Nov 1, 2023.
Oh my goodness, I have been so lazy in terms of writing and correspondence. Sorry about that, though I doubt anyone has grown dependent on my musings. I’m on the train now, heading northeast from Rome to Arezzo. Emanuele, from Camaldoli, is going to meet me and give me a ride to La Verna, the famous Franciscan convento at the spot where il Poverello received the stigmata. Dan Riley, OFM, from Mount Irenaeus/Saint Bonaventure is here with a group of pilgrims, and I hope to celebrate Eucharist with them for the feast of Tutti Santi, which is, of course, a national holiday here in Italy.
Looking back, the month with the nuns in Rome just flew by and I was kind of sad to leave behind my little cell in the foresteria. Our last day singing altogether was actually Friday. It was a little unclear when and how things were going to wrap up until the last minute. But we were told after Mass and Terce, our normal duties, on Friday that there would be no morning Mass nor Terce the next day and we were done! Thomas, Emanuele, Fabian and Federico went for the closing session on Saturday evening, which consisted in nothing more than a Taizé piece, a refrain for intercessory prayers and the Sub Tuum Presidium to conclude, but in the meantime they had to sit through hours of voting on every paragraph of the final document that came out of the Synod, which took longer than anyone thought it would have, and the closing remarks of the Holy Father, which were mercifully concise and brief. I actually had to teach that night online (my seemingly never-ending once-a-month series for the Episcopal House of Prayer in Collegeville), so I missed that.
Before the guys went off to sing that day, though, we did something really cool. These guys just love this old Scottish-English Anglican hymn “Abide With Me,” the best known version of it set to the music of William Henry Monk. And they, mainly Emanuele and Thomas, decided that we five should sing it and record it while we were together. The best day for that was Saturday afternoon after pranzo. So, the three of us tramped over to San Gregorio where Federico, who is quite adept at these things, had already set up a couple of microphones in the side chapel of the church there, a place with a gorgeous, not uncontrollable acoustic. Thomas and Emanuele sang bass together as thick as chocolate, Fabio has a very pure tenor voice, Federico at first tried singing the melody in countertenor but got disabused of that, not unkindly but forcefully, almost right away and just sang melody in the tenor range, and I got to sing the alto voice in the rock n roll tenor range. We did about five takes and it sounded really good. I propped up my iPhone and filmed it as well but it’s too large a file to send (though I did post it on Facebook). We were all quite pleased and I am sure that would be a big hit on Facebook (especially in our dress whites) if we did a series of those.
But we all got to go to the closing Mass the next day. Thankfully it was in the basilica and not outside, but we lined up in that same magnificent hallway the runs to the grand staircase the leads to the Apostolic Palace, though this time we were in reverse order for our procession. I decided to vest up (“concelebrate”) this time, just to say I did it once. I got to speak with several bishops and a cardinal or two while we were all searching for stoles and chasubles (I wonder who is in charge of the hundreds of matching vestments that St. Peter’s must own?!). I hung out mostly with a priest from Bolivia that I had met at Camaldoli, Mauricio. He is part of the Collegio Capranica in Rome, which is mostly a residence for seminarians and priests studying there, usually at the Gregorianum or the Biblicum. More on that later. I am not one for high church things, but I must say it was quite impressive to process into the basilica together, with the Vatican choir again providing the pristine music, mostly Gregorian, with participation for refrains and polyphony for soloistic parts. And the long line of the lay delegates followed by us humble “just” ordained, then the bishops and then the cardinals. At the back part of the narthex there were wooden barriers put up on either side of the center aisle and throngs of people amassed on either side like a big parade, greeting us, some wanting to shake hands or bump fists.
The Holy Father appeared in his wheelchair from out of nowhere on the right side and led prayers and preached seated in the presidential chair, but did not go up to the high altar. Cardinal Grech, the president of the Synod did all the honors there. Pope Francis’ homily was simple and to the point: to love God and love your neighbor means to adore (God) and serve (your neighbor). With all the folderol, let’s not forget that: it comes down to two simple things, like breathing in and breathing out: love and adore God, love and serve each other. Period.
Then we carted back to Sant’Antonio for one final pranzo with the nuns in their refectory, and immediately afterward Thomas headed for the train station to go and see his family up in Padua, and Emanuele jumped in the car with Matteo to return to Camaldoli. Well done, faithful servant, Matteo! He, as master of ceremonies, was everywhere, and in almost every photo with the pope. There was even a story on the evening news that had him with the Holy Father during the prayer service for peace in the Holy Land. I teased him later that people were starting to ask, “Who is that other guy in white, the one sitting next to Matteo?”
My friend and financial advisor Keith Toh was in Rome with his wife and children last week. He had lived there from age 6 to 16 when his father was the UN ambassador to Italy and loves to bring everyone back each year. I had met them for lunch on Friday in a neighborhood I had never seen before, around the American Embassy and the grand hotels. (That was a theme for this trip; I was in so many neighborhoods this time that I had never been in before.) Keith sent me a message the next day, on his way back to Singapore, about a restaurant that had gone to for dinner that he insisted I go to, not far from the Spanish Steps. So much insisted that he had already reserved a table for me for Sunday night, as well as ordered for me and sent money for me to take whoever I wanted. Talk about an offer you can’t refuse… Since they do not serve an evening meal Sunday night at Sant’Antonio it worked out perfectly. But I was like the guy who couldn’t fill the wedding banquet: I couldn’t find anyone to go with me! I tried six different people and in the end I was tempted to walked down Via del Corso and just invite anyone. But I wound up going alone. It was an amazing meal: fried anchovies, spaghetti with lobster and a coconut milk tomato sauce, and bronzino (sea bass) with crispy skin (pelle croccante). I topped it off with a Sicilian dessert whose name I cannot remember, but it was exquisite, and the wait staff was very kind. It was really fun walking through the streets of Rome that evening, and I could not believe how crowded it was with tourists and others. I also, rather shamed-facedly, realized that everywhere I went or wanted to go was well within walking distance of the Aventine, nothing much farther than a mile and a half away.
Monday, I had all day to my blessed self, telling Sr. Michelina, our main host, that I really needed some hermit time (and not having to speak to anyone in Italian for a day). But Tuesday I wound up having a series of wonderful encounters (all over food, of course). This same Padre Mauricio had invited me to pranzo at the Capranica, which was an amazing place not far from the Gregorianum, where he is doing his doctorate. I can’t remember the entire history, but it goes back to the 16th century when this well-placed cardinal named Capranica (who was supposed to become pope but got poisoned before the election…) gave his family palazzo over to men in formation for the priesthood. I found out later that if the NAC (North American College) is a “bishop factory” this place is a fabbrica dei papi–a pope factory. The place is peppered with portraits and statues and plaques of men who lived and studied there and went on to be elevated to the papacy. When we arrived Mauricio put me in an elegant Italian salone that had velvet chairs and couches and a baby grand piano, the walls lined with portraits of every pope from Leo XII through Benedict, with a huge portrait of Pio XII at the center. (I will assume Francis’ was missing only because he’s still alive.) There was a really nice spirit about the place, at least in the refectory. Because several of these guys had been at Camaldoli for the same week that Mauricio had been there, I was already somewhat of a known quantity and I had several very nice conversations, some with guys who had spent time in America, one with a newly arrived seminarian from Kerala, and another with a young deacon in the diocese where our Roberto was just ordained bishop. Then Mauricio took me to the famous Tazzo D’oro for un café and I headed to my next stop.
I was to meet Fr. James Martin, SJ, at the Jesuit Curia, a very imposing place on Borgo Santa Spirito a stone’s throw from the colonnades of Piazza San Pietro. Having had the experience of several well-endowed comfortable Jesuit communities, it was quite a contrast to see how very spartan this place was. Jim showed me his room which was also very simple and small. There weren’t even ensuite bathrooms, but communal ones down the hall. He explained that this was the old classic austere Jesuit way, and the Father General (the “black Pope”) prefers to keep it that way. He and I then went down the street to a BAR and had tea, appetizers, and a really nice long visit. We kept running into each other at the Synod and found out that we had several mutual friends and acquaintances, so it was like talking to an old classmate. I suspect we will keep in touch.
The rooftop of the Jesuit Curia c/o AMERICAN magazine.
Then I headed over the San Gregorio for Vespers and dinner, and to say goodbye to the gang there. There is a really nice spirit there too with such a diverse crowd. Stephen had arrived that afternoon from the US and I was glad to be there to introduce him to everyone. And then that night I had a Financial Advisory Board meeting via Zoom starting at 10 PM, my payback for making Mark and Keith in Singapore usually get up at 4 AM. I only lasted ‘til midnight, hit the hay, and got to Termini good and early to make sure I got on my train for Arezzo, with due respect for my capacity for goofing up departure times.
What an honor it was to be a part of the Synod in that way, and what a real treat it was to finally get to know Rome a lot better. I must admit I grudgingly really like her more than I ever have, now that I have expanded my knowledge outside of my normal walks around Circus Maximus and the Roman Forum up Via Cavour to Roma Termini, and down by San Giovanni in Laterano. Though the constant din of traffic and floods of people all day every day did get a little tiring. I’m looking forward to this short stay at La Verna.
I’m at the Santuario of La Verna now with no internet or phone signal so I might as well add a note.
Giuseppe Cicchi, novice master and acting vice-prior at Camaldoli, kindly arranged for me to stay two nights here. The proximate reason was that my friend Dan Riley, OFM and his group of pilgrims were to be here, coming in from Assisi, yesterday as part of their Franciscan tour and I was to join them for Mass. The only problem was going to be transportation, given that it’s not easy to get from Arezzo to La Verna on a good day let alone on a national holiday. Hence the gracious offer of a ride from Emanuele who, however, couldn’t make it ‘til around 2:30. So I left my backpack and guitar at the deposito bagagli in the train station and happily headed up into the beautiful historic centro of Arezzo for a few hours. I scoped out all the eating places, decided on one, and then spent some time in the exquisite ancient church of San Francesco with its Piero della Francesca frescoes. I always find it somewhat annoying, shall we say, that churches have to lock up during lunch hour, and I always seem to want to be in a church during that closing time. In other words, myself and a couple got whisked and shooed out of the place after what seemed like only a few minutes. I settled into a lovely osteria and yes, Raniero, I finally had my pici, with an anchovy sauce, olives, capers, and small pieces of potatoes. The wait staff was very kind and let me sit there and journal and re-charge my phone until it was time to meet Emanuele back at the stazione.
I have been here at La Verna at least two times in the past but have never stayed the night. As the Irish would say, it feels like a thin place to me, up a mountain densely forested with beech trees. The weather is much cooler than Rome and the skies are what I remember the most from this part of Tuscany at this time of year, grey and cloudy, threatening rain (or snow!). I went first to the reception area at the foresteria to get my room. The gentleman at the desk seemed somewhat out of place, earrings and piercings and tattoos all over (not that there is anything wrong with that…), for all the world more a bass player from a punk band than a receptionist for a Franciscan shrine. He had special instructions for me, that I was to eat with the friars, and I was gentilemente urged to be punctual for meals. This is the second time I had been told this; the guardian who wrote me about my room also had urged me l'importante è la puntualità ai pasti in refettorio. When I got to my room there was another notice exhorting me to puntualità nel refettorio, so by now I was starting to get the hint that punctuality at meals was of inestimable importance here.
I caught up with the Americans, had a quick cup of tea with them and then we headed to Mass, which was held in the chapel of the stigmata. I forgot to mention, of all the things to say about this amazing place, it’s where Francis received the stigmata. It was a beautiful little chapel, lined with choir stalls and della Robbia bas reliefs, and of course a gorgeous acoustic. Mass was very informal, and I led them in some easy participative songs. We ended Mass with my Bismillah, the song in honor of Francis’ pilgrimage to the sultan, that combines the famous phrase from the Qur’an with Francis’ litany of praise. I had sung it once with them before in Rome, but that first time we did it very soft and slow, carrying a lot of grief for the slaughter (of innocents) in the Holy Land and especially now in the Gaza Strip. This time we sang it out in full force as was fitting the feast. It was interesting singing it without Gitanjali belting out the lead vocals and/or John on percussion, with just my little travel Taylor, but it really worked, and the folks loved it. Just as we finished Sr. Margaret Carney, who was the main presenter on this pilgrimage, came up to me excitedly and said, “Did you know the Francis wrote that litany here at La Verna?!” As a matter of fact, there is a facsimile of the parchment on which he wrote it, with a note to Brother Leo on the other side, framed and hanging on the wall outside of that same chapel. I’ll get a photo of it.
I said goodbye to the group after Mass, took a little nap and went to try to find where I was supposed to punctually eat dinner with the friars. The tattooed pierced guy had told me to find a friar and ask him how to get to the refectory, but I had yet to see a friar. The nice lady who worked at the bar showed me the way to the kitchen and pointed me to a friar and left me there. I approached said friar and explained that I was a Camaldolese monk, and I was supposed to eat with them. He looked at me suspiciously and asked me, Come vi chiamate? which is the second person plural, an antiquated extremely polite way of asking “Who the heck are you (plural)?” I was about to say Noi ci chiamiamo Camaldolesi–“We are Camaldolese” just to be funny, but it didn’t seem the opportune moment. At that point several other friars showed up and were hustling about, and he told me to wait there. I did so for about five minutes, in the entryway to the kitchen, as several other staff came in and were carting food out to the guest refectory, I assume, trying to make myself as unobtrusive as possible. Then the tattooed guy came back and told me to follow him. He led me to another closed corridor and told me to put myself in front of a certain door and wait. It was now 7:40, and I was ten minutes late for dinner––but it was totally not my fault! I waited another five minutes or so in deafening silence in this dark corridor and was thinking to myself, “Well, this is awkward.” Then I had the thought that this was like Francis’ “perfect joy” and I imagined myself pathetically, but resignedly, crawling back to my room hungry and cold. Suddenly a large warm friar named Davide burst out of nowhere and apologized profusely, in English. It being a feast day, they had a special party going on in another space and he led me there.
It was a very comfortable room, like a calefactory, I assume, where there were about 30 friars of all ages gathered. This place is the regional novitiate as well as the sanctuary and this was the night that the novices were cooking meat alla braccia, basically grilled beef, hamburgers and sausages, and there were bottles of beer on all the tables. They were a little disappointed to hear that I didn’t eat meat nor drink alcohol but there was a nice salad and, as often happens in Italy when they find out you are vegetarian, I was brought cheese. They were all very warm and welcoming. I sat with three friars and had a nice conversation. They have young guys here also from Egypt, Syria, Albania, and Lithuania. I got someone to lead me back to my room after an hour or so and I shall join them for prayer this morning. It may be another awkward moment. I thought I understood from the guardian that I was going to join them in choir, but now I am not sure. So, I’ll show up in my dress whites and see what happens.
I was remembering years ago in Lebanon, staying at San Maron, the monastery of Charbel Marklouf, outside of Beirut, after an exhausting two weeks of touring and a serious viral stomach infection, how I was supposed to find the one monk who spoke English and he was to lead me to the monastic refectory to eat. But I never found him (and he never came in search of me) and so I spent the next two days blissfully on my own, taking the one meal that they served in the morning in the guesthouse and munching on snacks (I remember especially Pringles) from the souvenir shop for the rest of the day, really not wanting to interact with anyone. That would have been fine with me here too. I slept so deeply last night as I did there in Lebanon, and had some very intense dream about St. Francis, the litany of praise and apophatic prayer, the details of which I do not remember. We shall see what the day brings.
The weather has been brutal! Strong winds––I would guess 50-60 mph––whipping around the sanctuary, clouds, intermittent rain and in the low 40s. Thanks God Emanuele, good brother, loaned me his raincoat. So this place really is a shrine (I just figured out that’s what santuario means in Italian, not sanctuary) because it’s the site of Francis’ stigmata. There is a constant stream of devotees, pilgrims, and lay Franciscans through here, and everything revolves around that. They had vigils in the basilica, followed almost immediately morning prayer. The Bishops Conference here in Italy has put out a very nice simplified breviary and there are stacks of them available for all. Many of the folks also had their Liturgy of the Hours with them and knew what they were doing. The friars sing and chant very lustily (if I may use the word) and there are various devotional prayers mixed in. The Angelus is prayed here regularly, which, if I remember correctly, should be no surprise. I learned that Francis was so impressed with the Muslim practice of doing the salat five times a day when he went to meet the Sultan that he encouraged a type of prayer that anyone could do with the ringing of the Angelus bells his version of the call to prayer. Also the prayer “We adore you here and in all your churches throughout the world…” is prayed quite often too. My one little lament is that there is nowhere for the guests to get hot water, coffee or tea until after Lauds. I was trying to translate “cruel and unusual punishment” into Italian. It wouldn’t be so bad if I didn’t get up so darned early.
The morning was free, so I got in a good walk down the main road towards town. I joined the friars in their huge ancient refectory for pranzo. There was also a Jesuit and two Cistercians there as guests. A very friendly atmosphere and several guys wanted to make conversation. On my right there was a young man from Ghana and on my left a novice from Egypt. Later at dinner I sat with a gentleman from Angola and spoke with another from Syria. Most of these just mentioned are actually in formation for the custody of the Holy Land. (The Franciscans have all the major Christian shrines there.)
Every day at 3:00 (punctually!) there is l’ora media in the ancient choir behind the main altar and then a long procession to the chapel of the stigmata led by a cross and accompanied by a Latin hymn on the way there and a litany to Our Lady on the way back. It being All Souls Day there was then Eucharist at 4. My first host, Davide, winds up having an exceptional voice and he led the singing all acapella. I complimented him profusely later both on his voice and on the selection of songs they sang. I actually wanted to get copies of two of them for future use here in Italy if the need were to arise. Then there was an hour of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, other hymns and prayers at 6 immediately followed by Vespers ending with the Divine Praises. All in all a pretty full liturgical life. As Davide explained to me, they tend to be the most monastic of the houses, which is especially good for the novices to get a full immersion. And something they will not get out in the pastoral or mission field. And of course that serves the pilgrims well. The guys have just been lovely, and after Guido, the guardian, announced I was leaving in the morning many of them, even some I had not spoken with, came up and introduced themselves and said goodbye. It would have been fun to stay longer and have more interaction with the community.
On my way to Camaldoli now for the duration and the beginning of the last leg of this soggiorno.