Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Musings in the Ruins of Ancient Rome

This morning was cold and wet – not the best morning for outdoor sightseeing. Even so, I took the Metro to the Colosseum and then walked along the Via dei Fori Imperiali, which connects the Colosseum to the Piazza Venezia. Originally built by Mussolini as the Via dell’Impero to add more majesty to Italian military parades, the new street contributed to the excavations of the 5 Imperial Fora – that of Julius Caesar, and those of the Emperors Augustus, Vespasian, Nerva, and Trajan – all additions to the original Roman Forum necessitated by the increase in the City’s size and population under the Empire. With the demise of the ersatz Italian “Empire” of the 1930s and 1940s, those ancient imperial Fora provided the street with its present name.

Meanwhile rising above the ruins of that great but long dead empire stand the many monumental churches built by the empire’s successor. At the end of the Via dei Fori Imperiali, for example, there is the church Santissimo Nome di Maria al Foro Traiano. As for Trajan’s Column, erected to commemorate the Emperior’s victory in the Dacian Wars, it still stands in front of the church just west of Trajan’s Forum, but the Emperor’s statue disappeared centuries ago, and the 125-foot column is now topped (since 1587) by a bronze statue of St. Peter.

Just south of all this is the area of the original Roman Forum and the Arch of Titus, commemorating his conquest of Jerusalem. I explored the Forum in detail on my first trip to Rome two decades ago and may well do so again, but today was not a day for that. So instead I climbed the Capitoline Hill (Campidolglio), the smallest but most famous of Rome’s “Seven Hills,” the religious and political center of ancient Rome and still the seat of the city government. At the top of the hill, the Piazza del Campodoglio, designed by Michelangelo, reflects the modern orientation of the city, with the Palazzo Senatorio facing north, its back to the ancient forum. At the northwest end of the Campidoglio originally stood the Temple of Jupiter, the largest of the ancient Roman Temples and the terminal point for Imperial Triumphs – its site now dominated by that modern (1911) neo-pagan Temple to the triumph of the secular liberal state, the monument to King Vittorio Emmanuele II. Abutting that modern monument, however, occupying the highest spot on the hill on the site of the original Roman citadel is the ancient and beautiful Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, which gets its name from the tradition that it was there that the Tiburtine Sybil predicted to Augustus the coming of Christ with the words, Ecce ara primogeniti Dei. And as we all learned long ago in 1st-year Latin class, it is also the site where the sacred geese alerted the Romans to an imminent attack by the Gauls in 390 BC.

Back down the hill towards the forum is the site of the Mamertine Prison (S. Pietro in Carcere), where Saints Peter and Paul were once confined. I ended my morning in the heart of ancient Rome recalling Isaac Hecker’s visit there in 1857:

“Wednesday I said Mass in the Mamertine prison, in which St. Peter was confined by the order of Nero; and also St. Paul. The pillar is there in which they were chained, and the fountain remains which sprung up miraculously at their feet, in whose waters they baptized their gaolers and twenty-seven soldiers. There were with me four American students, and you can easily imagine that I prayed earnestly in Holy Mass to obtain or us all the zeal of the Apostles for the conversion of our country” [From a letter to Mrs. George V. Hecker, November 7, 1857].

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Iron Lady

It has been weeks now since I have been to the movies. I like going to the movies. It's probably the only branch of "popular culture" that I really engage with. For one thing, one can go to a movie in the morning or the afternoon (in the U.S. at least), and (very important for me) one can go alone. So I see a lot of movies - not as many in Knoxville as I did in New York - but still a good number.

Here in Rome, there is a movie theater on the Via in Lucina (a little street near the Parliament Building, off the Via del Corso) that shows foreign films in their original language. I went there this afternoon to see The Iron Lady. getting off the bus at the Piazza San Silvestro, I stopped to visit the Pallotine Church of S. Silvestro in Capite (photo). The "head" referred to in the church's title is that of St. John the Baptist, a relic of which is displayed in a side chapel.

With Meryl Streep in the starring role, of course the acting was superb. (The actor who played Lady Thatcher's husband, Dennis, was also excellent). In the end, however, what the film finally has going for it is just that - the acting. The movie portrays Thatcher and the events of her life and career through the prism of old age and the onset of dementia, oscillating back and forth between the present reality of Thatcher in her declining years and flashbacks portraying her memories of past events. the method works well to portray both the pathos of old age and retrospective insights into historical people and events in Britain's recente past.

Those events, however, seem to serve mainly as the scenic background on which the movie paints Thatcher's character and self=understanding. That is not an uninteresting subject. Still - and perhaps I am being just very old-fashioned here - I came away feeling that the events themselves - their political, economic, and cultural significance for Britain and the world - and Mrs. Thatcher's decisive part in them were less than fully illuminated. this is a film about feelings - mainly Margaret's, also Dennis's, and also those of her colleagues. in Government and in the Conservative Party. I suspect thatcher herself would be the first to say that her feelings are much less important and interesting than the events in which she played a part and the world they helped form. this is a film about feelings not ideas, but thatcher was preeminently a person of ideas.

So we get a feel why she pursued the economic policies she did, why she transformed the Tory party into something it had never quite been before, and why she was so resolute in resisting Argenitinian aggression in the Falklands, but we get little sense of why all fo this matters in the long run. As for the end of the Cold War, in which she played a modes but significant role (especially in facilitating President Reagan's developing relationship with Gorbachev), that gets just a scant few superficial minutes. The feelings angle does, however, help illuminate one important dimension of the Thatcher story - how a "grocer's daughter" took over a traditionally aristocratic party and in the process imprinted that party with a middle-class ethos and middle-class values. That theme comes through loud and clear, and although the larger political, social, and cultural context may be left somewhat undeveloped, the movie makes clear how truly transformative this was.

The movie that explores and develops the historical significance of her tenure at Number 10 has yet to be made. Meanwhile, Meryl Streep certainly still deserves her Oscar nomination.

Friday, January 27, 2012


Sciopero in Italian means strike - as in a labor union going "on strike." Such strikes seem still quite popular in Europe - much more so than in the U.S. today, where Labor Unions seem to be in terminal decline (except for Public Employees' Unions).

Today was supposed to be a strike day for the buses and trains, the strike being officially scheduled for 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (or, as they say here, 8:30 to 1700). Assured by several others that the strike would safely be over in time for me to get a bus coming home from class this evening, I prepared myself to walk to class. As walks go, it is not that bad. Basically, you walk down the Via Nazionale to Piazza Venezia and then take the Corso Vittorio Emmanuele II to the Tiber. Thankfully the Via Nazionale is downhill from here, and the Corso Vittorio Emmanuele II is level. So it's an altogether manageable walk. Even so, I decided to carry only the bare essentials - textbook and notepaper - and to leave extra early.

So out I went. I was about three-quarters of the way down the Via Nazionale, when my bus passed me! So at the next bus stop, I stopped and waited, and sure enough another bus came! I boarded the bus and made it to the Urbaniana even earlier than usual! I spent some time in the University Bookstore perusing a volume on Concordatory law, then had my usual vending-machine coffee, and as further compensation a chocolate bar too! And, as anticipated, the trip back this evening was equally uneventful.

What to make of all this? In the U.S., a Public Employees' Strike (especially a Transit strike) typically evokes strong reactions - both by ideologues on the opposing sides and also by the more moderate majority that just resents being inconvenienced (especially by public "servants"). Here, however, it seems to produce little more than a shrug. A sciopero is just another nuisance - one of many - that one just has to put up with in the burdensome grind of daily life.

As a priest once said to me (and I have quoted many times before): "When you live in a foreign country, you should expect that some things will be different."

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Battle for Religious Freedom

In an article I wrote back in 2008 for the Paulist on-line magazine The Catholic World analyzing that year’s presidential election, I offered this opinion: “Obama’s challenge will be to hold his centrist support in the country by resisting the demands of his party’s left wing and its various special interest constituencies. … Meanwhile, the significance of the religious constituency in a renewed Republican coalition will likely depend on whether or not the Democrats can deliver on the economy and stay safely in the center on cultural and moral issues.”

Early on, during the health insurance reform debate, the Administration abandoned the idea of a “public option” and embraced what was once a “conservative” idea (the individual health insurance mandate – now so stridently opposed by Republicans). Back then it really did look as if the Administration was trying to stay in the center and resist its special-interest constituencies on the left. But an essential component of that hope - that the Obama Administration would “stay safely in the center on cultural and moral issues” has proved elusive.

Not surprisingly, the President and those around him share the prejudices of their class. That abortion is some sort of fundamental human right seems to be one of those core prejudices, as is its corollary that pregnancy is a disease to be prevented or ended by “reproductive health services.” It was always unrealistic to suppose that the President and his associates would actually alter their views on such issues. But it was perhaps possible to hope that a President who back in 2006 had said, "secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square," might make more of an effort to be more accommodating to the many American citizens who strongly disagree with the liberal elite on such fundamentally divisive cultural and moral issues.

Even that modest expectation has now likewise proved elusive. Conventional wisdom holds that a presidential candidate, having safely secured his party’s nomination, moves more to the “center.” Conventional wisdom not withstanding, there seems little prospect of that this year. The Administration’s (thankfully unsuccessful) attack on the “ministerial exception” in the recent Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission case, and now its obsessive determination to force religious institutions to provide employees with health coverage that covers morally unacceptable practices can certainly be seen as attempts to appeal to the extreme ideological wing of the party. As someone once observed in regard to the policies of the (recently replaced) government in Spain, left and right really don’t pursue such radically different economic policies anymore. To motivate its base, what the left still has is in its arsenal its anti-religious cultural and moral agenda.

The problem posed by the Administration’s latest decision, however, goes beyond re-introducing the culture war into the campaign. If allowed to stand, this mandate could well force significant parts of this country’s vast Catholic social service network either to stop providing health insurance for their employees or to get out the business of providing social services. One wonders whether precisely that outcome might not be an unwelcome one in certain quarters.

After all, this is the same Administration that rejected the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ request to renew a grant to help victims of sex trafficking, even though the USCCB got the second highest rating from an independent review panel. If pro-choice ideology trumps all other considerations, Is the Administration signaling that in the Brave New World of universal healthcare, there really is no room any more in American society for church-operated social services?

If so, then religious Americans who have up till now desired to see universal health coverage may find themselves instead forced to hope that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act does not survive its forthcoming date with the Supreme Court.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Saint Paul, Preacher of Truth to the Whole World

This being the feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul (the patronal feast of the Paulist Fathers and the 26th anniversary of my Final Profession), this morning I took the metro to the Papal Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls on the Via Ostiense to attend the Pontifical Mass celebrated at the Papal Altar by the Abbot of the Benedictine monastery attached to the Basilica. (The Pope himself will go there later this afternoon to celebrate Vespers. I could have had a ticket; but, of course, I must be in class then!)

Most saints are celebrated on the anniversary of their death. Indeed San Paolo fuori le Mura (the second largest church in Rome) is built on the site of St. Paul’s burial. If a saint was a martyr, that itself is often the saint’s principal claim on our attention. Paul the Apostle was, of course, also a martyr. The Church and Abbey of San Paolo alle Tre Fontane some two miles away mark the site of his martyrdom. The traditional date of his death (together with St. Peter) is celebrated with greatest solemnity on June 29.

But then, every January, we have this additional celebration of St. Paul – unusual not only for being additional, but because it focuses on a particular occasion in his life, the event we commonly call his “conversion.” Monumentally portrayed by Lumen Martin Winter above the main entrance to the Paulist Mother Church in New York City, that event (recounted in Acts 9) transformed Paul the persecutor of the Church into a disciple of Jesus. It also put him on an equal footing with the others to whom the Risen Christ had earlier appeared - in the process exemplifying for us what it means to be converted to Christ, to become a disciple of Jesus, his witness in the world, and an apostle sent with mission to evangelize, to make disciples of all peoples.

Paul was, first and foremost, a devout Jew, well educated in the Law, a Pharisee, that is, a member of the Jewish group most zealous about religious observance. As a disciple of Jesus, Paul never ceased to be a Jew. At the same time, he was also a Greek-speaking Jew, from the Diaspora. (There was nothing unusual about that either. More Jews lived outside of Israel than in it at that time.) He grew up in what is today Turkey, in a Greek city, and enjoyed the privilege of Roman citizenship.

All of this would prove very important, indeed, because one of the great issues which confronted the 1st century Church was figuring out how Jews and Gentiles were connected in God’s plan for the salvation of the world through Jesus Christ – and how they should relate to one another within the one community of the Church. The way this issue was eventually resolved (thanks in no small part to Paul) helped transform what would otherwise have been a small Jewish sect into the biggest and longest-lasting multi-cultural institution in the world - the Roman Catholic Church.

What Paul experienced when he met the Risen Lord on the way to Damascus was a revelation of God’s plan to include all people in the promises originally made to Abraham and his descendents and now being finally fulfilled in Jesus. So what we traditionally call Paul’s “conversion” was not his switching to some other religion. The God who revealed himself to Paul in the person of Jesus was the very same God whom Paul had always served (and served so enthusiastically). What changed was that now Paul recognized Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, though whom all people are included in God’s plan of salvation.

The converted Paul saw no conflict between Judaism and faith in Jesus. But, because it was Jesus that ultimately mattered, he also came to see no conflict between Gentile culture and faith in Christ. For the pagan peoples of the Roman Empire, that was good news indeed. It’s easy to see why Paul’s mission was so successful among different types of people. The world has changed a lot since Paul’s time, but that mission hasn’t!

Saint Paul had the kind of enthusiasm for the faith that Servant of God Isaac Hecker so much wanted his Paulist Fathers to have, what Hecker repeatedly called “zeal for souls.” Paul’s career as an apostle illustrates how completely Christ can captivate the completely converted Christian. As Blessed Pope John Paul II famously said: “Those who have come into genuine contact with Christ cannot keep him for themselves, they must proclaim him.”

Paul was not one of the original 12. He wasn’t there when Jesus said to his disciples: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” But he absorbed those words as surely as if they had been addressed to him initially – as we also must do.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Emperor vs. the Church - Then and Now

Today is the 39th anniversary of the infamous Roe v. Wade decision. (Tomorrow, Monday, will accordingly be observed in all U.S. dioceses as a “Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children”). But Roe v. Wade did more than just abolish all laws protecting fetal human life - catastrophic as that was. It also set in motion a current and continuing "culture war" in the U.S. That in turn has set the stage for the latest conflict caused by the current Administration's ideological insistence on including coverage of contraceptives in its health insurance mandate - i.e., the latest HHS requirement that they be included among the "preventive services" to be covered in healthcare plans.

Here in Rome, the memory of the martyrs is ever-present. Their relics - and a multitude of churches built to house their relics and celebrate the martyrs' memory - testify to the prominence of martyrdom in the early Church and its continued salience as the pre-eminent form of Christian witness and the pre-eminent exercise of heroic virtue. Only yesterday, the Church's calendar recalled the martyrdom of the 12-year virgin St. Agnes (c. 291-304), who gave her heroic witness during the "Great Persecution" under the Emperor Diocletian. Of St. Agnes, St. Ambrose famously said: “All are amazed that one not yet of legal age can give her testimony to God. So she succeeds in convincing others of her testimony about God, though her testimony in human affairs could not yet be accepted. What is beyond the power of nature, they argue, must come from its creator.”

Nor is martyrdom some ancient phenomenon associated solely with the early Church and so absent from our more "enlightened" times. (Would that such were the case!) In fact, however, martyrs have witnessed to the faith and lived lives of conscientious objection to the imperial demands of Emperors and States in every age - including our own, which has in fact produced more such heroic witnesses in the past 100 years than the era of Roman persecutions did.

The prominence of the martyrs in the present as well as in the past, constantly called to the Church's attention in its liturgical life is a reminder to all that, while conflict with worldly power ought never to be sought for its own sake, worldly powers seem to have a certain buit-in tendency to seek to provoke such conflicts between themselves and the consciences of those for whom citizenship in the kingdom of God is even more precious than any transient earthly commitment.

The past century has seen any number of modern Diocletians - both small-scale tyrants and the dictators of powerful states inspired by totalitarian ideologies. As citizens of a free society, we have been the beneficiaries of institutionalized limits upon the power of the modern liberal State to insert itself between citizens and their consciences. In the face of new challenges to those limits, religious citizens have expressed their dissent and availed themselves of the courts - successfully in the case of the recent unanimous Supreme Court decision protecting religious instituions from the invasive reach of anti-discrimination laws. It remains to be seen what will happen with this latest assault on religious liberty being attempted under the spurious guise of universal health care.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Challenge of Inculturation – In Small Things and Great

“When you live in a foreign country, you should expect that some things will be different.” So spoke a certain priest to me the first time I visited Rome in 1990. How right he was – and is – and not just in the big picture things but in the little things of daily life. Take, for example, learning how to use the vending machine at the Pontificia Universita Urbaniana, where I go every day for my “studium.”

I like to allow myself plenty of time to get there – just in case the bus is slowed down by a political demonstration on the Corso, and also so I can climb the hill at a relaxed pace. With time still to spare when I reach the top, I stop across the street from the University entrance in the Parco (as the phto suggests, only notionally a “park”) Cardinale Antonio Francesco Orioli, to take a break, sit down, and pray None. Then, after the much more modest incline of the uphill walk within the University campus, I arrive at the appropriate building. Before taking the elevator to the 3rd floor, I stop to buy a coffee from the vending machine.

The first time, I managed to figure out how much money to put in, and which series of buttons to press to order the kind of coffee I wanted, but couldn’t figure out when it was finally ready and so removed the cup too quickly, ending up with milk and sugar but no coffee at all! Studying the machine more carefully the next time, I learned to wait until an easy-to-miss indicator light said “Bevanda Pronta” (“Drink Ready”). And, by the 3rd or 4th time, I’d finally figured out the button that reduces the amount of sugar to the desired level!

If adapting to such simple stuff is such a challenge, what does that say the larger pastoral and evangelizing challenge of inculturation in different societies? I experienced that challenge at the very beginning of my priesthood when I served at our parish in Toronto, Canada. The superficial similarity suggested by a common language might easily mask the fact that something significant happened in 1776 and that the U.S. and Canada are quite different. Someone once called Toronto “a cleaner New York with crowns on the buildings.” Such superficial similarities might mask the two countries’ very different histories and significant cultural differences – rendering the pastoral challenge of inculturation simultaneously easier and more difficult. Even in the U.S., serving first in a predominantly Hispanic parish and later in a parish with a more modest but still significant Hispanic ministry, I had to adapt in all sorts of ways, while simultaneously struggling with linguistic limitations.

All the way back to the Acts of the Apostles, the mission of the Church has involved the challenge of entering into, becoming part of, and incorporating new and different cultural elements. Whatever forms the mission of the Church will take in the 21st century, it is safe to say that this challenge will continue – globally and at home.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Remembering Isaac Hecker in Rome

Yesterday, I took the short walk down to the Piazza Barberini and then up the Via Sistina to the French-owned 16th-century church of Trinità dei Monti. The church stands at the top of what are generally known as the “Spanish Steps,” from which highpoint one gets quite a commanding view of Rome facing westward, with the dome of St. Peter’s in the distance. (The “Spanish Steps,” in Italian la Scalinatta de Trinità dei Monti, were built - like the church - with French money, The only thing “Spanish” about them is the Piazza di Spagna at the bottom).

After visiting the church, I walked down the steps to the Piazza, then turned left to the Piazza’s southern end to look at the famous column of the immaculate Conception, which the Pope visits every year on December 8. Then, I noticed on the building behind it the inscription Collegium Urbanum de Propoganda Fide. That interested me because the course I am presently taking uses the facilities of that same Collegio Urbano – now known as the Universita Urbaniana and located about a half-hour away across the Tiber on the Janiculum Hill. I assumed at first that this building had since been converted to some secular use – until I noticed the Papal Flag. Drawing closer I read the notice on the metal plaque attached to the entrance, identifying it as an extra-territorial possession of the Holy See and the office for the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (the modern name for the old Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith).

At that moment, I realized that Isaac Hecker must have come to that very site to solicit Cardinal Barnabo’s assistance following his dismissal from the Redemptorists in 1857!

Two years previously in 1855, Hecker had published his first book, Questions of the Soul, which had established him as one of mid-19th century American Catholicism’s most effective spokesmen. In 1857, he had come to Rome, representing four other fellow Redemptorists and armed (fortunately as it turned out) with supportive letters from leading U.S. Bishops, to make the case for an English-oriented American Redemptorist house focused primarily on missionary outreach. On his arrival, however, his religious superiors determined that his trip had been unauthorized and dismissed him from their Order.

How did Hecker react to this sudden reversal? In a letter to his brother George, written just days after his expulsion, he wrote: “This morning I said Mass in St. Peter’s. Our affairs are in the hands of God. I hope no one will feel discouraged, nor fear for me. All that is needed to bring the interests of God to a successful issue is grace, grace, grace, and this is obtained by prayer, and if the American Fathers will only pray, and get others to pray, and not let anyone have the slightest reason to bring a word against them in our present crisis, God will be with us, and Our Lady will take good care of us.”

Hecker wrote that on September 2. Within a week, he initiated his ultimately successful appeal to the Holy See and had his first interview with Alesandro Cardinal Barnabó, Prefect of the Congregation of Progaganda, which, as the curial body in charge of the Church in mission territories, then had jurisdiction over the U.S. Church. Awaiting the outcome, Hecker actively promoted his case for the Church’s prospects in the U.S. – among other things writing two articles in the important Jesuit journal Civiltá Cattolica. Through it all, Hecker remained enthusiastic about his mission and humbly trusting in God’s grace.

Thus, some months into his ordeal, he acknowledged that what had happened “was the source of the deepest affliction to me,” but concluded “that these things were permitted by Divine Providence in order to place me in the position to undertake that mission which has never ceased to occupy my thoughts.” To his brother in New York, he wrote in December: “All depends on God; in the meantime I keep myself in my humility. …God evidently has been in all these events, and … my stay here has not been useless. Indeed, I know that I am another man from what I was on coming here. No worse, I trust in God, but much better, greater zeal, heroism, submission to God. Indeed this has laid in me the foundations of something much greater than the world imagines – that of becoming a saint; for I am sure my present opportunities on that score are abundant, and, thank God, His grace is more abundant.”

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Lessons from the Vittoriano

My excursion to the Italian Emigration Museum, about which I wrote yesterday, also afforded me an opportunity to visit the Vittoriano itself (within which the Emigration Exhibit is located). Of course, I have seen the massive monument many times from the outside. (it's not as if one could actually miss it!). But this was the first time I ever actually climbed it ceremonial steps and went inside. (Especially on a beautiful, sunny day such as yesterday, the view of Rome’s skyline from the monument is itself sufficient to warrant the climb – as does also the cappuccino in the monument’s terrace café).

Whatever other emotions the monument may evoke, it immediately impresses one as a grandiose evocation of pagan Rome – in which respect, it is not unlike the United States Capitol building and some of the other major monuments in Washington, DC (e.g., Lincoln, Jefferson). In the American case, the adoption of the ancient Roman model was ideologically inspired. Given its location – literally next to some of the most important ancient Roman ruins – the Roman imagery might seem more “natural” in the case of the Vittoriano, were it not for the fact that the imagery of ancient Rome has not been characteristic of the city of Rome’s most monumental architecture for more than a millennium. The use of Roman imagery in modern monumental architecture typically reflects ideological orientations rooted in either the American or the French Revolution (or both).

The Vittoriano’s original aim was to memorialize the Piedmontese monarch who became united Italy’s first king. It was intended to celebrate not so much the man himself but the movement of Italian unification, patriotically portraying the king as the climax and culmination of the Italian Risorgimento. So it was certainly suggestive that it was built on the Capitoline Hill abutting the heart of ancient Rome. (In the process, several medieval and Renaissance structures were demolished – a destruction which today’s concerns for historical preservation would hardly have countenanced).

Originally dedicated in 1911 for the 50th anniversary of the proclamation of the modern kingdom of Italy, the monument inevitably celebrated in art the triumph of secular modernity that by force of arms had conquered Rome from the Pope in 1870. In such a profoundly Catholic symbolic culture as that of Italy, it is hardly surprising that the monument is permeated by religious imagery, but the imagery in question derives almost entirely from pagan, not Christian Rome. Thus, after the king himself (an idealized equestrian image statue in the long classical tradition – going back at least to Emperor Marcus Aurelius – of portraying the hero on horseback), the most immediately recognizable statue is that of the goddess Roma (modeled evidently on classical portrayals of the goddess Minerva).

Back in 1911, before the pointless political and human tragedy of World War I (whose "Unknown Soldier" is interred directly below the statue of the goddess Roma), it was still perhaps possible to identify secular modernity with an idealized classical antiquity and to imagine that it was truly ushering in an age of genuine human progress, prosperity, and peace. The tragic history of the century since then has exposed that ideology for the lie that it is.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Immigration Then and Now

Having visited Rome before and already seen most of its main ancient and religious sites, I feel no personal pressure to re-visit everything in Rome right away, and so I have been treating sight-seeing as a modest morning activity focused (till today) almost exclusively on churches. Riding the bus home from class last week, however, I noticed the sign for the Museo Nazionale della Emigrazione Italiana (National Museum of Italian Emigration), located in the Vittoriano (the massive 1911 monument to King Vittorio Emmanuel II). As the grandson of Italian emigrants, my interest was naturally aroused and I decided I really wanted to visit this particular museum. The exhibit being in Italian, of course, that was a lot of words to try to read. However, as my more museumphile friends would undoubtedly attest I generally have a limited attention-span in museums, and so I don't typically read everything in American museums either! In any case, I was able to read and comprehend enough to appreciate the exhibit.

There's a famous saying that Vittorio Emmanuel II, et al., created Italy, but it still remained to create Italians. One focus of this museum is how in a sense the experience of Italian emigration - especially in the period after the Unification (and then continuing into the early 20th century) - did in an important create a national Italian identity among those who had left Italy as Sicilians, Neapolitans, etc. For those who remained at home, it is sometimes suggested that the common experience of fighting for Italy in World War I helped to create a common national identity. Some suggest that it has never ally happened, and the continued tension between north and south might seem to confirm that. In any event, given contemporary Italy's poor birthrate, the future of italianness may be anyone's guess. So perhaps it is that much more salient to consider the great italian diaspora so widely scattered around the world as in some meaningful sense perpetuating some sort of Italianness still!

As it happens, yesterday was also the 98th World Day of Migrants and Refugees. According to Pope Benedict XVI, “Christian communities are to pay special attention to migrant workers and their families by accompanying them with prayer, solidarity, and Christian charity, as well as by fostering new political, economic, and social planning that promotes respect for the dignity of every human person, safeguarding of the family, access to dignified housing, to work and to welfare.”

Visiting the Italian Emigration Museum this morning and recalling the challenges, difficulties, and struggles of previous generations of italian immigrants to the U.S. certainly ought to highlight the obligation incumbent upon us who are the beneficiaries of their struggles to resist forcefully the anti-immigrant nonsense so much in vogue right now - and particularly the demagogic ranting of certain presidential candidates and other politicians.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

“What Are You Looking For?” (John 1:38)

In this season of new beginnings, the Church's liturgy today also recalls what might be called the organizational beginning of Jesus’ public mission. And (fittingly for the end of the annual observance of National Vocations Awareness Week in the U.S.) today’s Old Testament reading [1 Samuel 3:3b-10, 19] and today's Gospel [John 1:35-42] must surely be a Religious Vocation Director’s dream text!

In church language, we usually use the word “vocation” in 2 senses – first, for the general call to everyone to be converted and become a disciple of Jesus, and, secondly, for the particular call to some disciples to undertake lives of full-time ministry in the Church. In the Gospel, the 2 vocations came together for Andrew and his brother Simon Peter. In Peter’s case, one could say he went from fisherman to disciple, to apostle, to Pope – all in one encounter!

Samuel’s case in today's Old Testament reading may have been a bit more typical. He was just a boy, but he was already being brought up to be devoted to the Lord, which is surely how and when most religious vocations begin, are nurtured, and flourish. In that vocationally dispositive environment, Samuel gradually heard the Lord’s voice calling him to a special mission.

Listening to Samuel’s story, I am inevitably reminded of our Paulist Founder, Servant of God Isaac Hecker (the long-term service of whose cause for sainthood is what brings me here and has me currently studying in Rome). I particularly recall Hecker’s account of his own boyhood, as he described it in statements made towards the end of his life:

Often in my boyhood, when lying at night on the shavings before the oven in the bake house, I would start up, roused in spite of myself, by some great thought … What does God desire from me? … What is it He has sent me into the world to do? These were the ceaseless questions of my heart, that rested, meanwhile, in an unshaken confidence that time would bring the answer.

For all the drama we may be inclined to associate with God’s call, Hecker’s account illustrates how God’s call comes typically in the midst of our ordinary, everyday activities. Two things clearly stand out in all such accounts. The first is that the target of God’s call needs to be receptive, needs to let the Lord take the initiative, in short, to LISTEN. That may be easier said than done! In this “information age,” we have all become accustomed to receiving all sorts information which we have no real need for. So it may be becoming increasingly hard for us even to imagine hearing something that really matters – and hence having a reason to listen. But God doesn’t impart information. He calls us personally into relationship with him, and we need to listen.

The second element is the important part played by the believing community as a whole. As with Jesus’ invitation to his 1st disciples in today's Gospel account, God’s call is first and foremost a challenge to Come, and see. And closely connected with the part played by the believing community as a whole is the guiding role played by particular people in that community – people like Eli in the case of Samuel, John the Baptist in the case of Andrew, and Andrew in the case of Simon Peter. (To which illustrious list, one could also add someone like that other great 19th-century American Catholic convert, Orestes Brownson, in the case of Isaac Hecker). All of them – Eli, John the Baptist, Andrew, and Orestes Brownson – all functioned as intermediaries facilitating the special vocations of others.

There have been occasions in history when the community assumed what, by today’s standards, might seem an excessively forceful role in fostering vocations in the Church. In spring of the year 391, St. Augustine, then 36 years old, but baptized only 4 years, visited the North African town of Hippo. The Bishop of Hippo, Valerius, knew of Augustine’s reputation as a talented orator and took advantage of Augustine’ presence at Sunday Mass to announce that, because of his age, he needed the assistance of a younger priest, who was a good speaker. The congregation took the hint; grabbed hold of Augustine; and refused to release him until, weeping, he agreed to be ordained!

That might be a bit over the top by today’s standards and our somewhat more bureaucratic approach to priestly formation. All these cases do remind us, however, that one’s sense of one’s vocation is hardly likely to arise in isolation and can even less likely be fostered and flourish in isolation. In our common life together as Christ’s Church – just as we do in our common civic life as citizens - we all need people like Eli, John the Baptist, Andrew, and Orestes Brownson to help us understand what we are being called upon to do. And we in turn need to be ready and willing to play that role for one another!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

One Week in Rome

Well, I have survived my first week a a superannuated student functioning in a foreign language! I now have just 8 weeks more of class - followed by exams!

What have I actually learned? This first week was largely introductory in nature – the concept of sanctity itself, the (Aristotelian-Thomistic) understanding of the virtues as acquired habits, the Thomistic theology of infused virtues, the theology of merit and intercession. That's fairly basic material whihc, of course, I learned long ago. New for me, however, was the detailed discussion of “heroic virtue” (specifically its relevance to the process of canonization). I thoroughly enjoyed the lecturer, clearly a true scholar who knows his material inside out. Hopefully the subsequent weeks' lecturers will be as good. We start martyrdom on Monday! Linguistically, listening to lectures and reading from the textbook have so far turned out to be much less difficult than I had feared.

Since my mornings are free, I have spent much of my time visiting various churches. Having already been to Rome, sight-seeing is not my priority right now. So I can pace myself and take my time visiting places and historic sites that interest me. Within walking distance slightly downhill from the Paulist apartment is the Piazza della Republica (originally Piazza dell'Esedra), by the remnants of the Baths of Diocletian and the marvelous Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martyri, famous for its Meridian Line in the floor, and used as the church for state occasions during the modern kingdom of Italy. From there earlier this week, I walked down the Via Torino to the Papal Basilica of St. Mary Major, continuing from there (with a detour to S. Pietro in Vincoli, famous for Michelangelo's Moses) all the way down to the Lateran Basilica. Yesterday, staying close to home, I walked past Santa Susanna the short distance toward the Quirinale Palace, visiting along the way the churches of S. Bernardo (once the titular church of the future St. Pius X), S. Carlo alle Quatro Fontane (at an intersection with 4 fountains), and S. Andrea al Quirinale (where St. Stanislas Kostka spent his Jesuit novitiate). This morning, I took the bus "downtown" to the Jesuit Gesu Church (where St. Ignatius and St. Francis Xavier are), and from there walked to the Dominican Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva (resting place of St. Catherine of Sienna's and the artist Fra Angelico), S. Luigi (the French National Church, known for its Caravaggio), the Pantheon, and S. Agnese in the Piazza Navona, where this mornign I venerated the relic of St. Agnes' head. (The first time I visited Rome, in 1990, S. Susanna was closed for repairs, and the Paulists were celebrating Mass at S. Agnese).

In this city of baroque churches, the Pantheon (picture) really stands out as different. The first great pagan temple to be turned into a church, the Pantheon with its monumental rotunda under the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome, was thus preserved in its classical Roman splendor (minus, of course, its original statues of the gods), even as it has since served as a Catholic church (and the remote origin of our annual feast of All Saints). Its relative simplicity in terms of its internal artistic decoration only serves to highlight the its architectural magnificence. It also serves symbolically as a vivid reminder of the continuity (and discontinuity) between ancient and Catholic Rome, as the transient earlier empire was transformed into the seat of an eternal empire. The modern earthly empire that sought to displace Catholic Rome also has its honored place there, as the Pantheon now also serves as the final resting place of modern Italy's Kings Vittorio Emmanuele II (1878) and Umberto I (1900) and Queen Margherita (1926). Dwarfed by the splendor of ancient Rome but belatedly included within the sacred space of Catholic Rome, their tombs only further attest to the transitoriness of the secular state.

Friday, January 13, 2012

A Supreme Court Decision for Religious Liberty

The United States Supreme Court hasn’t always been religion’s best friend. But (as I’ve often said when discussing talking about the excessive power permitted to the judicial branch) one can always find any number of decisions one can agree with. This week’s unanimous Supreme Court decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, upholding a small Lutheran school’s right to decide who counts as a “commissioned minister” on its staff, is long-awaited, welcome news indeed for the survival of religious freedom in the United States.

Predictably, this morning’s New York Times lamented the decision’s “sweeping deference to churches.” But, in upholding the long recognized the concept of the “ministerial exception” – and doing so unanimously – the Court thus offered a much merited rebuke not just to the ideology of the Times but to that of the Justice Department. In “The Post-Modern Liberal State vs. Religion” (October 6, 2011), I noted that, during oral argument, when Justice Elena Kagan asked the government’s attorney if the 1st Amendment entitled the church to hire and fire employees without government interference, the Assistant Solicitor General replied, “We don’t see that line of church autonomy principles in the religion clause jurisprudence as such.” Justice Kagan characterized that response at the time as “amazing.” Then, when Justice Breyer asked how the government differentiated this case from that of a woman who might sue the Roman Catholic Church for gender discrimination for ordaining only men to the priesthood, the answer was “The government’s general interest in eradicating discrimination in the workplace is simply not sufficient to justify changing the way that the Catholic Church chooses its priests, based on gender roles that are rooted in religious doctrine.”

So this over-reaching government could conceivably decide someday that its supposed “interest in eradicating discrimination in the workplace” had suddenly become “sufficient to justify changing the way that the Catholic Church chooses its priests”! No wonder so many religious groups have recognized the central significance of this case for the survival of religious liberty in the United States!

Clearly, the concept of illegal discrimination has become one more weapon in abetting the postmodern liberal state’s secularizing aspirations. It’s obvious that all authentic churches and religious institutions in the United States have a strong interest in the outcome of this case. This decision - by a unanimous Supreme Court - is a timely reminder that the 1st Amendment is not about protecting an all-powerful State from the religions of its citizens but about protecting citizens’ religions from the threatening power of an unrestrained State.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Rome's Baroque Sensibility & Evangelization

Back in the early 1970s, my senior-year American Political Thought professor, distinguishing between archetypically Catholic and Protestant approaches to life and politics, highlighted how Catholicism is in so many respects a "baroque" religion - elaborate, expressive, sensuous, visual, etc. One need not visit Rome to recognize this. These characteristics remain deeply woven into the fabric of Catholic spiritual and devotional life (however impoverished these may have become in some places in recent decades). And, of course, any trip to any historically Catholic country - e.g., Spain or Austria - will dramatize that dimension, as well as Rome will. Rome is, however, the heart and soul not just of the Catholic Church not just as community of faith and religious practice, but also of Catholicism as a sensibility - something which may even outlast faith and religious practice. It is such a sensibility that pervades this city. For all its up-to-dateness as part of a post-modern, secular, commercially driven European world, Rome remains deeply baroque in spirit. Faith and devotion may indeed waiver, but Catholicism's baroque sensibility still defines this city.
In You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving the Church ... and Rethinking Faith, David Kinnaman argues that "the next generation's disconnection [from 'historic Christianity, which insists that following Jesus is a way of life'] stems ultimately from the failure of the Church to impart Christianity as a comprehensive way of understanding reality and living fully in today's culture."
Obviously (as the sad situation of contemporary post-Christian Western Europe abundantly illustrates), it take more than the survival of a baroque sensibility to revitalize faith. I do think, however, that the re-evangelization of the Western world (here including also the U.S.) does require something from us more than the linear didacticism of proclaiming the Word. Somehow, religion has to make its way back to the central core of ordinary life - precisely the area from which it seems increasingly estranged. somehow, we as Church must re-learn how to help the people of today to de-compartmentalize their lives and re-integrate (in baroque fashion) the areas of life that matter most to most people most of the time - love, relationships, work, play - not in instrumental ways, but in interconnected patterns that have room for multiplicity and variety and from which the path to God (actually the path of God's grace present to us in all life's complexity) is not excluded and remains constantly open.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

New Hampshire

I have never been to New Hampshire. I've been to Vermont and Maine, but never New Hampshire. Like those other New England gems, I suspect I would find much to like about living in any one of those states. The quadrennial media-driven show known as the New Hampshire Primary, however, may be a different story.
My first recollection of the New Hampshire Primary was back in March 1964, when "write-in" candidate Henry Cabot Lodge defeated Barry Goldwater, who nonetheless went on to win his party's nomination after a very divisive campaign and convention only to lose by a landslide to the incumbent, President Lyndon Johnson. All that was back in the days when formal campaigning didn't start until the actual calendar "election year," when the first primary was in March, when conventions still mattered, and when primary votes (as opposed to media-driven perceptions) still mattered. I was a high school kid at the time. High School is an unhappy time for most kids, I suspect. It was exceptionally so for me. But I found politics interesting even then, and it certainly served to distract me from my inner angst. I remember being quite taken with the New Hampshire results and followed with great interest that year's civil war between the liberal and conservative wings of the Republican party. We all know how that turned out, and we are still living with the long-term consequences of it today!
Four years later, in 1968, the NH Primary really did matter. President Johnson won the most votes, defeating Senator Eugene McCarthy, who however did surprisingly well. The result was that Senator Robert Kennedy "reassessed" and later that month (still March) entered the race, resulting in Johnson's withdrawal from the campaign at the end of March. This time the nomination went to Johnson's surrogate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey. This time it was the Democrats' turn to tear themselves apart and lose the election.
After that, we moved into the present era when primaries abound, when campaigns go on for ever, and when winners and losers are anointed by the media well in advance of most voters getting any chance to express their preference in their states' primaries. That Romney is now considered virtually unbeatable, based on his victory in New Hampshire, to me says less about him or his party, and more about our contemporary, self-fulfilling expectation that the best financed and best organized candidate is supposed to win.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

My Daily Commute

One unambiguous benefit of this experience is that I don't have to drive anywhere! Commuting, however, remains an integral component of my daily routine. Whatever else I may have done earlier that day, towards mid-afternoon Monday through Friday, I leave the Paulist apartment on Via Antonio Salandra to board the #62 Bus on Via XX Settembre. The bus immediately turns right at Largo Santa Susanna and then continues down two little streets (Via Bissolati and Via San Basilio) to Piazza Barberini (which is also one of the two nearby subway stops). There it follows Via del Tritone to Piazza Colonna, where it turns left onto Via del Corso. The bus follows that busy, shopping street all the way to its end at Piazza Venezia and the famous 1911 monument to King Vittorio Emmanuele II (which since 1921 also houses the Tomb of Italy's Unknown Solider). There it turns left onto Corso Vittorio Emmanuele II, passing the Palazzo Venezia (where Benito Mussoline once had his office and from whose balcony he often orated), the Jesuit Church of the Gesu, and St. Philip Neri's Chiesa Nuova. Two stops after Chiesa Nuova, I get off in front of the Ponte Vittorio Emmanuele II;, but, instead of crossing the Tiber there, I walk the short distance to the bridge named after Victor Emmanuel's popular nephew Prince Amadeo of Savoia, 2nd Duke of Aosta. Once across the river, then I begin the tedious walk up the Gianicolo Hill to the Universita Urbaniana. (The attached photo of of the back of St. Peter's Basilica as seen from the 3rd floor window of the building where my class meets).
Promptly at 4:00 p.m., we stand and pray (in Latin), then class commences (in Italian). Today we continued our introductory analysis of the concept of sanctity - focusing in particular on St. Thomas Aquinas' treatment of the topic. At 5:45, we finish. By then, of course, it is dark. Walking down the hill is a lot easier - and faster - than walking up. Across the Ponte Principe Amadeo is the bus stop. The return route is more or less the same, but at this hour the bus is much more crowded. I get off at Largo Santa Susanna, and I am home in under an hour from the end of class.
Being in a foreign country makes everything seem initially more complex and difficult - and tiring too. Other than the historically older buildings I pass each day and my more religiously interesting destination, however, the experience of commuting is probably not that much different from a bus ride in Manhattan!

Monday, January 9, 2012

My First Class

In typical high anxiety, I very early. Actually that had its benefits. It meant I could take my time walking up the hill. (It's all uphill and steps from the river to the classroom in the Pontificia Universita Urbaniana on the Via Urbano VIII on the Janiculum Hill. And the class is on the top floor - but at least there is an elevator inside!).
I wasn't the only early bird, however. There were already several students - all sitting quietly reading the textbook. That produced another moment of panic, until I realized that the books were piled up at the back of the aula, and that I was supposed to take one for myself. That proved to be the second benefit, because by the time the room filled up there weren't enough books for last-minute arrivals. (Were they not expecting us all to show up the first day?)
The classroom (Aula 12) seats 90. The full number of students in the class is 87 - clergy, religious, and laity, male and female, from every continent. (I've always advocated at least a semester in Rome for every seminarian - if only to acquire a real appreciation of the universality of the Church!)
Some arrived in groups. Others recognized each other. All of which, of course, highlighted my most persistent and pervasive fear - that of being alone, completely on my own. I buried my head in my book, trying not to appear as terrified (and clueless) as I felt.
Right at 3:45, we all stood as His Eminence the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation of the Causes of Saints arrived with his entourage of assistants (some of whom form the faculty for the course). His Eminence gave about a 20-minute introductory talk. Then we all stood again as he and most of his entourage departed, leaving behind only the young priest who is obviously the administrator of the program and and the Dominican Prior of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva (in full habit and black cape) who is one of the professors and, after a short administrative interlude, launched into the first lecture - on sanctity in general and the etymology of the word.
One new thing I learned which, on reflection makes perfect sense but which had never dawned on me before, concerned the killing of Remus by Rome's first king, Romulus. I had always been taught that Remus jumped over Romulus' wall as an act of brotherly spite, suggesting the weakness and perhaps the indefensibility of Romulus' city, and that Romulus accordingly killed his brother out of injured pride. I learned today, however, that Remus' action constituted a sacrilege, that the walls delimited the sacred space of the new city, separating the sacred from the profane. The two interpretations don't contradict each other, of course, but the religious one amplifies the event's significance in the context of a pre-modern sacral society.
It's been years since I have been a student. So I think sitting attentively for two hours will be a bit of a challenge - and attentive is the one thing I most certainly must constantly be because of the lectures being in Italian! But, based on today's talks at least, I think it's going to be a good experience in the end.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

American Epiphany in Rome

I arrived in Rome on Friday morning, which, being the real Epiphany in the calendar of the Universal Church, was, of course, a holiday as well as a holyday here. Today, however, we celebrated the American Epiphany with full liturgical and musical splendor at the American Church of Santa Susanna, which the Paulist Fathers are so privileged to staff here in Rome. We sang the familiar Epiphany carols - We Three Kings and The First Nowell, along with such seasonal stars as O Holy Night, Silent Night, and Joy to the World. Peloquin's Gloria of the Bells seems every bit as endless in the new translation is it was in the old, but it did add a fittingly distinctive dimension of festivity for the occasion
As our American Christmas holiday has expanded to encompass all of December (and even November), Epiphany (to the extent it gets any attention anymore in the US) seems more and more like some sort of vestigial afterthought, a kind of out-of-sync-with-our-culture postscript to Christmas. It remains, however, actually the oldest festival of the Christmas season (older than Christmas Day itself), and still stands as one of the principal festivals of the Church’s calendar.
In the Eastern Christian Churches, Matthew’s Gospel story about the magi is read on Christmas Day, and Epiphany is primarily a commemoration of Jesus’ baptism, the beginning of his mission as an adult. In the West, while the traditional Benedictus and Magnificat antiphons in the Office do highlight the three Epiphany mysteries (Magi, Baptism, Cana), we in fact focus today almost exclusively on the magi.
Of course, we actually know next to nothing about the magi themselves – not their names (although tradition has given them the familiar names, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar), nor their number (though tradition, based on the gifts itemized in the Gospel, has counted them as 3), nor their exact social status (though tradition, inspired in this case by Psalm 72, has crowned them as kings).
The Gospel tells us none of these things, but it does tell us what it is important for us to know about them. First and foremost, it tells us they were foreigners, that is, Gentiles, pagans. As such, they represent the multitudes of people – past, present, and future – armed with only natural knowledge, who seek the God who made the world and all that is in it and gives life and breath to everyone, as St. Paul put it in his only recorded sermon to a Gentile pagan audience in the Acts of the Apostles [Acts 17:24-25]. But then the story also tells us that, whatever varied paths different people may start out on, our paths must finally converge in Jesus, the one savior of the world, and that the interpretive key to the story of Jesus is God’s revelation of himself in the history of Israel. Thus, it was to Jerusalem, that the Magi came to learn the full significance of the star – a meaning revealed in the Jewish scriptures, which translated the natural light of a star into the revelation of a person. As Isaiah prophesied in today’s 1st reading [Isaiah 60:1-6]: Nations shall walk by Jerusalem’s light, and kings by her shining radiance.
By way of warning, however, the story also illustrates how easily we may miss the point. When Herod heard the magi, he was greatly troubled and all Jerusalem with him. What an inappropriate - and unfortunate - reaction! They were not overjoyed like the magi, but troubled! What troubled them? What made such good news seem like bad news? And then there were the scholars whom Herod consulted. They quoted the scripture correctly, but they just didn’t get it. For all their abundant academic knowledge of the subject, they seemed to lack any real knowledge of the kind that mattered. So none of them did they obvious thing – go to Bethlehem and do Jesus homage. Only the pagan magi did that!
Talk about missing the opportunity of a lifetime! But there case may not have been so unique. For too many people today - for far too many people today - the good news seems more like bad news. So many incidentals seem to get in the way of the essential good news of the Incarnation! For others, there may be an abundance of intellectual, academic knowledge, which, instead of advancing its possessor on the road to profounder faith, instead diminishes faith or seems to snuff it out altogether.
The magi, on the other hand, were overjoyed, not troubled, and so set out as true pilgrims – and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother and prostrated themselves and did him homage. In the old liturgy, everyone was directed to genuflect at those words – as if to bring the point of the story physically home and so cause us to identify personally with the pilgrim magi.
As for the magi, we never hear about them again. We know only that they departed for their country by another way. Here in Rome every Church has its more or less elaborate praesepio which pilgrims and tourists alike come to see. Nativity scenes sometimes seem, so to speak, frozen in time. Everybody stays stationary – at least until it’s time to put the figures all back in the closet. But the real magi didn’t just stay put, anymore than the shepherds did. They went back to wherever they had lived before, but they departed for their country by another way. They went back to whatever they had been doing before, but they would never be the same again. And, thanks to Christ’s coming into our world, we too must be different now from what we would otherwise have been.
Every January, "after the holidays," we return, as we inevitably must, to our ordinary routines – at home, at school, at work, wherever and whatever. Like the magi, however, our challenge is to travel through our ordinary life by another way, because something so special has happened that makes everything different from what it would otherwise have been.
Yet, even as we navigate our way through an uncertain, but certainly challenging present, the Christmas star invites us to imitate the magi – to go on pilgrimage with them to Bethlehem and back again – confident that, whatever else may be the case, the Christmas star will precede us to illuminate every new day of this new year, and so will guide us, first to Christ, and then through Christ on that new way, which, like the magi, we are all of us being invited to find and to follow.