The final day in Rome has come, and we are going home. It’s a sad day—I know I will miss living here when I get back to Minnesota. But it’s also a happy day, because in ten hours I will see my family and friends, who I haven’t seen for four months.
Our last week in Rome was memorable. Everything we did was a “last time,” but at the same time we looked forward to being home in America. On the day of our last test, a local restaurant owner who some of the boys had made friends with gave us a going away spaghetti party. Although his restaurant had TVs tuned in to the soccer game, Micky did his best to help us celebrate our return to America, most notably by hanging an enormous American flag from the ceiling. It was the heartfelt gesture of a friend who is sad to see his friends leave.
The night before we left, everyone met at another one of our favorite restaurants for one last Roman meal. Everything that needed to be done before leaving had been done, so it was good to just relax and enjoy each other’s company.
Finally, the time came for our grand exodus from Bernardi. Around 4:00/4:30 a.m., everyone began stumbling around in the dark to get ready for the day and finish any last packing. It was almost unreal(but maybe that was because I was only half awake) when Fr. Carola celebrated our final Mass in the chapel at 5:30 and bid us farewell. No matter what time of day, night, or early morning Bernardians leave, Fr. Carola always comes to say a parting Mass. Nina, our women’s formator for the semester, came too, and it was good to be able to say a last hurried goodbye to her. Since the seminarians had the earliest flight, leaving at 9:00 a.m., Thanos ordered a bus to take us to the airport at 6:00 a.m.
How do you sum up an experience like living in Rome? Rome is a completely different culture from America, which makes it either difficult or an adventure. However, no matter how romantic one might picture the experience being, it is just like the rest of life—that is, we lived. There were hard times, and there were times of profound blessing. I think that one of the biggest things I learned was simply how to live, how to truly value life itself and get the most out of it. Not: take the most opportunities or advance the farthest in things, or even be the ultimate happiest. No, I learned how to acquire wisdom through my experiences, how to take the bad right along with the good—simply, how to value everything that comes my way. Granted, this is definitely harder to put into practice in America because our culture does not cherish living the way Italians do; but it is a lesson that I will try my best to remember all of my life.
Christmas is a very busy time of year for us here in Rome. There are concerts to go to, the Midnight Mass at the Vatican, shopping to be done, and in the spare time there’s homework. However, I think it’s also the most beautiful time here in Rome. Granted, there’s no snow, but there are Nativity scenes and Christmas lights.
The streets are probably the prettiest part of the Christmas scene. They are all decked out in hanging lights, and the shopkeepers decorate their storefronts. Combine Christmas lights with centuries old buildings and you’ve got a very picturesque scene. What’s wonderful about all this is that Christmas here is not commercialized. You get the feeling that those people aren’t hanging up Christmas decorations to sell you something from their store, but just because they want to and enjoy doing it. They want to add to the beauty that is surrounding them and get in the spirit of Christmas.
Another unique tradition is how every church and almost every shop has a Nativity scene. Street vendors are selling pieces for Nativity scenes, churches have incredibly complex scenes set up, and the Vatican builds a huge life-size one in St. Peter’s square. It’s fun to explore the different churches just to check out their Nativities.
One of the most interesting things in Rome is meeting fellow students at the Angelicum and around the city. The Angelicum is a Pontifical University, which means that it is owned and run directly by the Catholic Church. People from all over the world come to study here; many are priests, seminarians, and religious, but there are some lay students as well.
It is quite common to meet someone at the Angelicum who comes from a persecuted, war torn, or impoverished country, and they all have a story. One such story is of Peter, who is from Belarus. Belarus is near Poland and Russia and has a tragic history because in modern times the country has had true freedom for only about 14 years. It is a deeply Catholic country that has successively been under the rule of Hitler, communist Russia, and now a dictator. Peter was born under Communism and baptized in an underground church. His family has a very close and personal connection to St. Maximilian Kolbe because this priest presided at Peter’s grandparent’s wedding and baptized their children.
Another group of people that we have gotten to know are the seminarians from the NAC(North American College). Three of them (John, Josh, and Deacon Justin) are on our chaplaincy team, some are in our classes, and others graduated from Saint John Vianney at the University of St. Thomas. They’re a fun-loving group who you can always find in the courtyard playing hackey-sack between classes. Having them around is like having a bit of America in Rome, which is good when you get homesick or want to talk about familiar things, like how the Vikings are doing or the big snowstorm they just got back home.
As for the people in Rome itself… probably the most interesting person we’ve met in Rome has been a Swiss Guard named Til. This is his first year in the Guard. Although he doesn’t have much time because of his strict schedule, Til still enjoys relaxing with us playing board games or watching movies.
Life in Rome is challenging sometimes, but one thing you never lack is interesting people to talk to.
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.
Rome is a city of surprises. It seems like every time I take a different route to school, I discover some beautiful flower, or cute little shop, or a church with, say, the head of St. John the Baptist.
Although there are means of public transportation here, they are not always the most convenient way of traveling(not to mention, they might not be up and running because of a strike), so we usually walk everywhere. And I mean everywhere. Although by the end of the day I’m usually quite exhausted and ready for bed, I am very glad of these walks because of the little surprises I encounter along the way. One day, I decided to take a different route home from the Angelicum. Although I felt a little lost at times, I happened to run across two beautiful little churches in the same small square. Since there was a wedding going on in one, I couldn’t explore it as much as I would have liked, but I did find a little side chapel that housed the head of St. John the Baptist. Not just a little relic, but the whole skull! You can imagine how surprised I was by the preciousness of what I’d stumbled across.
We have been here in Rome only one week and two days and already it feels as if we have been here for months, even though plenty of things come up each day that show just how much of a rookie we still are at living in Rome. But perhaps I should introduce “us.” My name is Melissa Hackenmueller, and I am a junior at the University of St. Thomas, currently studying abroad in Rome, Italy. There are 25 people in my group: 11 girls and 14 guys. Dr. Martens, his wife Tabitha and son Sam also live with us students. We live in the Bernardi Residence, which is on the Tiber River across from the Italian Ministry of the Navy. For the rest of the semester we will be living together “in community,” which is a first for some of us. Although I did not know what it meant to live in community when I first arrived, I am gradually learning that it means that we will live, eat, pray, study, and have fun together, and in so doing grow in friendship so that we can support each other in our trials and rejoice in our blessings. Or something like that.