Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Pope's Final Audience

 Hi friends and fam, this post will be one of the more exciting that you'll get to read from me, because it is a post which reminds me that I am here in part to share my life and my experience of living and being formed for the priesthood at the heart of the Church.  I just wanted to take a second to show you all the view I had this morning from St. Peter's Square.  Today was Pope Benedict's final public audience before stepping down from the papacy tomorrow evening.  Among other things, that means we'll be extra busy around here at the NAC, since for the next few weeks we will be hosting all the American cardinals and their secretaries for the upcoming papal conclave!  But I digress.  We were quite fortunate as students of Rome that many of the Pontifical universities (including the Gregorian where I attend) canceled all their morning classes so that students, staff, and faculty could participate in this historic moment.

We were also fortunate enough to receive tickets for entrance into St. Peter's Square for this very last Wednesday general audience.  By game time at 10:30 a.m. local, it was packed for sure!  I left from the seminary with my Detroit brother, Dave, right after breakfast so that we would still be able to find a good spot!  We arrived about two hours early and the Square was already well over half full.  I have to give Dave all the credit for this, because it was his idea for us--instead of packing in near the central obelisk--to walk about 100 feet farther back and post up directly on the edge of one of the barricades.  Please send up a good prayer for him and his family, because he is the reason that you're about to see what the pope looks like from six feet away.

Of course we were several hundred yards from the basilica and nowhere near those who had front row seats.  But we stood by as the Pope-mobile drove right by us during Benedict's entrance, winding his way through the Square.  It happened so quick I felt like I needed a slow-motion button!  I knew ahead of time that I would want to post this on the blog, and by divine grace I managed in my excitement to hold still long enough to stick at least an 8.5 on the landing.

Without further ado, here is the instant replay:

Of course YouTube loves to degrade the quality of uploaded video footage a little, but here is our pope as he passes right by!

Today's audience with the pope was one of the more arresting moments of my time here thus far.  I've had a lot of time to reflect over the past few weeks on Benedict's decision to step down from the papacy.  There is no question that at first it seemed sudden, foreign, and hard to understand.  Naturally there is a complete shock, and for me the initial reaction was one of a confused child who asks his father why he is going away.  The child pleads that his father wouldn't, asking what everyone will do without him, what will happen next, with no real sense of an answer.

I'm still young, and in my whole life I've only ever lived with two popes.  John Paul II was a father to everyone, and though he died when I was 17, I didn't really begin to know him until after his death.  For me, Benedict has been the first papal father who I have "grown accustomed to" and who I have followed personally.  His papacy of eight years has spanned almost the entire journey of my own vocational search.  So to see Benedict go strikes a real chord in me and brings me a sense of sadness and personal loss.

But it also has brought me a great sense of joy and hope as I come to understand more deeply just how humble this man is, and just how deeply he loves Christ and Christ's bride the Church.  Part of the mission for American bishops in sending seminarians to Rome is that they would grow in filial devotion to the Holy Father, and in these last weeks, especially today, I am realizing more than ever just how much Pope Benedict is a father to me.  During his general audience address, the gratitude and love of those who came to see him was palpable, almost as if the air felt thick.  He just really deserves to know that he is a good dad, that after it's all over he will still be a father to many, and that his kids will love and miss him as their pope.

If you get a chance to read his entire address, I highly recommend it, it's only a few pages.  But I'll leave you with a few of the moments that really struck me, and which make me love and respect this man all the more.

When, almost eight years ago, on April 19th, [2005], I agreed to take on the Petrine ministry, I held steadfast in this certainty, which has always accompanied me.  In that moment, as I have already stated several times, the words that resounded in my heart were: “Lord, what do you ask of me?  It is a great weight that you place on my shoulders, but, if you ask me, at your word I will throw out the nets, sure that you will guide me” -- and the Lord really has guided me.  He has been close to me: daily could I feel his presence.

[These years] have been a stretch of the Church’s pilgrim way, which has seen moments of joy and light, but also difficult moments.  I have felt like St. Peter with the Apostles in the boat on the Sea of Galilee: the Lord has given us many days of sunshine and gentle breeze, days in which the catch has been abundant; [then] there have been times when the seas were rough and the wind against us, as in the whole history of the Church it has ever been -- and the Lord seemed to sleep.  Nevertheless, I always knew that the Lord is in the barque, that the barque of the Church is not mine, not ours, but his -- and he shall not let her sink.  It is he who steers her: to be sure, he does so also through men of his choosing, for he desired that it be so.  This was and is a certainty that nothing can tarnish.  It is for this reason that today my heart is filled with gratitude to God, for never did he leave me or the Church without his consolation, his light, his love.


In recent months, I felt that my strength had decreased, and I asked God with insistence in prayer to enlighten me with his light to make me take the right decision -- not for my sake, but for the good of the Church.  I have taken this step in full awareness of its severity and also its novelty, but with a deep peace of mind.  Loving the Church also means having the courage to make difficult, trying choices, having ever before oneself the good of the Church and not one’s own.


I have felt, and I feel even in this very moment, that one receives one’s life precisely when he offers it as a gift. I said before that many people who love the Lord also love the Successor of Saint Peter and are fond of him, that the pope has truly brothers and sisters, sons and daughters all over the world, and that he feels safe in the embrace of their communion, because he no longer belongs to himself, but he belongs to all and all are truly his own.


Dear friends! God guides his Church, maintains her always, and especially in difficult times.  Let us never lose this vision of faith, which is the only true vision of the way of the Church and the world.  In our heart, in the heart of each of you, let there be always the joyous certainty that the Lord is near, that he does not abandon us, that he is near to us and that he surrounds us with his love.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Overdue Library Books

We all remember when we were kids those overdue library books we lost somewhere between school and our bedroom.  Well, good news is I finally found mine.  Although it is long overdue!  In the midst of returning to school and finishing the semester, alas this Christmas post continued to be buried under other things.  But it will now be resurrected.  I will be filling this post with several photos in an attempt to reconstruct a few of the many adventures I had with my brother and sister-in-law over Christmas break.  What an excellent trip we had, and it was sooo good to see them!!  Let's get right to it.

Dave and Danielle arrived a few days before Christmas, and we spent about half a week here in Rome enjoying the city and celebrating the 2000-and-change-th birthday of Jesus.  Wow he is old.  There are A LOT of things to see here, and we didn't get through half the city in that time.  A little bit of that was due to the need for recuperation from jet lag and a semester full of Italian lectures, but nonetheless we were blessed with uncharacteristically beautiful weather while we painted the streets with a little American red, white, and blue.

The Altar of the Fatherland, also called the National Monument to Vittorio Emmanuele II, who was the first king of the united Italy; this monument is actually quite recent, being finished only in 1925.  It also doubles as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  It offers some nice views of the city, and around here it is affectionately called "the Wedding Cake" because it is huge, white, and gaudy.  Dave and Danielle had their first official Italian cappuccino and panino at the cafe on top of the backside of this monument.

Typical moment of my vacation.  Danielle and I sneakily taking photos of Dave taking photos.

Danielle is a statue.

After over six months in Rome, I FINALLY went inside to check out the Colosseum. A pretty impressive sight to behold, and still in wonderment as to how something like this could have been built.

Not a bad view.
What is the difference between this picture...?

And this picture?

This is the Arch of Constantine, which is located between the Colosseum and the Palatine hill, in the general area of the old imperial Roman Forum.  Incidentally, this arch is indirectly important to Christians because it was erected in 315 to commemorate Constantine's military victory over Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in October of 312.  Tradition holds that it was before this very battle in which Constantine saw the Christian Chi-Rho in the sky with the Greek words "Εν Τούτῳ Νίκα", which is translated (more or less) "In this sign you shall conquer".  He had the symbol put on the shields of his soldiers and went on to win the great battle.  After becoming emperor, he signed the Edict of Milan, allowing the religion of the God of the Chi-Rho to be practiced within the empire.

This is the vaulted ceiling in the Church of St. Ignatius, which was built between 1626 and 1650.  The saint himself is not actually here, but buried down the street at The Jesu, which is the official world headquarters of the religious order Society of Jesus which he founded.  Today most people known them by the name of the Jesuits.  The ceiling itself is a masterpiece of art by Andrea Pozzo, who painted this fresco around 1685.  It is the scene of Saint Ignatius being welcomed into heaven by Jesus and the Virgin Mary, amid many other saints.  The visual perspective is marvelously achieved by Pozzo's ability to paint straight columns and maintain correct proportions on the ceiling's entirely curved surface.

These are the famous Spanish Steps, built in 1725.  As you can see, quite the place to hang out and people-watch at all times of the day.  They are a little hard to see because of the lighting, but this is one of Rome's more beautiful piazzas and well worth the visit, although it's a bit of a walk from the College.  Actually, the steps traverse two piazzas---the Piazza della Trinita dei Monti on top, and the Piazza di Spagna at the base.  The street which proceeds directly away from these steps (so, turn 180 degrees from this view, and walk that direction) is home to Rome's mini version of New York's 5th Avenue; Gucci, D&G, Prada, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Armani, Versace, you name it, they probably have a store on this street.

Trevi Fountain at dusk.  A beautiful monument to photograph, especially at this time of day; there are always lots of people here, I had to squeeze in this shot over everyone's heads, I'm glad it turned out!  Trevi is the largest Baroque style fountain in the city, and one of the most famous fountains in the world.  It was commissioned by Pope Clement XII in 1730, and completed in 1762.

A view we got of St. Peter's and the Tiber River on our walk back to the College from the Spanish Steps.  You can see the Christmas tree lit up in St. Peter's square.

I'm looking through my photos and it doesn't look like I took that many of Rome.  Blast.  Besides these sights, we also saw three of the four papal basilicas, including St. Mary Major which I had never been into before, as well as the Pantheon (although we couldn't go in b/c it was closed at the time...bummer), Piazza Navona, a few other random churches, and I don't remember what else...  By far the coolest thing we did in Rome was celebrate the midnight Christmas Mass with the Holy Father in St. Peter's basilica.

As Providence would have it, we finally got into the basilica with our tickets 20 minutes before Mass and were seated behind the main altar looking forward toward the front nave, about 50 feet from the pope.  I was so excited that Dave and Danielle were able to have this moment and such close proximity in their first ever "pope experience".  I am continually blown away and grateful for the visible unity of the Church which gathers around its shepherd, the one whose apostolic patrimony links the entire church directly to Peter the Apostle.  I know I've said it before, but moments like this are always an awesome reality to be able to participate in, and one of the many reasons I love so much being Catholic.

Being in St. Peter's Square before Mass on the eve of Christ's birth was a little surreal, but there is a unique atmosphere which draws you in when you are amidst so many pilgrims gathering and waiting for a papal celebration of the Mass.  I was wearing my cassock (the long black robe with Roman collar), which never fails to attract attention.  Generally one of the more common reactions to someone wearing priest garb is, "Ah yes, look at him there he must know all the answers, let's go ask".  So while I stood in line some of these questions from random people included, "Do you have any extra tickets?" and, "What is going on here tonight?  How do we get in?  Do we have to pay?" and, "Where is the end of the line?".  But I also found myself in the brief position of English-Italian translator/interpreter between the basilica staff and the family in line behind us, as well as soundboard for someone upset that so many people were cutting the line.  I couldn't tell if he expected me to rectify the situation, all I was thinking was that I would make a more convincing bouncer if I were 6'5" and 300 lbs.  The Mass itself was beautiful and moving, of course it was EXCELLENT to be seated so closely to the Holy Father.  Afterward we came back to the NAC for a little College tradition of midnight Christmas hot chocolate and panettone (Italian Christmas bread).  A great way to finish off a great evening, and the perfect start to the celebration of Christmas.

We slept in and Skyped the parental units on Christmas day, then did some more strolling around town and lazing about.  I was surprised, I thought more shops would be closed on Christmas day, but there were many open for business, especially around St. Peter's Square.  We even managed to swing by the standard NAC dessert shop, the Frigidarium, so that D2 could have their first experience of gelato.  I kept thinking of my dad as we got the most chocolatey-chocolate flavors. Nom nom nom.

We skipped town the morning of the 26th on the bullet train headed for Florence.  A bit of an interesting morning, Danielle was almost sliced in half by the bus door while we were changing buses (not really), and we almost missed the train, but we spared ourselves the hassle of re-booking by about three minutes.  I was a little bummed with our time in Florence, only because it was cloudy and rainy almost the entire time we were there.  In comical fashion, we emerged from our hotel the morning of departure to sunny blue skies.  Naturally.

I couldn't get this far underneath the dome of the Duomo (Florence's cathedral) the first time around because it was blocked off, but definitely wanted to snap some photos while I had the chance this time!  Construction began on the Duomo in 1296 and took 140 years to complete!  Thank you Jesus for the medieval virtue of patience.  If only all the walls of the cathedral were fresco'ed like the dome... alas, this is nearly the only painted portion in the entire cathedral, a scene of the Last Judgment by Giorgio Vasari and Frederico Zuccari from the late 16th century.

For the low low price of 8 Euro each, you can walk up all 463 steps to the top of the dome.  How could we resist?  Besides burning many calories, you also have some redeeming moments along the way, like this one.  We passed along the base of the inner ring of the dome and got a bird's eye view of the sanctuary (middle part with the altar), transepts ('little wings' of the church's cruciform shape), and nave (the 'long wing', where the congregation usually sits).

One of the cathedral's circle stained glass windows, along the drum beneath the dome.  This one is of the Resurrection.  The Duomo is particularly noted for its 44 stained glass windows, which were all constructed by the most prominent Florentine artists of the 14th and 15th centuries, like Donatello and Ghiberti.

Better view of the nave.  The Duomo is over 500 feet in length, which makes it one of the longest churches in the world.  No worries though, St. Peters is about 375 feet wider and 225 feet longer than the Duomo.

We are now inside the dome itself, which is a two-layered structure.  This is the space in between the outer dome and inner dome.  The actually building of the Duomo's dome is one of the more impressive architectural feats of all time.  It was the tallest and widest dome ever built up to that point since the construction of the Pantheon by the Romans in 126 AD.  There were two problems, one of how to keep the dome from spreading out and collapsing under its own weight (the plans called for no buttressed supports), and how to build it without any internal scaffolding (which would require an impossibly large amount of lumber).  Its architect Filippo Bruneschelli solved the first problem by embedding the inner dome's masonry with four massive octagonal 'hoop rings' which held the dome together like a barrel.  The hoops were made of 1.5' x 7.5' sandstone 'links' secured end-to-end with lead-glazed iron splices.  He got around the scaffolding problem by laying the rows of bricks in a herringbone pattern (alternating diagonal layers) so that they would hold together while the mortar dried.

But when you finally get to the top, what a great view of Florence!

>The two lovebirds.

A nice perspective shot. I patted myself on the back for this one.

More Florence

Actually, going down the dome was even scarier than going up!  You can see where you'll be landing if you misplace a step.

Giotto's campanile.  It, the cathedral, and the baptistery are clad with green, white, and pink Tuscan marble.

Oh, Dave.

We meandered down to the Ponte Vecchio as day turned into dusk, which made for some nice photos.

Like this one, which is what the walkway of Ponte Vecchio looks like around Christmastime.

More of Florence riverfront property.

Taking more photos of Dave taking photos.

This is a straight-on view of the riverfront side of the Uffizi (more about this building below).  You can indirectly see the long, narrow, and open courtyard through the center arch, which was a big architectural deal as far as 16th century European streetscapes and city planning were concerned.

View of Florence from the Piazzale Michelangelo up the hill on the other side of the Arno River.  We spent a little time on this side of the city, which I didn't get to do in my first visit.  The tall tower on the left is the Palazzo Vecchio, but you can see just how much the Duomo dwarfs everything else around it in the city.

While we were up on the Piazzale Michelangelo I snuck this photo of Dave and Danielle which I thought was framed nicely.

One of the other bummers about Florence is that most of the cool stuff seems to cost money to get into, including a few of the churches (which personally I think is a little scandalous...), and in many places the staff are really strict about you not taking pictures.  We were able to see both the Accademia and the Uffizi, which are among the more well-known galleries in Europe, particularly in Italy.  Unfortunately, I don't have any shots of some of the spectacular things we saw in them, like Michelangelo's David and many of Caravaggio's famous works.  Alas, neither can I project my mental images onto this computer screen, although I hear that at some point in seminary they teach us to do these things.  In the meantime I'll give you a short book report and you can use your imagination and Google Images to complete the story.

The Uffizi was built for the famous Medici family in the latter half of the 16th century as an administrative office of sorts for Florentine politicians and VIPs of the day.  But Cosimo Medici also wanted a place to show off the family's substantial art collection, so the family began gathering and / or commissioning great works of art for this building, allowing visitors a tour of all things grand.  The collections slowly began to take over more and more parts of the building until eventually the entire Uffizi became a gallery of epic proportions.  Walking through the main corridors of this building you will most certainly see entirely fresco'ed ceilings from beginning to end, as well as hundreds of Roman marble statues and busts from the 1st and 2nd centuries.  The gallery also contains various works from some of the most impressive names in European Renaissance art, including Giotto, Boticelli, da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, and Caravaggio.

The Accademia is a much smaller gallery, built also by the Medici family and intended as the premier Florentine art school in the 16th century.  Today its prize piece is the original David by Michelangelo (as impressive in person as it is in the photos).  The attendants were super strict about no photos whatsoever being taken of this statue, so I can't provide one.  Also here are some of Michelangelo's unfinished marble works in progress, which were so interesting to see!  Four statues called the "Prisoners", which were intended for Pope Julius II's tomb, and one of St. Matthew the Apostle.

For the sake of moving things along, I'll post this now and finish the second half of our vacation in a second post.  I need to gather more photos and do some more writing!