven years ago when a tour guide stressed that there is absolutely no evidence that any Christians were actually martyred there. So much for Hollywood!
This week we have had some excellent presentations on the use of recently developed techniques of literary criticism in interpreting the Scriptures and on the contemporary relevance of the three women Doctors of the Church, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa of Avila and St. Therese of Lisieux. (There will soon be a fourth when on October 7 Pope Benedict XVI proclaims St. Hildegard of Bingen a Doctor). We have also had extensive tours of the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel and excavations of the fourth century basilica that lie beneath the present basilica. I think I have now seen the original tomb of St. Peter, which is right below the present crypt, from every conceivable angle.
Within the next couple of weeks, I plan to get down to Naples for a day. I thought for a while about going there last Wednesday for the Feast of St. Januarius, the city’s patron saint. That’s the day when for almost six hundred years what is reputed to be the dried blood of the saint, a fourth century martyr, liquefies during an elaborate liturgy presided over by the Cardinal Archbishop. (I understand that scientific studies have concluded that the remains of the blood in question date from roughly the time of St. Januarius.)
Something apparently really does happen to that dried-up blood on the feast of the city’s patron. If this were a hoax, surely over a period of almost six hundred years someone would have spilled the beans. I also know a priest from Chicago, who is not exactly given over to incredulity, who witnessed the liquefaction in 2004. My guess is that this is about the paranormal more than it is the miraculous, but who is to say that God doesn’t work through the paranormal? I’ve always thought that Hamlet was right anyway: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Saturday marked the one third point of this great adventure, day number thirty-four out of one hundred and two. I can’t believe how quickly time is passing or all the things I am so fortunate to be seeing and being a part of. This is truly is a blessing.