Saturday in Rome was a gorgeous spring day. I had the joy of meeting Ralph Martin at 10 a.m. in Vatican Square. We shared a cup of coffee and Ralph had to run. He was kind to give me a short visit so we could actually meet in person.
Ralph Martin has been a leader in renewal movements for many years and he is the author of many books, articles, and audio albums on contemporary issues in the life of the Church and the teachings of the saints. He is currently Director of Graduate Programs in the New Evangelization at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in the Archdiocese of Detroit and Assistant Professor of Theology. He continues to lead the work of Renewal Ministries, an organization devoted to Catholic Renewal and Evangelization and hosts the weekly television program “The Choices We Face.”
I first met Ralph, but only through a brief handshake, about 25 years ago. He was leading an ecumenical conference that was held in the summer on the Wheaton College campus. He wrote a book titled A Crisis of Truth: The Attack on Faith, Morality and Mission in the Catholic Church (Servant Press, 1983). This book had reached me in some way and opened me to Ralph’s gracious influence. I was not quite ready for serious ecumenism at the time but the seed God sowed into my life through Ralph had eventually had an impact on me. I had always wanted to spend some time with him so finding out he was doing doctoral study in Rome made that possible.
Ralph was one of four founders of the Word of God Community in Ann Arbor. The Word of God is an ecumenical, charismatic, missionary Christian community that started in 1967, the year I began college at the University of Alabama. It is still composed of Christians from many different church backgrounds. The Word of God began as an evangelistic outreach to students at The University of Michigan. Initially the group was made up of Catholics, but expanded to include people from all Christian backgrounds or no Christian background. Now both Catholics and non-Catholic Christians all join together to express the unity they share in Christ as members of The Word of God.
The history of the Word of God Community is filled with much blessing and sad division. It was, so far as I am concerned, an experiment that bore good fruit in spite of the controversies associated with it over the years. Several friends of mine got great help through this community. One, Father Prentice Tipton, received a degree from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and later entered the Catholic Church. Fr. Tipton is a parish priest in eastern Michigan and remains a dear brother to me. The other friend I made in the early days of the Word of God was Bill McCartney, who founded the well-known Promise Keepers movement. I actually met leaders of the Word of God in Bill’s home one Saturday after a Michigan football game. Again, I had no idea at the time how much this was preparing me for ecumenical mission later in my life.
In the afternoon I toured the Vatican Museums. John Noronha (speaking to the Swiss Guards at left) is an American with a keen knowledge of the Vatican, the Museums and the art and artifacts of the Vatican collection. (Napoleon hauled off so much of these works of art to Paris. Eventually 70% was returned but the French kept 30% in the Louvre. Since I visited the Louvre about fourteen years ago I guess I’ve seen two of the greatest art collections in the world now.) I could not have had a better guide. He explained various paintings, took me through the famous Sistine Chapel and gave me a superb three hour experience. Having someone who knew the Vatican, spoke such good English and understood the theological richness of what I was seeing was so helpful.
Near the end of our tour I had John take a photo of me in St. Peter’s Basilica. An American lady, with a rich Southern accent, came up to ask about the times of the Mass on Sunday. I was wearing a crimson shirt with a simple white Alabama logo on the pocket. When this lady walked away she turned to me and said, “O yes, War Eagle!” Really, did I need to be reminder of the Auburn/Alabama rivalry at the Vatican? I guess only football fans will appreciate the nature of this comment.
My evening was spent enjoying a quiet time on the piazza. I ate Italian food, tasted some superb white wine and relaxed taking in the sights and scenes. My friend Chris Castaldo told me, “Eat the gelato.” I sampled different flavors (gelato is Italian ice cream) as much as I could. Amazingly I did not gain a pound in Rome. The reason had to be all the walking that I did because the food provided some great opportunities to sample rich cuisine.