Today, I arrived differently. I was picked up at the airport and pretty much Chauffer-driven into †he Casa Maria Immacolata (a Sisters of Charity Hostel for pilgrims). I have a lovely single cell-room, with very well equipped ensuite.
Trying to stave off the inevitable jet lag, I wandered the streets, finding myself at St Peter’s Square (which is more of a round than a square), watching the lengthy lines/queues to get into the Vatican. I went into some of the religious stores, wondering if I might buy something not too tacky... have acquired a decent candle for worship for the next few days.
I am now sitting in a quiet taverna close to the Case and the Mercato. I thoroughly broke the fast I have been on by ordering the fried 7 pieces of antipasti... the anchovy-stuffed-olives and the deep fired mozzarella went well with the house red!
My first coffee in a month is perfect roman espresso... bless the Italians!
To be here for vocation rather than vacation subtley changes the world view... suddenly, I look at the many pilgrims differently. I observe the Chapel and the local churches differently. I wonder how much of the character of Romans remains from the days when Paul wrote to the early church.
Romans have a confidence about their place in the world that traces back to pre-Paul times... yet, the heritage of Peter and Paul in this city is palpable. Rome was for Peter and Paul what Jerusalem had been to Jesus. It was the place of their final words, suffering, wisdom and blessing.
As I watch a pigeon consuming some crusts and sit at my red and white table-clothed place on the pavement, I smell the tobacco from the diner behind me. In a time when smoking at a restaurant is unthinkable in Australia, it is surprisingly evocative, to sense the slower change of the people and culture here.
Sitting in the nave of the Chiesa de Trinite Monte... where a chamber orchestra is warming up for rehearsal. It is so obvious when ‘session musos’ are warming up rather than students! A very sweet sounding oboe and people who grow up with Baroque ornamentation.
I have been wandering Roma this morning. I saw stunning Caravaggio, visited the Leonardo da Vinci museum and lunched in the Borghese Parc. A bit of afternoon chamber music before descending the Spanish steps seems totally in order...
Ah - the choir and soloists arrive, bringing back memories of thirty years ago, Not much has changed. I reflect back on those heady days of lots of trains and evening-gowns, warming up in restrooms and applying makeup in Vestries... perhaps it was good training for a more mature career as a inter-cultural liturgist and cross-cultural theologian.
Thèse days the lights come on with electricity... well do I remember when every one of those candles had to be lit with tapers and there was constant cleaning of the walls and artworks to get the soot off. These days there is a greater sense of light, but the flickering shadows (and some of the resulting atmosphere) have disappeared.
Yet, the Chorale commences, and centuries of faith resonate in the harmonies and rather pleasing diction. Italians make everything into opera! No-one knows how to build a crescendo quite like those of Latin temperament!
Of course, the venues make the music. This Church is a resonating chamber designed to amplify the angel voices and carefully articulating strings. Florid runs become a cacophony, designed to terrace like a well-planted Roman garden. The notes almost tumble down the hill outside, landing like droplets into the Trevi fountain somewhere below.
Rising and dressing, one looks at oneself in the mirror and questions: how is this happening? What on earth do you think you are doing? It is a surreal experience.
Assembling with Bishops and visionaries, I felt a long way away from ‘home’. Do I dare assume a place within such a crowd. The polity and language sometimes feels foreign. The experiences and practices are more solid than I am used to. Missing, was the sense of movement and fluidity of my daily context. History is more palpable in Rome!
Riding on a bus, sitting in rarely worn vestments, we all felt formal and solemn. At the same time, there was a sense of excitement and occasion. We all ‘brushed up’ pretty well. I cannot ever remember being among so many collars. And seeing women wearing bishop’s purples and crimsons brought home my sense of how far away we are.
Arrival at the Vatican’s “back entrance”, replete with Swiss Guards and protocol officers, is intimidating and spectacular. This is the place of the Apostle Peter. This is the place of the Church. Moreover, this was, today, a place of welcome for us. Perhaps the most shocking moment of welcome was to be saluted by a Swiss Guard. It made me think I was mistakenly in an episode of Dr Who.
We arrived in minibuses in a courtyard, leading into an access to two elevators that deposited us in a grand corridor and led through a couple of reception chambers to the Chamber of Conversation. This is where Popes would often meet with the Cardinals and Bishops – indeed, it was where Benedict announced his retirement. As we sat waiting, we looked around the walls and observed the perfections of the protocol officers. The walls were adorned with magnificent tapestries… we think they were by Raphael.
After waiting for quite some time, Pope Francis arrived. We stood, but there was surprisingly little pomp. The Gen Secretary of the World Methodists, Bishop Ivan Abrahams, brought a formal greeting, noting the celebration of 50 years of ecumenical dialogue and then Pope Francis gave a response. Then we were each presented individually.
The Pope has lovely soft hands and his genuine smile filled his eyes and visage. His warmth was a blessing in itself. I have no idea how very many people he meets in this way in a day or a week, but I do know – each of us felt honored and attended to. It was very gracious.
We sat, had a photo, and then he departed and we were soon ushered out. Exiting, we went through different rooms, including a partially completed chapel done in stunning contemporary mosaics.
We went on to other Ecumenical activities… and have finally got home at 11pm.
It was truly a day I shall not forget.