On day two of my journey to Rome I toured some of the greatest sights of the ancient city and spoke in the evening. I will describe the city first and then my evening address.
The day began with breakfast at the house of St. Bridget. The breakfast was almost the same every day. A large hollow bread roll, a little butter, some jam with cheese and coffee. Before long I realized I would need to consciously look for fruits and vegetables to keep my diet in order for my best physical well-being.
Michael Severance picked me up at 10 a.m. Then our big sight-seeing day followed. We saw the Coliseum, as well as many of the ancient ruins of the first century before Christ and the two centuries after Christ. This included ruins from Emperor Trajan, the Appian Way, the Circus Maximus and other sites related to early Rome in the days of the Caesars. One of the first things that you notice everywhere you go are the letters SPQR, which is the Latin abbreviation for “The Senate and People of Rome.” Citizenship meant something to Romans, as the New Testament reminds us in the case of the Apostle Paul. When I read through Acts this week I saw again how Paul made use of this factor in his own defense and in the preaching of the gospel. If you were not a citizen of Rome you had no honor or privilege in antiquity.
The Coliseum is particularly amazing. Built in the second half of the first century, during the time of the New Testament, this was a massive amphitheater that seated 80,000. It was a place for entertainment. It had four levels and people sat according to their rank as Romans. I learned, from our excellent tour guide, that one of the most common myths about the Coliseum is that of Christians being put to death here in significant numbers. There are a few prominent martyrs who died in the Coliseum but this was not a common occurrence. Christians were put to death by a number of Roman leaders, Nero being prominent in the first century. But those who were fed to the lions at the Coliseum at the end of a long day were generally criminals.
The Coliseum is in considerable ruin today because of an earthquake centuries ago. The major portion that stands is still very impressive. I sensed many things at the Coliseum but most of all there was an impression that entertainment has always played a dominant role in cultures where people enjoyed a measure of freedom. Our guide told us that the modern movie that most accurately portrays what went on here in the first century is Gladiator, starring Russell Crowe. Being a movie critic I want to see it again and thereby appreciate more fully the realism of what I saw in the Coliseum.
Tuesday, March 8, was the day I toured the most. It was sunny and windy. It was a glorious spring day and Rome was alive everywhere. We walked for miles but it was still glorious. Things I had seen and thought about for a lifetime were right there in front of me.
In the evening I spoke for Acton Institute Rome. Acton has a small office just a few blocks from the Vatican. Most of the work of Acton Rome is devoted to building relationships with church leaders and teachers. But Acton occasionally does an event similar to the one I spoke at in Grand Rapids in December, “Acton on Tap.” This evening gathering was a “wine and cheese” event. There were about 12 adults, most of them young and some of them Americans studying in Rome. All but one was Catholic. I was the first Protestant speaker in the history of these Acton Rome events. My subject was “Missional-Ecumenism and the Vision of Pope Benedict XVI.” I explained the basis of my vision of ecumenism for the trenches, an ecumenism rooted in ancient faith and the classical Christian Creeds, sometimes called paleo-orthodoxy. I then connected this doctrinal foundation to the mission of Jesus given in John 20:21, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”
I followed this teaching on missional-ecumenism with some extensive comments taken from the large corpus of written work of Joseph Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict XVI. I believe I showed why Pope Benedict would have great sympathy for what I am teaching. In fact, I believe his own model, is often one of missional-ecumenism. He clearly desires a completely united church but he knows that while this is being discussed and labored over in worldwide conversations there are many practical ways that we can work in fellowship with one another for the mission of Christ in our modern world. We can no longer afford the luxury of fierce opposition, especially when what we share in common is so large. While we cannot agree on some important matters, the Eucharist being a major one, we can pray, we can read the Scripture together and we can work side-by-side sharing Christ’s love and good news with the culture around us.
Acton Institute is committed to thinking and teaching a type of Christian social theory and practice that allows them to be a ministry that practices missional-ecumenism. For this reason it was especially gratifying to work with them in Rome. In addition to Michael Severance I met the director of Acton in Rome, Kishore Jayabalan . Both Michael and Kishore are Americans and Catholics who speak fluent Italian. They are gracious men and treated me like visiting royalty. This all helped to strengthen the bonds of affection that I have for my friends at Acton and underscored the importance of Acton’s teaching on social ethics, freedom and virtue. I urge you to check out Acton and to consider attending Acton University in Grand Rapids this June. Michael and Kishore will be there so you could meet them. I will teach a class on “Protestant Social Ethics.”
After a meal on Tuesday evening, where I had the opportunity to get to know Kishore after my Acton address, I got to bed quite late. I did not sleep as well on the second night as my body was adjusting to the jet-lag and fatigue of three full days, counting my travel day on March 6th and a Tuesday filled with miles of walking and hours of standing.
Tomorrow: Our team meets at Centro Pro Unione for the first time. Our conversations and how friendships began to form in a remarkable way.