This past week, I checked the academic calendar at St. Thomas to find that there were only two weeks of classes left at the St. Paul campus. For us, we just passed the half-way point of our Fall semester. Since this is a study abroad program and not just a four month vacation, classes at the Angelicum do account for a significant portion of the Catholic Studies program.
The classes we take are designed specifically for the program and are centered on the study of the Catholic faith and culture. What better place can there be to study such a relationship than Rome, the center of the Catholic world since Peter and Paul were martyred here almost two thousand years ago?
Day trips are one of the highlights of living in Rome. Because of the many different modes of public transportation and the close proximity of important towns and shrines, it is easy to travel outside Rome for the day.
This weekend seemed to be prime time for day trips, because almost everybody went on one. On Saturday, a group visited Subiaco. Built into the mountainside above the town is a monastery founded by St. Benedict. Although I did not go, those who did told me about the beautiful frescoes inside and the tombs of St. Benedict and St. Scholastica.
On Sunday, I visited Orvieto. This is a quaint little 13th century midaevel town whose claim to fame is the Eucharistic miracle that is housed in its main church. The church itself is stunningly beautiful. The sculpted façade is typical of its time period and has four panels: the creation story, the gospel story, the last judgement, and one with random pictures. We were amazed at how intricately carved these panels are. This church was built to house the Eucharistic miracle that occurred in a nearby town. In the 13th century, a parish priest didn’t believe in the miracle of transubstantiation. One day as he was saying the consecration, the host began to bleed. The pope happened to be in Orvieto for a visit, and some of the villagers rushed the patent(the square of white cloth) to the pope so that he could see for himself the miracle that had taken place. This patent is now housed in a side chapel of the church.
Although I enjoyed Orvieto, I liked Monte Cassino even better. We visited this monastery on Monday. It was originally built by St. Benedict in the 6th century, but was destroyed during World War II, and rebuilt soon after. What I liked about this monastery was its beauty. It is built on the top of a small mountain, and is surrounded by a mountain range. Although there is a city below, the monastery itself it is so peaceful. The architecture is simple yet beautiful. Inside, although it is decorated in the style of a renaissance church, the artwork was clearly done in the mid-20th century. This combination gives it a timeless feel, which is excentuated by the silence and mystery of the place.
It is amazing to think that we can visit all three of these amazing places in one weekend.
Last weekend we went on the fall retreat. I don’t know the name of the retreat center, but it is in some very large hills, and right across the lake from the Pope’s summer palace. Let me just say that this has been one of the best retreats I’ve ever been on. It was completely silent from Friday night to Sunday afternoon. This may seem hard to do in a group of good friends, but when you’re busy talking to God the whole time it’s nice not to be distracted by feeling like you have to talk to the person sitting next to you. Besides the many spiritual blessings that came out of that weekend, we were able to be outside the city in a place where the season is very definitely autumn.
On Monday, a very exciting thing happened. Fr. Carola, our chaplain, was able to get the seminarians tickets to be able to serve at Pope Benedict’s Mass for the deceased Cardinals!!!
Although it was not “officially” open to the general public, some of us arrived at the Vatican at 7:00 am and in hopes of being able to get a seat at Mass. It was actually quite humorous, because we stopped every Vatican guard that happened to walk by and peppered him with questions about if we could get in, when the Mass was starting, and where they would open the gate. I’m sure that by the time we left, everyone there knew us. Finally, about an hour before Mass started, one of the guards let our group in, and led us right up to the best seats that anyone in the general public could possibly have! Fr. Carola, who was watching all of this happen, said that they saved those seats just for us, because they would guide other people to side aisles. It was very moving to be able to see our brother seminarians up on the alter serving Mass for the Holy Father! After Mass we met up with them, and it turns out that the four who had been the “personal attendants” for the Pope were able to meet him, speak with him, and kiss his ring after Mass! It was an amazing way to enter the new week.
This fact of the Church being such an integral part of the culture is manifested in many ways which we can see. Architecturally, there are over seven hundred Catholic churches in Rome of every age that provide a chance to witness the progression of sacred architecture through history. The presence of the Vatican draws an abundance of priests, religious, and pilgrims that give one a sense of the universality of the Church. The Catholic world is, indeed, small, and this is truer of Rome than anywhere else. On any given day, we can walk through St. Peter’s square and run into first a cardinal than a group of people from a parish up the street from St. Thomas. A quick look at our own academic calendar shows that the major holidays for the Romans are actually the many “Holy Days”. Christmas and Easter, the Immaculate Conception and St. Stephen’s Day. The feast days of Rome’s patron saints – Peter, Paul, and Laurence – remain days of major festivities. There is no doubt that the Eternal City is alive with an abundance of opportunities for us to study what was truly a Catholic culture.