Category Archives: Italy

Benedict and Francis

Not the popes.  The saints.

Today, I was able to head to the small mountain town of Subiaco, famous for the cave in which Saint Benedict spent his first three years as a monk.  That part I knew.  But I didn’t know that Saint Francis had made a pilgrimage to Subiaco in the last years of his life.

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Subiaco is a breathtaking spot, away from the hustle and bustle of Roman life.  That is my reality, but it was also the reality of the young student, Benedict.  He came to Rome to receive an education in rhetoric at the end of the 5th century, but fled the life of vanity there to become a hermit in the wilderness.  He came to Subiaco, a large cave that is now filled with paintings and chapels.  In this lonely place, Benedict gave himself over to prayer.  Romanus, a hermit who lived on the mountain above the cave, used to lower food to him.  Soon, however, the local shepherds and farmers would come to learn something from this man, exchanging food and other necessities for a bit of wisdom.

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The monk who gave us the tour today brought out one aspect of the story that was new to me.  Benedict composed  his famous Rule for these simple people who always came to him seeking wisdom and advice.  His Rule for the monasteries that he would found throughout this region of Italy, was also a rule of wisdom for the daily life of ordinary Christians.  We see in this little aspect of the tale two beautiful realities: the desire of the people for the wisdom of God and the desire of Benedict to share what he had received from God in his life of prayer and dedication.  And we must remember the context in which all this happened.  The Roman Empire had just collapsed in the West, leaving a huge vacuum which the barbarian–which mainly means un-educated–peoples would fill.  The Benedictine monasteries would be set up throughout Europe as “cities on a hill”, places of civilization and beauty in the midst of the Dark Ages that followed the fall of Rome.

Which brings me to a second thing that struck me in this trip to Subiaco: Saint Benedict is the patron saint of Europe.  In the picture above, which was taken in a part of Benedict’s cave, there is a candle with the most unique candlestick I have ever seen.  It is a part of a bomb!  The bomb landed near the shrine during World War II but never exploded.  It was placed there (diffused!) in 1964 when Pope Paul VI named Benedict the patron saint of Europe.  At the base of the bomb-candlestick it says “Europa Una”, “One Europe”.  We were reminded that the motto of the Benedictine order is “Pax”, “Peace”.

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Benedictine monasteries are always places of peace. But more importantly, the life of prayer, study, work, and community that characterized those monasteries is a sure path to peace.  The peace of God, which is the only true peace, is not meant just for monks, but also for ordinary Christians, those for whom Benedict originally wrote his Rule.  It is the life of the Gospel that brings peace to our troubled souls, and makes us “instruments of peace” for the world around us.

The sanctity and message of Saint Benedict brought thousands of pilgrims to Subiaco in the years following his death.  We saw at the entrance to the cave a painting of Mary and Jesus that dates back to the 7th century!  The painting is at the bottom of a staircase that leads up to the cave of Benedict, and it was these stairs that Saint Francis climbed in the year 1223.

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In one of the side chapels of the cave, there is a painting of Saint Francis that commemorates the pilgrimage that he made.  It is a rather unique painting, because Francis is not depicted with the stigmata.  The monk who was giving the tour asked us why he was not pictured with the wounds of Christ, whereas most paintings of Saint Francis show him with these wounds.  And then he reminded us of the year Francis a had visited Subiaco, 1223, one year before he received the stigmata (1224) and three years before his death (1226).  The artist had seen Saint Francis, and painted him as he remembered him, which means that this is a very accurate depiction of the saint from Assisi.  The Benedictine monk was quick to point out: more accurate than even the paintings at Assisi, which were done by men who had never met Francis!

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Needless to say, we were all struck by this trip to Subiaco, and inspired by these saints–giants of the faith–who gave themselves entirely to the Lord’s service.  Where would the world be today if it weren’t for men like Saint Benedict and Saint Francis?  Benedict used his learning and wisdom to mark out a path to peace and friendship with God that continues to shape the world today.  Benedictine monks are incredible people, and gave Europe and, through Europe, the world, so many gifts of culture and faith.  They were truly lights in the midst of the Dark Ages, and in every age the darkness of sin has need of men and women who bring the light of Christ.  Saint Gregory the Great, himself a Benedictine monk, would send the monks Saint Augustine of Canterbury and Saint Boniface to the English and German peoples.  The list of saints, scholars, and missionaries reaches all the way to our day.

Francis would set the world on fire with his burning heart, burning with the love for Lady Poverty, to show the Church and the world “the one thing necessary” (Luke 10:42).  He found a great treasure, Christ, and was willing to give up everything to buy it.  His communion with Christ went so far that he would receive the marks of Christ’s passion on his own body in 1224.  Franciscan priests and brothers have had such a profound impact on the Church not only in Europe, but throughout the world.  They were largely responsible for the evangelization of the Americas, and it was a Franciscan, Junipero Serra, who founded the missions of California.

And of course, my mind turns today to our two popes, Benedict XVI and Francis, who also have the same desire that moved our two saints–to bring us into relationship with Jesus Christ, our true peace.  In this reflection, we can understand a little better the depth behind the names chosen by these men, and we are grateful that the popes call our attention to these great saints.

Where would we be without men like Saint Benedict and Saint Francis?  Where would we be without the saints?  These men astound us by their lives, but they also show us a path, the path to the peace that does not pass away and to the essential in life.  This peace and this essential thing have a name and a face: Jesus Christ.  That is what saints do; they make Christ present!

Saints Benedict and Francis, pray for us!

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The Beautiful Day

This February 22, 2014 we celebrate the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, not as a piece of furniture but as an authority that Christ willed to be exercised in His Church for the good of us all, “to strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:32).  This year, Pope Francis will also confer the “red hat” on the new cardinals in the consistory celebrated on the Feast of the Chair.

But there is another event that draws my attention this February 22, not in opposition to the above-mentioned events, but as another reason to be grateful: the ninth anniversary of the death of the Servant of God, Luigi Giussani.  On this day in 2013, Cardinal Angela Scola of Milan announced the opening of the cause of canonization for this great priest and educator.

A few weeks ago, I ran into an article online, from Crisis magazine, about Luigi Giussani entitled “Recalling Luigi Giussani’s Passion for Christ”.  Here is a link to that great piece by Regis Martin: http://www.crisismagazine.com/2014/in-search-of-the-beautiful-day-luigi-giussanis-achievement

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In the article, Martin makes reference to the “beautiful day” which is a word Giussani used to describe his first encounter with Christ as a present event and reality.  This encounter with Christ present would spark a passion for Christ that was contagious, that changed his life and

Also the lives of countless young people for whom he would harness all that he had to offer in order to bring Christ to their world.  To enable them to experience the beautiful day that had first enraptured him.  Passion for Christ having become the transformative experience of his life, he was determined to infuse the lives of others, especially the young, with that same passion.

As I read Martin’s article, I so wanted him to describe the content of that “beautiful day”.  What happened? What led up to it?  What was different about that day?  I so wanted Martin to let those who may not know Father Giussani’s story the shape of that encounter, because it truly is beautiful and paradigmatic of what we mean when we say that Christianity is an event.

Okay, I’ll tell you…

First, we have to meet Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) the great Italian poet.  On a trip to Recanati, Leopardi’s hometown, I had the chance to learn about his life and especially his influence on Luigi Giussani.  Leopardi is known as a pessimistic poet, as one who awakens our desire only to tell us that it is unrealizable.  This pessimism was true for Leopardi’s life, but not for all those who read and love him.

Leopardi produces the contrary effect to that which he proposes.  He doesn’t believe in progress, and he makes you desire it; he doesn’t believe in freedom, and he makes you love it.  He calls love, glory, and virtue an illusion, but awakens in you an inexhaustible desire for those things.  He was a skeptic, and he makes you a believer.  –Francesco de Sanctis

So, what led him to this pessimism?  The modern concept of reason and science taught him and teaches us that man is just a part of nature, that his coming and going in this world are only the result of natural processes.  This mechanical view of the universe “should” teach us that the fly who dies after a few days and the human being who passes away are part of the same natural processes.  Yet, man is the only creature who is aware of this “system” and its limits.  He is cursed because two worlds fight within him: the desire for the infinite and the reality of death and the conquest of natural forces.

His reason reaches out for the infinite, and yet cannot attain it.  Leopardi expresses this beautifully in his poem “Infinity”:

This solitary hill has always been dear to me
And this hedge, which prevents me from seeing most of
The endless horizon.
But when I sit and gaze, I imagine, in my thoughts
Endless spaces beyond the hedge,
An all encompassing silence and a deeply profound quiet,
To the point that my heart is almost overwhelmed.

IMG_0949“Hill of Infinity” in Recanati, Le Marche, Italy

Leopardi’s heart would also be overwhelmed by the death of his childhood love.  The scientific education that would have him see in this death only another natural process, no more and no less, could not calm the desire of his heart, and the grief at the loss of a love that was the most real thing he had known.

The poetry of Leopardi would feed the soul of a young seminarian over 100 years later, when Luigi Giussani first found this lifetime friend.  Between the ages of 12 and 13, Giussani memorized all the poetry of this skeptical, Enlightenment thinker.  The poems awakened in him that same desire for the Infinite, which had haunted Leopardi but would be the bassi for Giussani’s “beautiful day”.

When he was 15 year old (1937), Giussani was listening to his seminary teacher Father Gaetano Corti explain the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel.  He had heard these words thousands of time, seeing that in those days, the first chapter of John was read at the end of every Mass.  Corti began to comment on the passage: “The Word was made flesh.”  “Beauty became flesh, Goodness became flesh, Justice became flesh, Love, Life, Truth became flesh, Being became flesh…one among us.”

Giussani thought immediately of his friend Leopardi, that the answer to Leopardi’s angst had already happened 1800 years before Leopardi was born.  All the things that Leopardi had striven after became flesh and dwelt among us.  What then was the difference between Leopardi and Giussani?  Quite simply, Giussani had a witness in his life who was able to point out the Presence of the answer to the question that had grown so great in his heart.  Giussani encountered the answer to his humanity, a humanity that was awakened by his friend Leopardi.

The fact that the Word became flesh is not just something from the past, though; it teaches us the “method” of God from the moment of the Incarnation.  As Giussani would say, “L’istante, da allora, non fu più banalità per me.”  The easiest way to translate the phrase would be to say that from the time of his “beautiful day”, the moments of everyday life would always carry something more, would always be the “vehicle” of the Presence of Christ.

The beautiful day, then, led to so many more beautiful days in the life of Father Giussani.  He gave his life to the Church, whose greatest task, like that of John the Baptist, is to point out the Presence of the Word-made-flesh in our midst.  Giussani understood that this could not happen, that Christ could not be experience as the answer, unless the question of our humanity arises, even in its painful longing for what seems “beyond” us.  Leopardi’s problem was not that he desired to much, but that he did not have the encounter with the answer to what was stirred up in his heart.

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Which leads to one last point: Leopardi lived right across the street from a church.  The building that is just barely in the picture on the left was the house where Leopardi grew up.  If only…if only he had encountered someone in that church who could have pointed out to him the only one, Jesus Christ, who could answer all of those beautiful questions and desires that arose in his heart.  If only he had experienced the “beautiful day” that Father Giussani experienced as a teenager.

Let us feel that “if only” directed also to us: that we too can know and love and witness to the Infinite that became flesh and dwells among us.

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The Holy House of Loreto

“Isn’t it amazing that God made Himself so uncomfortable just to be with us!”  These simple words of my friend Maria came as she commented on the dimensions and the simplicity of the Holy House of Loreto.  What is this Holy House in the hill-top town of Loreto, near the Adriatic Sea in the region of Le Marche, Italy?

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The sites of the Holy Land have been visited by Christians since the earliest days of Christianity.  The first Christians visited these places, setting up small shrines even in the time of persecution.  The pagan rulers could knock down these shrines, building temples to their own gods on top of them, which only served to show later generation where the original shrines were.

One of the earliest shrines was the house of the Virgin Mary in Nazareth, where she first received the message of the angel Gabriel, that she would be the Mother of the Savior and where she lived with Our Lord and St. Joseph.  We know, for example, that St. Helen had a Basilica built over this important place where our Lord “grew in wisdom and stature before God and men” and our Lady “pondered all these things that had taken place in her heart” (Luke 2:52).  This Basilica would be destroyed by the Saracens after the Christians had largely disappeared from the Holy Land.  Still, devotion to the holy house would continue.  In the Middle Ages, both St. Francis and St. Louis of France visited, because a new Basilica was built at the time of the Crusades.

When the Holy Land was definitively lost for the Christians after the time of the Crusades, the Holy House (it’s walls to be exact) was taken first to Croatia (1291), and after the Muslims had conquered even that territory, to its current place across the Adriatic at Loreto (1294).

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Loreto is located in the region of Le Marche, which was once part of the Papal States; it remains one of the few territories that belong directly to the Vatican outside of Vatican City.  In time, a huge basilica was built around the Holy House, and an ornate structure to enclose the fragile walls of the original house.  It has become the principle Marian shrine in Italy, and was visited by many saints and popes throughout the history of the Church:  St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Alphonsus Liguori, St. Frances Cabrini, Blessed Cardinal Newman, St. John Neumann, and St. Francis de Sales, to name but a few, have visited the Holy House.  Pope John XXIII visited Loreto in 1962, just before the opening of the Second Vatican Council, to ask our Lady’s prayers for the Council.

What can we say about this shrine?  Is it really possible that the real house of the Virgin Mary could be in East-Central Italy?

First of all, the story that angels carried the house from its location in Nazareth to Loreto is a little hard for us to imagine in our modern, scientific age.  It has been suggested that the family that paid for its transport was the “Angeli” family.  That could be one way to understand the reference to the “angels” who brought the house to Italy.  For that matter, the visit of Pope John XXIII, whose baptismal name was “Angelo”, could be said to have been the visit of an “angel” to Loreto.  Or it could have been transported by angels, for all we know!  God can do such things, of course, and maybe He did…  It is this miraculous transport that has made Our Lady of Loreto the patroness of aeronautics.  In the museum, I found a medal that was brought on the lunar module of the space mission Apollo 9.

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But how do we know that the house is from Nazareth?  Here, modern scientific studies are very helpful.  The structure has two different levels of bricks: one that is very clearly proven to be the type that would be used in that region of Italy in the Middle Ages, and another that can be traced to the type used in 1st century Palestine (the Holy Land).  You can see the two types pretty clearly in this image:

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The bricks below also have some graffiti (the holy type) on them that turn out to be early Christian symbols: Alpha and Omega, a Cross, and other Christological references, all the same style that the early Christians used.  The markings show the devotion already surrounding these walls in the earliest days of the Church.  The walls do not have a foundation, which shows that the small house was not built there, but moved from somewhere else.  Last of all, there are only three walls, which match perfectly with what is “missing” from the rest of the house at the current Basilica in Nazareth.

There is much more that could be said, and much more I still want to learn.  But there is one last thing that struck me more than anything else at the Holy House.  It is a phrase that is also at the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth: Verbum Caro Hic Factum Est, “The Word was made flesh here“.  Here!

My friends, this is the mystery that brings us to our knees, the mystery that Maria helped me to pay attention to: “Isn’t it amazing that God made Himself so uncomfortable just to be with us.”  God wanted to be with us.  This is the only reason why Christianity exists, why we give a damn about walls from 1st century Palestine in the first place.  We do not go to Loreto to marvel at “old stuff”, or to hear a story about moving a house across the Mediterranean.  We go to Loreto–I went to Loreto–to kneel before that mystery, and to ask that that mystery will fulfill itself in my life: “Whatever reason you came to be with us Lord, I want that to happen for me.”  Just like Our Lady said, “Let it be done unto me according to your word.”

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This last image is of the marks in the marble (that is a type of stone, mind you), where millions of pilgrims have knelt over the centuries.  These marks go all the way around the ornate structure that “houses” the Holy House of Loreto.  Imagine how many people have knelt in this place, before the mystery of God-made-flesh, to bring their prayers and their hopes and their sickness and suffering before that God and the woman who made herself available for His coming.

And I can understand why!  The first thing I wanted to do, after feeling some small part of the importance of those words that Maria said to me, was to kneel.  I was brought to my knees before this central mystery of our Faith, the Incarnation.  The Word was made flesh, here!

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Poverty and Beauty

Last weekend, I found myself in the town of Tivoli, 25 miles east of Rome.  We went to see this beautiful town on the high hills from which you can see Rome in the distance.  The “main attraction” is the Villa d’Este, which at first I thought had something to do with the fact that the villa was to the east of Rome.  Actually, the villa was built in the 1500’s by Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este, governor of Tivoli during the time of the Papal States.

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Ippolito d’Este utilized the artistic skills of the star architects, sculptors and painters of his day.  It was begin after 1560 and finished before the cardinal’s death in 1572.  In 1605, Cardinal Allessandro d’Este, the brother of Ippolito added other flourishes to the villa, including the water organ, which is up above the fountains (we heard it play…a bit of a let-down).

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As I walked around Villa d’Este, I was struck by the beauty of the place.  It is a breathtaking beauty in which I felt “at home”; I was made for this and for the Beauty that this beauty points to.  The mixture of natural beauty with man-made beauty speaks to the harmony that exists between the mind of God (author of nature) and the human mind (architect/artist).  This co-operation of man and God continually blows me away here in Italy.

As I walked among these beautiful gardens, fountains and sculptures, I asked my friend Father Mike with whom I was traveling, “Does being a poor Church for the poor mean that we can’t have beautiful things anymore?”  The question brought me to a bit of a crisis as we walked through the home of a cardinal-prince, but led to a wonderful discussion of beauty and poverty.  What do the two have to do with each other?

We are called to have the same mind as Christ, “who though He was in the form of God did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.  Rather, He emptied Himself, and took on the form of a slave.” (Philippians 2:6)  In the season of Advent, we prepare ourselves for the encounter with the child Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem: poverty takes on flesh in Christ, who “though He was rich, for your sake became poor” (2 Corinthians 8:9).

There are so many ways in which this poverty is expressed, in the different vocations and at different times in history.  Pope Francis has called for a poor Church for the poor, which means much more than only material poverty, although it does mean that.  Who of us could imagine the uproar (both inside and outside the Church) if today a bishop or cardinal built himself a villa like the one in Tivoli?

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The call to poverty that we hear from both Pope Francis and from our Lord Jesus is a call to a new relationship with things, just as the vocation to virginity is a call to a new relationship with people.  In poverty, things are not for me but for the Kingdom of God.  Things (or people) are not meant to be grasped, and so in some concrete way I teach myself, educate myself, to poverty: by giving things or money away to those who do not have them.

I propose as one way of resolving–but not dissolving–the tension between poverty and beauty, that we can imagine beauty as a gift, the charity of beauty.  Who of us would want to receive an ugly Christmas gift (unless it was an ugly Christmas sweater–those are cool now)?  Who of us wants to walk into a church to see it dirty and disordered?  The beauty of a house or an office or a church is a charity for the other people who use that place.

But there are some people who do not have a place of their own, who have nothing to “clean up”, who cannot even find a place to clean themselves or wash their clothes.  I often run into these people around churches, and I think: the church is one place people can go that is beautiful, a beauty that does not “belong” to anyone but that is for everyone, especially for those who have nothing.

The few times I have visited Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, I have been blown away by the beauty of the place and by the amount of homeless people who sleep in its pews.  Yet, the beauty of that place is for the poor as much as it is for anyone else.  It is a form of charity.

In his recent Apostolic Exhortation on evangelization, Pope Francis speaks about the need for beauty in the Church’s preaching and teaching:

Every form of catechesis would do well to attend to the “way of beauty” (via pulchritudinis). Proclaiming Christ means showing that to believe in and to follow him is not only something right and true, but also something beautiful, capable of filling life with new splendor and profound joy, even in the midst of difficulties. Every expression of true beauty can thus be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus.

“Even in the midst of difficulties,” beauty can fill our life with joy and purpose.  Hopefully this is an experience we have all had, of beauty giving us back our breathe in a suffocating circumstance.  Hopefully, we can find ways to give this experience to others.

I don’t think cardinals should build huge villas like the one in Tivoli.  I still don’t know what is the right balance between using our money to make the places we live and pray more beautiful and using our money to relieve the suffering of the poor (and the lack of beauty is also a suffering).  The tension that exists can lead to creativity, and must be met with prayer and discernment.

As Father Mike and I continued to talk, we rested in the fact that “the poor Church for the poor” envisioned by Pope Francis is lived out in many different individual circumstances.  It is a question each of us can ask ourselves.  Does the way I spend my money build up the Kingdom of God?  Am I being educated to a less “grasping” relationship with things and with people?

In this season of Advent, as we are preparing to meet the poor Messiah, we are also rushing around to find the perfect gift for our loved ones.  What can we do to make someone’s life more beautiful?  Have I experienced something beautiful that I can share with others?  How can we give the charity of beauty?

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Italy is…

…vacations, music, architecture, tradition, fashion, cinema, food, Vespa, history, art, monuments.

Thus spoke the promotional poster in one of our classrooms here in Siena.  I reacted very strongly to this poster, and would like to share this reflection.

What about the saints?  What about the reason that such beautiful churches were built and such beautiful art was conceived?  What did the people who created such masterpieces think about life, about death, about destiny, about God?

Of course I would say that, because I am a priest.  But it needs to be said.

Let me give another example.  In 2006, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a memoir “Eat, Pray, Love”, a book I really should read some day!  But I reacted just to the title: “Two thousand years of a Christian presence and all we get is EAT!”  Now, don’t get me wrong, we eat wonderfully here in Italy.  Here is the disturbing thing.  In the West, where Christianity has been dying for centuries, those who want to be fed spiritually usually head East.  Gilbert wanted to pray, and so she went to India…

The “Italy is…” poster left me feeling suffocated and reduced, as if what I live for and what I love (the One I love, Jesus Christ) could just be left out of a picture of the West, of this Western country in particular.

Pope Benedict, at the beginning of this Year of Faith, spoke to this same reality:

It often happens that Christians are more concerned for the social, cultural and political consequences of their commitment, continuing to think of the faith as a self-evident presupposition for life in society. In reality, not only can this presupposition no longer be taken for granted, but it is often openly denied. –Porta Fidei, 2

“Openly denied”, forgotten, or reduced: this is what was so unsettling not only about that particular poster but about the atmosphere of relativism that we breathe in the West.

But there is another way.  Italy is…faith, hope, and charity.

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Faith: It seems too obvious to be said, but it needs to be said, that this building was built out of love for the Virgin Mary, Mother of our Lord and God, Jesus Christ.  It is the Cathedral of the Assumption of Our Lady.  On the back side of this cathedral is the Baptistero (Baptistery), where thousands of men and women have entered into the very life of God as sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father.  The Mystery that all nations and all religions seek has come to seek us, revealing Himself in Jesus Christ.  Faith is our “handing over” of our selves to the God who handed Himself over to us.

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Hope:  This is the Palazzo Pubblico, Siena’s “City Hall”.  Hope is that virtue by which we expect good things from God and by which we order all our earthly striving.  Politics is an expression of our hope, because it aims at the common good of a society, to model our society according to our vision of the true “aim” of life, the Kingdom of God.  In all of its messiness, political life is a mirror wherein is reflected our hope–for good or for ill.  Our involvement in the earthly city gives expression to what we hold most dear.  Or as Vatican II said, “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.”

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Love: Across from the Duomo of the Assumption stands the massive structure (which over time covered two streets behind it) of Santa Maria della Scala.  Until the late 20th century, Santa Maria della Scala was the hospital of Siena.  But what a hospital!  It was original founded in the 898 as a place to house pilgrims on the Via Francigena, the pilgrim path from France to Rome.  Over the years it became a place for pilgrims, a home for abandoned children, a hospital for the sick, and a shelter for the homeless.  St. Thomas describes charity as friendship love of God.  And of course, when we love someone, we love what that person loves.  Thus, Christian society is built on the dual commandment of Jesus: to love God above all things and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

One last anecdote… In the Middle Ages in Siena, abandoned children were brought to Santa Maria della Scala to be raised by the charity of the Church, through the care of devoted priests, religious, and laity (one of whom was St. Catherine).  A child brought up in this orphanage would receive a better education and better opportunities than even the best families of the society.  Some of them would stay on to live and work in this community.  Others would go on to start their own families.  All of this from the gratuitous love of those who had been gratuitously loved by God.

I want to build my life and form a culture based on these things: “In the end, there are three things that remain, faith, hope, and love.  And the greatest of these is love.”

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An Unfinished Cathedral

The Cathedral or Duomo of Siena is a masterpiece of the Middle Ages, completed in the 13th Century.

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So, why do I say “unfinished cathedral”?  Siena served as a major stopping point on the pilgrimage route to Rome.  As such, it became a very important and very rich city.  At the end of the 13th century, Florence, the great rival of Siena, began construction of their new cathedral, bigger than that of Siena.  The Sienese did not want to be outdone!

So, a great expansion project was planned.  The current cathedral would serve as the transept (the cross-bar) of a new, larger cathedral.  Just think of the long part of the church/cross turned into the short side of the church/cross and you’ll get the idea.  Construction began in 1339, and parts of the new nave (main body of the church) got underway.

This first picture is taken from within what would have been the nave of the church, looking toward the altar; the second, from inside the church, looking away from the altar.  It is the inside of what would have been the grand facade.

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But I’m standing outside, so what happened?  The plague…  A great plague in 1348 swept through Siena, killing, according to Don Enrico, who is a man you want to trust, 30,000 Sienese.  The money and the workers were gone.  The expansion of the cathedral could not continue.

Still, the experience of being within those columns allows one to understand the great ambition of a people, ambition to turn their faith and their love of God–and their competition with Florence–into stone.  Genuine faith is incarnate and expresses itself in concrete ways.  That is a true Christian “instinct”, even when it is mixed up with the instincts of rivalry and competition.  In the words of Mother Teresa, it inspires me to “do something beautiful for God”.  Even foolish, maybe, but beautiful and for God.

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