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Wonders of the Small Church

The small church has incredible importance and value, although it may not carry the pomp of churches in Europe and elsewhere. I have one particular small church in mind: ours.

Writing has always been much more enjoyable for me than speaking; I have often considered speaking more an activity of the brain, while writing is rooted in the heart, the place where emotions and passion converge and feelings leap from my joyous heart. As I possess no artistic gifts (cannot draw a real-to-life stick figure), writing serves as my written prayer from which I can feel the heartbeat of God beating rapidly within me.

The 20 days spent in Italy – 20 days seemed much less daunting than the three weeks it actually was (I failed greatly in this attempt to deceive myself) - was the experience of a lifetime. I was successful however, in allowing the trip to regenerate the transformation of my heart. Transformation, I learned again, has little to do with intelligence, resolve, or human perfection; yet it has everything to do with honesty, the willingness to see, and humbly surrender to God. Soon after we arrived Tuesday, September 4, flying over the Swiss Alps with the sun rising at 7:00 in the morning, we visited the Pantheon, built as a temple but now a church, and just a mere 63 steps from our hotel in downtown Rome. Construction on the Pantheon began 25-27 B.C., and was completed in approximately 125 AD. The following day was spent at the Vatican and included 25 minutes spent quietly inside the Sistine Chapel (Cappella Sistina). I recognized within the initial 48 hours that God had sent me much less of someone on vacation, looking to feed my mind and accumulate a journal of personal experiences, but a person God had sent to Rome and Italy as a pilgrim. Pilgrims journey with a pure heart and open mind: no judging, I reminded myself, simply be present to God with an open heart and he will work in me, and keep me locked into the present moment. I was sent to pray for those who love me, and for those whom I love, and even those who don’t love me. That steadfast belief was the tipping point of my entire trip. Three consecutive Sundays separated me from each of you; yet through the intimacy of prayer, I felt a sense off connectedness with you that either I was not aware of, or else, sadly, perhaps took for granted. During my pilgrimage throughout Rome, Florence, Siena, Assisi, Venice, and every other church visit in Italy, I offered your name before God that he would grant you peace, good health, purity of heart, and daily communion with him.

To stand in Saint Peter’s Basilica (Vatican) which holds 60,000 people, and took 120 years over 22 popes to build (1506-1626); a magnificent Gothic structure in Orvieta dedicated to Saint Mary, and pressed against a navy blue sky I had never seen before; to stoop in caves built by the Etruscans 6-7 centuries B.C., is to stand in silence, overwhelming gratitude, and awe. Quite often, the scope of our reference is United States history, an infant by comparison at 242 years old, to Rome and other parts of the world,
and to stand in churches, many over 1,000 years old, is to keep silent and still a racing heart. Piazzas serve as the
city center in Italy’s towns and cities, and the churches, enormous churches, are at the center of the piazzas. There is
the tendency to measure these churches and buildings through the lens of someone living in the 21st century, but that would be a grave injustice. All of this was work was built by hand, with chisels and large stones functioning as hammers, and obviously, plenty of back-breaking work. I now know what it means when someone says, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

The churches, for instance, stand front and center, as examples of the wealth, power, and influence of the Roman Catholic Church in Italy. Each resident of Rome is required to pay 3% of their income to the church, angering many, especially younger people. In the small northern city of Orvieto, dating from 1290, for example, one particular church is full of rediscovered Byzantine frescoes that was built in 1008, nearly 45 years prior to the Great Schism. We also learned that in the 18th century there were 25 churches in Orvieto, within the radius of one mile. Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice, dating to the 10th century, is one of the best known examples of Italo-Byzantine architecture in the world.

Perhaps what will stay burned in my mind and heart forever was standing in a hillside café at 7:45 in the morning enjoying my morning cup of tea, outside the Roman Colosseum, an oval amphitheater used for entertainment, and in ruins now since the mid 400’s. Inside the Colosseum, which nearly three weeks later now, I am unable to describe, and am left to wonder in awe and amazement. Closing my eyes shut tight, I imagined gladiator v. gladiator (400,000 gladiators were killed, animal v. animal (100,000 animals were killed), gladiator v. animal, public executions and hangings, others burned alive, enthusiastically cheered on by crowds of 50,000 citizens, all admitted without charge, as a way for local politicians to curry favor with the people to gather votes for the next election. It seemed to me, certainly there were Christians among those killed, making it easy to understand the church’s desire to declare this sacred soil.

Moving out of Rome after five days, our travels took us to Florence, the center of the 15th century Renaissance (1300-1600), and the home of the giants of this period: Michelangelo Buonarroti, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, the poet Dante (Alighieri), and playwright, diplomat, and historian Niccolo Machiavelli, the father of modern political science. While still a pilgrim in Florence, we visited the Santa Croce Church where Michaelengl0, Galileo, and Machiavelli are all buried. That Michelangelo lived until age 89, at a time the average life expectancy was 40, and at a time without antibiotics and during the Black Plague, when three of every five Europeans died, is incomprehensible.

Interestingly, although Michelangelo, considered himself foremost a sculptor and not a painter; he finally consented to the church’s wishes to paint the Sistine Chapel after much debate and disagreement, and only after he learned the Vatican was prepared to look elsewhere to have their demands met. Including the ceiling and side walls of the nave, Michelangelo spent 20 hours a day for 10 ½ years inside the Sistine Chapel. Never far from Florence in thought though, Michelangelo offered near the end of his life: “My soul belongs to God, but my body will always belong to Florence.”

Venice is divine, a romantic medieval town built over a canal in the year 400, and carries the charm of a city, like so many others, that is frozen in time. The streets are narrow and meandering, and the gondolas, used on the Venetian canals, show up as they do movies, documentaries, and books. Just so beautiful, and picturesque. So steadfast in preserving what always was in Venice, even the daily refuse is loaded on a boat and taken to mainland for disposal. A person can live forever in Venice and always be satisfied, if, of course, they can afford it. The Basilica of San Marco, located in the Venetian central piazza, contains the relics of Saint Mark the Evangelist.

Hours spend in Assisi and Siena, where Saint Francis (Francesco) and Saint Catherine lived respectively, will always stand out as a personal highlight. I was reminded when reflecting on their lives, that sanctity does not belong to the Eastern Church alone. Francis and Catherine (since 1939) share the title of co-patrons of Italy. Visiting the churches they attended, and going to their burial places inside those churches, will long be remembered; as will a quick trip to Pisa where I saw the Leaning Tower of Pisa, a marble freestanding bell tower, is aptly named.

After eleven days of sightseeing, the trip finally slowed as we travelled south to Montepulciano, via rental car, for the final leg (nine days) of my once-in-a-lifetime sojourn to Italy; but first, we stopped in Modena where we visited a balsamic vinaigrette farm, the oldest one in Italy, dating to 1605, and the homes of Enzo Ferrari and Luciana Pavarotti. Pavarotti’s home, recently turned into a museum in 2016, was wonderfully presented, and looked as if he the Maestro was simply away on tour. With his music videos playing in the background, this visit was exceptional.

Montepulciano served as our home base as we toured and had a tasting at each winery we visited. The Brunello wine in nearby Montalcino is world class, and the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, is highly desired by wine connoisseurs. All of this is set against the most beautiful view imaginable: the rolling hills of Tuscany (Toscano), which extend and roll and roll forever, and melts even the local’s hearts.

Magnifico. Mozzafiato.

Not only to Toscano, but to Italy. – Fr Marc

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