Saturday, May 21, 2016

On Fraternal Correction

One of the topics that came up during the Rome seminar was that of fraternal correction. It's not something unique to religious life; in fact, Jesus talks about in the Gospel. "If your brother wrongs you, go and point out the wrong. But keep it between the two of you" (see Matthew 18:15-17). Today's first reading at Mass (from the Letter of James) gives the same advice that we find in the first letter of John (1 JN 5:16-17), so we see that fraternal correction was a real dimension of the early Church's communal life:
My brothers and sisters,
if anyone among you should stray from the truth
and someone bring him back,
he should know that whoever brings back a sinner
from the error of his way will save his soul from death
and will cover a multitude of sins (James 5:19-20).
In my 40+ years in the convent, I have been on the receiving end of fraternal correction on more than one occasion. It was painful and embarrassing, but the sisters did not beat around the bush. They expressed themselves in terms of what was good for me, not for themselves. Basically, they told me, "When you do X, you compromise your own best interests." I did not feel judged; it felt more like I was being shown on a map where I had veered from my intended pathway. Several of these incidents helped me so profoundly, that I am grateful to this day for the frankness and courage thse sisters had. Because fraternal correction, done well, takes both courage and gentleness. Fraternal correction has to be "fraternal": this person is the brother or sister you will continue to see at close quarters for many years to come or sit next to at Thanksgiving.

Unfortunately, it can be really easy to get fraternal correction wrong, falling into sanctimonious judgments or condescending admonitions. Being on the wrong end of a "fraternal" correction that is anything but can feel like being the victim of a hit and run accident. A lot of the ugly stuff you I've seen in "Catholic" com boxes fits into this category, even though Jesus said that fraternal correction should be "between the two of you" until the offender rejects or refuses the offer. Fraternal correction is a private matter.

It is a very good idea for the one who would offer a fraternal correction to make a thorough examination of conscience first: First, is it about something external (for example, a pattern of behavior)--something apparent? In novitiate we were always reminded that when we attempt to go beneath the surface, we are in the territory of rash judgment, which is matter for confession. The only conscience we are allowed to examine is our own. Then: Why would I go to such and such a person to say this? Why would I be the one to offer this observation? (Is there a subtle pride at work in me?) Do I have strong feelings in the matter? (Intense feelings are a signal we should pay heed to, especially in a potential fraternal correction: if my feelings are in overdrive, I may be too close to the person to offer a "fraternal" correction--or the action I mean to take could be more for my benefit than the other's!)  Finally, have I prayed about this? Ask for the gift of wisdom--and of fear of the Lord, for this is holy ground.

Let me know: have you received a helpful and truly fraternal correction that made a difference in your life? How did the person go about offering this life-giving word to you?

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Jesus' response to Lady Gaga (hint: it's in today's Gospel)

I don't know about you, but I would not mind putting a "divisiveness" filter on my web browser. Any posts or pages which play up divisions, put people into ever-smaller camps or write off entire groups of people would go "whoosh" like a toilet. It was sad to watch the winnowing of the Republican field of Presidential candidates. No one was my ideal candidate, but there were a few who did seem qualified enough for the job, and whose platform overall was not half-bad. But a swarm of piranhas ate away at every one of them. This one or that wasn't "conservative enough" or "a real conservative" or was a "RINO" or "soft on immigration." And now the Republican party is left with... (When I was in Italy and people asked me what was going on with the American elections, I simply said, "I really don't want to talk about that.")

It's not just on the right that this stuff happens. A pro-LGBT writer had the temerity to write an article questioning institutionalized forms of respect for persons who do not identify with their body's sex. The combox was filled by people who were enraged that the author did not "have the backs" of those persons, and the publication quickly disavowed any approval of the content that had passed editorial muster days earlier. It was simply not acceptable that a writer should have a nuanced critique of events that are going on in society. You must be "all in" or "all out." If you are not with us, you are against us.

This kind of marginalization and hostility is not limited to political or social issues. It happens in church circles, too. It's not a sign of spiritual health.

On Mother's Day, celebrity performer Lady Gaga (public confession: I have never actually witnessed a performance of hers, but my understanding is that she is incredibly talented) went to Mass and paid attention to the homily. She even quoted it in an Facebook post, along with a picture of the priest.

When I saw the post (someone "shared" it), my first thought was "Wow. She's outing herself as a Catholic. That takes guts!" But deep down, I knew: She won't survive long. (Sister Theresa Aletheia writes about what happened, and offers some really good perspective.)  I don't intend to address the several points that people made; many of them are valid enough, but not (according to Paul's recommendation) "gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you know how you should respond to each one" (Col 4:6).

Today's Gospel addresses a somewhat similar situation. Thankfully, along with the example of John's inappropriate (if well-meaning) zeal, we have Jesus' own reinterpretation and set of directions. 

Here's the complete text of Mark 9:38-40 from today's Mass:
John said to Jesus,
“Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name,
and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.”
Jesus replied, “Do not prevent him.
There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name
who can at the same time speak ill of me.
For whoever is not against us is for us.”
This is a Gospel that St Paul lived in the flesh. Imprisoned and vulnerable, he realized that his chains offered believers a chance to tell others about Jesus. But Paul had enemies, too. Real enemies. And they began to preach about Jesus in a way that made Paul's harsh circumstances even more difficult. I know what I would have done in that situation: point out all the inconsistencies in those enemies' lives and teachings. I would have worked to undermine their efforts. Not Paul! Just as Jesus said "There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me," Paul wrote, "What does it matter what their motives are, as long as Christ is being proclaimed? In that I rejoice!" (Phil 1: 18). 

That rejoicing reminded me of another joyful Apostle--not one of the Twelve, but Paul's fellow missionary Barnabas. Word had gotten to the leaders of the early Church that "Greeks" (non-Jews) were joining the Christian community in cosmopolitan Antioch. This was beyond acceptable, even if Peter had baptized the Roman Cornelius. That was clearly an exception that had been mandated by a heavenly vision. Someone needed to investigate and set things right. So they sent the trustworthy Barnabas. He was an ideal envoy, being from Cyprus (and so bi-cultural) and also a Levite, a minister of the Temple of Jerusalem. 

Luke tells us what happened: "When [Barnabas] arrived and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced and encouraged them all to remain faithful to the Lord in firmness of heart... And a large number of people was added to the Lord" (Acts 11:23-24).

Barnabas can be our model of how to live today's Gospel (and foster the growth of the Church, too!): look for the grace of God (even in the most unlikely of people) and give encouragement. I think this is what Pope Francis does as a matter of course, and our polarized society keeps trying to align him with the "side" he has most recently engaged with. It may require a profound conversion on our part. That is the grace I asked for in this morning's Communion: Jesus, give me your way of thinking; put your thoughts in my mind; let me offer hospitality to you, so that you can reach out through me to praise the grace of God wherever it may appear and encourage people to walk in it.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Last Day in Rome

Last Tuesday was my final day in Rome (a week already?!), and I had it all to myself since Sister Paul planned a kind of retreat day (at the Basilica of St Paul, no less!). After breakfast, I left our residence and trotted down to the nearby bus stop. I didn't have to wait long, and the 881 was trundling down Via Gregorio VII. I hopped off when the bus got to the first Tiber stop, crossing the river on foot to save a bit of time. I had noticed that the Church of St John "of the Florentines" just across the bridge was open all day long for visits, and I was eager to visit.

Okay, at first I was unimpressed. The place was dark, the art unretouched and dusty. I visited the several side altars on the right before kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament altar for a special prayer. Then I crossed to the left side of the sanctuary, where there was a small, well-lit shrine. Behind glass, the golden image of a woman's foot held a "theca" (tiny round relic case) sealed with a red ribbon. Near the candlestand a sign in Italian and English identified the relic in the theca as from the foot of St Mary Magdalen; "the first foot to enter the tomb of the risen Christ." The relic had been donated to the church by Pope Benedict XVI.

Now this was something. All I could think of was "Blessed are the feet of the one who brings good news" (Is 52:7). That foot stood under the cross with Mary and John, stepped into the tomb where the angels inquired "Woman, why do you weep?" and then ran to the upper room and then back again, once Peter and John had left for the empty tomb. I lit a candle and prayed for my sisters around the world, that we would follow in Magdalen's footsteps, announcing the same message. (Naturally, I also prayed in a special way for our sisters who are the most devoted to St Mary Magdalen: Sister Julia Mary and our provincial superior, Sister Mary Leonora.)

I thought that was enough to put St John of the Florentines on the map, but there was a surprise waiting for me near the exit. Evidently, the roof of this Baroque-era church was being restored, for lined up along the back wall were four immense stone statues, each one carefully protected by scaffolding. I came upon John the Baptist, the parish patron, first. He was holding his baptismal bowl high, ready to baptize any who came near. (I stood right beneath that stream, imagining myself being inundated with waters of renewal by the one who baptized Christ!) Next to the massive John, Christ bowed meekly for the ritual, while across the aisle Peter and Paul looked on.

With that blessing, I continued down toward the Church of the Gesรน, my goal being to visit the tomb
of St Ignatius before heading "outside the walls" to the Basilica of St Lawrence. Little did I know that I would be making more than one stop along the way! But the day was mine and wide open, so I was ready to follow any hint of inspiration or interest. The first one came quickly: just beyond the Campo dei Fiori and its bustling market, the tiny chapel of St Bridget was open. A placard announced that this was where St Bridget of Sweden had lived for 19 years, and where she had died. A Bridgettine sister was keeping watch before the Blessed Sacrament, exposed on the altar in a simple monstrance. To the left, a magnificent painting of the royal saint and her saintly daughter Catherine hung over a side altar which features an unusual reliquary--one topped by the distinctive headpiece worn even now by the Bridgettine sisters over their veil. Respect for Our Lord (and, truth to tell, for the elderly nun at prayer) kept me from documenting this with my smartphone; others were not so...pious, so I have a picture for you.

San Marco: notice the
9th century apse mosaic!
Happily moving on, I paid my visit to St Ignatius, lighting a candle for a pair of friends who are also devoted to the Jesuits' founder (and for my nephew and brother, who attended Jesuit high school and
college). I was now near the bus that would help me get "outside the walls" to the basilica I had never seen: San Lorenzo's. But I saw that the Basilica of St Mark (in the Piazza Venezia) was open (finally!) so I took advantage of the opportunity to visit this ancient church. (You can tell a church is ancient when you have to go downstairs to get to the front door; in this one, you go down the stairs after passing through the portico area.) When I lived in Rome, I had visited San Marco and even made my Hour of Adoration there once or twice (when I could find it open!), but it was usually so dark and forbidding. This time it was still dark, but I noticed that the passageway to the crypt was open. That was new! Since there was a school group in the church, I wasn't too nervous about going down below the main altar... On my way to the entrance, I saw and altar to St Dominic. Evidently, he had raised a dead girl to life in this very church! Below the sanctuary, I found fragments of ancient masonry and a plaque commemorating the Persian martyrs whose remains had been relocated to this spot. (The relics of St Mark the Evangelist were placed below the main altar in the 12th century.) As I emerged, camera in hand, from the crypt level I heard men praying the Hail Mary in Italian. Two pious street people were standing before the Blessed Sacrament chapel, a good reminder to me. I genuflected and paused before going up and out to catch my bus.

Finally I was on my way outside the walls, to the Basilica of St Lawrence! This was the site of a World War II bombing raid aimed at a nearby freight yard that took the lives of some thousand Romans and all but destroyed the ancient basilica. The extent of the damage is clear when you enter the restored building, so massive in size: only two or three fresco images remain, and these are fragments. At one point the entire interior would have been covered in such art.

The ancient basilica had been built on the traditional site of the martyrdom of the heroic (and humorous) deacon Saint. In fact, it was an ancient cemetery, and to this day is the site of a large "camposanto" (burial ground). When the bus driver let me off, I had to ask the shopkeepers in the area where to find the basilica, and their directions ("diritto"--straight ahead) led me to a district of monument makers and florists. I still couldn't see the basilica itself, but that is largely because I was expecting something with baroque flourishes, but this had no ornamental facade; just its ancient Roman portico and tile roof just like the olden days.

True to the basilica's ancient origins, a funeral was going on as I approached. Noon was also approaching, and I knew that if I respected the dead too much I was going to miss my chance to see the basilica. I slipped in through a side door while the congregation applauded "Giovanni," whose mortal remains had just been hoisted to the shoulders of his pallbearers. (May he rest in peace.) I will let the pictures tell the rest of the story; I only had 15 minutes to take in this whole magnificent, if out of the way, place:

In the portico. I barely had time to take in the exterior frescos.

Interior fresco.

Funeral inscription from the ancient cemetery.

Burial chapel of Bl. Pius IX.

St Lawrence (and the gridiron).

A glimpse of the raised sanctuary.

View from the sanctuary.
Note the pulpit in the nave.

Statue commemorating Pope Pius
XII's consoling visit immediately
after the air raid. Photos show his
cassock stained with blood.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

A Marian Prayer for Pentecost

This prayer (in Italian) was used during our seminar week in Rome. I have no idea where it came from, but it is so fitting for this Vigil of Pentecost (and our Pauline feast of Mary, Queen of Apostles) that I had to share it with you:

O Virgin Mary,
in your Immaculate Conception,
by the power of the Holy Spirit,
you became the tabernacle of God.
Pray that the Spirit hasten to us and renew the face of the earth!

O Virgin Mary,
in the mystery of the Incarnation,
by the power of the Holy Spirit,
you became the Mother of God.
Pray that the Spirit hasten to us and renew the face of the earth!

O Virgin Mary,
at the foot of the Cross,
by the will of the Father and the Son.
and by the work of the Holy Spirit,
you became the mother of humanity.
Pray that the Spirit hasten to us and renew the face of the earth!

O Virgin Mary,
while you were at prayer
with the Apostles in the Cenacle,
you were clothed anew in the Holy Spirit.
Pray that the Spirit hasten to us and renew the face of the earth!

O Mary, Queen of Pentecost,
I pray you to ask the Holy Spirit to infuse in my heart
the gifts of wisdom, understanding and counsel, of fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord.
Ask the Spirit to renew and strengthen this week and inconstant heart of mine,
and to make it ever more similar to yours,
so that I might become, now and forever,
the temple and tabernacle of the divine presence.

Arrivederci, Roma (Part 2)

...and now from Boston: the continuing adventures of Nunblogger in Rome!

View from the top. Well, from a balcony on Monday afternoon.
We left off with our intrepid Paulines covering miles of cobblestones in search of edifying or artistic marvels. And now they have an appointment at the Vatican.  We had agreed to meet either at the gate outside the great colonnade or in front of the nearby chapel of St Martha. (Except that it is really St Monica.) Sister Paul and I were the first to arrive, having taken a bus (much against my preferences!) to be sure of making the 3:00 appointment. We crossed paths with one of our General Counselors, a Filipina, and the Filipina sister who had been at the seminar. They weren't going to join us for 3:00, but just happened to be passing by; they had seen one of the others of the group having lunch nearby with her sister who had come to meet her for a Roman holiday of their own. Try as we might, we could not find the pair, so we split up: one at the colonnade, and one at...St Monica's (we prayed that there was no St Martha's in the area). At the colonnade, there was the Singaporean sister who would be with us--we were still missing two nuns and a sibling. As I gave up my post by the church, I spotted Sister Rebecca Marie and hailed her over. Together we joined the two at the colonnade when lo and behold, the other two appeared! Our group was complete. Now all we needed was our Vatican escort...

At about 3:20 Sister Margaret came into sight just behind the Swiss Guard's shoulder. At her word, he let us through the gate and our visit to the inner sanctum began! We started with St Peter's itself, going through the Holy Door and joining at a large circle of porphyry for a prayer. Sister Margaret explained that this maroon marble had come from the ancient Basilica of St Peter, the one built in Constantine's day. Taken from the spot that had been the papal altar, it was placed near the entrance of the nave for the laity to cross over, a reminder of their baptismal participation in the same mystery celebrated at the Eucharistic altar.

From the Basilica, we crossed into the Apostolic Palace. Looking right, we saw the Swiss Guard standing at the Bronze Doors. Looking left, a magnificent staircase with enormous pillars lining the whole way up. It was an optical illusion of sorts: the stairway actually grew more narrow toward the top, where two formerly separate buildings joined at an angle. Bernini placed the columns equal widths apart to make the stairway seem completely even. We turned our backs to the columns and went toward the Bronze Doors and then turned to go up a different set of stairs. (I remember going up this way to get tickets for the Papal Audiences when I was working in Rome. The priest who once manned the desk is now a Cardinal.) Sister Margaret explained that the (many) staircases have names. She takes the "stairs of death" to get to her office. (The grim name is due to the historic reality that when a Pope died upstairs, this was the way his body was moved to St Peter's for the funeral.) I don't remember too many staircase names, but I do recall that the Pius VII stairs were singularly unimpressive. (After all the poor man suffered from Napoleon, I would have thought they could have given him a nicer set of stairs!)

As we approached the Saint Damasus Courtyard, a black car pulled up. The priest who got out greeted us in a friendly manner. Sister Margaret mentioned which office she worked in, and we got
the priest's last name: Calcagno. That stuck with me: my niece (whose birthday is today, by the way) married a Calcagno. (That evening, looking up the celebrant of the morning Mass, I came across an entry among the Cardinals of the Roman Church. Yep. "Father" Calcagno is a Cardinal.)

As His Eminence went toward his office, Sister Margaret explained the layout of the famous courtyard. Its arched windows were meant to evoke the Colosseum, and originally formed open walkways (that kind of open-to-one-side walkway is called a "loggia"). As with many Roman buildings, the columns alongside the window openings were different on each floor, getting more ornate the higher up they were. We were coming during a lull in the workday, so we got to pass through the various loggia of the Apostolic Palace. I think it was the highest one that featured ceiling-high maps of the world circa 1700. There was no Australia, and South America had a map of its own, marked "America." (North America appeared elsewhere, with Canada appearing as New France.) A floor below was the famous Raphael loggia: the ceilings told the entire story of salvation. (Alas, we were not free to take pictures, but Wikipedia offers some!) Sister Margaret briefly told of the occupation of the Vatican (during the sack of Rome?) and pointed out the damage from the soldiers, as well as the graffiti left from petitioners of other eras who waited in this open hall for a chance to speak their pleas directly to the Pope.

We were beginning to hurry along now: a Canadian priest from one of the offices was waiting to show us the Sala Reggia, where the Pope meets heads of state (kings, queens, that sort of thing). We had to pass through the Sala Ducale to get there. This is where the Pope meets lesser nobility and important (but not that important) government officials. There is a funny protocol behind the positioning of the rooms: visitors to the Sala Ducale have to walk a few yards more than the Pope to reach the appointment, but heads of state have a journey equidistant to the Pope's for their meeting. Both rooms are pretty impressive, but I was most impressed with a room off the Sala Reggia: the Pauline Chapel. Here the Blessed Sacrament is reserved (indeed, Sister Margaret often makes her Hour of Adoration here), and the enormous frescoes by Michaelangelo (the Conversion of St Paul and the Martyrdom of St Peter) seem to have been painted last week, so bright and clear were the images. (The most recent restoration ended in 2009.) Sister Margaret also told us that when there is a conclave, it begins in prayer here, in the papal chapel, before processing to the nearby Sistine Chapel for the actual voting. (The two chapels are named for the Popes who commissioned them.)

At this point, sensory overload kicked in. Despite the promise of a quick peak at the Sistine Chapel, I had to leave the group and head back to our residence via the familiar bus 881. I had only one free day left in Rome: something to share in a future post!

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Getting ready to say "arrivederci" to Roma: Part One UPDATED

Today was my last full day in Rome, and I think I did make the most of it. (More about that in subsequent posts!) Yesterday was a free day, too: I spent the first part of it with Sr Marie Paul--and it started quite early! In fact, Sister Bernadette from our Vatican-neighborhood bookstore came to the "Casa San Paolo" to pick up a community member who had participated in the seminar, so we hitched a ride with them at 6:30 this morning. That got us to St Peter's Basilica well before the 7:00 opening of the Basilica (and of the Holy Door).

We got out of the car near the "passetto" (the wall--with a passageway inside) that leads from the Vatican to Castel Sant'Angelo) and headed toward the famous collonnade. Spying a group of sisters ahead of us, I told Sr Marie Paul: "Follow the nuns; they know where Mass will be." Sure enough! Once the mighty gates of the Basilica were opened, we followed the sisters through the Holy Door and over to the transept altar where St John XXIII is entombed in glass. A woman brought over cruets and counted hosts into a paten as an elderly priest drew near. When he started the Mass, I couldn't believe it: I recognized him. He had been the usual celebrant of the 7:00 Mass at the next altar over, the Mass I usually attended when I was working at the Vatican's Jubilee Internet Office. But that celebrant had been a bishop (later named a cardinal). This elderly man with identical voice (and the same skill at giving an in-depth three minute homily) as the Piedmontese cardinal, but had no zucchetto. (He did, however, have a ring.) Zuchetto or no zuchetto, I am convinced that Mass this morning was celebrated by His Eminence, Paolo Cardinal Sardi.

After Mass I prayed mightily at the altar/tomb of St John Paul II. I had brought a list of prayer intentions with me and dropped them into a convenient slot (which may or may not have been intended for donations). Then a prayer at the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, and a leisurely walk around those parts of the Basilica that were not blocked by cordons or wooden panels. At the various altars, priests were offering their morning Mass as the groups of tourists slowly began to fill the available areas. Another stop at the altar/tomb of St Pius X and we were on our way into the piazza looking for a cappuccino. (Got an excellent cappuccino at a rather classy cafe/enoteca near the Santo Spirito Church, just down the corner from the Jesuit's Generalate [world headquarters].) Meandered over to the Carmelite Church on the Via della Conciliazione (I think the martyred journalist, Carmelite Titus Brandsma, offered his first Mass there), and then to the Pauline bookshop. We had a lovely visit of this densely stocked and highly appreciated service to the world's priests, bishops and catechists, and then a great time catching up with our American sister on the staff (the Sr Bernardette who had been our chauffeur this morning).

We left the bookshop at 11:00. With the Roman custom of churches closing from noon until four, I
knew we would have to speed our way to Piazza del Popolo to see the incomparable Caravaggio "Conversion of St Paul" while the Church was still open. In fact, we had been in Piazza del Popolo on our first free day in Rome, but at just the wrong time of day. This time we made it! In fact, the way we took allowed us to get a peek at the ancient mausoleum of Augustus (yes, Augustus Caesar)! No real time for photos, though, if we were going to see the Caravaggio masterpiece.

I had forgotten how lovely the rest of the Church is, with its side chapels by Pinturicchio and his school, and interesting funeral monuments. (I confess, I took a picture of one of them to post on Halloween.)

From Piazza del Popolo, with all the time in the world (until our 3:00 appointment with Sr Margaret--for a visit to the usually-unseen parts of the Vatican--also the subject of a future post!), we wandered around piazzas (Piazza di Spagna, where the famous Spanish Steps were fenced off and being cleaned) and those churches that were open. One church boasted a shrine to the Madonna of the Miracle. (I was dubious, but the Church was open after 12:00 so we went in.) Mass was just ending, so we got a blessing from the priest at a gilded and
well-illuminated side altar. The main altar in the sanctuary featured an enormous scene of the martyrdom of St Andrew. I put two and two together. We were in Sant'Andrea delle Frate: the scene of the miraculous conversion of Alphonse Ratisbonne, a Jewish agnostic and the very picture of a young man of the Enlightenment, had accompanied a friend on an errand. In the time it took for his friend to meet with a priest in the sacristy, Alphonse (left behind in the church) had had a vision of the Virgin Mary and was given the grace of an infused and comprehensive knowledge of the faith. Scenes of his vision and subsequent baptism flanked the side chapel, as did marble tablets telling the story in Latin and French. Nearby, a bust of St Maximilian Kolbe featured a marble tablet of his own: the World War II martyr of charity had celebrated his first Mass at the is altar. (Later in the afternoon we would visit the Church where he had been ordained.)

In the entryway to Santa Maria del Popolo we had seen a poster about the relics of the Apostles Philip and James being on display for veneration. I thought we had missed the event, but it was still going on, so our meandering was not entirely without a sense of direction: we were heading to the Church of the Holy Apostles (now the Church is dedicated to all of them but at its founding it was named for Philip and James the Less, whose remains had been there since time immemorial. That Church just happened to be in the neighborhood where I lived for eight months while taking a course in our community's spirituality, so I knew the area pretty well. It was also just two blocks from the magnificent Trevi Fountain... After visiting with the Apostles and praying for all my relatives named James/Jamie, Sister Paul and I stopped for lunch, courtesy of my family. The Pizza in Trevi restaurant was not cheap (as nuns' budgets go), but they custom-made a pizza that fit in with Sr Paul's special needs, and the two of us really enjoyed the ambiance and the food. (It was incredible.) They also have a less expensive "pizza by the slice" side (I confess I did not notice until we were on our way out), but that would have pretty much left Sr Paul out of lunch.

After lunch, we made out way up the steps to the Quirinale, a former Papal residence (far up from the swampy lowlands and positioned to benefit from the breeze) that was taken over during the days of Garibaldi and is now the official residence of the President of Italy. We were just there for the view of Rome and St Peter's beyond the many rooftops. Another short walk to see if Sant'Andrea al Quirinale was open (it was not) and we had to catch a bus to make our 3:00 appointment with Sister Margaret at the Vatican.

But that's a story for another day!

I am having trouble posting pictures via the iPad, so look for more on this post when I get back to Boston. Departure is 3:20 tomorrow (Wednesday) afternoon, so prayers for safe travels, too! Thanks!

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Visiting the Pauline World: South Sudan

At work in the soundproof booth.
While our work at the seminar here in Rome is quite intense, the talks have been wonderful. While I have been translating them, I am interiorly offering wordless prayers (the old books would call them "pious aspirations") that all we are hearing might somehow become fully real in our lives. That was especially the case today, when several of the talks converged on dimensions of community life and mission.

At mealtimes, having the 50+ sisters in a dining room with marble floors and a hard ceiling can make it pretty hard to conduct conversations. There is a general sound of enthusiastic chatter, but distinguishing which of the sounds are coming from the person across the table and which from across the room has discouraged me (for the most part) from pursuing anything substantial. (Besides, there is the question of language... in general, the English speakers have staked out a table in one corner, but I like to wander about the room meeting new sisters and renewing old acquaintances.)

This evening I sat next to the "other" Sister Anne in the assembly (there are, in all some eight sisters here named Anne/Anna/Ana; we'll try to get a photo together before this is all over). The other Sister Anne-with-an-E is from Kenya, but she has spent the past five years in Juba, South Sudan where she is especially involved in radio. Juba is little more than a village, but because there is oil in the region, the whole world is interested and present. The sisters minister among a population that has been profoundly traumatized by violence. They also have to be extremely prudent in their broadcasts, since even the most innocent statement can be taken the wrong way and cause negative repercussions.
Sister Anne, Sister Anne, and Sister Anna (Mother General!)

Our East Africa delegation (that is a kind of organizational "unit" in a religious congregation) hosts the international novitiate for all of Africa. French-speaking novices from Congo, Madagascar or Cameroon have to learn English; the English-speakers from Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda (etc) are required to learn either French or Italian (which will help them later when they prepare for final vows with the international group here in Italy). Sister Anne and I were speaking in Italian, since the sisters across from us (from Spain and Japan) both knew it and could follow the thread of the conversation (if they could actually hear us), but Sister Anne is also learning Arabic, which is the basic language of the people in South Sudan. (The radio broadcast is in English and Arabic.)

The chapel here at Casa San Paolo.
Sister Anne did her preparation for final vows in Italy with two of our American sisters (she sends a big greeting to Sister Jennifer Thecla and Sister Joane Caritas!); actually several of the sisters here remembered one or two sisters from their "corso" (course of preparation) in Italy. Yesterday our Congolese sister was telling me that she was in the group with Sister Fay Josephine and Sister "Christine"--but I couldn't figure out (until evening) that she was referring to Sister Christina Miriam (who is in the same Boston community as I!).

I'll be looking forward to other occasions when I can hear the sister next to me to share more with you. In the meantime, our schedule also includes Mass on Wednesday in the chapel where Blessed James Alberione's tomb is (followed by a Jubilee Pilgrimage through the Holy Door at the Basilica of St Paul). Please join me in praying for the Tighe family of California, whose unborn baby Luke has been diagnosed with a condition that of itself does not offer much hope of survival. The parents are praying to do God's will, but also invoking the intercession of Blessed James who promised that from Heaven he would particularly concern himself with those who make use of modern media, as these young "hipster" parents, do, "in holiness, in Christ and in the Church." You can bet that Blessed James will be getting an earful from me on Wednesday morning; don't let me be the only one he hears from on that day!

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Free time in Rome!

Sister Marie Paul and I arrived in Rome on Monday and had two free mornings (up to about 2 pm for me) and visited some amazing spots. Yesterday we got a private tour of a former temple complex adapted to be a Christian basilica in 526. The original altar is still in its place (actually on the floor below the current 15th century church floor), and under the altar is the tomb of Sts Cosmas and Damien, the doctor-twin saints (I offered a special prayer for all doctors, particularly our dear Pauline cooperator Dr Jeffrey Mathews).

We stood in front of the altar and noticed the mosaic floor. "When was the mosaic put in?"  we asked. The priest responded nonchalantly, "Oh, in the 500's." And we were just walking all over it so unceremoniously! Mind blowing. In the "upper" church, the original Byzantine-era mosaic apse is still visible (although the 24 elders from the Book of Revelation who once graced the triumphal arch were cut out by the poorly-thought-out Baroque addition of side altars which left visible only two outstretched pairs of arms, casting their golden crowns before the Lamb.
Our guide, the Father General of the Franciscan TORs, pointed out that the mosaic Christ was a rare depiction of Our Lord with Semitic features. In fact, Peter and Paul (who were just as Jewish as Jesus) are portrayed like Roman gentlemen, while Jesus looks like the Jewish peasant that he was.

We also passed by St Peter's but it was a Wednesday (public audience with the Pope day) so there were tens of thousands of people in the square, and maybe 3000 in the security line to go through the Holy Doors. We didn't even try go in; just did some pictures. (The best time to go to St Peter's is first thing in the morning but I was too tired for that today. We're aiming for the 7:00 Mass (and the Holy Door) there once our meetings here are over.) (Our seminar includes passing through the Holy Door at the Basilica of St Paul: send me your intentions to pray for at both of these amazing spots.)

Yesterday we also paid the 12 euros to go into the Roman Forum and see the recently restored frescoes from the ancient (8th century) church of Sancta Maria Antiqua (worth the price of admission on its own). It had been covered in icons (done in fresco), and though much of the painted surface was lost, they have done an incredible job of restoring what remained. There was a kind of light show with multiple projectors tracing the outlines of the original frescoes over the walls and then filling in the missing parts so we could see what the Church looked like circa 800. One large side chapel featured a graphic novel style presentation of a child-martyr and his mother. On the other side of the "Via dei Fori Imperiali" we noticed a Baroque-era facade of a Church dedicated to the same two saints.

The day before we had a guided tour under one of the churches where there was a Roman-era street
and where supposedly St Luke had lived. It also had an ancient church and early medieval monastery (and frescos). From there, we wandered around visiting whatever churches were open (a surprising number have been open during the usual siesta hours--perhaps for the Jubilee of Mercy). So along our way we saw four Caravaggios, the tomb of St Monica and the skulls of St Agnes and St John the Baptist, in addition to the desiccated heart of St Charles Borromeo. We passed the (closed-for-siesta) church where the head of St Peter Julian Eymard is kept, and visited the tomb of St Catherine of Siena (whose head is in Siena). (It was a day of weird relics.) I lit a candle at the tomb of St Catherine.

I have had two meetings already--for a commission I am on that is completely distinct from the work I came here to do. My "real" work begins tomorrow when the seminar on "apostolic mysticism" starts. I will be doing simultaneous translations for the English speakers (from India, Philippines, US, Malaysia, Singapore and for our Vietnamese-American sister who is stationed in Taiwan and who is also attending the seminar). It is a big group (around 50 participants) from every part of the world. We have sisters here from UK, France, Germany, Madagascar, Mozambique, Congo, Kenya, Japan, Korea, Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina and probably other places I have forgotten already. Oh, yes, Colombia--the sister from Colombia was in the spirituality course with me in 1998, and one of the Italians worked with me in the Vatican Internet Office during the Jubilee 2000. The seminar will keep us busy until May 8, and then Sr Paul and I have two completely free days. Our own Sr Margaret works in the Vatican and will get us into some not-open-to-the-public spots. God willing there will be one more day after that to wander among the art, history and holiness of the Eternal City. I hope to have more amazing pictures for you then!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Catholic Podcaster's Bible? I review; you decide.
by Jessica Abel (Foreword by Ira Glass)

A visual book about an audio medium? Bizarrely, it works.

I jumped at the opportunity to get a review copy of this visual “textbook” on radio storytelling. First of all, it's about media (so it meshes perfectly with our Pauline vision of things)—and it's accessible. My Pauline sisters listen to lots of podcasts, and we're constantly talking about getting into podcasting, so I thought, “You know what? This book might make that happen.” (As soon as I finish writing this review, the book is going into Sister Marie Paul's open hands.)

Basically, Out on the Wire is a big fat comic book full of storytelling tips from the people who tell the stories that we love to listen to on This American Life, The Moth, Serial and even Planet Money. Author/illustrator Jessica Abel set out to learn how the producers of today's phenomenally successful narrative radio shows ply their craft.

As someone who grew up when the great Paul Harvey was on the air (I can still hear his rich, mellow voice and signature "Good Day!" emanating from my grandmother's back room), I was able to recognize the techniques that Ira Glass and his fellow broadcasters have rediscovered and mastered for the digital age. Good stories (and we're talking non-fiction here: real people's stories) don't just happen; they are pursued and they are crafted, and it's a team effort. Abel shows us how.

The book originated from a week Abel spent with the This American Life team back in 1999 when the show was broadcast with live introductions and the bulk of the story played from a tape machine. Through interviews, “you-are-there” retellings of some of the most outstanding stories, and illustrations (this is a comic book, I mean graphic-novel-style treatment, after all), the, er, “reader” learns, among other things:

  • Where the best stories come from
  • How to build a story (Glass compares the structure to that of a good sermon!)
  • How to build a show
  • The Art of the Interview (including preparing for an interview—Glass will go to an interview already knowing the two or three points he is looking for), or rescuing an interview.
  • Pacing, music and sound effects (this has a good bit of the technical in it; helpful sources for audio clips are given)
  • Editing (the pain and the value of taking away all that takes away from the heart of the story)

Most interesting (to me, at least!) was Glass' remark about the balance of music, voice and silence. “If there is music under a person speaking, and then it stops, whatever is said next is really powerful, it sounds more important. It's like shining a light on it.” In other words, radio is a peculiarly visual medium.
I highly recommend this book not only to would-be broadcasters, but to anyone who wants to become a more effective storyteller. In particular, this could be a kind of “Podcaster's Bible” for evangelization. That's how I see it being put to use in my community!

Media Apostle: the Canadian Catholic TV Magnate

"You could really tell he was Alberione's protege," Sister Donna just remarked. She was talking about Gaetano Gagliano, the humble but dynamic Italian immigrant behind Salt+Light (think: Canadian EWTN) who died this week.

I had known about Mr. Gagliano, but only in tidbits: that he had been an aspirant in the Society of St Paul as a youngster in Italy, but had to return home (twice!) because of ill health (yet he would live to 98). That years later he emigrated to Canada with his growing family and eventually started a printing company named after St Joseph (it became the largest communications company in the nation). And that he never forgot Father Alberione and his dreams of evangelizing the world through communications media.

Two weeks ago I was at a conference with Father Thomas Rosica of Salt+Light TV. He mentioned that he had had no background in media (in fact, he is a Scripture scholar) until shortly after the Toronto World Youth Day in 2002, and that Salt+Light came, in some way, from that event....

That's because just about then, Mr. Gagliano had a vision (maybe he spoke of it the way Alberione referred to such experiences, as a "dream"). His boyhood mentor, Father Alberione, gave the  successful (and by now elderly) businessman a job to do. So Gagliano met with the priest who had headed the World Youth Day event and proposed that he start a Catholic TV network. It was vintage Alberione: getting someone with absolutely no professional training to undertake a new initiative for the Gospel. Father Rosica tried to brush it off. He was a professor, not a producer. But when he went to the Vatican shortly afterward, a long, detailed fax (this was 2002) was there, waiting for him. And after his meeting with Pope John Paul II and the reports of the World Youth Day event, the priest mentioned the outlandish proposal about TV. (The Pope told him to go with it.)

Father Rosica, the scripture scholar with no TV background, is now the CEO of Salt+Light, Canada's first Catholic TV network (it now reaches 160 countries and broadcasts in five languages).  Six years after Mr. Gagliano's first conversation, the Vatican tapped Father Rosica as English language media laisan for the Synod of Bishops (fittingly, the topic was on the bible and the Church);  he performed the same service for the 2012, 2014 and 2015 Synods.  Meanwhile, he was appointed a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, and later joined the Press Office for the Holy See. But it is Gaetano Gagliano, the "failed seminarian," who is acknowledged as the Founder of Salt+Light TV.

Just weeks after the death of Mother Angelica, the foundress of EWTN, another American media apostle has been called home. These pioneers recognized the power of media, not only for harm, but for good. They did not wait for others to lay the groundwork for them: they accepted the challenge of doing what they could to make what Alberione called "the most rapid and fruitful instruments" available for the spread of the Gospel. May they rest in peace, and may we not rest while time is still ours.

Biography of the Founder of Salt+Light TV.
Newspaper article with the whole story.
Father Rosica's homily for Gaetano Gagliano's funeral Mass this morning.

You haven't seen the Alberione documentary Media Apostle yet? No more excuses! Watch it online right here:

Media Apostle (90 min): The Father James Alberione Story from Pauline Books and Media.

Monday, April 18, 2016

New (and free!) from the Pauline choir

Well, this is a musical recording I didn't work on. In fact, it wasn't even recorded in our studio--that's part of the interesting story behind this newest release from the Daughters of St Paul--but I have been eager to see it released ever since I first heard it (over a year ago: this has required a lot of patience!). Thankfully, the day has come, and in plenty of time for the Pentecost Novena, too.  Introducing: a sung Chaplet to the Holy Spirit, written by our own Sister Julia Mary and sung by, yes, the Daughters of St Paul, but not the usual choir members--this recording was recorded "at home" and sung by the sisters in the community of New Orleans (admittedly, star soprano Sister Julia was still stationed there, along with the equally gifted Sister Tracey)!

I am sure this almost-20 minutes of prayer will transform your commute with its repeated and beautiful invocations for each of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. (Who can't benefit from greater wisdom, knowledge, understanding, fortitude?)

Now for the story behind this lovely and prayerful recording:

During her own chapel time, Sister Julia began adapting the words of a traditional and well-known prayer (Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful...) to ask for each of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit: Wisdom, Knowledge, Understanding, Counsel, Piety, Fortitude, Fear of the Lord. For years she would pray these invocations chaplet style when there was a particularly urgent intention. I remember in 2013 when I was going to attend our congregation's General Chapter (the highest governing body in the congregation), she promised to pray the Holy Spirit Chaplet for our work.

Soprano section: Sisters Tracey and Julia.
Sister Julia makes stunning rosaries (she's a regular at bead shows!), so it wasn't long before she crafted a set of beads to go along with the prayers.  After some time, she created a leaflet with the prayers so she could share the chaplet with our New Orleans Pauline bookstore customers. One of the "regulars" there is New Orleans musician Jamie Diliberto. Sister Julia showed him the chaplet beads and gave him a leaflet. The very next day, he came to the bookstore. Feeling profoundly inspired, maybe even "pushed," he had set the prayer to music overnight. The sisters of the community got together, and under Diliberto's guidance recorded the entire prayer, adding harmonies to each repeated petition.

The result is a hauntingly beautiful contemplative prayer that you can share, too! (You can thank me later.)

Oh, since I am going to Rome next week to do some very intensive work for my congregation (two weeks of simultaneous translation for a seminar and two days of meetings--all in Italian), how about you pray the Holy Spirit chaplet for me???

Monday, April 11, 2016

Amoris Laetitiae: Responses (and Reactions!)

Photo by Michael Makri, sdb.
My social media feeds were filled over the weekend with all sorts of posts and comments about the new document on marriage and family life. Some, like Bishop Barron's post, were first-glance kind of summaries (also see this great interview and these follow-up questions). Others were harsh, resentful, even suspicious critiques of a document that didn't stress what the writer would have stressed, or say it the way the commenter thought it should be said. Some readers seemed to almost deliberately read the document looking for faults, and applying the Pope's words to extreme situations they were not meant to address, as if he were (for example) giving divorced-and-remarried persons permission to freely decide for themselves whether or not to receive the Eucharist. (I will probably not answer this myself, but here is one unimpeachably orthodox priest's response to issues related to the divorced-and-remarried.)

I have to admit, though, that there were things in the document that took me aback, too. Like this:
In such difficult situations of need, the Church must be particularly concerned to offer understanding, comfort and acceptance, rather than imposing straightaway a set of rules that only lead people to feel judged and abandoned by the very Mother called to show them God’s mercy. Rather than offering the healing power of grace and the light of the Gospel message, some would “indoctrinate” that message, turning it into “dead stones to be hurled at others” (Amoris Laetitia, n. 49; the context is dire poverty).
Yowzers! Who is he talking about? I don't really know anybody who would do that! Come on, Francis, lighten up! 

And then this weekend I heard a story that gave me a very different perspective. It wasn't a marriage situation. It wasn't even within the past twenty or thirty or forty years. In this case, which took place over sixty years ago, an entire family and all their future generations was alienated from the Catholic Church because of the inflexibility of a single person, a Sister, in finding a way to accommodate an expectant mother in a life-or-death situation. That sister's undue attachment to rules and regulations took precedence over the desperate need of a family who was unable to pay for the prescribed treatment. (Their Jewish doctor paid from his own pocket, saving both lives.) The parents are now dead, but families' memories of harsh treatment or intemperate words can live on for decades.

This is the sort of thing Francis has to address: not just people currently in "irregular marriages," but all those couples and families and grandchildren from decades past, from a time when shunning was the accepted response to a situation of divorce and remarriage (or of single motherhood).

I think Francis also has to deal with an even more insidious set of beliefs: the "beliefs" people receive from the mass media when it attempts to put Catholic teachings into headline-length snippets or sound bytes:
The secular media are not the only ones to blame for the confusion. There are devoted Catholics who do not understand the Church's teachings as well as they think who add to the confusion by publishing some of the very same misconceptions listed above: but since they do so as banner-waving Catholics, it really does seem to confirm the secular narratives. This is getting to be a serious problem, because some of those poorly informed Catholics are really adept at using social media!

My two cents: I believe that it is because Catholic life has in our day been reduced to the once-a-week observance of the Sunday precept that exclusion from sacramental Communion seems to be exclusion from the Church itself. Pope Francis is, in Amoris Laetitiae, inviting all of us to expand our notion of what it means to be an active Catholic: it goes way beyond Sunday Mass, which is, as it were, the foundation or wellspring from which all the other expressions of faith come forth.

In Amoris Laetitiae, Francis is asking all of us to broaden our understanding of the life of the Church; to open our doors to the marginal members, or to those who still feel there is no room for them in the assembly of the presumedly perfect. One way we can begin to do that is to extend our parish life outside the hours of Mass and the property lines of the Church--to "go out" as Francis keeps insisting. And to go out together: those in the Communion line and those working on getting there through a profound journey of discernment, spiritual direction and prayer. He also (repeatedly) urges families to pray together daily; to develop a genuine family spirituality and make their homes real domestic churches where the one Church of Christ is present, manifest and active.

Just a reminder: You can read the whole lengthy document online so that you do not depend on others to tell you what Francis said; you can also sign up to reserve your copy of the paperback edition from Pauline Books & Media (it will cost $11.95 and ship--God willing--on May 2).