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And On This Rock…

“It is not only that Rome is Papal, but that it is so obviously proud of being Papal.  True, this is not because the Pope is proud, but because of the mysterious circumstance that a large number of people are proud of the Pope.”


The Eternal City is indeed Peter’s city; his is the office commissioned by an eternal king.  For a paper in our art and architecture class in Rome, some of us at Bernardi had the oppotunity to write a paper on Sixtus V and his renovation of Rome.  From facades to fountains to obelisks to aqueducts, he recovered the city from its decline and neglect during the Avignon papacy.  In doing this, he contributed to the presence of the popes in Rome.  The papal emblem of keys is everwhere you look.  In fact, I would say it’s hard to find a place where the symbol isn’t visible.  But the most powerful symbols of the pope, his office, as well as the Church and her mission, lie in a single vertical line that begins 30 feet underground and ends 448 feet in the air.

My fellow Bernardians and I spent a certain Wednesday on this line, starting at the top with the cupola of Michelangel’s dome.  Here you stand at the highest point in all of Rome, with a 360 degree view of the city.  The Pantheon, the Coliseum, the major basilicas, you can see it all from that great height.

Although by Roman law no other building is permitted to be built higher, some argue that this stunning view can only be second-best in Rome, since you can’t see the Basilica of St. Peter’s very well while you are standing on it.  And this brings to light an important fact about the dome: it was not made to be looked from so much as it was made to be looked at.  It was built for a specific purpose; to point the eyes of  every Roman, tourist, Catholic, pagan, businessman and beggar to the heavens.  And it fulfills this purpose quite well.

We continued our day on this vertical line inside the Basilica, gazing up at the dome’s interior, with its frescoes of God at the center and Christ, Mary, the angels and saints on the way down.  Below this was the baldachin designed by Bernini, topped with a cross ten stories in the air.  On the underside of the this canopy is the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, from whose wings comes a wind that blows through the cloth-imitating bronze.  Moving downward is the main altar, at which the Pope celebrates the Mass on Feast Days.  Underneath the altar one can peer down into the Confessio, where several sheep’s wool stoles are found, given to the Roman church by the patriarchs of the Eastern Rites as a symbol of the Church being at the same time One and Universal.

In the afternoon, we continued to descend, as we entered a door in the side of the basilica that led down to the scavi, or excavations that had taken place during the Second World War.  Here was discovered an ancient necropolis, which later served as the foundation for Constantine’s basilica in the 4th century.  That necropolis had lain just outside the Circus of Nero, where St. Peter himself was martyred in 64 A.D.  By this time, the Roman families had started to remove their dead from the sarcophagi there, and Christians used the abandoned tombs.  In 1941, a tomb was found in the necropolis where Peter would have been buried, covered in 1st-century graffiti.  Upon examination, this graffiti was found to be dozens of petitions to St. Peter, that he might pray for deceased family members.  When the bones of this tomb were removed and studied, it was determined that they belonged to a 60-70 year old man of sturdy build and placed there in the 1st century.  Today they are widely believed to be the bones of St. Peter.

Our tour guide, a seminarian from Ukraine said, “Now we have seen today all these levels of history, with many churches, many stories, and many rocks.  But really it is one Church, one story, and one rock.  And the rock is called Peter.”

As I considered this, my mind flew backwards along our tour, forward in history, and upward through space, up to the necropolis where early Christian martyrs lay, to Constantine’s basilica where Christians celebrated the Eucharist for over 1,000 years, to the patriarchs’ stoles showing Church unity, to the Papal altar which unites heaven and earth in the Mass, to the Holy Spirit which guides the Church, and up to the dome where the saints propel you towards Christ, who leads you to God the Father in the center of the dome, which erupts in a single point, the cross on top of the dome which looks out over the world and touches the heavens.

Our guide led us into a small, damp room of the necropolis.  There, in front of the stone full of ancient graffiti, was a small glass box containing many bones.  Deacon Dan Weiske had accompanied us on our tour, and said a prayer with us all for the intercession of a saint who was killed over 1,900 years ago.  But first he pointed out, “There in the front, the largest bone you can see in that little box, is a jawbone.  That is the jawbone that spoke the words, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.'”


Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. 

And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.


St. Peter, pray for us.


An Interesting Thought

In order to encourage Italians to take advantage of all the history they pass on their way to work each day, at some point the Italian government decided to start a lovely institution known as “La Settimana della Cultura.”  In English, it’s usually referred to as “Culture Week.”  I just like to call it “Museums Are Free Week”; no matter what you call it, though, it’s just pretty great all around.

On Tuesday after class, Jake and I grabbed a kebab and moseyed over to the “Mercato Traiano,” or Trajan’s Market, which we actually do pass on the way to school each day.  Inside, a museum explained the market itself as well as the Imperial Forum, which was actually five or six fora put in place when the older Roman Forum couldn’t handle the necessary volume of citizens, shops, and traffic.

Later in the week I stopped by the Barberini Palace, which today houses not nobility but the art of the National Gallery, including Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes, a work by Raphael, and this gem, which could have little artistic importance but I really like it anyway:


Giovanni Serodine - Parting of Sts Peter and Paul Led to Martyrdom


Then, on Friday, I went for the first of two visits to the Capitoline Museum.  As Italian institutions are wont to do, it closed at the odd hour of 1:15pm, just as we reached the end of the 45-minute line.  I returned the next day for the second of three visits, and saw everything that wasn’t the Lux in Arcana exhibit, which displayed texts from the Vatican Secret Archives on everything from Martin Luther to the Lateran Treaty and a letter from Abraham Lincoln to Pope Pius IX.  I didn’t see these things…yet.  They would wait until the next week when we were to be given tickets by the Bernardi household’s faculty member, Dr. Boyle.  But I did see the only surviving Roman bronze equestrian statue, the Hall of the Philosophers and the Hall of the Emperors, the Dying Gaul, and Bernini’s Medusa, among a host of other magnificent statues, frescoes, stuccoes, tapestries, paintings and artifacts.


The Dying Gaul


It’s an interesting idea the Romans have, a week of culture.  Two of our classes here in Rome wrestle with the question of the Church and culture; one looks at how Man relates to Man and to God, and the other examines the world of art and architecture.  This semester we’ve really seen signs of past culture at every turn, with every ancient ruin, medieval monument, and baroque church.

It’s an interesting idea the Romans have, a week of culture.  Both classes take place in a world whose culture is decidedly different today than it was in the past.  We’ve been reading Pope Benedict, who firmly directs an increasingly secular Europe to remember its Christian cultural roots.

It’s an interesting idea the Romans have, a week of culture.  Rome is a fountain of cultural gold.  But it needs to turn the fountain back on.  As a center of culture, Rome is in the unique position to say to the rest of the modern, culture-bereft world:




…or like it’s Culture Week, at least.


Easter Break, Part 4: The Other Eternal City

The second week of break was a fascinating and adventurous one.  I learned and saw a great many things over those seven days: the categories into which they fall are three.


1. Byzantium – The Ancient City

My desire to go to Istanbul harks back to a conversation I had with my friend Michael over Christmas break.  We discussed the then-distant city of Istanbul, and how it was historically the Rome of the East.  After 326, it became the center of the Roman empire, and for centuries it amounted to a co-capital along with Rome, politically, religiously, and culturally.  In fact, when Constantine made it the political capital of his empire, he originally called it New Rome.  Since we were both looking forward to a semester in Rome it made sense, in a certain way, to visit this historically complementary city.  At the time, it seemed like a long shot.  After all, half of the city wasn’t even in Europe, and we hadn’t a clue as to the state or safety of the modern city.  I wanted badly to visit, but I just wasn’t quite sure…


Mosques pepper the horizon of the foggy/smoggy city.


So I went to Istanbul.  My pals Chris, John and I hopped on a jet of the aptly named airline “Pegasus Air” and landed in the sister city to Rome three hours later.  Badda bing, badda boom.

During our week-long stay, we saw a whole pile of historical sights and artifacts from the world of the ancient empire that made the city great.  Not least among these were the National Archaeological Museums, which had collections from ancient Byzantium and from other ancient sites in the Middle East and North Africa.  Two of the coolest things here were the “Alexander Sarcophagus,” which probably didn’t actually hold Alexander the Great, but was found in the ancient necropolis of Sidon, Lebanon; and the Treaty of Kadesh, the oldest known peace treaty in the world.  Then there were the exhibits on ancient Troy and the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, but you can ask me about those some other time.  For now, we’ll move on.


The National Archaeological Museums


2.   Constantinople – The First Conversion

When the ancient Roman Empire was converted to Christianity, Byzantium was not left behind.  In fact, it was made the new capital by Constantine, who gave the city his own name.  There are more pieces of this more recent era throughout the city.  We climbed the Galata Tower, built by the Christian emperor Anastasius in 507.  We saw the obelisk that had stood in the Hippodrome of Constantinople.  But one thing stood above all others as a mark left by the Byzantine empire: The Hagia Sophia, or the Church of Holy Wisdom.


Now a museum, many of the Christian frescoes in the Hagia Sophia have been uncovered and can be seen today.


Although the Hagia Sophia was the world’s largest basilica for almost one thousand years, it is a basilica no longer.  As one of we three noted, “Being in Istanbul is the first time we are part of a conquered people.”  In 1453, Muslims took the city by siege and turned the great churches into mosques.  Today the Hagia Sophia is a museum, but mosques throughout the city broadcast the call to prayer, a 5-times-daily reminder that 600 years later, Istanbul is still a thoroughly Islamic city.  Turkey does not have a state religion, and perhaps more than any other nation in the Middle Eastern nation, it has over the last decade made decisive efforts to distance itself from radical Islam.  But with its forcible conscription laws and deep economic and ethnic divides (Turks and Kurds), one thing is certain: Constantinople is no more.


The Blue Mosque


3. Istanbul – The Modern World: Islam Meets the West

So that’s what we saw in terms of history, but what about the city today?  As the bridge between Asia and Europe, it is evident that Istanbul is the meeting place of East and West, of Old and New.  A man selling bikinis next to burkas in a covered market.  A five story Burger King next door to a small mosque.


Note the small loudspeaker above Chris's head to the left, used for the call to prayer.


At the outset, this encounter of very distinct ideologies appears to be a seamless combination.  But this meeting of two cultures is also a bit of a collision.  We met many young people during our stay who had grown up practicing Islam with their traditional parents, but now had left the faith that they saw as incompatible with Western popular culture.  One young man had changed his Turkish name in favor of the Western “Alex,” and his father refused to speak to him.  Alex had served in a NATO military unit for two years.  He described how he had returned from a trip to Europe late one night, and without even the chance to return to his home, he was driven from the airport to bootcamp.  Several others we met during the week were dodging the draft, which often involved an unknown duration of service.

Earlier in the semester, in one of our courses, we discussed an address of Pope Benedict’s that explained the conflict between the inheritance of Hellenistic reason in the West, and the disconnect from reason inherent to Islam in the East.  This conflict is Istanbul’s great modern challenge: it subtly hangs over the people and the streets of Istanbul.  As an example, take these movie posters, found side-by-side in a movie theatre, which depict a society living in two worlds:

At the Theatre: American Pie in Turkish.

At the Theatre: Fetih 1453, a 3-hour glorification of Sultan Mehmet's capture of Constantinople in 1453.


















It is hard to predict what the future of this great city will bring.  It presents an odd cultural mix, having been the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires; it will be interesting to watch it change and grow in the years to come.  Will Istanbul forget its proud and varied roots?  Will it slide into a secular and culturally bereft city like many European capitals are in danger of doing?  Will it turn to radical Islam under pressure from its neighbors, or as a reaction to increasing European influence?  Or will it be, as Pope Benedict said on his 2006 visit to Turkey, “a bridge of friendship and collaboration between East and West”?  Will it remain Islamic, seek Christianity once more, or revert to its past with a brand of materialistic “paganism”?

It isn’t unlikely that Istanbul will experience a cultural upheaval of one kind or another in the years ahead.  I think it is safe to remain hopeful that it could bear much fruit; and that the people, who are kind and honest, proud but tolerant, stalwart but searching, could handle such drastic change quite well.  After all, it wouldn’t be the first time.

A fresco uncovered in the Hagia Sophia: Justinian I and Constantine I present the Hagia Sophia and Constantinople to the Virgin and Child



The Grand Bazaar


Me, learning.

The American Embassy

A sight for sore eyes.



Easter Break, Part 3: What’s at the Center

The celebration of the Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection are the culmination of the liturgical year.  This is appropriate, as the events they commemorate are the center, focus, and turning point of all human history.  On a smaller scale, I knew these three days would be the center, in many ways, of my semester abroad, which in turn was a large reason I chose Catholic Studies and thus why I came to St. Thomas at all.  I have looked forward to and will forever look back upon Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday in Rome as a destination and source of many things in my life.

It was a particular blessing to have three Bernardi students participate in the Triduum liturgies at St. Peter’s in Vatican City.  I was blessed to be lector at the Good Friday service, Meghan read the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac for the Easter Vigil, and John brought up the gifts in St. Peter’s Square on Easter morning.

Personally I will never reach the end of my awe and gratitude at having participated in such an event.  It is hard to say or write what it means to me in specific terms, so once when someone asked me about it, I responded with the clearly inadequate, “The pope let me read the Bible to him!”  Until it fully sinks in back in America, I will just marvel at how fortunate I am to be here this semester, and to do what I’ve been allowed to do.  To say it’s been humbling doesn’t capture the half of it – although it may reveal something about what’s at the center.



Easter Break, Part 2: The Hills Are Alive

So where were we?  Ah yes, crossing the border from Germany into Austria, on a quick afternoon train to Salzburg.  Arriving in the early evening, we located YoHo International Youth Hostel, which had a friendly staff, many amenities and the slightly disconcerting motto, “Easy to Find, Hard to Leave!”  It turned out to be a very nice stay.

In any case, we continued with the standard operating procedure upon arrival to new cities: 1.) Find bed.  2.) Find food.  3.) Explore the heck outta that town.  Although there were several interesting monuments and a few magnificent-looking churches, we decided the monuments would be seen best in daylight and the churches would be seen best during opening hours, and called it an early night.

Several of us got up early in the morning to hike up the cliffs a couple blocks away from YoHo (it was not particularly hard to leave).  The heights offered a stunning view of the city, its churches, the castle sitting atop a small earthy bump in the landscape, and the distant mountains.

From there, spent the day in the city center, visiting Mozart’s birthplace and some more magnificent churches.  I was stuck by the huge variation among several churches near each other in Salzburg: the contemplative, stone Franciscan church (Franziskanerkirche), for example, and the jubilant Salzburg Cathedral with its white pillars and four massive pipe organs.

Somehow or another we found ourselves in Vienna that evening, a city of historical importance on a scope I had never realized – the last defense of Christendom against the Westward movement of the Turks, the seat of the Austro-Hungarian empire, an important victory for the Allies towards ending the second World War.  We visited some monuments and places associated with these things, including the Hapsburg palace apartments, which began with one hour and 22 rooms on the history of the royal silverware before it decided to be interesting.

Those dishes were vicious!

After this severe blow of lameness, things picked up.  We visited several locations from my favorite movie, The Third Man (1949), including the world’s oldest and largest operating Ferris Wheel.  We met up with another group from Bernardi for dinner.  We oo-ed and  ah-ed at splendid Gothic architecture.  We fed pigeons and joked with street performers.  We skipped rocks in the river.  We attended an organ concert.  We went to the wrong train station and had to run to the other side of town to reach our 15-hour overnight train back to Rome.

And then (15 upright hours later) that was it.  We had had a wonderful Bavarian-Austrian trip, our stomachs were full of Wurstel and Schnitzel, and all was well.  As they say in Germany, “Wirtschaft ist für die Menschen da, und nicht umgekehrt, und Demokratie gehört bei die Wirtschaft mit bei.”

The angels crown Our Lady.


This guy.


Stephensdom, Vienna

Oh my.

Es reicht!


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…





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.