I must tell you at the outset that this is a long post.
I have been remiss in not posting what adventures I have had so far in Rome as I had promised, so please forgive me. I managed to get to Rome in one piece, even though I had to arrange for a different flight at JFK as the leg of the trip from Minneapolis was a bit late. I was to be on a 4 pm flight and ran like the dickens to get to it but they had just shut the door and would not consider opening it. And then the plane sat on the tarmac for 40 minutes. I did manage to get a flight out at 6 pm and did some checking to make sure that my bag got checked onto this flight. It was a problem to do so as Missoula did not give me the bag claim number but the Al Italia person was able to track it and assured me my bag would be on the same flight. Not so. No bag when I got to Rome. I did manage to gain two guardian angels while waiting for the flight from JFK as I struck up conversation with two Carmelite priests returning to Rome where they are studying. They had been engaged in parish work in Long Island all summer. One was Indian and the other one was from Skri Lanka. The younger one, from India, seemed to become quite fascinated in my conversation with him, especially when he found out what I was doing in Rome and what I knew about Francis. I began to wonder if he has ever had conversations with women on the kinds of things we were discussing!! He likes Francis but has not read much about him, not even Evangelii Gaudium. These two priests must have decided I needed guardian angels as they did not leave my side, even coming back to my seat on the plane to make sure I was doing OK several times during the flight. I don’t seem to remember myself as looking quite that helpless but their attention was charming. They even stuck with me through the whole fiasco of not having my luggage appear at Rome and the fun of filing the bag claim. Then they had to make sure I made it to the train station attached to Fiumcino. Along the way we met up with the person who had come to help them make their way on the train and he then insisted on paying for my ticket. I must confess that until they met their companion who was helping them, I was beginning to wonder what their motives were but they were just being kindly guys helping a fellow traveler. So, into Termini station I came, first thing getting a Rome city map and with it in hand walked about a mile to the convent where I was staying, carrying my purse and a backpack containing both my laptop and tablet plus the “survival kit” I had packed in it as a contingency if luggage was lost- toothbrush and a change of undies. Along the way with my limited Italian and skill with hand language, since I am half Italian, I managed to make sure I did not get lost. The Roman streets are not signed very well and they are not the nice, neat grids of streets in America but then they wouldn’t be quite the charming Roman streets they are. It was quite warm and humid so that by the time I got to the convent where I was staying, my shirt was soaking wet with sweat and I was quite bedraggled with sweat running off my face. Ok, this will be fine, I thought, as Al Italia said they would deliver the bag later that day as it was coming on the flight right after mine. I will have clean clothes and smell better soon. Not so. This story became one of many “Not so’s”. I had a number to call them so later that evening I did so. I was assured that the bag had checked in at Fiumcino. It was a matter of the courier getting around to delivering it the next day. I rinsed out the shirt I was wearing and the socks. The shirt was not dry but the only thing I had to wear to go out for some dinner. After dinner, I walked up to the church Santa Maria Maggiore which was about a half mile away. This is the church Francis always visits when he is to make a trip, bringing flowers to lay on the altar before the icon, Salus Popolo Romani, Health of the Roman people. Then when he returns, he visits again and brings something back from his travels. When he returned from World Youth Day last summer, he brought a soccer ball in the colors of WYD and lay it on the altar and set off the traditionalist Catholics into apoplexy! When he returned from Korea and visited, it was to the surprise of all the pilgrims present in the church who he had join in song with him. It is a beautiful church but not as clean as one would expect for a major basilica, except for this side chapel where the icon is kept. We had meetings with Catholic Church Reform International the next day and it was not pleasant to be wearing a partially wet shirt and pair of socks. Rome is humid and the things did not dry overnight. No problem though as my bag would be there waiting for me when I got back to the convent. Not so. So I called the number again. This time I was told that, si, the courier had picked it up but he gets 24 hours to deliver it and he would use all of those 24 hours. The next morning as Richard and I walked to that day’s meetings, I did pick up some deodorant to make things a bit more pleasant for those around me. And the bag was finally there in the convent lobby that evening. The young sister at the desk who had been helping me out with where I could buy deodorant or find a laundry, being well aware of my circumstances, seemed as happy as I was to see that bag.
The meetings starting on Thursday were good. Robert Mickens, a former reporter for The Tablet, who also worked for a number of years prior to that at Vatican Radio, was especially good. I had heard him speak on a YouTube clip previous to Francis’ election on what a new pope would be facing. It has turned out to be quite true. He has a good set of Vatican connections and provided a lot of insight into the Synod, Francis and the stiff resistance he is facing. I was heartened by the fact that what he was saying about Francis affirmed what I have been synthesizing from my reading and watching over the last year. Mickens also gave CCRI some tips on how to navigate the strange labyrinth that is the Vatican. He also suggested learning the language of the Vatican bureaucracy. It is indeed strange and is a world unto itself. He sees Francis as trying to change a lot of that and succeeding so far in spite of some stiff resistance. The other speaker I found great was a Benedictine missionary sister out of the Philippines. She spoke on changing structures of patriarchy. She gave us examples taken from her work with women, girls and families in the Philippines. She has now begun work with young men, helping them to free themselves of attitudes about maleness that abet patriarchal structures. Once these young men work through their issues, they are quite grateful to her as they find it so freeing. She was a very blunt and outspoken woman and quite funny at times. She was not hesitant at all to talk about sex. Friday was the day when all those who were representatives of reform groups engaged in a colloquium and shared what our groups were about and what we have done. I outlined Concerned Catholics of Montana and what we did with the listening session in May of 2012 with Bishop Thomas. Almost everyone there shared their amazement that we got a bishop to sit down with us and had him just listen. That day closed with a Mass for which no supplies were to be found in this church where we were meeting despite assurances to the contrary by the contact working with CCRI. So Richard did a dash down Roman streets looking for bakeries to get some bread. He finally found one that had loaf bread but a huge loaf of bread. When he explained what it was needed for, the Nonna running this bakery was more than pleased to just give it to him. This was our first venue for singing and what a delight to sing in such a church. All stone and vaulted, it was built in the 16th century and is a Jesuit church. Sound is especially rich in such a setting and we made lots of sound for them.
Fr Jim Hogan arrived on Friday evening to spend a few days with Richard and I and to support us in our upcoming endeavors. After enjoying a great dinner Friday evening, on Saturday we visited the catacombs of San Callisto. This is the largest of the catacombs. It was interesting to see this and understand how some of the stories of the martyrs have become almost mythologized. Afterwards, the three of us had some interesting conversation on that. I suspect that any group such as early Christianity trying to survive in the midst of such adversity develops the stories that will sustain them. There are frescoes in some of the larger catacombs with symbology we still use today in the church, such as the anchor, fish, the story of Jonah representing resurrection. They are beautiful to see and it is amazing the colors have held so well. Jim had wanted to see the ones he had read about showing women presiding at Eucharist. That series of catacombs, San Domitilla, was not open on Saturday. In the ones we visited, we did see women in the orans position, hands held up in prayer that usually indicates that of a presider. In the evening I wanted to go the vigil being held in St Peter’s Square with Pope Francis present. It was interesting getting into the square. Jim is deft at maneuvering through crowds and did not hesitate moving us up the line of the huge crowd waiting for the gates to open. The crowds got quite packed in against the barriers, not being allowed to go directly into the square. I was squished in between Jim and Richard. If Francis is present, everyone has to go through xray scanners, as well as their bags. Once the gates opened and we were herded through security, we moved as fast as we could…I can’t exactly run with a recent hip replacement….and we managed to get seats about twenty to thirty rows back, center front from the stage where Francis would be sitting. The first half of the service was music, readings and testimonials from families of all kinds. Francis was not present for that. The testimonials were long. You could sense the restlessness and anticipation of the crowd waiting for him to come out. Once he did come out, it was to explosive acclamation. He presents himself very calmly and peacefully and in doing so the crowed settled quite quickly. He looked good but a bit tired. I had along binoculars for a closer look as I knew the stage was back about 100 feet from the first row of seats. He looks shorter and not as stocky as television and pictures show him to be but he has a presence about him that says he is glad to be among people. His homily was quite good. He begins speaking in a very soft voice but gains strength as he goes. You can access an English translation here. We left right after the homily to avoid getting caught in the crowd. On our way out, Richard needed to use the restrooms which are located under the big colonnades you see surrounding the square. While waiting for him, I stepped over to the barricades present near there. From that prospective you see out over the whole area and slightly above it. I was quite blown away. The entire square was filled with people and there were people halfway down the Via Conciliazione which is the street leading up to the square. We had lighted candles earlier so I was looking at this sea of candles. It was profound. Then I remembered a quote I read, and which I cannot source, that the laity is the sleeping giant of the church and beware if it should awaken. My thought then was that Francis is awakening that giant. All of the bishops and cardinals participating in the Synod were seated in an area to the side of the stage. I then thought that those men in purple and magenta should be shaking in their boots. I suspect some of them already are and that is why Francis is encountering stiff resistance. These guys do not want to give up any of their perceived power. I also found it amazing that this large crowd would show up on a Saturday evening in Rome where the night life is at full swing. There were lots and lots of young folks in that crowd. It gave me another strong surge of hope to be a part of and to see that crowd of people all intent on the words of this elderly man from Argentina who said Yes to God to do a job he really did not want to do and thinks it is his job to bring the church true to her mission of being the presence of Jesus and his mercy in the world.
So…now we get to the good part, the singing in the square. Sunday morning bright and early, Richard and I took a taxi to Vatican Square. He was lugging his guitar so walking was out of the question. We did not have to go through any clearance that day so easily walked up to the obelisk in the center and proceeded to set up for the singing we wanted to do. We knew that our plans were changed a bit as Francis announced the week before we left that there was to be the Mass opening the Synod to be held in St Peter’s Basilica at 10 a.m. that would be open to the public. Our plan was to sing before the Angelus but we were not quite certain that there would even be an Angelus as the papal Masses are quite involved affairs that can easily be 90 minutes and this one had a whole gaggle of mostly elderly bishops and cardinals to process in with him and then process out. We thought it might easily take two hours and Francis would then do the Angelus from the altar inside the basilica. Richard and I had positioned ourselves at the very base of the obelisk. A group of nuns came by with some leaflets in Italian that I could read enough of to know they thought there was going to be a procession for persecuted Christians staged around the obelisk. I managed to convey to them that I did not know anything about this. They left but within five minutes here comes a guy saying we need to move away from the obelisk and “No singing, no guitars” and being quite insistent. I think we were outed by the group of nuns. I must have had a look of “I want to know what your authority is” as he finally showed me his badge as Roman City Police, not Vatican. The thought occurred to me that he didn’t have authority in the square so I decided to convey to him that I had a letter of permission from the Prefecture of the Papal Household for a group of pilgrims to pray and sing in the square before the Angelus and showed it to him. He then proceeded to take the letter from me and saying in broken English he needed to check. As he walked away, I stated I wanted the letter back. He turned around and said in perfectly good English that I would get the letter back. He eventually came back and said” OK, can sing, can have guitar but no obelisk”. The rest of the group from CCRI came and got their banners ready. I had specifically asked that the banners and any placards that they mentioned wanting to use not be used while we were singing as our permission from the Vatican was for a prayer and singing event. I had been assured that they would not be. We kind of milled around for a bit and then Fr. Jim arrived. By then we could see lots and lots of people streaming past the far colonnade, going through security as they were going into the Basilica. I am not sure who suggested we move over to that area to sing and Richard agreed so off we went. The CCRI members were carrying the banners unfurled and as soon as we got to the area, the police, both Roman and Vatican swarmed them wanting to know what those banners were about. Fr. Jim, Richard and I sorta consulted on what to do. Jim said to me “You came here to sing and you have worked hard to get here to do so. Don’t give it up.” So, Richard decided that we needed to move away from the controversy of the banners. Going close to the barricades where all those people were streaming in, he began playing and I launched into The Canticle of the Turning with as full a voice as I can muster and indeed, there was the turning of heads in the crowd. It stopped the line moving as they listened for several minutes as we did all five verses. The crowd then began to move forward and we began singing All Are Welcome. Those who knew English had smiles and we had several folks video taping and taking pictures. After that we sang In the Name of Jesus. By then I was getting flagged back over to the cops and the CCRI folks as they wanted to see my passport since the permission letter was in my name. I don’t carry the original on me but have a copy under the lining of my shoe which I explained to the cop from earlier who now seemed to understand English quite well. I took my shoe off to take it out and got “That’s OK we don’t really need to see it.” I don’t think my feet are that smelly! There was a constant back and forth between the police and then also Vatican security, those guys that protect the pope who also got in on this affair, and the leadership of CCRI. Jim, Richard and I just distanced ourselves from that. By the time they perceived we were not a threat to Papa Francesco and did not intend to start some sort of riot and said it would be ok to sing, Mass began with full organ music blaring into the square. Jim, Richard, and I went off to one side to watch on the jumbotrons and the CCRI folks got separated from us by the increasing number of people who were coming into the square to watch the Mass on the jumbotrons and wait for the Angelus. Jim left after the first reading as there was no place for him to sit down. But when we heard the first reading, Jim said that if Francis decided to preach on that reading in context of the Synod it could be a barn burner. When it came to the homily, and with the little spoken Italian I can make out, I realized that he indeed was going to base his homily on that reading, I had the best laugh I have had in a long time! Read that first reading here and then read Francis’ homily here. As he gave this homily, his eyes focused only on the bishops and cardinals and he spoke slowly and deliberately as if he were teaching a group of slow learners. He was definitely sending a message. While not totally the barn burner Jim thought it would be, it was pretty close. Richard and I eventually sat down on the pavement close to a barricade that could provide some shade. He was really enjoying the music and I was enjoying the people. It was a real experience of the universality of the church. I struck up a conversation with an older American couple from Massachusetts. From her conversation, I could sense another progressive so shared information with her when she found out I was working with a reform group, giving her the Concerned Catholics website address. There was a sign of peace shared with people from several nations at that proper moment which also was a profound thing to experience. We were not certain Francis would appear at the window for the Angelus until we saw the window in the Apostolic Palace open and the red banner hung over the side. Again, you could feel the crowd grow in anticipation. Richard and I got a kick out of a group of Argentine pilgrims beginning to chant Ar-gen-tin-a over and over and quite loudly. They sure do love their native son who is now pope. All youngsters, they began to get us chanting with them. I didn’t feel too bad about our getting hassled by the cops when I saw them come out and tell this group to stop. I decided at that point that the police and security were just primed for any kind of restlessness in the square because this Synod has attracted a lot of reform groups into Rome and some are being quite vocal. At one point while the CCRI folks were dealing with the police, I turned around to see Martha Heiser from International Movement We Are Church in Germany coming up. She was the one excommunicated by her bishop because she and her husband were celebrating Eucharist in their home without an ordained priest presiding. From the reaction of the Vatican security, I think they knew who she was and that probably did not help CCRI’s situation any. Martha had been to the Friday session of our meetings for a time. Richard and I were supposed to join up with the CCRI folks after the Angelus for more singing but could not see where they had gone to. They had been calling me on my cell phone to get us to come back to the obelisk but I could not hear it over the crowd and the phone was in my purse. When we got ready to leave the area where we had been watching the Mass, the couple from Massachusetts gave Richard and I big hugs. The worldwide Catholic family in the flesh….Yes, indeed, we are the living body of Christ.
When we finally met back up with Fr. Jim, he asked me if I was disappointed. I told him “No….(actually it was Hell No)…I came to Rome to sing in Vatican square in memory of Rosemary Tackes and I did it.” And I did not need to call any of my dear friends from Concerned Catholics of Montana for bail money…..