Thursday, November 22, 2012

Giving Thanks

The 13th century theologian and mystic Meister Eckhart once said, "If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough."  I first came across this several years ago in a "Mutts" comic in the newspaper.  On this Thanksgiving Day, it is a good reminder to continue to give thanks to God not only on this special day, but give thanks for the gift of life, for the gift of family and friends, for the many blessings (both big and small) that surround our lives. 

As you might imagine, this first Thanksgiving in Rome is a little odd.  I had classes this morning (no watching the Macy's Parade) and this afternoon it is my turn to work in our reception area (no naps in front of the tv while watching the football games.)  But, it has also been a day of joy.  Classmates from England, Lebanan, India, Argentina, and elsewhere all wished me a "Happy Thanksgiving."  The Brothers in my house have been very interested in the origins of the holiday and asked a question that I didn't have a good answer for, "Why turkey today?"  I have also enjoyed receiving well wishes from many folks in the States, and will Skype in to the Jones Family Dinner this evening.  Finally, Bro. Mike, the General Secretary, prepared a proper Thanksgiving Day Dinner for our community...turkey, stuffing, potatoes, pumpkin pie, and no pasta!

It truly is a day to count my blessings and to give thanks.  As I posted on Facebook this morning, this really is a crazy but wonderful life that I am living.  And it is only because of all those great people who have been, are, and will be in my life.  For all of you, I am so very thankful.

Bro. Bosco trying to eat the paper turkey.

Our Master cooks for the day: Marilena, Bro. Mike, and Marina.

The American table: with Bro. Les, Brian, Fr. Charlie,Sr. Gretchen, and Bro. Ed.

No caption necessary.

Thanksgiving in Rome.

Fr. Pachi (from Spain) enjoying his first Thanksgiving dinner.

Sunday, November 11, 2012


This past weekend I went to Assisi for the Tenth Annual Pilgrimage for University Students sponsored by the Diocese of Rome.  Assisi is known as the  “City of Peace,” but with about 3000 young people (my very rough estimate) converging on the city, it was a little busy and noisy.

The group from my University (the Angelicum) met at the school at 6:30 in the morning and finally got on the road about an hour later once the bus drivers finished disputing their contract (after all, this is Italy). 

We began with Mass in the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels which is in the plain in front of the city of Assisi (which is built on a mountain.)   
St. Mary of the Angels

This church is quite unique in that there is a church within a church.  First, there was the “Porziuncola,” a little chapel where the first followers of Francis gathered.   Then, the larger outer church was built later to accommodate all the pilgrims which were (and are) attracted to the site.  It is also the place of the “Transitus” which is where St. Francis died.  
The Porziuncola inside St. Mary of the Angels

The Porziuncola is right in the middle.

After lunch, we hiked up (and I mean UP) to Assisi which is a typical Medieval city which was built on a mountain for defense.   
I was told that this is where St. Francis and his friends would hang out.
At the top of the mountain.

A city set on a hill.

We made our way to the Basilica of St. Francis which is very beautiful with many frescos.  In the “lower church” you can see the tomb of St. Francis.  The chapel just felt like a holy place.  What really struck me was the silence.  Of course, there were many people inside, but even with all the people it was probably the quietest place I have been in Italy.  I think this is a testament to the saintliness of Francis and the awe which he inspires.  
The Basilica of St. Francis.

The tomb of St. Francis.  (I may need to go to Confession after taking this picture...After taking it I saw a "no picture" sign.  Ooops)

The Basilica of St. Francis.

Some of our group for the day.
We then went to the Basilica of Assisi’s other famous resident and friend of Francis: St. Clare.  Incidentally, it is on the other side of town!  This Basilica is quite different – very austere and simple, but quite beautiful in its own right.  

The Basilica of St. Clare.

The highlight was seeing the cross of San Damiano which is said to have spoken to Francis, saying “Rebuild my church.”  Of course, Francis took this literally and began to rebuild the Church of San Damiano which was falling into disrepair.  Only later would he realize, with the help of Clare, that it was The Church which they would call to conversion.
The San Damiano Cross.

In the evening, there was a candlelight vigil and procession to close the pilgrimage.

Night falls in Assisi.

The beginning of the vigil.

Of all the places I have visited so far in Italy, I think Assisi might be my favorite.  I hope to return and spend a few days (without so many folks around) exploring its narrow, curvy and hilly pathways.  There really is a sense of peace about the place.  I'll leave you with a few more pictures from the day.
Assisi from the piazza in front of the Basilica of St. Clare.
Saint Francis.
The plain in front of the city.
Returning to the Basilica at dusk.
St. Mary and the Angels (and the fog).

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Saint Ali

Today we celebrate the Solemnity of All Saints.  As we know, there are thousands of saints officially canonized in the Church…St. Francis of Assisi, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, insert-your-favorite-saint here.  They have special days appointed to them, and here in Rome you can even sometimes see their bodies (that might be more appropriate for the eve of All Saints Day – Halloween!)  But today and its accompanying feast tomorrow (All Soul’s Day) always turn my thoughts to those “other saints,” those who have not been (and probably never will be) officially recognized by the Church.  And yet, by knowing them, they have helped me and continue to help me on my journey towards holiness by the witness of their lives and the lessons they have taught me.

In a special way this year, my attention has turned to one of these “saints,” my dear friend Ali Nunery.  I first met Ali when I was working in Cincinnati.  Near this time last year, she lost her short but heroic battle with a rare form of lung cancer.  Today’s feast seems like a perfect opportunity to reflect on her life and some of the lessons she taught me.
Ali and I on our return trip from New Orleans.  She thought it would be a good idea to get these wigs. 
My first real encounter with Ali was when I asked if she would be interested in taking a group of students to work in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  Without hesitating, she said “Yes.”  I thought this is something we would think about and decide on later.  But, I quickly learned that we were going to make the trip, there wasn’t any hesitation.  I’m also not sure if the word “No” was a part of Ali’s vocabulary.  She would often come to my classroom to propose an idea that I thought was ludicrous – a luau in the library or taking students to Disney Land or donning a Santa suit.  My initial protestations were always met with Ali standing in the doorway looking at me until I gave in (and I always gave in.)
Some students in New Orleans.  I never realized the house we were working on was pink until now.

This was so typical of Ali’s constant “Yes” to life.  It is a “yes’ to the possibilities that are offered and a “yes” to embracing whatever (good and bad) is set in your path.  While in New Orleans, she was the constant cheer leader when the students were tired after a long day of difficult and hot work.  She was a positive and encouraging voice while we had to deal with a difficult student.  (Particularly, she promised a round of beers if I was the one to call the parents at midnight!)  She was able to organize a drive-through order at McDonald’s for 20 people without batting an eye.  
In New Orleans, Ali always said "Yes" to ice cream at the end of the day.

In one of the last times I visited Ali, she was given picture of the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in Dayton.  Ali commented that during her illness, Mary kept “coming up” and she had developed a deep relationship with the Mother of Jesus.  This didn’t come to a surprise to me since Mary is the woman who made that first “Yes” for the life of the world.
The Grotto at Mount Saint John in Dayton, OH

 As I got to know Ali better, she continually taught me to find joy in life, particularly in unexpected ways.  On the trip to New Orleans, we weren’t even out of the Cincinnati metro area and we were playing car-bingo.  When we finally found our winning piece (a corvette) you would have thought she had just won the lottery.  And then there were the countless dress-up days that she loved and in which she made me participate.  There was a group of teachers who all wore Santa suits the day before Christmas break.  (There was no need to ask why she had four Santa suits, it was just Ali.)  There is the famous walk-a-thon day when we promoted the Disney trip by dressing up as characters, and then sat in the dunk tank dressed in flippers and a life-vest.  When I finally went into the water, Ali couldn’t stop laughing because the black dye she had put in my hair for the Aladdin costume was running all over me.   
Need I say more?

All these things brought so much joy and happiness to her life, and she showed all those around her how to find this same joy, even when we hesitated.  Looking back now, I can only imagine that she was prophetically showing us a bit of the joy that she now experiences with all the saints. 

Finally, Ali reminded me that we are never alone and never forgotten.  She had a way of bringing people together – after-school faculty get-togethers in the library (yes, we had a luau) and Thanksgiving dinner in the cafeteria.  When I moved to San Antonio, she would send me a thematic tie each month – among them are a turkey tie, an Easter Bunny tie, and of course a Jesus tie.  When Ali and our two friends Jen and Shannon were supposed to visit me in San Antonio, they made shirts that said “I’m with Bob” and of course I had one that said “I’m Bob.”   Ali understood what community was all about.   
Thanksgiving dinner in the cafeteria.
It was fitting, then, that perhaps the greatest lesson I have ever learned about community came from Ali.  At the end of her funeral liturgy, I noticed that a few friends of mine had come to the mass.  It struck me as being odd because I don’t think they really knew Ali at all.  They had only heard about her through me or through other mutual friends.  When I asked one why she had come, her response was simply, “To be with you.”  At the end of the Gospels, this is the promise that Jesus leaves with his disciples, and Ali continually reminds us that it is so very true in many unexpected ways. 
The dome of the Baptistry of the Cathedral in Padua, Italy. 

We are surrounded by a great “cloud of witnesses,” and our faith reminds us (as difficult as it can be to believe some days) that for those who have gone before us “life is changed, not ended.”  In their own, unique ways, these saints continue to be present to us, just in new ways as we keep their memories alive and allow them to continue to walk with us on our own pilgrimages.  For my friend, Ali, this is so very true.  Let us, today, give thanks for the saints in our lives who continue to show us the joy of the resurrection and remind us that we are not alone.  And let us, ourselves, strive to become a great “spectacle of a people of saints.”  

Saint Ali, pray for us.