Tuesday, July 24, 2012

GraceLand Assisi

Today is the last day of our 24- day Assisi Study Experience.  A bunch of the people from our group are down at the Basilica of St. Francis to take a look at some of the artifacts (including the saint’s autograph) in the library.  Not me.  I’m sitting in my room at our pensione, the Casa Papa Giovanni, looking out the window at a perfect, perfectly grey morning.  Praying for rain. I’m so sick of the perfection of Umbrian land and townscapes.  Let it pour!  We need a little, momentary misery to wash over this all too perfect place.

What do you say on the last day of a three-week pilgrimage experience?  How do you wrap it all up into a tidy package with a pretty pink bow?  Or not.  What image offers itself as a suitable summary of so many power-filled and individuated experiences?

The first image that comes to my mind is that of –well,   Graceland.  Yes, as in Elvis’s Graceland.  Memphis, Tennessee.  Let me explain.  Some time ago, a friar friend was telling me about his road trip across the country.  “I started out early from New York so I would be sure to get to Graceland before dark,” he told me.  Wait a minute.  Graceland?  As in the epicenter of  Middle American tackiness?  “Yes.  I really wanted to go to Graceland.  I’ve always been a real Elvis fan….  Really, it was great.”

I did not pursue the matter, secretly convinced (now as well as then) that my brother-friend was a little off on this point.  Well, whatever.  We all have some parts of us that are a little off.  But, Graceland?  You’re kidding, right? 

Hmmm.  Well, come to think of it, why not.  Why not drive a long—a very long distance—to visit and do homage to the ground of one so loved and admired?  Was not our “land” “graced” by his presence and music and life?  Why not go to the place where The King lived and died.  The place where he created his music and shared it with the world.  This man who clearly has touched the lives of so many people—and continues to do so even in death—that his home is second only to the White House in terms of the number of visitors it receives each year.  And why should I be such a snob, who am I to mock people’s fascination and fixation with Elvis.  Hello, I’m in Assisi, Italy!  What’s this place all about, after all, if not about fascination and fixation with St. Francis?

It’s true.  Assisi is the “grace land” of Francis and of St. Clare.  Each year, its permanent population collectively prepares and braces itself for a steady stream of the pious, the curious, the aesthetically driven, and even the ambulatory bored.  Two million of them, as a matter of fact—twice the number of annual visitors that stream into Memphis-- eight full centuries after the birth of Il Poverello, the little Poor Man of Assisi?  What does that say about this place?

I read somewhere that the Irish talk about the ‘thin places’—the cracks in the surface of our waking, walk-and-workaday worlds where the numinous breaks through.  Where one can most certainly  imbibe the soul-searing, life altering scent and sense of—the Other—or dare I say it—of the Divine? I believe there are such places. I am a convinced and convicted romantic and seeker on that score.  Such places—physical, palpable, protean—the direct experience of which calls and reminds us that our lives are made of  mystery as well as mud.  For my money, the Holy Land (all of it), Lourdes (minus the commercial schlock), Chimayo, New Mexico, and  Croagh Patrick in County Mayo, Ireland—are such places.  Part of the discovery for me has been that in addition to their spiritual attractiveness, they are also actual.  They’re on the map; they do, in fact, really exist.  And at the same time they are also (and ironically) finite and reserved.  (Once you come down from the mountain, pass the city limits, the magic stops). But most importantly, they are graced—they all lead to Somewhere, Something, Someone Else.  Assisi has become for me another such truly “graced land”.

One of the gifts of Grace Land Assisi for me has been to experience a sense of healthy dis-illusionment with its saints—to see more clearly their real limitations.  Francis and Clare of Assisi are not the answer; they—indeed any and all Christian saints-- can only ever point towards The Answer—a living and loving God whom they worshipped with their entire being, and with whom they longed to unite.

We celebrated Eucharist at the tomb of Francis.  One of our team leaders,  Friar John Quigley, preached.  His words really spoke to my experience:  Coming to Assisi as a pilgrim is not about leaving for home as a ‘better’ person, he told us.  It’s not about becoming a more perfect friar, a more committed and dedicated member of our religious family or faith…. Will there be Franciscans in heaven?  Would Francis (or Clare, for that matter) be available to us then in an earthy, recognizable way, habits and all?  I doubt it, unless it would be an expression of a God condescending to our human weaknesses.  Besides, it doesn’t really matter  No!  

What does matter is that Francis was a human being who was, throughout his life, completely himself and at the same time completely focused upon Christ.  The Christ, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, whom he grew to love with all his heart and soul-- and with whom he identified ever more completely through the course of his all too brief life.  Taking on Christ, taking Christ into himself, being taken himself into  The Christ—fully, utterly, madly, passionately, endlessly.  So that in the gift of his stigmata, Francis received into his body the imprint of the wounds of Christ Himself.  Christ bleeding into and through Francis, in and through the centuries, into and through our broken, longing world.

So, we are called (and perhaps, as believers, it is our not so secret longing) to walk with Francis and Clare, not as demigods, but as trusted companions.  We ought to long,  then, not to be like Francis, but rather, like Francis to be more like Christ:  “sine proprio” – without anything of our own-- possessed without possession by the presence and love, joy and compassion— of Christ  Crucified and Risen.

Jesus left his mark on Francis and Francis and Clare, in turn, have left their mark upon this “graced land” of Assisi.  People talk about the ‘spirit’ of Assisi and I believe there is something to that.  Here, on a day to day basis, folks seem to slow down, quiet down, behave a bit more politely, more respectfully here than in other places along the tourist trail.  And besides, Francis and Clare themselves are here. Literally.  Their enshrined tombs like bookends to demarcate this sacred space.  Their spirits are here as well.  Found not only by friars and nuns in their cloister, but by every dreamer in every breeze.
What do I take home with me at the end of this pilgrimage?  Strong memories, vital  impressions, genuine in-spiration from the beauty, strength, and Mystery of this Graced Land:  Assisi. //

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Francesco Il Santo: An Exhibition in Rieti

Francesco Il Santo/ Francis the Saint
Rieti, Italy
June 16 – November 4, 2012

This panoramic exhibition of artifacts and artworks inspired by the person and persona of Francis of Assisi represents a concentrated effort to situate the saint historically, aesthetically, and spiritually within the context of his presence in Italy’s Rieti Valley. This region, situated midway between Rome and Assisi, is second in importance only to the region of Assisi in terms of Franciscan interest. Rieti and its environs describe and preserve the ambit of Il Poverello’s intermittent residence and ministry here during the period 1209 – 1225 (just a year before his death). Subtitled “Capolavori nei secoli e dal territorio reatino/ Masterpieces through the Centuries and from the Rieti Region” this show articulates in a decisive way the impact of the presence of Francis here over the past eight centuries.

Exhibitions which attempt to consider the role of the sacred in art are not infrequently perilous adventures. The curator must always be aware of the multivalent nature of the works represented: their historic, cultural, aesthetic, and spiritual interest to the contemporary viewer. In this particular case, the curators are frank in acknowledging the complex and protean nature of the figure of Francis as one who has perennially inspired the creation of numerous works of art “interpreted in different stylistic variations that … spiritually share the expressive intensity with which the figure of the saint is inseparably connected.” This show— involving more than 100 artifacts and works of art—accomplishes its task in a persuasive and balanced way which is both informative and inviting.

Distributed as it is over three venues in the city center Francesco Il Santo showcases works relating to Francis which are organized according to specific themes: the development of early Franciscan culture and spirituality, or francescanesimo (the Fondazione Varrone); specific work produced in the Rieti region (the Diocesan Museum/ Mueso dei Beni Ecclesiastici), and, finally, representative masterworks by Italian artists from the XIII to XXI centuries expressing Franciscan motives (Civic Museum/ Museo Civico). The viewer is able, then, to move easily from site to site, taking in the works either in sequence or as independent modules.

Testimonianze della Storia/ The Historical Testament (Fondazione Varrone) features artifacts from the early Franciscan era starting in the XIII century. Here, for example, is the simple homespun habit of Blessed John of Parma (XIIIc)—an early Minister General who, in spite of his subsequent beatification, was once suspected of heresy and placed under house arrest at Greccio for more than thirty years. Here also are representative ecclesiastical codices of the period, as well as reliquaries, church silver, and devotional “instruments” (including the notorious ‘discipline’) which convey a sense of the penitential movement Francis inspired and shaped.

Opere dal Territorio reatino/ Works from the Rieti Region. This segment of the exhibition involves the display of some 22 pieces, primarily paintings, on display at the Diocesan Museum (and former papal audience hall). The works range from the XIII to the present century. Some have been made available for public viewing for the first time, while others have been recently restored in connection with this exhibition. Included here are both anonymous/unsigned works such as a Croce dipinta (XIV s) or San Francisco piangente (XIX c) as well as works by better-known figures such Manfredi ca.1615), and Manenti (ca.1638). Also featured are works by artists of more contemporary renown such as Stefano DiStasio. DiStasio's San Francesco nel lago di Piediluco 'vede' il Natale di Greccio"(2003), is representative of the "Anachronomismo" tendency in some  contemporary Italian expression, juxtaposing as it does elements of an historical narrative, contemporary composition, and a stylized, surrealistic rendering.

There is also an exceptional piece of textile art—a wonderfully preserved chasuble from the XVIc-- on display. What unites these diverse works expressively is their shared, often quite literal depiction of the saint. In all of these works, the figure of Francis never addresses the viewer directly; his gaze and focus are constantly and continually riveted on the Lord, the obvious object of his devotion.

This same fixed and fixated focus is evident in the “masterworks” section of the show, appropriately entitled Capolavori nei secoli/ Masterworks through the Centuries” and on display at the Civic Museum/ Museo Civico. Here, signature works by artists of national and international reputation demonstrate the consistent stream of artistic output in Italy over the past eight centuries employing the figure of Francis as its common thematic focus. Those familiar with artistic renderings of Francis will instantly recognize the San Francesco paintings by Margarito d’Arezzo (1260-75) and Cimabue (1280-90). These works are not only devotionally significant pieces; they also provide emblematic portrayals of the saint which are arresting in their honesty and directness. Francesco, Il Poverello, was not known to have been a particularly handsome man. These pieces in particular, produced so close to his lifetime, set the template for future representations of the saint, which depict his identifying virtues of poverty and humility.

There is an impressive sense of continuity in these assembled works, demonstrating that artists over the centuries the appeal and allure of the life and legend of Francis. Italian artists, in particular, have persistently sought to capture something of the essence of Francis the country's patron saint: There is the stunned and stunning pose of Francis in ecstasy/ San Francesco in estasi (1606-07) by the school of Caravaggio, as well as the twilight pathos of Alessandro Magnasco’s Cristo crocifisso e San Francesco (1720-1775), and the poignancy of Tiepolo’s San Francesco in meditazione (c.1713). All of these works seek to capture something of the sense of a man so completely consumed by the spiritual journey. Francis the saint is both transfigured and transformed through his suffering and identification with the crucified Christ. Francis the man struggles mightly in the quest-- a man whose body can scarcely contain the greatness of his soul and his longing for God.

This is an excellent exhibition, and one which serves as a significant guide and companion to an exploration of  the Rieti valley itself. Nearby Greccio, Poggio Bustone, La Foresta, and Fonte Colombo—are all Franciscan shrines of great significance to seekers and believers alike and deserve greater exploration—as does this significant exhibition.

For further information, including exhibition catalogue (EU50-): www.francescoilsanto.it

Key to artwork featured (top to bottom):  Cimabue, San Francesco (detail), 1280-90; Margarito d'Arezzo, San Francesco, 1260-75; Habit of Blessed John of Parma, (XIIIc., second half);  Chasuble (w/ detail), wool and linen, XVIc., first quarter; Stefano Di Stasio, San Francesco nel lago di Piediluco 'vede' il Natale di Greccio, 2003; Caravaggio school, San Francesco in estasi, (1606-7); Giambattista Tiepolo (attrib), San Francesco en meditazione,(ca. 1713).  View of Rieti Valley.

Friday, July 13, 2012

On the Way to Rieti: Lost, Lost, Really Lost, and then Found

I sat with a few other members of our Franciscan study pilgrimage to do some faith sharing. The topic: What have we learned so far from our experience? Have there been any “A-ha!” moments of insight so far?

Well, what have I learned so far-- after one week into this 21-day experience is that nobody has the whole picture, but that everyone has a piece of it. And the more pieces I have access to, the richer my experience and the better off I am. Let me explain myself a little by telling you about my experiences (plural) of getting lost and found one recent afternoon.

We were at the Franciscan shrine in Ponte Colombo—the beautiful and still-secluded wooded hillside where Francis wrote his Rule for the order he was founding (approved in 1223) I noticed a poster on the message board announcing “Francesco: Il Santo”— a special temporary show of artworks and artifacts relating to Francis of Assisi on display in Rieiti, about three miles from where we were staying at the Centro de Spiritualita di Madre Cabrini in suburban Quattro Strade.

I got very excited and spread the word among my fellow travelers. Would they be interested in coming along during our free time in the afternoon. “I might be interested….. I’ve got to fold my laundry….Oh, I’m so tired, I need a nap. You go. Tell me if it’s interesting and maybe I’ll go tomorrow…” So. This Little Red Hen was prepared to trek on alone when one of our companions, Margaret, offered to accompany me on the adventure. I eyed her skeptically: a grandmother in ankle-length dress, no hat for the blazing sun, and flat shoes, no socks. Only a purse and a water bottle for the journey. This ain’t gonna work….. Margaret insisted she would be fine (and she was). Oh, what the heck, never mind, let’s just go.

I had heard that there was something called the Cammino di Francesco—a posted walking path stretching the 150 miles from Assisi to Rome. Right now, we just needed to access the tiny slice of the Camino which would get us to Rieti without having to hassle with the main highway. So, first, I did what any self-respecting world citizen of the 21st century would do. I went online to get Mapquest directions. Then, I asked Sister Franca, who was working in the kitchen, for directions. With Sister Franca, I tried to test one of the fundamental operating principles of travel here: If I pretend to speak Italian, people will pretend to understand me. In doing so, I ran up against a basic assumption The World has about travelers: That when you (honestly) tell people you speak only a little bit of their language, they (honestly) think you really know a whole lot. So I was able to follow her directions as far as “You go down the drive, turn right, and then you come to the sign for Aqua Martina….” And after that, I / we were totally lost. Brother Conrad, fluent in Italian, came into the picture to help with the translation. With his good help, we got a bit more information, “… but I’m not exactly sure what she’s saying,” he confessed. “Her directions are so complicated. Anyhw, good luck.”

At the end of the drive, we ran into a young couple on their scooters. They confirmed the part of the directions we understood from Sor Franca. Ten minutes later, an older man in his front yard gave us another bit: Turn right at the next corner. Great. After that, we suddenly found ourselves on somebody’s suburban shortcut as cars whizzed by us at 50mph. And no sign for the Camino. But we kept trudging, bravely chatting along, gobbling up our 8-ounce water supplies in the blazing afternoon sun. Onward! Lots of cars, lots of curves, and no human beings. Our spirits began to flag when we passed a ‘descanco’—a homemade memorial to the victim/s of a fatal accident at that very location.

Buses (plural) passed us in the opposite direction. None of them going anywhere close to where we were headed. An elderly couple sitting in the shade of their garage came up to the gate and gesticulated eagerly. What are they saying? That we’re going in the wrong direction. Oh. Well, should we take this bus that’s coming now?

He who hesitates is lost. The bus slowed down, then decided to pass us up. Trudge on. Another farmyard. This time, a teenager hanging out in his car, listening to the radio, probably dreaming of getting his license (and out of the farmyard) soon. “You are headed in the wrong direction,” he told us. Oh really? Well, could you fill our water bottles? Sure. By the way, I noticed a sign to a sanctuary for Padre Pio. How long would it take to get there? On foot? About 3-4 hours. Oh. Thanks for the water. Mille grazie.

Okay, we’re out of here. Should we find some shade and wait for another bus? How about if we hitchhike? How do we do that? It will work better, I told Margaret, if you try instead of me. Just stick out your hand and thumb. Like this? Screeech!!!.... Door opens, into the back seat. Grateful gesticulations in Spanitaliano. Americani. Locos. Perdidos/ lost-os. Smiles. Then zoom….. reducing our travel time from hours to less than five minutes.

Sorry, I’m not going to Rieti. I have to let you out here. No no, that’s great. Where’s here? In front of the gelateria, across from the parish church. In Quattro Stade. Exactly where we started out more than an hour ago. Okay, now what. Let’s keep going. How about the bus? What does the schedule say? Let’s wait in the shade; if it takes longer than 20 minutes, let’s walk home. No. Let’s get a gelato first and then walk home. Okay. Deal.

Truck, truck, car, truck, bus (no, another truck). Bus! Right! Rieti? Si si si. Cathedrali? No no no. Stazione de busses? Si? Cuanto cuesta? 3 euros, but don’t pay me now. My colleague will come in about five minutes. Great. Grazie…. Five minutes later, bus stazione, no colleague, no fare. Grazie. Now what?

There’s an exhibition poster. Let’s follow it. An Italian man walking down the hill: keep going up and up. Bilgeterria. Okay, grazie. Ticket office. Benvenutti. 10 Euros, please. Three shows, three venues. You can use the tickets until November. Grazie! Actually we just have one hour. Today. Okay, first, go to the Diocesan Museum. Over the square, to the left, across the piazza, next to the Cathedral. Clear! Great! …. Here’s the cathedral. No exhibition signs, just a red “T” (Franciscan tau?) and an arrow. Through the entrance to the underground parking garage. Up a flight of stairs. Up two more flights of stairs. Into a darkened, unlighted room w/ paintings all around. This must be the place.

And so the rigamarole continued. From the first venue to the second, to the third (top floor of the municipal building). Eureka! Beautiful show, but we were followed by an excited curator: “I love America! California! Facebook friend, Burbank, maybe September. Maybe. Hollywood! American boyfriend! Maybe maybe. I so excited!

Show’s over. Get home. Buy ticket. Tobacco shops. No ticket. Tia, where do they buy tickets? On the square. Tobacco shop Number 2. No tickets. Cluster of corporate t-shirted people. Tickets? Bus stop? Four Italians, four different answers until one gentleman guided us physically to the corner: Tobacco shop. Buy your ticket there. Tobacco shop Number 3. Ah! Tickets! 90 cents each. Schedule? I have one, but it’s for winter. Oh. Bus stop? Well, you have two options. Grazie grazie. Did you understand anything he said? Of course not, but I didn’t want to be rude. Where do we go? The bus stazione where we got off.

Bus stazione. Tobacco stand Number 4. Tickets? No. Bus stop. Outside, next to the police booth.
A one-way street. Only interurban buses pass: Roma. Wanna go to Roma? Let’s wait 20 minutes then take a taxi. Good. Fifteen minutes. A teenager gets out of his car. Great. He won’t know anything. Try anyhow. Bus stop? Number 423/424? You’re in the wrong place. Straight ahead two minutes, turn right at the fountain. Grazie. Two minutes. No fountain. Three grandmothers on a park bench. Si si si. Straight ahead. Duay minuti. La Fontana. Grazie. Duay minuti. Bus 423 is turning the corner. Hey! HEY!! Stop! Wait for us! In perfect American. And the bus stops.

Quattro Strade? Si si si. Ahhh. Let’s just relax now. What are we going to tell them when we get back? Well, we don’t have to tell them everything. Just the part about hitching a ride, then finding a bus. And then, the great exhibitions. Right. That’s our story…. Off here? Aqui? No…. you missed your stop? Madre Cabrini? Ahh, next stop!
Ahh. Grazie. Off the bus, back to the gelateria, Slow stroll home.

How was your trip? Great exhibition! Great exhibition! Gosh, what you missed?
Oh? I knew I should have gone. Yeah, you should have come along.

I counted. We asked a total of 22 (!) people for different directions within the space of four hours. My Italian direction asking vocabulary is now perfect….Everybody had a piece of the story. But nobody has the whole thing.//

New Church Movements in Old Rome

Situated not far from the ruins of the Roman forum, the basilica of St. Clement (San Clemente in Laterno) may well serve as an appropriate visual metaphor for the process and progress of the Christian faith in this city over the past two millenia. Continuously occupying the same site since Roman times, San Clemente has evolved, in turn, from an insula (residential apartment complex) under the rule of the Caesars, to a semi-clandestine house church in the early Christian era, to a public basilica/ worship space under Constantine starting in the fourth century, to a thriving urban parish and pilgrim destination today. Through multiple reconstruction and restoration efforts, the development of ‘church’ as both physical structure and faith community can be described in terms of layers: one level of identity and activity superimposed and pressing down upon its predecessors. One generation’s roof is another one’s cellar. I have to confess, the image of layering is not my own. The day I visited San Clemente, I met some students from a creative writing program at the University of Washington, Seattle. Their assignment? You’ve got it. To spend an hour exploring the building’s various levels and then to write a poem on the subject of layers. I wish I could have read the results of their work.

“Layering” may be one way to describe the continuing transition within the contemporary Catholic community in Rome as a whole —most particularly as some groups and movements within the Church appear to approach their natural expiration date, while others crop up to take their place or to devise a new space in response to the needs of the times. In my all too brief stay in Rome, I happened to notice just signs of such new layers of activity. I can only offer a cursory observation; I do not have sufficient information to present any kind of in-depth analysis. That said, here are a few groups I experienced and observed:

The Tra Noi (“Among Us”) Movement. When I learned that the name of the hotel where our Franciscan study pilgrimage would stay during our first few days in Rome, I just assumed it would be one of a vast number of reasonably-priced pensiones which are the mainstay of Rome’s pilgrim and tourist trade. But, after a little digging, though, I learned that the Casa Tra Noi was not just another budget hotel, but really a very interesting project and outgrowth of a broad-based lay movement. Started in 1952 by Father Sebastiano Plutino, the Tra Noi movement developed in response to the needs of women who had come to Rome from poorer areas of Italy in order to find work in domestic service. Tra Noi emerged to protect women’s rights in this area, but also to give them meaningful material and spiritual support and accompaniment.
Over the past half-century, Tra Noi has grown into a thriving lay evangelization movement which offers prayer groups, retreats and ongoing spiritual direction for its members in both Italy and Brazil. Its range of involvement in recent years has broadened to include several “plans” or priority programs to serve young people, women, couples, and families. Not coincidentally, several members of the Casa Tra Noi hotel staff itself are also actively involved and committed members of the movement.

The Sant’Egidio Community. Increasingly international in both vision and scope, this lay-directed movement with its emphasis on prayer, common worship and service to the poor and marginalized has its roots among Italian students in post-Vatican II Italy. Founded in Rome in 1968, the Sant’Egidio (the name is translated as “ Saint Giles”— the close companion of St. Francis of Assisi)—the movement takes its name from the parish church in the city’s Trastevere neighborhood where it originated. Over the past forty-plus years, it has grown and transformed from a student/youth movement to an international organization with more than 60,000 members. In the United States, Sant’Egidio communities are active in urban areas from Boston to New York, to Washington, D.C. and South Bend, Indiana. Its range of commitments has also grown and now includes ecumenical dialogue, efforts to promote peace and justice (it was directly involved facilitating peace accords ending civil conflict in Mozambique), and initiatives to end capital punishment worldwide. Its founder, Mateo Riccardi, presently holds a brief as special minister to the Monti government in Italy.

Every evening at 8:30, members of the local group in Rome gather for evening prayer. Weekly liturgies are held on Saturday evening in the ancient church of Santa Maria in Trastevere , attracting numerous worshipers and guests. The Mass I attended was quite a moving experience for me: spoken prayers alternating with beautiful hymns offered by a fully engaged and focused congregation.

The Missionary Sisters of Charity. This is perhaps the oldest of the ‘new’ groups active in Rome, but in view of the Church’s long history, they are still something of neophytes. Founded in 1950, this community of religious sisters is so closely associated in the public mind with the charismatic figure of (now Blessed) Mother Teresa. In fact, it is difficult even to mention them without making reference to their founder’s commanding presence. Nevertheless, even after her death, the order presently includes some 4500 members worldwide. On several occasions, I saw sisters in their trademark blue-trimmed saris—walking about the city of Rome in pairs, rosaries ever in hand. One of the more poignant aspects of their life and presence is the dining room for homeless men they operate—literally on the edge of the St. Peter’s Basilica complex in the Vatican. Every evening at 6pm, indigent and homeless men from throughout the city gather and line up for a meal, clothing, medical referral, or perhaps just a word of comfort and acknowledgment from the sisters and their volunteers. In the course of a half-century, the sisters and their ministries have become fully woven into the fabric of this and other cities around the world.

The Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus and Mary. A more recent manifestation of the flowering and ongoing ‘layering’ of both religious life and lay associations in the Catholic world is the relatively recent emergence of a new religious community I heard about called the Piccoli Frati e Sorelle V.V. de Gesu e Maria (Little Brothers and Sisters V.V. of Jesus and Mary) . Presently based in Italy, its core group includes Fra’Antonio, who has been involved in the establishment of the Roman group over the past six years. Fra’Antonio represents a ‘new breed’ of young religious—educated, media-savvy, and eager to find new ways use their technical expertise—combined with personal asceticism and commitment to community-- in evangelization outreach. Trained as a graphic designer in his native Australia, Antonio left a potentially lucrative career in his homeland in order to pursue a ‘career’ as a modern-day mendicant friar in Rome.

The members of this emerging community, which accepts both male and female members who live in separate houses subscribes to a hybrid spirituality of Franciscan and Carmelite inspiration. They place a strong emphasis on prayer, community life, and evangelical poverty and their ‘take’ on religious life is both refreshing and fascinating in its idealism and creativity. For one thing, the group’s members do not possess, hold, accept, or otherwise handle money. Neither do they have a ready ‘home address’ or phone number: inquirers can contact them via email at the website hosted by lay supporters. They stress direct contact with people and so are engaged in street ministry as well as a ministry of hitchhiking (!) to spread the Word. And wherever they go, they are dressed in their trademark light brown habit—the men tonsured, and the women veiled. Facebook and Youtube are part of their ‘tools of the trade.’
Stay tuned; it will be very interesting to see how this community evolves and matures over time.

All of these groups—and I am sure I have just scratched the surface—represent some of the most recent ‘layers’ of contemporary Church participation and commitment in the city of Rome. They do not fit into easy categories of ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’. What they share is essential to their self-definition and survival: a deep and consistent prayer life (often involving ongoing Scripture study and faith sharing), direct service to the poor and marginalized, open and clear identification with the Roman Catholic church, and a willingness to engage in dialogue with ecclesiastical leadership. Although they often provide outreach to the marginalized, they are not themselves alienated or disaffected.

It will be very interesting to see how these and other groups survive and/or thrive. What is encouraging is that in the midst of such complex and often contentious times both in the Church and in the world, women and men continue to come forward to give a personal and collective witness to the Gospel in our times with their time-- and talents and with their very lives.
In doing so, they provide yet another layer to the already rich and living archaeology of faith expression both in Rome and in the Roman Catholic community at large.//

Friday, July 6, 2012

Made in Mallorca: A Brief Visit to the Homeland of Beato Junipero Serra ofm

Earlier last month, I had the opportunity to visit Palma, Mallorc. I had the specific intention of catching the next bus out of town to the village of Petra, some 30 km. away. But both the beauty of this city (located in the Balearic Island off the coast of the Spanish mainland) and my hosts, the friars of the basilica and cloister of San Francisco, easily dissuaded me. Approaching the plaza and church in Palma’s medieval town center, one immediately encounters the bronze statue of Beato (Blessed) Junipero Serra before the entrance of the sanctuary. In Catholic circles, Father Serra (1713-84) is celebrated as the apostle of California and is credited with establishing nine of California’s twenty-one historic missions founded during the era of the Spanish Empire in the 18th and 19th c.) In fact, it was my original idea to visit his birthplace in Petra before I was happily sidetracked.

During my morning visit, I was warmly greeted and shown around by three friars--Jose Mendes Deves, Pedro Vallespir, and Brother Arturo. Father Jorge had been ordained a priest only the week before, showed me around. “The oils aren’t even dry on your hands yet,” I teased him. “I know, I know. I’m still floating and I have no idea when I will return to earth.” “Just enjoy it, Brother. Savor every single minute of these first days of your priestly ministry.”

Jorge graciously put aside his schedule of administrative duties—the friars operate a collegio on the premises, providing an education for nearly 1,000 children (both boys and girls) from ages 3 to 18. “We have a very long waiting list,” he told me. “Nearly 250 children whose parents want to enroll, but we don’t have the space.” As I looked around—classes occupy several floors that overlook the cloister’s quadrangle—I could see his point. It was the last day of school and the children, of course, were bouncing off the walls with anticipation of the approaching summer holidays.

Within the convent area(in Europe, the residences of the Franciscans are often called ‘convents’. Elsewhere, they are known as “friaries.”), we entered the sanctuary of the basilica. From its 13th century roots (started soon after the death of St. Francis), the church has undergone a number of renovations over the centuries—the most florid alterations having been made during the Baroque period. Europe’s architectural patrimony has a way of putting North American notions of ‘old’ in a more balanced perspective. This sanctuary was already ancient--nearly 500 years old-- when Fray Junipero Serra preached his famous (and last) sermon here on the feast of Beato (Blessed) Ramon Llull, on January 25, 1749.

Beato Ramon Llull (1233/35-1315) is another local friar and saint—perhaps even more revered here than Junipero Serra. Scholar, missioner, and ultimately martyr, Fray Ramon was the first late medieval intellectual to write extensively in the original and vernacular Mallorcan language (not to be confused with the later linguistic accretions of the Catalan and Castillian tongues). His remains are entombed above one of the side altars as both friars and local laypeople await his by now long overdue canonization.

Another side altar chapel, that of St. Pancras, is the site of an extraordinary event which occurred just two years ago. At that time, a major section of the chapel floor collapsed revealing a huge, cavernous subterranean area below—a mass grave containing the remains of nearly 1500 people. Friar Pedro, an historian himself, places the date at approximately 1350—the time of a huge plague which struck the city. Following excavation/ restoration efforts, the remains will be reinterred and the restored area converted into a contemporary columbarium.

In addition to school and sanctuary responsibilities, this community of nine solemnly professed friars provides outreach services for nearby parishes. Times are tough. The friars are aging; all of the Spanish provinces have been consolidated into a single entity. And the vocation situation is “fatal”, according to Fray Jose. Still, there are important signs of hope. The school continues to thrive. Youth activities—especially those recently organized in connection with World Youth Day in Madrid—have sparked renewed interest and participation. Couples and families—even in this increasingly secularized society—continue to come to the friars for the sacraments. A family tradition can often serve as an opportunity for re-evangelization and a new connection with church life. And Fray Jorge himself—already installed at a neighboring parish— observes that even small efforts at hospitality such as grief support are starting to bring an appreciative response.

Here in Mallorca, one has the sense of an ongoing historical and cultural continuum, stretching back over the past eight centuries. But the friars do not appear to be stuck in a nostalgic or retrospective mode. They are realistic about the challenges and struggles of our times (drugs, alcohol, massive unemployment, etc. are here as well). But they retain faith in the value of our Franciscan presence—showing up and being with the people, no matter what—and trusting in the power of the Spirit to do the rest.//

Lux in Arcana/ The Vatican Secret Archives Reveals Itself

I arrived in Rome last week, just a few days before the rest of our pilgrimage group. Time to dive into the atmosphere and cultural life of this famously beautiful city and to enjoy a few mildly pagan days before the start of our retreat. At dinner with several other friars, I casually asked if they had any particular recommendations of things to see, half expecting to hear about all the standard hits: St. Peter’s basilica, St. John Lateran, the Villa Borghese, the Pantheon, etc. But one friar took my request seriously and said, in a rather understated manner, “Well, you might enjoy a show of old documents from the Vatican called ‘Lux in Arcana.’ It’s really quite interesting.” Old documents. Indoors. In Rome. At the end of June, with 90-degree heat and humidity. Let me think about it.

I did think about it. And as I passed the city’s Capitoline Museums, I decided: Well, why not take a chance and drop in for a few minutes. It couldn’t hurt. It didn’t hurt at all. Not one little bit. On the contrary, for my money, “Lux in Arcana: The Vatican’s Secret Archives Reveals Itself” (May-September 2012) is one of the most exciting and fascinating exhibitions I have seen anywhere in recent memory. It’s lengthy title bears a bit of deconstruction. “Lux in Arcana” suggests a “light piercing into the depths”—in this case, the ‘depths’ of the Vatican’s literary holdings, which occupy approximately 85 km of space in various locations throughout the papal city state. The term “secret archives” is Vaticanese for the “private” or “personal” documents of the collection. It is not meant to give a Dan Brown-type allure to the event. Or is it? Truth be known, actually, is that many of the documents in this show have, in fact, been top secret items at one time or another during the four centuries of the Archive’s existence.

Consisting of 100 actual documents (not copies or reproductions) on loan from the Vatican, the material in this exhibition describes—in both literary and literal terms—the trajectory of some of the most significant events shaping both Church and European/ world history from the 8th through 20th centuries. Including items ranging from official pronouncements to the personal correspondence of the pontiffs, this exhibition presents an historical inventory of incomparable interest and value.

Here are a few examples of the items on display:
• The papal bull (Regula Bullata) of 1223 containing the final and officially approved Rule of the Franciscan order. (Might as well put first things first, friarwise).
• A petition, dated in 1530, and signed by members of the British parliament petitioning Pope Clement VII to grant King Henry VIII an annulment from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The petition, of course, was rejected, and almost all of the signatories eventually lost their heads.
• The papal document formally excommunicating Martin Luther.
• Proceedings of the Inquisition’s trial against Galileo Galilei
• The surrender of the Papal States to the nascent Italian government (1870) and the conclusive concordat establishing the Vatican state (1929).
• Letters from both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis to the Pope Pius IX (1863) expressing their separate thanks for his prayers in the wake of the terrible destruction at the Battle of Gettysburg
• The official abdication of Queen Christina of Sweden upon her conversion to Catholicism (17c)
• A beautiful letter from the Chipewa/ Obijwa nation of North America to Pope Leo XIII (19c) written in their language directly onto a birch bark base.
• A lengthy transcript of depositions taken by the Inquisition (14c) against members of the Knights Templar (eventually, 54 of the Knights were executed and the Order suppressed under pressure exerted by the French king)
• Correspondence and other documents involving various popes and signed by the tsars of Russia, patriarchs of Constantinople, Marie Antoinette, Mary Stuart (Queen of Scots), Michelangelo, Erasmus, the Great Lama of Tibet, the khan of Mongolia, and so on.

The list is exhaustive, exhausting, and truly engaging. Actual contact with such significant literary artifacts as these can leave a strong impression on the viewer. In the first place, it makes the people and events involved more real, pertinent, and concret. There really was an Inquisition, Henry VIII really did try to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, there truly was an organized effort to silence and condemn Galileo for his scientific findings, etc. Secondly, one realizes that these same people– no matter how celebrated or infamous—are not only real, they are also surprisingly finite. Michelangelo, Mozart, Queen Helen of China, and everyone else whose autograph has been included in this exhibition really did live, walk the same earth and breathe the same air as we do. But they are not immortal; they are, ultimately just as vulnerable and limited as you or I, no matter their grand deeds or great decisions.

Unfortunately, given the fragile nature of the materials shown, it is virtually certain that this important exhibition will not travel. Still, considerable documentation is available on the Internet and well worth consulting. //

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Roman Holy Days: Starting out on a Franciscan study pilgrimage

Welcome to the 2012 Franciscan Study Pilgrimage. Our journey starts here in Rome. The Eternal City. Actually, at 35-degrees Centigrade at the moment, it’s also the Inferno City. What the heck am I doing here anyhow? For months now, I’ve been trying out one of several one-line, question-and-curiosity satisfying spiels to explain myself: I’m on the lam…. in between assignments…. on a study tour…. taking some time out to rest, recharge the batteries…. I am on a pilgrimage.

Wait. That last one works. And besides, it’s the truth: I am on a pilgrimage. An open-ended journey with one very particular item in my baggage: I want an answer—actually. The Answer, if I can get it, to any or some of my heretofore unrealized dreams, hopes, desires, and longings. In other words, I want to go away somewhere and then come back different, changed (for the better, of course) somehow. Or at the very least, a little (okay, so I’m greedy) or a lot more satisfied and serene.

So. I’m on a pilgrimage. I’ve signed up for this group experience and about 20 of us—Franciscan women and men, laypeople and religious, brothers and priests, working and retired—are pilgriming (sic) together through Rome, then through Rieti (wherever that is), and finally, through Assisi—before we all return to our respective homes and jobs.

Our first meeting, which was two nights ago here in Rome, Friar Todd Laverty, one of our trio of directors (Friar John Quigley and Sister Jean Moore are the others) met with us in one of the meeting rooms in our pensione, the Hotel Tra Noi (rhymes with ‘Hanoi”). First the team members, then each of the participants in turn, stood, introduced her/himself, and briefly shared their purpose in coming all this way to spend all this money and take all this time to travel together. In various stages of hunger, thirst, fatigue and jet lag, we gave our responses: I want to get back to my Franciscan roots. . . . I’m looking for something which will enrich me for the rest of my life… I’ve been on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and thought this would be a great way to learn more about our (Franciscan) charism…. I want to steep more into my Franciscan identity…. When it came my turn, I just blurted out: “I'm here to retool.” Well, not the entire complicated truth, but close enough….Interesting, though. We’re all pretty much on the same page.

Todd thanked us for our comments and attempted to put us at our ease. He told us he’d been involved in organizing and leading pilgrimage groups for more than twenty-five years. And time and again, he’d observed a phenomenon he called “the Resurrection waltz.” We’re all pilgrims, “ he said. “ And as pilgrims we deliberately do things in our lives which cause us to change, be more open to God, in order to meet God.” A pilgrimage involves a very specific kind of process, he explained, referring to the writings of Victor Hunter: “First, there is the disaggregation. It may feel like things are falling apart for a while. There’s a lot of stress and disorientation. You may feel exhausted, or queasy for a bit. Then, there’s the second step, the stage of liminality. (Literally, the threshold experience). All kinds of things can happen as we pass under or over a threshold. It’s a good idea at this point to pay careful attention to dreams and feelings, as we move into a new experience of ourselves. It’s a process we Christians experience as growth in holiness: the deepening of our conformity to Christ and in God’s image…. And finally, there is the stage of reaggregation. Things have changed. We find that we begin to put our lives together in a new way. Now there’s no deadline on this final step. In a way we are always on pilgrimage, aren’t we?”

Well, I could certainly relate to disaggregation and liminality. But, actually, I would just as soon skip all that stuff and get to reaggregation: the evidence of an authentic pilgrim’s progress, if you will…. But wait. Let’s not get ahead of things. For the moment, it’s enough to do the step work, get with the program. Trust the process. I think of the welcome letter I found in my packet: “We ask that you put aside all worries and cares so that we can be truly pilgrims (sic)—open to what God wants to share with us and open to what the sacred places have to say to us…. Be ready for an experience that will touch you, that will challenge you. That will bring you into the presence of the sacred.”

Fair enough, I thought. Plenty to chew on there. But let me go back to that word “liminality.” Liminal. Pre- liminary. E-liminate. Limits. I look around the room. To hear our talk, it’s clear that we’re all pretty darn liminal right now: One sister has just stepped down as Provincial of her religious community. Another is retiring after a long career in nursing. Someone else, already active in retirement, has just built a built a little personal hermitage and been ‘gifted’ with the trip by family members. Several of us are on sabbaticals of varying length. And I’ve counted at least six younger friars with who are completing studies, preparing for their profession of solemn vows, or else getting ready for ordination as deacons/priests. Myself? I’ve already mentioned that I’m on the lam, having left a huge, multi-cultural parish for another, smaller community/ ministry assignment. And I really do need to rest and retool somewhat to be ready for that challenge.

We pilgrims, then, are all very different, and yet, in some ways very much alike. Sharing our articulated intentions while bearing within still greater, deeper, unexpressed and inexpressible hopes for our journey. Our itinerary booklet has a wonderful excerpt from Pilgrimage, by Virgil Elizondo and Sean Freye which echoes and summarizes Friar Todd’s earlier reflection: “ The pilgrimage itself mirrors not only the most basic reality of the church, the people of God… but even more so the reality of humanity itself, human beings together on the way to the mysterious beyond….. Yet pilgrimage sites are not ends in themselves, but often serve as thresholds into new stages in life. One does not go as a pilgrim to stay, but to pass through a privileged experience that will change us in unsuspected and uncontrolled ways….One breaks through limitations to experience a bit more of the ultimate and unlimited experience.” Okay, fellow pilgrims, here we go. Wish us well, everyone, okay?

Monday, July 2, 2012

Capuchin Encounters: Palermo & Rome

Hmmm. Early on in my Franciscan life, when I’d come across a feast day commemorating a revered member of the Capuchin Franciscan order, I’d ask myself, “Why do the Caps get all the saints, while we, (the OFM/Observants), get all the umm… non-saints? Have I, perhaps, joined up with the wrong crew?” Now, nearly twenty years later, I still marvel at the pantheon of Capuchin holy men—including such contemporary figures as St. Pio (Padre Pio) of Pietrelcina, Father Mariano of Turin, and our own Venerable Solanus Casey of Detroit, Michigan. But I have long since ceased to ask myself if I have joined the wrong Order. I am quite content among my fellow non-saints, thank you very much.

I hadn’t really set out to meet the Caps this summer (I am already acquainted with our great confreres in the western American province), but, in retrospect, my experience was every bit as unavoidable as it was unplanned. In Palermo (Sicily), I was invited to join a bus tour of the city which included a visit to the Capuchin “crypt,” as the brochure stated so succinctly. I thought: Great. Maybe I will say ‘hello’ to our brother/cousins, with whom, along with the Conventual friars as well as the members of the TOR (Third Order Regular) we share our name and identity (charism) as vowed Franciscan men. Well, it didn’t exactly work out the way I had expected.

I’d never been to Palermo before and was immediately dazzled by the city’s passion, charm, and visual candor. Other ancient cities show their cultural and architectural roots in a more orderly, layered fashion, often tidied up by the rationalizing efforts starting in the nineteenth century. But Palermo appears to have grown sideways through its history: huckabuck, cheek by jowl, posed and juxtaposed. Greeks pushed up against Romans against invading Normans besides Spanish overlords. A few Turks and Arabs squeezed in somewhere for good measure.

The Capuchin complex (church, piazza, convent, cemetery, and ossuary, then, all seemed to fit right into place amid Palermo’s fascinating urban jumble. Wait a minute, though…. Ossuary? It wasn’t until our bus approached the grounds and squeezed in among all the other jillion or so tourist vehicles that I began to re-remember. Ossuary. Capuchins. Caves. Bones. Ah yes, the Bones.

Before I knew it, our group was filing through the famous Capuchin catacombs which have served have not ceased to attract daily throngs of the curious since their founding in the 17th century. Originally intended as a burial vault for the friars, the space eventually evolved into a funerary showcase. The discovery of exhumed corpses in a state of remarkable preservation led to the deliberate practice and even fashion of mummifying and then displaying fully clothed cadavers poised along the catacomb walls. Separate ossuary chapels are festooned with carefully arranged skeletal remains. By 1920, the practice of displaying the efforts of corporeal desiccation had, mercifully, died out. But the remains… remain.

In my ignorance and naivete, I thought that the Palermo site was a unique expression of mortuary eccentricity. Until I happened upon Il Convento dei Cappuccini—The Convent of the Capuchins near the Piazza Barberini (Trevi Fountain area) in Rome, that is. Here, three of the eight rooms open for public display, featured decorative elements composed of human skeletal remains from the corpses of nearly 4,000 friars. Legend has it that this particular effort was a project of exiled French friars housed in the crypt in the wake of the Revolution and Terror (1793-4). Whatever.

At this point, I need to step in and change gears in the narrative. My natural inclination would be to continue describing and commenting somewhat sardonically upon the questionable merits of Capuchin funerary displays in Palermo and Rome. But I don’t want to go there. In fact, I can’t.

What happened to me is that when I visited the Capuchin Museum in Rome (the opening day of the renovated exhibition space, I learned), I took my time walking through the five other galleries before entering the crypt. The impressions, and insights of that experience led me to consider the Capuchins’ bloodless crypts in an entirely new way.

“Daddy, when are we going to the Bone Room?” “Not yet. Let’s look at these things first,” the American tourister parent replied. Father and son walked on ahead, but I inadvertently followed the advice not intended for my ears.
The newly refurbished Museum of the Friars Minor Capuchin of the Roman Province (its formal title) is organized into six separate galleries, each of which explains a different aspect of Capuchin life: the Friary, the Order, Capuchin Holiness, Culture and Spirituality, Saint Francis in Meditation, the Capuchins in the 20th Century, and The Crypt. Each section introduces the viewer through displays of texts and often impressive artifacts of Franciscan life from the unique perspective of the Capuchin friars.

The Museum’s purpose is best expressed in the masterful painting attributed to Caravaggio of St. Francis in Meditation (1603). In his trademark use of chiaroscuro technique, the artist leads the eye from the handheld skull to the saint’s torn, bedraggled habit, to his intense and intent gaze, to the barren cross at his knees. Image becomes icon as the artist draws the viewer into the interior life of the Saint.

As I stood before the painting, I began to think of some of the things I had jotted down from other sections of the Museum—quotations from two of the Capuchin saints represented:

• O Sweet Jesus, above all my Love,
Write in my heart how much You loved me.
Jesus, You created me.
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus
Take my heart
And never give it back. – St. Felix of Cantalice

Death is a school to teach those so insane as to cling to the world…. Holy Virgin, be my light and guide above all at the moment of my death. God’s power creates us; wisdom governs us; mercy saves us.—St. Crispin of Viterbo (1668-1750)

At the entrance to the galleries, a life-sized holographic image of a contemporary friar “speaks” to the startled visitor: “In silence, listen for the voice of Jesus calling to you in your heart,” he urges. With all of this still fresh in my mind, I entered the crypt. What in another context would appear ghoulishly frivolous proofed instead, for me at least, to be a challenge to face dying and even Death itself in a frank and unsentimental way. But also in an expressly and expressively Christian sense: “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” St Paul urges in I Corinthians. “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. “

I left the Capuchin Museum moved and even a bit chastened. Instead of passing through an embarrassing display of Catholic kitsch, I had been led into a very serious guided meditation. After all, this Capuchin insight, I thought, is not that far removed from the Mexicans’ appreciation of the Day of the Dead/ Dia de los muertos, with its marigold-festooned altares and the confectionary smiles of its sugared skulls. Indeed, Death, where is your sting?

Hmmm. Maybe all this all has something to do with our Capuchin confreres—sainted and saint-ing alike—after all.

PS: Only one real, live friar spotted—an elderly Capuchin in his white missionary habit, seated at the entrance of the Palermo church. Nobody at Rome’s Museum when I visited— just lay guides and guards in their signature white Polo shirts. Where have all the friars gone?//