Just signing in with a report. I know that things have been very quiet on SCE in the last week, when I promised you regular updates on my pilgrimage to Rome and Turkey.
The fact is that I have been busier than a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Cathy and I have done a year’s worth of walking, and our feet are now very well acquainted with Rome’s cobbled streets.
Anyway, she is on her way home to Australia now, and I am sitting in a bar/café in Istanbul Airport (where I have just paid a ridiculous amount for a cup of coffee, but I reckon it is worth it just to sit still in a comfortable safe spot for a while.
We have been on the run since 7am this morning, having been up till 1am packing. If you ever come to Rome by plane, do what we did when we first arrived: get a taxi or a transfer to the place you are staying. It will be €50 well spent. The alternative, taking a train connection (itself €11 each), using the metro, etc. is a real trial involving a stack of walking (or running, depending on your schedule). Platform 25, from which the train leaves, is right on the other side of the other end of the Termini station.
No one and nothing is about today in Rome except the tourists who are on the move. We ran into Tim Fischer, the Australian ambassador to the Holy See, in the streets of Rome yesterday, and he strongly advised us to start early on journey to the airport due to the almost total lack of taxis etc on this day.
I should tell you something of our stay here in Rome – most of it will have to wait until I get time to do some “flashbacks” over the next few weeks. Yesterday was a great day – and I would not say that generally of the experience of Holy Week in Rome, which is a highly over-rated experience in general, even with tickets to Papal events.
We were due to attend the easter vigil in St Peter’s Basilica on Saturday night, but we were running out of puff. The service began at 9pm and there was already a long queue of ticket holders in the Piazza. We, like them, had the standard blue tickets, but a Carmelite friend living in Rome, Fr Paul Chandler (of whom more will be said in this report), managed to get us a couple of “gold tickets” for the Sunday morning mass in the square. He assured us that this would be the go, especially as there was the added spectacle of the Swiss Guard and the Italian soldiers marching in to do their thing.
As it turned out, we were luckier than Charlie in Willy Wonker’s Chocolate Factory – although we had to start out early, taking the metro and grabbing a coffee and a couple of doughnuts our favourite bar in Via Ottaviani at 8am, when we arrived we found ourselves in the row directly behind the bishops and the cardinals on the front steps of St Peter’s, in the fifth row from the left side of the papal altar.
The mass was actually very beautiful, even the Sistine Chapel Choir wasn’t too bad. There was a choir of seminarians who sang some popular easter hymns. I haven’t read the Holy Father’s homily in translation yet, but I am assured it was very fine. The icon that they used at the very beginning was quite significant given the Pauline Year. Afterward he went up onto the balcony to give his urbi et orbi speech and blessing. And yes, the soldiers and guard led colour and noise to the already colourful and noisy surroundings. It was quite something to look out and see the whole of the piazza plus half of the Via Della Concilianze full of people, and to think we were right at the heart of all of it. I very much enjoyed singing the Regina Coeli and the “Christus Vincit, Christus Regnat, Christus Imperat” at the end of the Mass. A real high.
But there was still a couple of things we had to do before leaving Rome today, and one was to get inside St Peter’s Basilica. On Wednesday after the Papal Audience, we had to dash off to meetings at the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, the Australian Embassy, and the Incontrini Romani, so we didn’t get to look into the Basilica then. On Thursday, when we got to the end of our Vatican Museum tour, we couldn’t enter the Basilica from the usual doorway from the Sistine Chapel because of the Chrism Mass. Then on Easter Saturday it was shut getting ready for the Vigil, so this was our last chance. But despite the fact that we were sitting right at the front, we still had to be shuttled right out into the main section of the Piazza, then get in a huge line and wait for the Basilica to be opened. Even then, about a quarter of the floor space around the high alter was closed off, as well as the crypt (so no visit to JPII’s tomb), and the dome (no views). I did get to venerate the tomb of Blessed John XXIII, St Gregory the Great and St Gregory Nazianzus – although I understand that the bulk of the latter’s relics have been returned to Constantinople a few years back. We saw the magnificent memorial of the non-entity Alexander VII by Bernini and the horrid statue of Pius XII (the 1960’s style makes him look really evil – would simply confirm everything our jewish friends think of him). A couple of happy surprises: the memorial to the Stuarts and the tomb of Queen Christina of Sweden. Otherwise the whole place is pretty well a monument to Baroque popes who had no problems in the area of a lack of self-esteem.
We then went out to meet up with our friend, Fr Paul Chandler, who has been working here in Rome for a number of years in the Carmelite Historical Institute. I got to know him a little in Melbourne because he used to run the big Friday night Taize services at Whitefriars back in the 1990’s when Cathy and I were just getting to know each other. Paul has now cemented himself in our esteem and regard, not only for getting us the “gold tickets” for the Papal Mass (which he in turn obtained from a generous personage within the Carmelite order), but also for the very enjoyable Cook’s tour of Medieval Rome that he gave us after a beer at the café at the entrance of the Pio Borge as we were making our way towards the Pantheon. The Pantheon itself was well and truly closed by the time that we got there, but the walk was fascinating. We took the route to Castel St Angelo and then across the bridge through to the Piazza Nuvona and St Luigi’s (where the Chapel of St Matthew is decorated with three major paintings of the life of the Saint by Carravagio.
Along the way, we “bumped” into Bishop Tim Costello (Auxiliary of Melbourne), Mr Francis Moore (Melbourne’s business manager), Fr Stewart Moran (Melbourne priest studying in Rome) and Fr Chris Ryan (in charge of the Melbourne seminary for Missionaries of God’s Love at Burwood). Later, as I said, we also met up with Tim Fisher. There was probably nothing odd about the odds here – the streets were full of people. Italians celebrate a festival by going out and walking on the streets, so there are lots of meetings going on.
We ended up having dinner in a restaurant at the Pantheon that looked promising for our Catholic Muslim pilgrimage. Cheap food, huge serves, right location, lots of vegetarian dishes. Paul explained to them our needs, and the restrictions of Hallal food, but we were a little disappointed when the dish that Cathy ordered – spinach and ricotta tortellini – came out with peas and ham. “We had no spinach and tortellini, so we made you this.” Great. Just the sort of thing to embarrass us with our Muslim guests. AND just the sort of thing Italians would do, said Paul: they don’t come and ask you what you would like instead, they decide for you!
At the end of the evening we caught the bus home to the Monastery San Gregorio al Celio, but had to go via the Termini to get our train tickets for the morning. So it was about 11pm when we got home, and then we had to pack, resulting in a 1am retirement. We were able to pick up some fresh fruit, yoghurt, juice, and croissants at a supermarket, which we had for breakfast this morning.
Well, the rest of the team should be arriving from Dubai any moment now, and the head of our Muslim contingent said he would be here at the Arrivals centre by 5:30pm, so I will sign off for now. Don’t panic if the reports are sporadic in the future, but I do hope that while we are in Turkey I can make them a little more regularly.
Hooroo, and over and out from New Rome!