Our Roman Commutes
Daily life at our Rome campus is practically paradisaical. The monastery, though hotel-new in quality and comfort, has the aesthetic charm of a much older building, and the people here, quite frankly, pamper us—we are served all our meals at one long table in the dining room, we can visit the chapel at any time of day or night, we get our laundry done for us every week, we have a small kitchen for our own use, and we are allowed free rein of the grounds, which are extensive. There are hillside groves of olive trees and towering umbrella pines, decorative stone fountains and steps scattered here and there, dark hedges lining the many paths, and unique underground storage facilities. It is a really lovely place to live.
The one potential downside to the property is that it is on the outskirts of Rome, rather far from most of the areas which we tour with Dr. Connell or want to visit outside of class. We end up spending a lot of time traveling back and forth, which can be inconvenient and exhausting some days. Usually, however, I love these commutes almost as much as our destinations.
We use all manner of public transportation—buses, trams, the metro—and meet with all manner of people. After the initial rush of getting on and seeking out a seat or a bit of pole to grab hold of, one has ample opportunity for observation—there are little Italian matrons and painfully obvious tourists, businessmen with silver rings and shiny leather shoes and the people who carry all their possessions in the bag next to them. Sometimes a wandering musician will bring his violin or accordion on and play for the passengers; sometimes a passenger will bring his pet dog (Romans will take their dogs anywhere, even into churches). We also hear, of course, many, varied tones of Italian, whether it’s two Italian ladies enjoying each other’s company or two Italian men continuing an argument of loud volume which they began before they got on, or perhaps a single Italian talking to himself as Italians commonly do. Because it’s Rome, there are always many foreign voices as well, and I often realize suddenly that I can understand what someone’s saying and turn around to see a fellow American or a clear Brit. It’s a lot of fun to strike up stumbling conversations with those of foreign tongue, but it’s also nice to take a break with one of these English speakers every once in a while.
These are all aspects of the typical trip, but my favorite thing is to ride on a bus at a really busy time, when people are so packed in that there’s hardly room to stand and the doors barely close. At times like these, we have to get creative. Students pile together or perch in odd places—Nicole, Cecilia, and Teresa might all squeeze into the space over the engine in the back and Oliver Kress might climb up and hang from the hand bars above us. In order to keep track of the rest of the group, I just keep my eye on Christian—often he’s the only one I can see. Meanwhile, Shane simply gets off at the next stop and walks the rest of the way.
In such a mass, you can be shoved up against any sort of stranger, it’s hot and it’s noisy and it doesn’t always smell very nice. It’s uncomfortable, certainly, but, of course, life isn’t supposed to be comfortable. And it’s better that it isn’t really, for the more uncomfortable a situation is, the more opportunity there is to practice kindness and the more powerful each act of kindness is. If there were always enough seats on the bus, I wouldn’t have seen Vince getting up from his so an older woman could sit down. If there was always something to hold onto, the man behind me on the way back from the Canonization Mass wouldn’t have reached out to steady me the two times I almost fell because there wasn’t. If there was always plenty of room to stand, the young woman on her way home from work wouldn’t have let me put my bag at her feet and then, a few minutes later, also insisted that I share her seat to get out from the pressing crowd.
It’s because of interactions like these that I so enjoy commuting in Rome. The environment on a bus reveals the characters of complete strangers in a way that few other everyday situations do, and I love getting these glimpses of people. Also, walls between individuals tend to come down that usually stay firmly up in public. I almost always return to the villa still thinking about someone from the trip—maybe the fatherly man with whom I had a clumsy but successful conversation of mixed languages and hand signals, and who waved goodbye to me as I left, or perhaps the stern looking old woman who made sure her two friends were seated before accepting the spot next to me with a quick, rather forced smile, and certainly any of those who offered me comfort on a crowded bus. I continue thinking about them because now, after one shared bus ride, I feel for them something more than that general love which we must have for all mankind. These men and women, whom I really don’t know at all, are, in a simple way, suddenly dear to me. And I like that.
Seeing Our Papa
On the morning of October the 7th, a large group of us Thomas More, Ave Maria, and Aquinas students left the villa at six in order to attend a Papal Mass at 9:30 A. M. in St. Peter’s Square.
Now, even on normal days, trying to go to Mass at St. Peters is a bit of a game. You always have to leave very early to ensure you can catch the 870 bus in enough time to get to the piazza before 7; then you have to make it past security and run all the way down the hallway of construction fences to reach the steps of the Basilica; as soon as you walk through the doors, you must make a beeline for the sacristy entrance; here you hover a while, watching dozens of priests with their altar boys trailing after them stream out and depart to different altars around the church, and other religious bustle about, until, at last, Monsignor Soseman appears and you promptly fall in behind so he can lead you to the desired altar.
October 7th, however, was not a normal day, as previously revealed by the mention of the Papal Mass, and this Papal Mass was not even a regular Mass. On this day, during this Mass, St. Hildegard von Bingen and St. John of Avilla were to be made Doctors of the Church. So when we arrived at St. Peter’s, after witnessing what may have been the most beautiful sunrise ever on our bus ride over, we congregated outside the locked gate to come up with our plan. Ideas were discussed, students volunteered, and decisions were made. Half of the group went to the line forming at the south gate while the other half remained at the east gate, and the wait began.
Meanwhile a select few, led by Miss Corinne Mannella, ventured out into city to secure sustenance for their fellows (for they had left before breakfast was served at the villa) from the famed 30 cent pastry shop. As they passed by the north gate, they noted how well they had chosen the east and south gates, for here the line already stretched for a block. Miss Mannella also paused for a minute to speak to some nuns she knew among the waiting ones, but after that she and the students continued on without any further delay, reaching the shop and purchasing plenty of pastries for everyone at the incredible price of just over 10 euros.
We, the members of the pastry party, returned to the east gate just in time to slip right in with our classmates and together rush all the way to the front, where we claimed the first and second rows. Yet still we were missing our people from the south, and so we stood on chairs and sent out scouts in search of them until, a little while later, we were entirely reunited. It was at this time, as we sat back to watch the elaborate preparations unfolding before us, that we finally partook of the pastries.
After a period, our Holy Father emerged, in splendid garb and flanked by servers on all sides, and the Mass began. It was stirring, but this was not the first time we had seen our Papa—on one of our very first days in Rome, we had taken a day trip to Castel Gandolfo, his summer home, to pray the Angelus with him in his courtyard there at noon. That too had involved a long wait in line and a pushing mass of pilgrims.
People get really excited about seeing the Pope. I knew that before coming to Rome, but I still wasn’t prepared for quite the level of enthusiasm which I found. But neither was I prepared for how moved I myself would be. All the while we were waiting in line at Castel Gandolfo, I was definitely looking forward to it, but when they opened the doors and the lines started moving, the atmosphere changed and then it really hit me. I had butterflies for the next hour while we waited again in the courtyard, as all around people were singing songs for him in all their different languages and energetically chattering to one another. When finally he stepped out onto the balcony, there was a great cheer and much clamor from the faithful. I was hardly able to speak. I could see, standing so near to me, the head of the whole Church, the representative of Christ on earth, my Holy Father, and I think what so surprised me was that it really felt like he was all those things we call him. It was a little overwhelming.
Furthermore, later, on that day of October 7th, he got into his car after the Mass had ended and rode all around the piazza, and in his last sweep he drove right past us—that was a little overwhelming as well. As our Holy Father passed by, we shouted all together, “We love you, Papa!” It got his attention—he turned and looked right at all of us, raising his hand in blessing. He was even closer to us than at Castel Gandolfo, and the crowds behind us were far greater. It is incredible to be among so many people who love one little man in their midst so much, and when you yourself love him as well, and you’re call out for “Papa!” along with everyone else, it really does seem like you all are some great family.
After we’d waved our last to Pope Benedict, we gathered our things and started to make our way out of St. Peter’s Square. We tried to stay together in the mob, holding onto each other and following in a line, but we were split up. We got one group out to a point just past the crowds and then kept watch for the rest of our people. It was so easy to lose each other and so difficult to catch sight of someone again in that mass of moving bodies. But eventually we found the others, and everyone was sent off on their way—the girls to have lunch with the nuns Corinne had talked to earlier, and the boys back to the pastry shop for more goodies.
Finally, I shall make just a quick mention of our most recent experience with the Holy Father: Though we were not so blessed as to see our Papa, the other night while walking across St. Peter’s Square to attain some gelato from Old Bridge after an evening spent with the seminarians at the NAC, we noticed that the lights were still on in his bedroom. So we serenaded him with a goodnight song as we continued along, and when we got to that side, we stopped for a moment, counted, and then yelled “Goodnight, Papa!” as loud as we could. The guards nearby clearly did not appreciate it, but neither did they bother us as we hurried away.
I do hope he heard us.
Rome in Retrospect: A Semester with the Saints
In a few days, a full month will have passed since I left Rome. Oh, I miss it terribly. I miss the pizza at Carlo Menta and the crème filled doughnuts at the thirty cent pastry shop; I miss the view from Piazza Garibaldi and the sycamore trees along the Tiber; I miss the streets—I ache for names like Via Lungaretta and Portuense, even Corso Vittorio Emmanuele, just as I do Normandale Boulevard and Highway 494 when I’m not at home. I miss the people I was with. I miss St. Peter’s.
What I miss most may be the surrounding presence of the faith. A typical answer, I know, and that presence is not nearly as strong as it used to be and should be, of course, but still it holds. In Rome you could buy rosaries on the streets and venture into the city on a Sunday without a specific plan for Mass, knowing that once there, you would have your pick of times and churches. I liked to see the domes and steeples of Catholic churches amongst the mass of structures and I loved entering through their doors. Best of all, I was confronted by the saints wherever I went. They stand guard on the roofs of buildings or high pedestals; they give their names to the piazzas and cafés, to the churches and schools; they have made otherwise inauspicious places famous by making each one a setting for some scene in their lives.
I sort of discovered the Communion of Saints this semester. Yes, I believed in it, and I had my saints to whom I prayed, but this semester, through many different aids, I came to know personally that which I had only really understood on a surface level—“the earthly Church and the Church enriched with heavenly things,” “the visible assembly and the spiritual community,” are not to be considered as two separate realities; instead “they form one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and a human element,” rather like how the two natures of Christ are united in one person. For I have gotten to know the saints much better, and I have gained from them a more firm faith, been inspired by them to higher hopes, and developed a much deeper love for them.
First, the saints have strengthened my faith. One can hardly help but believe more firmly in the truths of the Church when one has them as examples, who all believe it so intensely. They have helped me to perceive more clearly the glory of martyrdom—St. Lawrence with his enduring humor, St. Agnes with her purity and youth, St. Anthony, in how he so fervently desired to die for Christ. Also, through the saints I have come to understand the joy and superiority of religious life better. I have come to understand how it could be the most wonderful thing in the world to give up all you have and take the vows, like St. Francis and St. Clare—it does seem like the truest freedom on earth. Finally, I have come to have a greater reverence for relics. The veneration of relics is an intriguing aspect of our faith but not the sort of thing many of those unfamiliar with Catholic culture get enthusiastic about right away, and though I accepted it, I didn’t quite get it. Now, however, I’ve learned how to use them to aid in prayer, and they really do help with giving the stories of the Church that historical sense. “This saint was a real person, here on this earth,” a relic seems to insist. Also, there were so many little miracles and graces during the trip that made me trust ever more in the intercession of saints.
Second, the saints have inspired in me higher hopes by their great variety. What many different sorts of people they all were! In what many different ways did they give themselves to God! And yet, they all acted in the same spirit. It makes it seem more attainable that even I myself might have some place among them, and it inspires me to strive for that place, though right now I feel farther from sanctity than ever. But I can take comfort in the many examples I have before me. How many heroes the Church has! Sometimes I would walk into a church and get rather overwhelmed by all the images—statues, frescoes, mosaics—but the really incredible thing (incredible and also so completely Catholic) is that each one was made to be a distinct individual; it’s not just a monotonous mass of figures for the sake of having a mass.
Third, I have grown to love more deeply so many of the saints by living in Rome and traveling around Europe, both saints I already loved and saints I barely knew. First, I think our whole group grew closer to St. Francis; we adopted him as our patron for the semester. The first church we visited on tour was Franciscan and our first overnight trip was to Assisi, and I think St. Francis’ charity stayed with us from then on. Also in Assisi, I learned more of St. Clare and grew to love her, in Poland, St. Maximilian Kolbe, in Padua, St. Anthony, in Rome, countless others. Our studies in the classroom helped too, particularly for me our reading of Dante’s Paradiso. The whole divine comedy, as Dr. Connell told us over and over, is centered around and animated by love, but in the Paradiso, the reader meets the saints in heaven along with Dante. St. Thomas Aquinas is my confirmation saint, and when he showed up in the poem, I almost wished Dante wouldn’t continue on. But of course he did, and then I met other saints and grew in love for them too.
It is so important to make the saints a part of our lives. When we enter our churches, we should be surrounded by images of our saints, whether nearby where we can approach closely, study their face, and kneel at their feet, or whether they are far away from us on the high ceiling, so that we have to gaze up at them. We are meant to be in communion with the saints, and these physical reminders of their presence help us always remember that and be grateful for it.
I want to continue living in this culture of saints even now that I’m back in the States, and unlike so many other parts of being in Rome which I can’t even begin to transfer back home, this I can. It will just require a bit more effort on my part. I will have to read regularly about the saints, meditate on their lives, decorate my room with their images, and talk about them with others. I pray that they may continue to help me grow in faith, hope, and charity, and I am confident that they will, especially when I return to our Merrimack campus for the spring semester, first, because of our studies, which are full of works by or about the saints, but also because of our community there. In Rome, the more I came to know the saints as real people, the more I could see the saints in the real people with whom I lived. I was very blessed with my companions this past semester, with all my fellow students, from Thomas More, Ave, and Aquinas alike, and with our mentors, from Corinne to Dr. Connell.
But in fact, all while I was in Rome, I was thinking also of those still in New Hampshire. I’m not sure if I ever stopped, which made the semester away harder but makes returning all the easier. I used to imagine before coming to the school that returning to the New Hampshire campus after being in Rome would be awful, that I would not be able to settle for plain, old Merrimack after three months of adventuring in Europe, but it’s not like that at all, not because of any fault with Rome, but because of the virtues of our home campus. Moreover, the ways in which Rome has changed me will be even more important back here than there. As Robert Frost writes in his poem Birches, “it is good both going and coming back.” We climb birches not to stay in the air, but to come back to the earth better for having climbed. It is like going on pilgrimages, and this whole semester really felt like one, long pilgrimage. I was glad to go to Rome, I am better for having gone, but, at the end of it all, I am very glad to have come back.