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March 2012


Did you Siena thing good?

Why yes, I did!

Our recent group trip to Siena, organized and led by our chaplain Fr. Carola, was a bit like stepping into another world.  Siena is a wonderfully preserved medieval city in the Italian region of Tuscany.  It is quiet in the city center, and its not hard to see why – the winding roads, steep hills, and narrow stairs were not intended for navigation by motor vehicle.  As we moved about the city from place to place, it really felt like walking around in another time: like we could have run into St. Catherine of Siena herself.

And in one way, we did.  Our first stop was at the church of San Domenico.  Fr. Carola showed us a side-chapel in which the great saint of Siena used to pray.  Then he pointed us in the direction of an altar in the center of the church, where Catherine’s head was displayed.  As I knelt and asked for her intercession, I remembered the short biography Fr. Carola had given on the bus into town, which taught me almost everything I know about the saint: she lived in Siena in the 14th century, and was a hugely influential figure in the Church in her time.  At an early age she consecrated herself to God, and denied her parents’ wishes for her to marry.   As a tertiary Dominican, she acted as a sort of ambassador between Florence and the Papal States.  She would eventually be responsible for the return of the papacy to Rome.  During her life, she was visited by Christ and St. Dominic in several visions, wrote important spiritual works and letters, and today she is recognized as a Doctor of the Church.

We moved next to the Basilica of San Francesco, where there occurred a Eucharistic miracle in 1730.  Thieves broke into the church, and stole a chalice containing 223 consecrated hosts.  They dumped the Precious Body into a collection box in another church, where they were found and recovered.  Today, 282 years later, the hosts are miraculously preserved, having baffled scientists sent to examine them.  Identical but unconsecrated hosts have been kept in the same conditions, and quickly rot.  We adored and prayed before the Sacrament of the Altar before moving to our next destination.

Basilica di San Francesco

The Duomo of Siena is a magnificent church, and possibly my favorite yet.  Bold black and white stripes circle the interior and exterior of the church, which is situated at the crest of the hill that is Siena.  Inside, carved faces of the popes watch over the faithful, and scenes from the Gospel look back up from the floor.  Across the piazza stands a lone wall — what would have been the façade of the Duomo if limits imposed by money and history hadn’t hit the town during construction.  We were able to climb stairs to the top of this wall, however, to get a commanding view of all of Siena and indeed all of Tuscany.

Hello 13th century!


Duomo di Siena




Following in the footsteps of St. Catherine, we ended our time in Siena with mass in the church that has been built above her house.  You can still go beneath it to see the room where she spent many years early in her life.  Every day in Italy I appreciate more the importance of the saints and of their relics, and it was a blessing to be so close to St. Catherine in this real and immediate way, to learn about her life, and to be encouraged to follow her in the path of holiness.


St. Catherine of Siena, pray for us.


Kids Who Climb on Rocks

Reusing plastic-ware, buying pasta in bulk, walking four miles to find a pair of pants for under 5 euros.  This is the life of the student.  Although there is some necessity in this, perhaps partly based in the hesitancy that accompanies uncertainty in what the future may hold, the frugal life (some call it scrounging, I call it resourcefulness) is one of excitement, independence, investigation, and often of great reward.  This nicer side of frugality showed itself in its full glory in a recent trip I took to Greece.  I’d like to tell you about it.


Thessaloniki is not a tourist town, as such.  It is a college town, a port town, and a town that you can fly to for the equivalent of 27 US dollars.  Thessaloniki was an important city in the Roman empire and later the “co-reigning” city of the Byzantine empire.  The city is also the home of the early church to which Paul writes, a symbol of Greek triumph over a 600-year Turkish occupation, and today a bastion of the Eastern Orthodox church.  Put all of these things together, and you have in Thessaloniki the perfect weekend getaway for four Catholic Studies students.

After a two hour flight, we arrived in Thessaloniki.  Once on the ground we saw very quickly that we were not in Italy.  The bus we rode into town was punctual to the minute.  The signs on the way to the city center were in the Greek alphabet (go figure).  Most of the churches looked different than Roman churches, and in every window we saw pork, beef, and lamb cooking.  One of the first things we did after dropping our things off at the hotel was eat pork gyros, and they were delicious.  Then, with no real expectations, we set off exploring the area of the harbor.

The symbol of Thessaloniki today is the White Tower, which looks out across the harbor, a single turreted pillar standing between the city and the sea.  On Sunday morning — after mass at what might have been Northern Greece’s only Roman Catholic church — we found in the White Tower a museum of the city’s 2,300-year history (free admission and English audio-guides), which recounted the founding of the city, the emperors and wars it had seen, and its role as a cultural center over the centuries.  The White Tower, we learned, was previously called the Red Tower when in 1826, the Tower’s Christian prisoners were massacred against it’s walls.  It was whitewashed upon Greece’s reclaiming of the city in the First Balkan War in 1912.  Reaching the top of the tower, we could see Mt. Olympus 62 miles across the bay, as well as the entire city.  We spotted two castles at the top of the hill, and decided we would spend the rest of the day seeing what they were all about.

On the way up the hill we went through the Roman forum, and the picturesque/quaint Ano Poli (“Old Town”), the part of Thessaloniki that wasn’t destroyed by a fire early last century.   We stopped in several Orthodox churches, all with ornate wood carving, icons from floor to ceiling, and an absence of Roman Catholicism’s sculpture.

We saw four wandering dogs for every person, noticed that the Greeks play basketball almost as much as soccer, and wished that olive trees grew in our American front yards, too.  And then, finally, we reached our castles.

Much of one castle we saw from the White Tower at the bottom of the hill was actually ruins of the city’s walls.  Not being a tourist town, Thessaloniki didn’t put up explanatory plaques or labels for us, but we determined that one of the castles was of Turkish origin, and the walls were much older, probably from the Byzantine era.

We explored these castles and walls thoroughly as the sun sank over the bay.  By “explored” I of course mean “climbed on, around, and in.”  It is a sad man who didn’t once wish and imagine he had a castle to climb around.  So, for several hours, we climbed on rocks.  Getting back to our cheap hotel later that day, we had the feeling of accomplishment that often accompanies the exploration of castles and towers.  We thought it strange that going home the next day meant going back to Rome, rather than to Minnesota.  We tucked ourselves in for the night, four men in three beds, thankful that we had the willpower, curiosity, and tight budgets that made our trip to Thessaloniki the adventure it turned out to be.