Ciao, dear readers. I apologize for the longish interlude between this post and my last, but one of the things that I have been doing in the interim was spending two magnificent weeks with my family and friends in the beautiful country of Italy. Traveling as one of the almost 200 who made the journey to Rome to witness our new shepard, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, receive the pallium of his office as Archbishop from Pope Benedict XVI back on June 29th (link), I really feel as if my time there was as much a pilgrimage as a vacation. My very first trip to Rome, I can’t begin to tell you the excitement I felt as I walked up the broad boulevard of the Via Della Conciliazione on that bright sunny morning and got my first glimpse of the iconic dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica. As I walked further down that broad street built by Mussolini and entered past the curving majesty of Bernini’s Colonnade to enter St. Peter’s Square, I was struck with the fact that – despite its immenseness size – the church itself did not overwhelm me; instead, I felt the beauty of the space and the Mass (link) welcome me – the sweep of the Colonnade on either side of me feeling like the arms of a friend reaching out in a warm embrace, the beautiful music, prayers and song lifting my spirit like the words of a dear loved one. Although far from New York, I felt right at home – and being able to sharing the Sign of Peace and the Eucharist with so many fellow Catholics from all over the world brought the universality of the Church and its teachings on Solidarity home to me in ways I had never quite experienced before. This tremendous feeling of welcome was only magnified later that day after the Mass when we were able to attend the reception held at the North American College for the five U.S. Archbishops who received the pallium along with Archbishop Dolan; from the hospitality shown by the seminarians to the warm greeting that our new Shepard extended to everyone who came up to congratulate him, the experiences of that day will stay in my memory forever.
Because tradition dictates that Archbishops receive the pallium on the Feast Day of Saints Peter and Paul (June 29), it was unfortunately necessary for me to be out of the country this year for the Fourth of July. Generally, I don’t like to be away on Independence Day – I’m a real lover of all of the pomp and patriotism that holiday represents (not to mention the fireworks and my Dad’s barbeques!) I remembered the last time we were out of the country for the Fourth we were – somewhat ironically – in England for the holiday. At the time, when we had gone out to supper at the local pub, we thought it wise not to be too demonstrative in our celebration lest we raise a potentially sore subject to our hosts. We, of course, could not have been more mistaken – once our hostess had figured out that we were from the States, we were overwhelmed with well-wishers who made a particular point to come over and chat with the folks from one of the “thirteen rebellious colonies”, making that one of our most memorable Fourth of July’s ever. I kept wondering what the celebration of the Fourth in Italy would be like – would there be similar well-wishers, would there be fireworks along the Tiber River the way there was along the East River back home (only perhaps in red, white and green as opposed to the traditional colors). As Independence Day came in Italy – and the hot, dry day turned into a cool, clear night – I looked up to the night sky and saw no fireworks: only the beautifully lit dome of Saint Peter’s reflected in the river and the stars twinkling above. Instead of the traditional loud noises and the oohhhs and aaahhs of the crowd, there was only silence, broken occasionally by the whine of a vespa’s engine carrying it’s owner home after a days work. I was actually grateful for this silence: it gave me the opportunity to prayerfully contemplate the day’s meaning in ways that if I were at home I probably never would have. As I stared out of Saint Peter’s – dominating the Roman skyline – I thought of some significant similarities between my home in New York and the Eternal City: both considered “empire” cities, both perceived as at the pinnacle of their respective cultures, both attacked in uncivilized manners because of their perceived importance – and yet, both these great cities survived and carried on. Of course there are some very profound differences as well – Rome is well over 2,000 years old with ruins and monuments of multiple civilizations all over the city, the facades of its buildings sturdy, solid, low and old, where as New York is barely over 400 years old, the facades of its buildings tall, sleek, shiny and new, and where squabbles are still take place about what the appropriate monument should be at the construction site in lower Manhattan where our most terrible tragedy occurred – and only within this decade.
Thinking about these two great cities on Independence Day – and their similarities and differences – got me thinking about two significant components of my personality that evening: I thought first of Rome – of its age, its enduring nature and permanence – the arms of the Bernini Colonnade reaching out – and then I thought of our Roman Catholic faith. Following up on this, I then thought of “home” – of New York and America – the spires of our skyscrapers reaching up, our nation’s relative newness and promise in the family of nations, our love of freedom and our American pragmatism and the opportunity for a new life that she extends to newcomers. As I contemplated these two major “components” of what makes me authentically “me”, I was awash with gratitude that God had allowed me the blessing to be born in these circumstances – as a Catholic and an American – and at this time. There are those who would view being born into either of these circumstances as more of an affliction then a blessing: on one side, those who view the ancient moral and social teachings of the Church as “out of date” and “oppressive”, on the other, those who see America as an amoral nation awash in licentiousness. Frankly, I think that people who view matters this way have misunderstood the nature of our God-given gift of human freedom, and the tremendous responsibility that this gift imparts us with. As Americans, we are wonderfully blessed – by our Constitutional rights to free speech, religious liberty, to assembly, to petition our government – to have a unique opportunity shape our nation’s policies and laws through our democratic institutions. These rights of course, impose upon us considerable responsibility. Our previous Pope, the great John Paul II, said it best in the homily he gave at Orioles Park in 1995 when he said, “America has always wanted to be a land of the free. Today, the challenge facing America is to find freedom’s fulfillment in the truth: the truth that is intrinsic to human life created in God’s image and likeness, the truth that is written on the human heart, the truth that can be known by reason and can therefore form the basis of a profound and universal dialogue among people and the direction they must give to their lives and their activities…it is important for America that the moral truths which make freedom possible should be passed on to each new generation. Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”(link)
While I was in Rome, the two most powerful representatives of these “bookends” of my personal make-up met on July 10: Pope Benedict XVI and President Barack Obama (link). Many in the media on both sides of the Atlantic thought – because of fundamental disagreements on the meaning of human life and dignity – that this meeting would be confrontational, a veritable clash of the titans, with a winner leaving victorious and a looser vanquished. Instead, the meeting was cordial and genial – the two world leaders discussed matters of great importance: concerns of social justice, disarmament, the Middle East and Cuba, as well as violations of the dignity of human life like stem cell research and abortion. At the conclusion of the meeting, the Pope gave President Obama a copy of the document “Dignitas Personae” (link) – which explains in detail the Church’s defense of life from conception until natural death, and urged the President to read it. In doing so, the Pope demonstrated that he correctly understands the nature of human freedom. Through his appeal to the President as one man to another the Pope was showing that we authentically exercise God’s gift of freedom – “the right to do what we ought” – through ongoing engagement and reasoning together person to person. It is a responsibility that all Baptized Catholics share, and it’s a lesson that we all sorely need to learn today – on both sides of the Atlantic.