Tuesday, April 30, 2013

of Popes and Piazzas

Dear Family and Friends,

Rome is a fascinating place to live. It’s all so different. Certainly some urban planning went into it, but not much. And while I must confess that I still get lost in my own seminary from time to time due to everything looking the same, I don’t think I’ve ever found two parts of Rome that look quite identical.

I love the streets and especially the cobblestones, but what I find most interesting in Rome are the squares – “La Piazza”. Each one is different, each one has its own flavor, its own flair.

Piazza del Popolo
There’s Piazza del Popolo, sun-drenched and eccentric, the transition between the Rome of the pedestrian and the Rome of Fiats and Fords and Volkswagons, different every time you visit it.
The Spanish Steps in Piazza di Spagna
There’s Piazza di Spagna, bow-tie shaped and charming, with the world-famous Spanish Steps, surrounded by all the most expensive fashion stores, a marvelous meeting place or place to just pass the time, day or night.

The Vittorio Emmanuele Monument in Piazza Venezia
There’s Piazza Venezia, overshadowed by the gleaming-white marble mausoleum of King Vittorio Emmanuele: overflowing with cars and buses and thus every pedestrian’s worst nightmare.
Piazza della Rotonda with the Pantheon in the background
There’s Piazza della Rotonda, small and sloping, home to the Pantheon and located in the heart of ancient Rome: a stone’s throw away from basically everything.
Piazza Navona
There’s Piazza Navona, cigar-shaped and almost always packed, filled with a carnival now, then a Christmas boutique, and later a political demonstration: home to some of Rome’s best street actors and swindlers.
Street Market in Campo dei Fiori

Piazza Farnese

There’s Piazza Farnese and Campo dei Fiori, probably my favorite duo, Campo dei Fiori set as a market during the day, and then seemingly transforming into one big restaurant at night, and Piazza Farnese ever quiet, and solemn, and symmetrical, with two huge sarcophagus fountains and the imposing French embassy front and center. Piazza Farnese is the piazza where you’re most likely to find Roman boys playing soccer.

Saint Peter's Square - a view from the cobblestones!
Then there’s Saint Peter’s Square, probably the only place in Rome where you’ll never run the risk of being run over by a car; meeting place of the world, filled with people asking questions: “Where’s the Vatican Museums?” “How do I get into Saint Peter’s?” “How can I talk to the Pope?”; and hallowed as the place of witness of so many martyrs, from Peter the fisherman all the way to Blessed Pope John Paul II.

Each Pope is different too, as different as the squares of Rome are different from each other. Each pope has his own charisma, style, and aura. I’ve only known three Popes, but I’d say that Pope John Paul was most like Saint Peter’s Square. He was a tremendous communicator, connecting with billions through his speeches and his travels across the globe. He answered the questions of many through the witness of his life, even when suffering tremendously. He began his time as Pope with four bullet wounds, and he ended his mission persevering in his service even when it hurt.

I’d say that Pope Benedict is most like Piazza Farnese. He is probably one of the greatest minds of the modern world, great not just in the sense of his great ideas, but also in his knack for giving them clarity and imparting them with humility. Initially labeled as haughty and unyielding, those monikers fell away the instant you saw his five-foot-seven frame in person. The first time I saw him, he reminded me of Santa Claus. While he may be given many titles in years to come, personally I think he should be called “Benedict the Good”.

And Pope Francis? Which Piazza is he like? Piazza Navona, of course. If Benedict was down to earth, Francis is even more so. He has refused many of the bells and whistles, the frills and fluff of the papacy, just like many of the buildings ringing Piazza Navona seem to have refused being painted these last five hundred years. In his first 45 days as Pope, he has been one to go down and mingle with the people, purposefully inviting normal people to mass and not dining alone. Of course, as a Cardinal, Francis stayed at a residence just off Piazza Navona, so maybe it was his favorite square too, who knows? It’s one of my favorite places to sit and watch people, get the pulse of Rome, and grab a gelato. Francis loves giving off-the-cuff homilies; maybe he drew a little inspiration from some of the magicians and comedians ever-present in Piazza Navona. Piazza Navona is always packed during the day, and Rome has been packed whenever Francis has appeared. Yesterday there were buses parked all over the city – more than I’ve ever seen before – for the confirmation mass Francis celebrated.

In the weeks and months ahead, we’ll be getting to know Francis even better. Let’s be open to his message and teaching. Let’s keep him in our prayers, I’d suggest even making praying for Pope Francis a standard part of your day.

God bless you abundantly,
Brother Kevin

PS- I've put all of these "cobblestones" messages together on a webpage, http://aviewfromthecobblestones.blogspot.com/ . Now that they'll be there too, if you'd like me to take you off my mailing list, please drop me a line. I don’t want to fill anyone’s inbox unnecessarily.

PPS-It's two months to my ordination as a Deacon June 29th. Say a prayer for me too please!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Saint Francis and Pope Francis

Dear Family and Friends,

My favorite place in Italy is Assisi, the home of Saint Francis. I was there on Saturday with some friends and – as always – had a wonderful time.

As we visited the places where Saint Francis lived and talked about his life, Pope Francis kept coming to mind.

One of the big dilemmas in Saint Francis’ life was whether he should spend his life only in prayer, or also preach to the people. He asked his friends brother Sylvester and Saint Clare what they thought, and both replied that “God has not chosen you for yourself, but to help others, so you must go throughout the world preaching about Him.”

Pope Francis has been saying mass every day for different groups of people and preaching to them. I love reading accounts of these 2-minute homilies of his. While he could have chosen to just say mass for his friends, Pope Francis is going out of his way to connect with people.

They say that the preaching of Saint Francis was so powerful, that one time a whole town wanted to leave everything and follow in his footsteps. Pope Francis is a powerful preacher as well. His Regina Caeli address yesterday was probably the most fun-filled one I’ve ever listened to. He had the crowd answering his questions, and when they didn’t give an answer, he’d say, “I can’t hear you!” and they’d roar back at him.

He also has his own style of problem-solving that reminds me of Saint Francis. When there’s a problem, Pope Francis doesn’t tell his aids to gather data or talk to people. He himself picks up the phone, calls the people involved and asks for their point of view, and then he makes the decision.

All this is to show that Pope Francis chose the right name! It’s who he is.

 If you ever have a chance to come to Italy, I recommend spending a day or two in Assisi. It will be well worth your time. Every time I go, I receive some special grace – a little encouragement or a little light on the path of my life. Just try it, you will too!

God bless you,
Brother Kevin

Saturday, April 13, 2013

one month with our new Pope - getting to know Francis

Dear Family and Friends,

Today is Pope Francis’ one-month anniversary as Pope.  May it be the first of many anniversaries with him!

 Last week I read a book-length interview with Cardinal Bergoglio (Pope Francis) from 2010 called El Jesuita, The Jesuit. It’s been a refreshing read. I thought I’d highlight some of Francis’ favorites:

Favorite Movie: Babette’s Feast (or at least that’s his favorite modern movie)
Favorite Piece of Music: Beethoven’s Leonera overture number three as played by F├╝rtwangler
Favorite Painting: The White Crucifixion by Marc Chagal
Favorite Sport: to play- Basketball, to watch – Soccer
Favorite Books: The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi) by Manzini, The Divine Comedy by Dante. Dostoevsky. Marechal.
Frustrated Desire: He wanted to be a missionary in Japan, but had to stay in Argentina due to his poor health at the time
Languages: Speaks Spanish, Italian, French, and German, and admits that English pronunciation has always been hard because he’s a bit hard of hearing
Hobbies: Reading and listening to music
Teacher of: Literature, Psychology
First thing he’d save in a fire: His breviary (Liturgy of the Hours) and his agenda with all his appointments in it
What is prayer for him: “But when I most live the religious experience is the moment when I place myself, without any time limit, before the tabernacle. Sometimes, I fall asleep seated there letting him look at me. I feel as if I was in the hands of another, as if God was taking me by the hand.”

Hope that helps you get to know our new Pope a little more. I’m hoping to watch Babette’s Feast someday soon.

Let’s say a special prayer for Francis today, wishing him all the best in our hearts!

God bless you,
Brother Kevin

Sunday, April 7, 2013

anniversary of Blessed John Paul II's death

Dear Friends and Family,

The other night I was scrubbing the kitchen floor here at our seminary when I heard a crash in the dish room. A huge stack of plates had fallen on another brother and the broken plates had cut his fingers up really badly. A priest and I jumped into the car and rushed him to the emergency room at the hospital near our house. The place was really small and dark and a good bit dirty. Though the nurses cleaned and bandaged his cuts quickly, they told us that he needed stitches and that they couldn’t give them there. So we headed over to another hospital, the “Gemelli Polyclinic”.

The Gemelli was very different. The entrance was spacious and well lit. Everything was immaculately clean, and the nurses, though under pressure, took care of my friend quickly. There was a joyful spirit about the place. The surgeon who gave my friend the stitches was very kind and did his work meticulously and with a smile.

Today is the Feast of Divine Mercy. Pope John Paul II died eight years ago on the Vigil of this feast. As we sat in the Gemelli hospital that night with brother and his poor fingers, I looked up at a picture on the wall. It was John Paul joking with some children. Then I remembered that when John Paul had been shot (four times) in May, 1981, he had been rushed to this very Gemelli hospital, where his life had been saved. No wonder this hospital felt so different from that other one. John  Paul may have moved on, but he was still influencing our lives as we sat there that night.

I saw Pope Francis three times during Holy Week, and he seems to be doing fine, though he was definitely tired Good Friday during the Way of the Cross – he sat down at one point and fell asleep, and the monsignor had to wake him up at the end! I too was tired by then!

On Easter Sunday we had the biggest crowd I have ever seen in Rome for Pope Francis’ Easter Blessing. People were packed like sardines from Saint Peter’s all the way to the Tiber river, and I got stuck directly behind a huge obelisk and couldn’t see Francis! Anyway, I still got his blessing.

He took possession of his Cathedral today – Saint John Lateran’s – and gave  a beautiful homily. At one point he was talking about the disciples of Emmaus and how Jesus was so patient and kind with them: “This is God’s way of doing things: he is not impatient like us, who often want everything all at once, even in our dealings with other people. God is patient with us because he loves us, and those who love are able to understand, to hope, to inspire confidence; they do not give up, they do not burn bridges, they are able to forgive. Let us remember this in our lives as Christians: God always waits for us, even when we have left him behind! He is never far from us, and if we return to him, he is ready to embrace us.”

Let’s keep Pope Francis in our prayers. You are all in my prayers too! All this last week I was down in southern Italy with no email – it was a nice break!

God bless you,
Brother Kevin