EDINBURGH, Scotland (LifeSiteNews) – It has been 25 years since I first went to Rome.
There are some things about my maiden voyage I’ll never forget: people smoking on the train platforms underneath Da Vinci Airport; the expanse of rickety apartment buildings festooned with fluttering laundry; the hot October sun. My northern skin burned pink in the 15 minutes it took me to find my tour group.
We spent only one night in Rome before our bus took us around the rest of the country, pouring the foundations for a lifetime of Italian memories. As we gazed out the windows, the bus driver gave us a steady diet of local pop music. Max Pezzali’s recently released “Io Ci Sarò” (“I’ll be there”) could then be heard everywhere. The food, eaten at unprepossessing hotels, was unmemorable – except for a nutty Florentine cookie, purchased and savoured in Firenze itself. My first sight of that amazing city was a moment that no subsequent visit to over-touristed Florence can diminish.
We were a curious company: 30 or more Americans, Britons, Canadians, and Australians in our twenties. The Canadian girls gently but insidiously sneered at the patriotic American boys. Several American girls danced attendance on the Manhattan stockbroker. The loudest girl threw up on the bus the morning after the night before. In her defense, we were all well-plied with cheap wine every night. And we were not exactly encouraged in virtue: to my horror, there was no opportunity on the Sunday for anyone to go to church, even though we were literally in Assisi.
Upon our return to Rome, my Assisi disappointment turned into fury. At a mealtime, one of our number asked another what the differences between Protestants and Catholics were. He may have been Jewish; he sounded as if he had only just discovered that Western Christians were not one solid, homogeneous group. Before I could say anything myself, a heavyset girl cut in to say: “Protestants believe in the Bible, but Catholics have to do whatever the Pope says.”
In 1998, I was no kind of apologist for the Catholic faith, with which I was then having problems. However, I knew perfectly well that the Pope must be the defender of the faith, not vice versa, and that to say otherwise was an anti-Catholic crack. I flung away from the table, seething with resentment that I, a Roman Catholic, had to hear such nonsense in Rome itself.
Shortly thereafter, I stood in St. Peter’s Basilica for the first time. You probably have seen, if only in photographs, what I saw: Michelangelo’s stupendous painted cupola, Bernini’s staggering bronze baldacchino, the ornately set chair of St. Peter, and above it the round stained-glass window depicting the Holy Spirit as a dove. As a Catholic, I should have been in ecstasy. However, I felt nothing but disappointment. I had no sense of God’s divine presence.
The basilica seemed huge and empty of anything save tourists and the tombs of popes whose names and lives I did not know. I tried to summon up wonder that St. Peter’s bones were under the altar. (The Blessed Sacrament was reserved in a side altar somewhere behind me.) I tried to block out the sense that too many tourists had taken too many photographs in the past hundred years, sucking out the holiness. I failed – until I heard a loud crash.
I turned around. A woman had collapsed, and within seconds a first aid team was at her side. I was near enough to see their faces: they shone with compassion, concern, and what even looked like affection – with what even looked like love. And suddenly I felt God’s divine presence emanating from these paramedics. God’s presence wasn’t something static – to be found in a cupola or a chair – but mobile and alive in grace-filled people. At that moment, I saw what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins saw before he wrote “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”:
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is –
Chríst – for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
And this thought brings me to my next trip to Rome: my 25th anniversary tour, as it were, which will coincide with the 2023 Rome Life Forum. I believe the Rome Life Forum will resonate with the same spirit that animated the paramedics tending to the woman who collapsed in St. Peter’s Basilica so long ago. Everyone who attends the Rome Life Forum is rushing to give first aid to our ailing Church. We will do so with compassion, concern, and a love that burns more fiercely than affection, for the lady to whose assistance we run is not a stranger but Ecclesia, our Mother and Teacher.
I imagine we will also be something of a contrast to my 1990s tour group of 20-somethings.
Certainly, I will be somewhat of a contrast to my younger self, too. Then I was largely indifferent to the reigning pope, John Paul II, thinking him a bit behind the times. Now I grieve for the intellectual heft and relative doctrinal clarity he and his successor Benedict XVI brought to their office. Then I listened to a lot of nonsense about “God has nothing to do with the Church’s ‘man-made’ laws.” Now I accept all the Church’s teachings and pray for the restoration of Her traditional liturgy, too. Then I was a slender dynamo of potential. Now I’m older, fatter, greyer, but orthodox.
I also now know where to get great food in Rome. A lot of living and learning and travels to Italy have filled the gap between October 1998 and September 2023. Like many of you, I hope to be able to offer what I now have in service to the Church at the Rome Life Forum. As Mex Pezzali warbled from millions of Italian radios 25 years ago, “Io ci sarò” – “I’ll be there.”
You can order tickets for the Rome Life Forum at RomeLifeForum.com