Monthly Archives

April 2012


Easter Break, Part 1: Once Upon a Time in Bavaria

Being a pontifical college in Rome, the Angelicum has two weeks away from classes, with the Triduum and Easter situated on the weekend in the middle.  Now, I don’t like to boast or anything like this, but you will certainly notice almost immediately that this two-week break is one full week longer than the ordinary one-week Spring break in the States, which is one week long, and not two weeks like the two-week break we have here.

Anyway.  For the first of these weeks I found myself with four classmates on an overnight train to Munich, in southern Germany.  I don’t know if you’ve been on an overnight train before, but you may be able to guess that 12 hours seated upright in a plastic seat is not conducive to many or any R.E.M. cycles; half a day later, the result is five gentlemen struggling to keep their eyes open, searching fruitlessly for their lodging on an early, rainy morning in a strange and foreign country.  Our adventure had begun.

Eventually we did find the right hostel, where we were told check in didn’t begin for several hours, dashing all hopes of a quick nap.  So, having been woken up a bit by the cold rain, we set out to explore the city center, maybe to find a mass to attend.  We liked what we saw there.

A Grey Munich Morning

Magnificent gothic churches, street-performers who put Rome’s to shame, broad winding streets with pretzel shops and beer halls on every other corner.  I had never been so cold, wet, hungry, tired and happy at the same time.  Having planned well in advance, our pal Nick knew the time and location of a mass at the massive, twin-domed Frauenkirche, or Cathedral of Our Lady.  The people at mass were very friendly to a bunch of wet college kids who clearly didn’t know the German mass parts, despite the fact that hearing them speak, you’d think they were about to hit you.  “Bevor wir das Gedächtnis des Herrn begehen wollen wir uns besinnen! Wir bekennen, dass wir gesündigt haben!”  [punctuation added] was just so different from the lyrical Italian we’d been hearing at mass.  At first the change was shocking, then something like refreshing, and eventually downright endearing.  In any case, our time in Bavaria was off to a good start.


The next day we took a day trip to Neuschwanstein Castle, plucked out of a German Märchen, the original fairy tale, and dropped near a charming village called Füssen.  A crazy-ish Bavarian king in the late 19th century built this medieval fantasy castle in the foothills of the Alps.  Six weeks after his mysterious lakeside death in 1886, the unfinished castle was opened to the paying public.  Unfortunate story, really cool castle.  Part of Ludwig II’s craziness was his limitless extravagance on this personal project.  This, combined with the spectacular views of the Alps, really made it feel like we were in a fairy tale, all of which I am now convinced took place in the rolling hills and picturesque hamlets of Southern Germany.

Notably, the inspiration for the Disney castle.

After meeting some Iowans with whom I had friends in common on the train back (see this earlier post on the size of the world), we arrived back in Munich, finishing the day with a visit to a brewery founded by Augustinian monks in 1328.  The next day we went to mass at Peterskirche, another beautiful church with a fantastically beautiful Palm Sunday mass: an opening procession around the church and its square, a full (yet invisible) choir in the loft, packed pews, enough incense to cause concern at the fire department, and the sun shining brightly through the windows behind the altar.  The Mass is where heaven and earth come together, and the Germans know how to make that invisible reality a visible one.

The Bavarian "Palm Esel" before the procession and mass.

After mass, we hopped on another train, bound for Salzburg.  Watching the mountains in the distance, I considered my time in Germany.  It may have been the imagination of a Catholic Studies student, but despite the forces of secularism, modernism, relativism and the like at work in Western Europe, my experience of Germany had been decidedly Catholic.  The churches, the people, the history, the beer – even the fairy tales, which like that Palm Sunday mass, had a feeling of other-worldliness.  I decided that Bavaria was a place I could live if I had to, and maybe even live happily ever after.







In Which I Speak Little and Hear Much

Studying in Rome is completely different from back home in St. Paul. Instead of weekly papers, worksheets, labs and readings the professors simply lecture once or twice a week…and that’s it. They leave us to do the work (readings, research, etc.) at our own pace, on our own time, with no means of checking in on how we are progressing.

Now, this can be a blessing because it allows you to take the initiative and freedom that students always crave to devote as much (or as little) time to the class as you feel is necessary. As such, at Bernardi we have a significant workload, but a flexible one, which allows the freedom to visit museums, churches and monuments often.

As it were, the Bernardi group had a midterm for our Art & Architecture class with Dr. Lev looming over the horizon. As the days ticked down, students around the residence began to become more agitated and worried, trying desperately to rationalize the compendium of knowledge into simple PowerPoints or flash cards.  But the weekend before the huge examination was a weekend retreat, led by our chaplain, Father Carola, at Casa Divin Maestro in the Alban Hills near Rome. The timing could not have been worse!  The last thing we all wanted to do was to drive to the outskirts of Rome for a three day silent retreat whilst we all knew, in the back of our minds, that ridiculous amounts of studying would await us back home.

But the weekend came and we dutifully piled into a large bus with our duffel bags (study guides left behind as instructed) and made the couple hour trip out to the retreat lodging. Father Carola had given us a short preview of what to expect on the retreat:

·     Hours of meditation on Sacred Scripture

·     Daily Mass

·     Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament

·     Morning, Evening and Night Prayer

·     Silence

Upon arrival at the retreat house, we were assigned our room and were given a couple of hours with which to enjoy the scenery and our friends. The center overlooks a volcanic crater that has since hardened over and been filled, leaving a beautiful lake. Off in the distance, the Mediterranean Sea glistens and sparkles as the sun dips lower and the entire expanse of Rome is visible from the high bluff.

After dinner that Friday evening, silence began, not to be broken until Sunday at lunch. Most of us had never been on a silent retreat, and some were nervous, but I quite enjoyed the idea of being able to grapple with my thoughts, unhindered by all forms of communication. The retreat condensed St. Ignatius’ spiritual exercises into forty-eight hours and through meditation, prayer and silence a sense of calm built within our community.

Realizing that there was nothing to be done from so far away and secluded about school, work or obligations, we were able to truly submit to the rhythm and motion of the retreat. Led by Father Carola, he led us through guided prayer and contemplation, celebrated Mass and offered confession; all of this amidst the stunning scenery of the Italian countryside. Having gone from the bustle of Rome to the Alban Hills was freeing in some ways, as we all drank in the calm, fresh air.

Piling back onto the bus two days later, people were chattering away, eager to share in their own experience on the retreat. Although the schedule had been the same for everyone, people gained different insights and understandings in the short time there and it seemed it benefited us, as a community, immensely. As we grew together, in silent solidarity, I give thanks for the gift of silence and the power of God’s enduring love.


Prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola


Dearest Lord,

teach me to be generous;

teach me to serve You as You deserve;

to give and not to count the cost,

to fight and not to heed the wounds,

to toil and not to seek for rest,

to labour and not to ask for reward

save that of knowing I am doing Your Will.



Assisi in the Footsteps of St. Francis

On a recent Friday and Saturday, I took the opportunity to journey to the quiet but majestic Assisi, a  hilltop fortress town with a commanding view of Umbria.  Today the city has expanded beyond its Roman walls to the flatland below, and it is here that the journey of six Bernardians began, at the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli, or St. Mary of the Angels.


The conversion of worldly St. Francis Bernardone began with Christ’s command, heard by the young man while walking alone: “Go and repair my house, which is in ruins.”  Taking the words of his Lord seriously and with a sense of urgency, the young man quickly began to repair and even build several small chapels in Assisi.  One of these, the Portiuncula, is situated beneath the dome of the great basilica shown above, a tiny church within a church, built by the saint’s own hands.  This particular structure was very dear to St. Francis and his brother friars throughout his whole life, a sign of their humility, their origins, and their simple devotion.

A short bus ride up the hill brought us to the Basilica di San Francesco.  Under the basilica lies the body of St. Francis, in a dim crypt monitored by an especially austere looking Franciscan.  Here, candles are lit for prayer requests offered to the saint.  Two stories above, in the upper basilica, 28 panels by the 13th-century artist Giotto recount the life and legends of St. Francis.  Earlier in Dr. Lev’s class, we had looked especially at two of these panels: one depicting Francis offering his clothes to his father in the public square as a rejection of worldly goods, and another showing Francis preaching to the birds.

Many a misguided conclusion about Francis is drawn from these and similar stories.  As Chesterton writes in his biography of Francis:

It is not true to represent St. Francis as a mere romantic forerunner of the Renaissance and a revival of the natural pleasure for their own sake.  The whole point of him was that the secret of recovering the natural pleasures lay in regarding them in the light of a supernatural pleasure.

In rejecting material possessions and embracing the natural world, Francis was not running away from something so much as he was running to something.  Part of his run was up Assisi’s mountain.

High above the city, even above the clouds, we found Francis’ hermitage (it’s Saturday now), which consists of another of his handmade chapels and several caves (these rooms had a 15th century convent built around them, but for the most part they are still intact).  In these cave-rooms, Francis and his fellows prayed, worked, and lived in community.  The location, 3 miles outside of town, illustrates at once the detachment of the Franciscans and their love of all things natural, good, and beautiful.  Taking a stop on one of the benches along the hermitage’s wooded paths, gazing upon the valley and vast plain below, it becomes clear that indeed the first Franciscans had reason to fall in love with nature: it reflected exquisitely the glory, majesty, and wonder of the One who first loved them.


St. Francis of Assisi, Pray for Us.



P.S. – More pictures of Assisi and Francis-y things to come…