Friday, November 3, 2023

last days in Rome, short stay at the thin place, La Verna

 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 foresteriaOur 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.

Nov 2 

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.

Pici acciugatti.

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.

Facsimile of St. Francis' writing the litany of Praise.

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 chapel of the stigmata.

November 3, waiting for Axel to come and fetch me from Camaldoli. 

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.

Saturday, October 21, 2023

the inside story...

 Saturday 21 October. 

It has been an interesting week, that’s for sure. We’ve been doing our morning singing every day, of course. We’ve been trying out more musical variations as much to keep ourselves interested as anything, importing different music for Mass, chanting more with the zither and guitar. We have gotten lots of comments from folks about how nice it is to start the day with chanting and prayer. Matteo passed on an article in Italian, from the Avvenire[1] that starts out saying that here at the Synod “the liturgy has a Benedictine soul. The voices make the psalms more vivacious, and the instruments give harmony.” The author especially likes the use of the zither (cetra) that Sr Miriam plays, comparing it to the salterio in the psalter.

Monday I met an acquaintance of mine at the Pontifical Institute of the Holy Cross––Santa Croce. His name is Brian Humphrey, a not-long ordained priest of the Archdiocese of LA. I know him through Paul Ford in Camarillo and from some work I did there some years ago, but he and I also have several musical friends in common. He is here in Rome now doing his doctorate at the invitation of Archbishop Gomez at the Opus Dei university. I had the guys drop me off after singing on the Lungotevere and prepared myself for a long walk to find Santa Croce. But thanks to the GPS on my phone, I made it very quickly into a very dense little neighborhood where I had never been before. I have figured out by now that Rome is made up of one dense little neighborhood after another. Brian met me, gave me a tour of the school, and treated me to a coffee at a local bar. He thought we would only have an hour together because he had a meeting to get to at 11, but we were enjoying our conversation so much that he thought he might be able to get out of his meeting quickly, which he did. And so, we were able to spend the next three hours together, with him giving me a tour of his favorite spots in the area. 

We began to walk from Santa Croce to where he is lodging, at the Casa Santa Maria. That place has the fame of being the original North American College, gifted to the Yanks by Pius IX. Along the way we stopped at the Basilica of Sant’Agostino where Saint Monica is buried. In that church there is Caravaggio’s painting of Madonna dei Pelligrini and a well-known fresco of the Prophet Isaiah done by the noted Renaissance painter and architect Raffaello. Then onto Santa Maria sopra Minerva that houses the body of Saint Catherine of Siena––and you can go right up to the tomb and lean on it!––as well as Michelangelo’s statue of Christ the Redeemer. And finally, to the Church of Saint Louis (Luigi dei Francesi) where there is a triptych of Caravaggio paintings of Saint Matthew in the Capella Contarelli. You could hardly get a headier mix of religion and art culture. And then we had lunch at a little local joint called Abruzzi, which was just delightful, but not as delightful as the conversation. Brian is very well-read and very interested in so many things, particularly Aquinas and Augustine and the Cappadocian fathers, as well as in contemplative prayer. 

Of course, we were also in the neighborhood of the Gregorian, the Biblicum, the Gesù, the Panthenon, not far from Piazza Navona, and we even passed Sant’Eustachio, thinking of Raniero as I went by.

Wednesday there was a big Mass for the whole synod for which we did not have to sing, but Thomas, Emanuele and I had kind of a busman’s holiday and went in for it anyway. As I have mentioned, one of our monks, Federico, is doing his degree at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music and the choir from there was singing for this particular Mass. As opposed to our humble Masses at 7:30 AM, for this one, at 8:45, the Holy Spirit Chapel was full. The whole presbytery was filled with cardinals and bishops, about 12 pews on the right side to the chapel were filled with bishops and the whole other side filled with non-ordained. And the music was pristine traditional Catholic high church, a stunning organist making the place nearly shudder with is solo pieces, the choir moving back and forth between Gregorian chant and polyphony, all in Latin. You could tell that it was just this kind of thing that the PIMS trains these folks for. There were definitely concessions made for the assembly to sing as well; there was a nice worship aid and the music laid out for when we alternated with the choir. We were all surprised that with what must have been 500 people there, not counting the choir, the whole Mass only took just over an hour, very well organized and executed, with our Matteo like the drum major for the whole thing.

I was sitting just a few pews behind Bishop Barron, who I had already seen a few times in the Synod Hall. Afterward as we were standing around waiting to leave, I had a chance to meet and talk with him. I introduced myself and where I was from, and he remembered two things about New Camaldoli: the stars at night and Bruno’s book, The Good Wine. He is taller than I had imagined and a very nice guy. There were a few other things I wanted to talk to him about, but the crowd was thick, and it didn’t seem an opportune moment. I did tell him as we were walking out that there were only two times I was tempted to steal a book, and one of those times was in England when somebody loaned me a copy of his And Now I See, which I’ve consequently foisted on a number of unsuspecting postulants and observers.

One funny thing happened on the way into Mass. We were not in our habits that day and had taken the Metro in instead of driving. But we still had our badges and Matteo had urged us to go in the same way we had been coming in for the Synod and skip the lines, which we did. So now we were wandering around the back of the basilica without much to do, and suddenly I look over to my right and there was the Holy Father in his popemobile with a couple of his security people getting ready to be driven into the square for the Wednesday audience. It was like being backstage at a play, seeing him relax and chat with the gentlemen who no doubt take very good daily care of him. I was also surprised at how little security there was, as I have been this whole week in Paul VI Hall.

By the way, Pope Francis’ Wednesday talk was superb, on Charles de Foucald. I watched it later online.[2] And here are a couple of delicious quotes from it, typically Francis.


Let us not forget that God’s style is summarized in three words: proximity, compassion and tenderness. God is always near, he is always compassionate, he is always tender. And Christian witness must take this road: of proximity, compassion and tenderness.


“Yes, but how is this done? Like Mary in the mystery of the Visitation: ‘in silence, by example, by life’. By life, because ‘our whole existence’, writes Brother Charles, ‘must cry out the Gospel’. And very often our existence calls out worldliness, it calls out many stupid things, strange things, and he says: ‘No, all our existence must shout out the Gospel’.”


This is a recent sub-theme of the pope’s: worldliness. He brought it up in his opening address on October 4 too; he thinks the church is too worldly and he has a new little book out on that called Santi, non mondani––“Saints, Not Worldly.”

Another notable happening that same day was that I met Sr. Maria Cimperman for lunch. Maria is a sister of the congregation Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, on the faculty of Chicago Theological Union, a well-known author and speaker on consecrated life, now working part time also in Rome, and also one of the facilitators at the Synod. She was also our much-appreciated retreat leader two years ago at the Hermitage. It was a bit of comedy trying to meet up just outside of St. Peter’s Square with the throngs of people all rushing to find lunch, but through a series of text messages we did find each other and sat at a restaurant I had scoped out on my way in, somewhat off the beaten path. We sat there for the better part of three hours talking about the future (and the present) of religious life. She told me what she could about the process inside the synod hall itself without revealing any of the sharing itself and of course, as always, was a great resource for official documents. She is also working for the International Union of Superiors General and shared with me its contribution as well. I was especially moved by a document called “The Spiritual Conversation,” that she says they are following for every module of the synod in their small groups around tables (circhi minori) which includes active listening and speaking from the heart. How about these rules for group therapy?

·       Listen actively and attentively 

·       Listen to others without judgment 

·       Pay attention not only to the words, but also to the tone and feelings of the one who is speaking 

·       Avoid the temptation of using the time to prepare what you will say instead of listening

·       Speak intentionally 

·       Express your experiences, thoughts, and feelings as clearly as you can 

·       Listen actively to yourself, mindful of your own thoughts and feelings as you speak 

·       Monitor possible tendencies to be self-centred when speaking. 

And then there is a two-hour process that includes periods of silence. I think this is just brilliant and kudos to whoever put it together. I do not believe there has ever been anything like this in the history of the church, especially with lay people and women involved. We just found out that there is going to be a letter addressed to the world issued in the name of the entire synod at the end of this year’s session.

Thursday was kind of a highlight day for me. Matteo had several times mentioned that he wanted to use the guitar for some things and Sr. Miriam who plays the cetra had as well, but I wasn’t sure how to work it in when the decisions were being made. I did accompany the woman singing Nada Te Turbe one day, and then accompanied a psalm another day, but Thursday I was tapped to play for the musical meditation after the reading, usually played on the cetra or else the organ. I don’t tell people often: I could sing in front of anyone without any problem but I am actually very nervous playing solo pieces on the guitar and do so rarely in public, though I practice pretty much every day. Well, this was not a time to be nervous, in front of 300+ cardinals, bishops and others, on live television being filmed to YouTube––and then the Pope shows up! My palms were sweaty, but I took a deep breath, and it came off flawlessly. With my little travel guitar that I have grown to love so much. To watch it later on YouTube and see the Holy Father with his eyes, closed listening was very moving. I was thinking of when I wrote that particular song when I was 19 years old sitting at a kitchen table of a rectory in Illinois, then turning it into an instrumental for an album I did in my cabin in Santa Cruz, and then practicing in the little kitchen in cell 20––and now here I was playing for the pope. As Bede always says, “It’s the little things.”

And by the way, make sure Br Benedict hears this: Matteo told me this morning that the bishop of Naples said to tell the monk who played the guitar that he liked it a lot.

But then we got an unexpected treat, which I cannot adequately describe. The sisters who we have been singing with, of the Congregation known as the Pie Discepole del Divin Maestro––The Pious Disciples of the Divine Master (that’s in the feminine, by the way––not pii discepoli) actually run the souvenir shop and BAR on the roof of St. Peter’s! (I know, right?) So after we were done singing, one of the sisters whisked us right past all the crowds, up an elevator to the first level inside Michelangelo’s dome, walking along the mosaics that line the walls. Looking up there are still more, and I was trying to imagine the amount of work it would take to install them! And then up to the roof of the basilica, at the level of the huge statues of the apostles. It’s very large up there, as you can imagine, and a lot going on! And we went into this long building that houses the bar and gift shop, past the storage room full of icons, rosaries, and papal knickknacks, to a little kitchen that they keep there for themselves and their workers. It was too cute. They pulled out all these treats and made us coffee and served us juices. And then of course, Miriam led us inside the cupola itself and up the long winding “corkscrew” staircase (320 stairs claims the website), in parts with a rope to hang on to, in the space between the inside of the cupola and the shell around it––not for claustrophobics!––to the very top where there is an observation deck with a breathtaking view. We all agreed it was an extraordinary experience. I didn’t have my phone, but I’ll try to get some pictures. 

Once we got back down, we were on our own again, but our Synod badges (and our white habits, probably) gave us the ability to cut all the lines again through the throngs of people in the basilica and easily make our way back to our car. 

Not much else… There is no dinner served here on Friday or Sunday night, so last night Emanule and I went for Vespers at Santa Cecilia’s, which is also a Benedictine monastery and had Vespers with the good ladies there, not knowing that it was the feast of the ritrovamento del corpo di Santa Cecilia––“the re-finding of the body of St. Cecilia” so the good ladies were all in procession and sang their hearts out. Then we found a wonderful little seafood restaurant in Trastevere. My room here at Sant’Antonio is actually only twice as wide as the bed, and only a few feet longer, with a skinny closet and one of these little tiny bathrooms the Italians are famous for with the shower over the toilet to conserve space. But I am enjoying it a lot and getting my treasured afternoon time for silence, reading and writing. And practicing the guitar for the pope. 

We actually have Monday and Tuesday off. I was thinking of taking little side trip to Florence, but I am loving the semi-stability of this time.

Blessings on you all!

Saturday, October 14, 2023

second week in Rome, the synod in full swing

 13 october 23

Back in Rome. As of today, it’s a month already since I arrived in Italy. Thanks be to God this has been a much more relaxed week than the first three! I didn’t even realize how tired I was until we had a day off on Monday. 

There was one more notable happenstance before I left the Casentino to come down here. Each year the Italian Catholic magazine Il Regno holds a meeting at Camaldoli. This particular magazine was founded by the Congregation of the Priests of the Sacred Heart in 1956 as a source of thought and information about Christian inspired culture. It often deals with political issues and usually invites a prominent figure in church and/or politics. This year the guest was none other than the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who was to speak on “Europe as a Horizon of Peace.” I was doing my last conference at Poppi during his actual talk on Sunday, but he was also presiding at Mass and I really wanted to hear him speak, so Sr. Deborah drove me over to Camaldoli when I finished. He did indeed preside but Alessandro offered the homily, so I did not actually get to hear him speak, alas. I was sitting in choir with the other monks, basically right next to the good cardinal and couldn’t help but notice that throughout the liturgy he looked very tired or distant or detached––I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. He obviously would have a lot on his mind with the attack on Israel having just occurred. 

Afterward we had lunch in the refectory of the monastery, with all the monks from the Sacro Eremo in attendance too. The first two tables had been pushed together, covered with a tablecloth, and set up very fancily for the Prior General and the guests of honor, cloth napkins, flowers, etc. I sat way in the back with the young guys from the Eremo. We were supposed to leave for Rome at exactly 1:30 so I had to slip out a little early. As I was trying to sneak by the head table Giuseppe was serving the after-dinner vin santo and he grabbed me by the arm wanting to introduce me to the cardinal––il priore di New Camaldoli nella California. As opposed to his demeanor at Mass he got up and was quite animated, wanted to talk about California and the music for the Synod. I was taken off guard a little. The only thing that threw me was he kept using the formal lei with me which I was supposed to use, of course, for him as well, but I kept slipping and using the tu, unaccustomed as I am. But he did not seem to mind. We Camaldolese are certainly brushing up against the top of the hierarchy these days.

Monday we had the day off so I kind of crawled into my shell and only came out to eat. Actually, that evening I went over to San Gregorio to say hello to the brothers there and have Mass and dinner with them. It’s quite a crowd there now with all the students back for the start of the school year, quite near the largest community in the congregation, and very international. Besides the Italians from Camaldoli, the three young Tanzanians who I met in 2021 are there now, John, Sylvester and Onesforo. I was surprised at how happy they were to see me, or that they remembered me at all. Then there is Adaikalam from India who has now begun his studies in Hebrew and Greek for this specialty in Scripture, and Fabian from Hildesheim. I think they are 13 monks plus three long-term guests––a young man from Spain who works as a tour guide and two other young Italian student, non-monastics––living with them. It was a fun evening seeing them all together.

Aside from that we have fallen into a nice pattern. Fabio from San Gregorio picks us up here at Sant’Antonio at 6:45 AM each day and we whisk (and I mean whisk; I hang on for dear life) through the streets of Rome and inside the Vatican walls, waving our Synod badges (animazione liturgica) past two different sets of security guards, and have a parking place right between the basilica and Paul VI audience hall. There is a surprising amount of activity back there, a real little city––and even there they drive very fast! Matteo meets us and we walk into the sacristy building which is attached to the basilica by a set of staircases and a long hall, through the sacristy itself (actually sacristies: cardinals have a separate one marked off for them), and into the basilica. It is not unusual for there to be several Masses going on or being prepared at the same time. 

Caveat lector: I’m about to write some disappointing things about St. Peter’s Basilica… 

The place really does feel like a giant museum. Not that I have the absolute best antennae for these things, but I get a sense of awe and splendor and might there, but rarely any sense of holiness or recollection. There is one huge statue after the other (and, as I keep pointing out to my younger brothers, not one with even the hint of a smile), one monument to great men after another, blocks and waves of marble everywhere, everything made large to make you feel small, and constant people milling about, custodians ever-present dusting or riding floor buffing machinery, picking up plastic bottles, barriers all over the place forbidding entrance here or there. 

And the liturgies themselves have been very pedestrian, shall we say. First of all, these are supposed to be Masses for the Synod delegates, but very few show up, most days between about 25 and 40, some days a lot less, and we are in the Holy Spirit Chapel which could easily accommodate 500. There is the usual procession of priests, bishops and cardinals who sit a quarter mile away in the presbytery and every day a different cardinal presides (I think they have all been cardinals), sometimes in various languages or a mix of languages. (We’ve had French, English and Spanish besides Italian.) Our friends, four sisters from the congregation of Pie Discepole, are in charge of the music. Sr. Miriam, who also plays the cetra (zither) at the Synod prayers and who I had met when she was living at Poppi two years ago, put it all together in a booklet. I don’t know much of it, but I intuit that it’s stuff that would be used in a parish––or would have been used some time ago. We get there about 7 AM and spend the next half hour deciding what to do. Usually one of us monks sings or improvises the responsorial psalm from the ambo and Emanuele or Fabio play the organ All a little a casaccio for my sensibility. Often when the language is other than Italian there is nothing provided for people to join in so there is little or no response on the part of the assembly. And then all the clergy go processing out to some triumphal piece of organ music. It feels like a weird drama. That being said, some of the homilies have been good, I must say. Cardinal Tagle from the Philippines for instance was really wonderful.

One day, Wednesday, was especially memorable. There was another, obviously more important, Mass going on somewhere else in the basilica and we were told that we could not use the organ until it was done. There was hardly anybody at our Mass anyway. Luckily, I had brought my guitar with me, and we were going to sing Bob Hurd’s “As the Deer Longs.” Well, apparently someone had seen me walk through the sacristy carrying my guitar over my shoulder and sent Matteo to tell me that playing the guitar was not allowed in the basilica. Though it should not be such a big deal, I have rarely felt so offended. I got over it (kind of) and we sang the first half of the Mass acapella, even the ostinato of “As the Deer Longs,” the Italian refrain with English verses over the top. Halfway through the Mass we got a thumbs up that we could use the organ, so we still got to end with a triumphal processional for the little line of priests, bishops, and cardinals. 

There is no word in Italian for “underwhelming.”

The prayers in the synod hall instead have gone well and are much appreciated. Most days it’s just a hymn and three psalms, but Matteo has been asking us to add some other music here and there. Thursday was especially touching: a woman read the gospel in Arabic as the reading and then another woman sang the Taize Nada te Turbe first in Spanish and then in Arabic. I accompanied her on the guitar. This week when all the attention has been focused on outrage, and rightly so, for the Hamas attacks on Israel, there is obviously also grave concern for the innocent people in the Gaza Strip being killed, wounded and displaced by the retaliation. (As I write, Israel has issued its evacuation warning for the north of Gaza, an impossible feat, and everyone is on tinter hooks waiting for the ground invasion which will simply wipe out the entire region.) The Holy Father called the pastor of the parish in Gaza and the patriarch of Jerusalem has tried to be a voice of reason, and we are all praying for the improbable––a measured response on the part of Israel. 

Not that it makes it any worse or better, but often people forget how many Palestinian or just plain Arabic Christians there are. As a matter of fact, I stop often at a little fruttivendolo on my way home from the gym run by a guy from Egypt. There was Arabic chant playing in the background and I said how beautiful it was, assuming it was the Qur’an and it being Friday. He told me it was the Mass! I thought there might be some complaint that too much sympathy was being shown to the Palestinians, but no. I was disappointed to hear that someone complained, not that the Gospel had been read in Arabic but that it had been read by a woman. Sigh.

I have been surprised and touched by how many people are tuning in to the live stream from the States (I don’t know the link) and/or watching each day later on YouTube. That I know you can see via Vatican News. It was the first time we had used the guitar in the audience hall and unfortunately the sound guy did not do a good job of it and it was kind of boomy. Maybe it will be banned there too now…

I don’t think you can watch any of it on EWTN. I ran into a program the other day on YouTube, hosted by Raymond Arroyo, lead anchor for the network and also a Fox News contributor, just trashing the whole Synod in no uncertain terms. He had Cardinal Burke on as one of his guests. At one point one of the guests suggested that it was not a problem to be questioning the pope on this because it is like your mother is being attacked and you have a moral obligation to defend your mother, the Church. Wow.

I spoke with Cardinal O’Malley again the other day. He came over and greeted me. I was delighted he remembered my name. He doesn’t think the Church is under attack. I also got to speak with Fr. James Martin, SJ yesterday. None of them reveal anything of what is actually said in the synod hall, but he did say that the conversations have been very deep and filled with disagreements. I say, “At least they are talking!” Trying to make the Church as pastorally inclusive as possible does seem to me to be a wonderful thing. Let’s ask the questions: “What if?” and “What about?” If we don’t get the answers we wanted, fine, but at least we have talked about it. Mr. Arroyo was complaining that conservatives were not invited. It is simply not true. There are ample conservative (orthodox, traditional) voices among the delegates who are speaking their mind very clearly, and every bishop’s conference got to vote for their representatives. Our American delegation is made up of at least two bishops who are known not to be favorable to Pope Francis. And Bishop Barron is here, and I am told has been very articulate. Bravo for Francis for not being afraid of the conversation.

I just always worry about the people who feel un-invited, not welcome, or indeed pushed out of our churches. Who will feed them? Who will minister to them? Because “they are like sheep without a shepherd.” We can’t always be so self-referential. At times the only thing we can do is go out to them and do whatever we can for them where they are at. “You give them something to eat!” Jesus said. The Holy Father used a great image in his homily opening day. Jesus is always knocking at the door (the image from Revelation), but sometimes he is knocking from the inside, from inside of our churches, wanting to get out and be near the poor, the lost and the lonely.

Enough of my harangue. 

Anyway, after we sing in the morning, we are pretty much free for the day. We make our way through a huge traffic jam back to Sant’Antonio. Emanuele is working on his dissertation up at the library at Sant’Anselmo each day. I have been getting to the gym every day this week and getting lots of time to read and write. I’m also arranging meetings with several people who are here in Rome: my old friend John Wong, OFM, who is the definitor for all of Asia for the order and travels extensively, is stationed here (We went for Indian food, which was quite a culture shock, meeting with my Malaysian friend from Singapore in Rome, eating Indian food); our friend and oblate Nate Bacon is here; Monday I am meeting a young priest from LA who is here studying at the Opus Dei seminary. Sr Maria Cimperman is here, as is Sr. Carol Marie Hemish who I know through the Composers’ Forum. They both want to meet for coffee, and Jim Martin too offered me a tour of the Jesuit Curia (!). I did go up to Sant’Anselmo the other day to see if I could greet Abbot Gregory Polan, an acquaintance and good friend of the community, but he was out of town. It’s fascinating: this time more than ever I feel like Rome really is a meeting place for the world, at least the Catholic one.

Our Federico is studying at PIMS––the Pontificio Instituto di Musica Sacra, and he wanted us to attend a concert there with him on Thursday, which Emanuele and I did. It was really wonderful, a young (27-year-old) Sardinian prodigy. That got us home pretty late that night. And then one last adventure on Friday: As I said, I had met our friend and oblate Nate Bacon the other day for coffee. He is part of the missionary group called Interchange that works with troubled youth. Currently he lives in Guatemala, where his wife is from and where Zacc visited and stayed for a few months in 2020. Nate did a sabbatical year here a few years back and is in Rome again right now translating for another missionary congregation. We had a wonderful visit and conversation and then he was expecting a friend to join him after we met. She showed up while I was still there, and we struck up a stimulating conversation too. Her name is Shaza, she is from Syria and work for the FAO––the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations whose building is within sight of San Gregorio. (As a matter of fact, every now and then the monks host one of their staff as a long-term guest.) She also has an organization here in Rome called “Hummus Town,” which is a catering business that aids Syrian refugees and gives them work. She invited Nate and I to a fund-raising event for Hummus Town last night. It was in a neighborhood somewhere south of here on the terrazza-roof of an apartment building. It was quit interesting. The most prominent language spoken was English but there was some Italian of course and lots of Arabic. The young people (teenagers and younger) all spoke what sounded to me like perfect American-accented English. Being a part of the UN, many of them go to American schools here, and Shaza’s kids all speak all three languages fluently. Nate had to take a Zoom meeting during the dinner and Shaza was busy hosting, so I was rather awkwardly left on my own for a bit of time. But Shaza came to the rescue and ensconced me with a very nice older Italian couple with whom I had a great conversation. I was afraid we were going to have trouble finding a taxi home, but they offered to drive Nate and I all the way back to the Aventino. But that was two late nights in a row still having to drive off to the Vatican at 6:45. So that’s enough excitement for the time being. 

We’re all going to lunch at San Gregorio today and we’ll see what Sunday and next week brings.

Best to all. Tuesday the patriarch of Jerusalem has asked be a day of fasting and prayer for the Holy Land. Let’s join it and never never never lose hope for peace––with justice.

The coro camaldolese in the Holy Spirit Chapel