October 6th, 2009
No matter why people come to Rome, the subject of faith inevitably rises to the surface. Today I speak with two nuns in habits who were stopped on the street by a Japanese tourist. Could they possibly spare a few moments to explain Christianity to her? Yesterday a Syrian found his way to our English-speaking church (he knew no Italian) asking the same question. He told me he had no particular faith, but he had been impressed with the Syrian Orthodox while in his own country and now, before he had to leave Italy because of a passport problem, he wanted to find out more. He asked his questions urgently, “And, so, Jesus was the Son of God?” “He promised eternal life?” Searching Americans approach the faith issue differently. One recently told me he “gave up on God” when the Supreme Being did not cure his depression and taking a little pill did. “Fine” I said, “but faith often begins when things can’t be fixed any other way.”
October 11th, 2009
After five years of praying for the pope’s intentions, two Benedictine nuns will soon return to their monastery just off the Overland Trail in the foothills of the Rockies. A brief window of religious sightseeing has been allowed them and today we are escorted to Nettuno and Anzio in a twelve year-old Mercedes-Benz which, until his elevation to the papacy, had been Cardinal Ratzinger’s car. (Thanks to some very discreet branding programs, cardinals are offered reductions on certain vehicles. In the past, Ford has bestowed sleek, black sedans on American cardinals, including one very nice Jaguar, when they owned that company.) Soon Rome is far behind us and the carefully arranged cypresses and fountains of the American cemetery at Anzio come into view. As at Arlington, a classical building on a knoll above the graves becomes the focal point. Thousands of white marble crosses and a sprinkling of Stars of David work their silent magic, making us feel both mournful and awed. Heroic reliefs on the memorial building depict an angel bestowing a laurel wreath and another lifting up a fallen warrior into glory; inside is Paul Manship’s sculpture “Brothers-in-Arms,” showing a soldier and sailor striding together to their fate. The chapel dome records the position of the stars on that fateful night of the 22nd of January 1944 when American and British troops surprised the enemy here, about three thousand names from this mission, “who sleep in unknown graves,” are inscribed on the rotunda walls. The memory of these fallen is burnished by a quotation from Simonides of Ceos (468 BC) as he recalls the memory of those who fell at Thermopylae during the Persian Wars:
Nobly they ended, high their destination
Beneath an altar laid, no more a tomb,
Where none with pity comes or lamentations
but praise and memory, a splendor of oblation
Who left behind a gem-like heritage of courage and renown,
A name that shall go down from age to age.
We drive to neighboring Nettuno where the sea sparkles and the tiny, uncorrupted body of eleven year-old Maria Goretti lies in a crystal casket. She was stabbed to death in the nearby town of Le Ferriere in 1902. Almost immediately Maria was hailed as a 20th century St. Agnes, the early Christian martyr who died to preserve her vow of virginity. Roughly-made mosaics sketch out the happy and then tragic life of Maria. Her twenty year-old assailant, Alessandro, eventually revealed that one night in his cell he had a dream that Maria gave him a bouquet of lilies which burned his hands. After this, he began to pray to her. When his thirty-year sentence was over, Alessandro became a Capuchin brother and attended Maria’s canonization in 1950. She is the patron saint for victims of crime. As we leave the sanctuary, one of the Benedictine nuns keeps looking out towards the bay. She entered the order at age 16 and has never seen the sea. Lunch is at a restaurant in Grotte di Nerone; it literally sits atop the ruins of Nero’s seaside villa. We all gaze out the open window, mesmerized by the washing of the waves over over the emperor’s ancient rooms. Our fish was caught that day from the waters in front of us; its been quickly broiled and sprinkled with local olives, capers and rosemary. The morning was filled with memories of past violence here, but this meal and the gentle breeze from the sea restores us.