I arrived in Rome on Monday, March 7, after an overnight flight out of Atlanta. This was my first overseas flight in a long time. One of my three benefactors gave me miles to fly in business class so I could rest much better. (I am spoiled now! I hate to think of not flying this way on an international flight should I do it again.) Numbers of intercessors were praying for my health. I sat next to a woman with the worst imaginable cold. She was miserable and it showed. I prayed that I might be spared getting sick once I got to Rome. Thankfully, the Lord protected me from a new virus that would weaken me profoundly since my already weakened immune system is not ready for normal battle most of the time.
I went right to the place where I would rest for the next eight nights: The House of St. Bridget, a wonderful 15th century building on a very Italian piazza (which means square in English). My place was at 96 Piazza Farnese. This guest home, pictured in the photo I’ve included above right, sits across from the French Embassy. This particular piazza, like all such neighborhood centers in Rome, is busy. A piazza is the center of social life in Rome, especially at night. After an evening where I heard the noises of the street late into the evening I asked the sisters to allow me to move to a room with a window facing a small interior center of the building. I was removed from the street noise problem but then was literally rattled every fifteen minutes by the huge bells of St. Bridget’s which rang from 7:00 a.m. until 10:00 p.m. I think my room must have adjoined the bell tower since it sounded like it was inside the room and the walls literally shook.
The sisters at Piazza Farnese were a delight, at least when I found one who spoke good English. I became more than a little interested in the history of the place since I do not recall ever staying in a residence built more than 500 years ago. This was no American convent or residence. The history of this church and center is nothing short of remarkable to someone with my curiosity and interests. My last evening there (March 14) the best English-speaking sister in the Order showed me around and introduced me to the life of Bridget in a wonderful way. I also bought a book on her life which I am reading at a leisurely pace since I returned home. I discovered that Bridget's Order was treated rather badly by the Lutheran Church in Sweden, since the women remained devout Catholics during and after the Reformation. Yet Bridget and her followers prayed for love and unity among Christians. Her prayer has found deeper expression since Vatican II. Her Order, and this house, model that prayer.
Bridget of Sweden has been called “The Mystic of the North.” She was canonized by the Catholic Church in 1391. She clearly was a unique personality, powerful in her message of peace. Belonging to the royal family did not hinder Bridget from spending a great deal of time in the study of the Bible, in prayer and meditation, and in mysticism and personal mortification. A deeply cultured and practical woman, a wife and mother of eight children, Bridget became a counselor to the highest of royalty in her time. Later in life, after her husband died, she founded this Order which she dedicated to Christ as her Savior and Lord.
What proved to be of great interest to me, and to my purpose for being in Rome in the first place, was that this Swedish lady of faith was fully involved in events which six centuries later would engage her spiritual heirs to become “a bridge of unity between Rome and the noble of Sweden, between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran Churches of Northern Europe,” as Paul VI described it.
Bridget is a Saint with pan-European dimensions. Since October 1999, together with Therese of the Cross and Saint Catherine of Siena, she is the co-Patron Saint of Europe, a continent with common traditions, faith and history in spite of its various historical vicissitudes. Her Order now stands for ecumenism around the world. I realized that my arrangements, to stay here in this place at this time, had been made with a divine purpose.
When I fly east I always seek to remain awake until the evening so I can adjust my body clock as quickly as possible. So once I was settled I was ready to go. My first meeting was with Michael Severance (photo right), one of the two directors of Acton Institute’s Rome office. Michael had arranged my car from the airport and my lodging. We met, realizing we had met before in Michigan at a meal some years ago, and then went to our first appointment with Dr. Teresa Francesca Rossi, the associate director of the Centro Pro Unione, located on the famous Piazza Navona. (The photo here is of the square and the famous building in which the Center for Unity is located.) After a tour of the Center for Unity’s office it was off to my first Italian meal. Michael knew a little place that was classic and not too pricey. The food, as is most Italian food, was really exceptional.
Dr. Rossi is a very able scholar and a profoundly gracious person. She is also deeply involved in dialogs with several Protestant communions, including the International Roman Catholic-Baptist Dialog and the International Roman Catholic-Pentecostal Dialog, both official functions with an official relationship inside the Catholic Church. The Center for Unity is directed by the Franciscans of the Atonement, an order that was once Protestant but now Catholic. The Center opened in 1968 in a building that belongs to the famous Doria Pamphilj family. It consists of a library of three large rooms, a meeting room and a large conference hall for annual conferences on ecumenism in the summer. The Franciscan Friars of the Atonement remain deeply committed to pursuing unity in a gracious and effective way and the Center demonstrates this beautifully. The library at the Center was the best ecumenical library I’ve ever seen, clearly the best in Italy. It has 400 periodicals, over 20,000 books and over 27,000 records of interchurch theological dialogs. I wanted to stay an browse but time didn’t allow a great deal of leisurely searching of the stacks. The Center also publishes a semi-annual bulletin in English, Centro Pro Unione Bulletin. Through this bulletin the Center for Unity provides a multi-lingual bibliography of interchurch and inter-confessional dialogs. The Center works as well with the Italian Episcopal Conference to co-publish and distribute material for the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (January 18-25).
I would return to the Centro Pro Unione on Wednesday, March 9. Here I would have my first meeting with our seven-member team but this advance visit with Dr. Rossi on Monday allowed me to meet her in advance. I was able to get a feel for the kinds of ecumenical events and research that go on in Rome year-round. And now my book will soon be in the vast collection of ecumenical books in the Centro Pro Unione Library.
After lunch Michael and I began my first round of touring. We walked to a number of famous places. I got my first view of the Vatican (photo is me standing on one of the bridges over the Tiber River that leads to the Vatican), the Pantheon and some rather ancient and amazing places. The best touring would come on Tuesday.
My evening was on my own so I wandered back out into the Piazza Farnese and looked for a place to get my first pizza. Italian pizza is thin and freshly made. I am spoiled by thick crust Chicago-style pizza. I still actually prefer it but the Italian style is lovely. You really can’t go wrong eating Italian food in Italy, right? I eventually found a place where the waiter was superb and spoke great English. Here I ate for three or four of my evenings on Piazza Farnese. I soon begin to try all kinds of new food and enjoyed almost all of it.
I was also reintroduced to Prosecco, which I had tasted once in a real Italian restaurant in Chicago where an Italian friend took me to dinner a few years ago. Prosecco is a white Italian wine—generally a dry or extra dry sparkling wine. It is made from Glera grapes (previously known as Prosecco grapes). Glera grapes are grown in several regions of Italy but, Prosecco can only be produced in certain regions of Italy.
When I went to bed on Monday evening I was very, very tired and I slept very, very well. The Lord refreshed me and gave me strength for busy days ahead. I ended my day reading the last words of the Old Testament, from Amos through Malachi. (My 90-Days Through the Bible was not going to end in Rome!)
Tomorrow: Day Two in Rome. Sites, impressions and the first Protestant speaker for Acton Institute in Rome