Rome, October 8
Wednesday we all concelebrated mass before the tomb of St. Paul at the Basilica of St. Paul. During our masses at St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s, I have been struck by how important it has always been for the church to know exactly where the remains of Peter and Paul are to be found, a powerful reminder of how much our Catholic Church rests on the witness of these two apostles and a reminder also, perhaps, of how important it is to discern that witness in the church today.
Later in the day I skyped for about fifteen minutes with the first and second graders. They seemed intrigued by the idea of speaking with and at the same time seeing someone so far away. I am particularly proud of myself because this the first time I have ever tried to skype, and I did it all by myself.
Thursday I took a forty minute train ride to Castel Gondolfo to see the apostolic palace, the summer residence of the pope. I had held off going there until the Holy Father returned to Rome last Monday, because someone told me that you can see more of the apostolic palace after the pope has returned to Rome. Unfortunately, the information I received was one hundred per cent wrong; because once I got there I learned that the apostolic palace is completely closed to visitors except when the Holy Father is in residence.
Thursday morning thirty-three of the fourth year seminarians were ordained to the diaconate in St. Peter’s Basilica. Much has been written about the differences between priests of my generation and theirs. The difference is indeed quite real, but I become increasingly aware that labels like “liberal” and “conservative” don’t mean much. I really have to say that in the time I have been here I have been genuinely impressed by the prayer and spirituality of the seminarians who live here at the North American College. I really do think that, in terms of ordained ministry, the church of the next couple of generations is going to be in good hands (although there will probably not be enough hands to go around).
This year Pope Benedict XVI spent an unusually long period of time in Castel Gandolfo. Ordinarily, he stays there only in August. This year, however, he spent all of July, August and September there. After seeing Castel Gondolfo and the beautiful Lake Albano, which sits below it, I can see why. Besides, Benedict is now eighty-five years old. I think we can cut him a little slack. (During his stays at Castel Gondolfo, the Holy Father flies to Rome by helicopter every Wednesday morning for his 10:30 a.m. general audience and then returns immediately. Two weeks ago I saw the papal helicopter land at St.Peter’s at 10:19 a.m. I assume Benedict really likes his summer place.)
I spent Saturday and Sunday at La Verna (Alverna) where St. Francis received the stigmata. Getting to La Verna is not for the faint-hearted (which explains why, compared to Assisi, so few people go there). From Rome you take the Trenitalia to Arezzo, where you catch a private, regional train to Bibbiena (a tour guide calls it the ”train to nowhere”) and from there you take a bus to Chiusi della Verna and then walk on rocks for a half a mile straight up a mountain until you finally reach The Santuario. St. Francis obviously liked the wilderness. It was well worth it. I generally do not get much out of relics, but I really liked the clothes Francis was wearing when he got the stigmata. Francis, by the way, did not wear a neat, tailored habit. He wore rags. I got a good picture of Francis’ rags. The motto of The Santuario in English is “There is no holier mountain in the entire world.” We’ll see what all those Orthodox monks think about that on November 21 when I am admitted as a pilgrim to the Most Holy Mount Athos in Greece.
Getting back from La Verna, by the way, turned into an adventure of sorts. Until Sunday morning when it was time to leave, it had never occurred to me that the bus from Chiusi della Verna to Bibbiena might not run on Sundays. It doesn’t. Nor are there any real taxis in Chiusi della Verna. Fortunately, the owner of the hotel where I stayed knew of a “taxi” that could take me to Bibbiena. The driver was, I think just a friend, who could use forty-five euros, but she got me there and was most gracious in doing so.
On the way back I had an hour between trains in Arezzo. That gave me just enough time to check out the house of the city’s most famous citizen, Petrarch. The house apparently was so thoroughly damaged by bombing during World War II that it had to be extensively rebuilt. In that sense, I’m not overly convinced that I actually visited Petrarch’s house. At least, however, I can say I’ve been there. (How many people do you know who have been to Petrarch’s house?)