Monday, September 8, 2008

Signing off

After a long stay in Singapore of 12 hours, I have finally arrived home, tired and jetlagged. The whole experience has been stunning and thought-provoking. We'll all meet soon, and let's talk about what it all means for our little group and its future.

Meanwhile, this will be my final post on this blog. I hope we'll have a more permanent web presence soon!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Friday: leaving Milan

Friday: leaving Milan

Breakfast with the Mazzeos was good this morning (lots of food) and I spoke briefly to Raffy by Skype.  Later Raffy's dad took me to Malpensa airport (in his black BMW convertible!), and we had a talk about Italian finance and politics while we waited for the check-in desk to open. I thanked him as he left, and I'll be seeing them both again in mid-December.

Now I'm waiting to board the first leg to Singapore. Home soon.

Dinner with the Mazzeos

After meeting at the the platform at Milano Centrale Raffy's dad drove me their apartment, which is close to the city centre. After a brief rest they took me to see a few sights which I missed in my first quick visit.

The Victor Emanuel Plaza is amazing. Imagine the Block Arcade, but ten times wider and taller, ten times richer, and full of famous fashion stores. We also got to see La Scala and the old part of town where the medieval marketplace is preserved.

I also got another look (from the outside - they were closed) of the Duomo and San Ambrogio. This gave me the chance to get some external shots of San Ambrogio which I forgot to do last time.

After that it was back home for a beautiful dinner. Raffy's parent's English is pretty good, and we had no trouble making conversation. We had some fun looking at Raffy's baby photos (she looked just like Alessia does) and a picture of Matteo's magnificent hair before he became respectable and cut it.

They'll visit us again in Melbourne in mid-December, and Antonella will be staying through January and February. I have asked them to bring the photo of Matteo.

At about 10:30 I went to bed, having discovered I have a 13 hour stopover in Singapore on the way back. Yikes, I'd forgetten that! Better get as much sleep as I can before the big trek.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Thursday: back to Milan

Thursday: back to Milan

After fitting in a couple of morning sessions at the conference, I got ready to leave Rome. Cardinal Scola sent a prerecorded speech which was shown this morning, but I had to skip this. After some final farewells, I headed to Roma Termini to get the train back to Milan. Rome was well worth the few extra days it took. The city itself is amazing, and I made many study contacts that I will develop over the next few years.

I'll spend the night with Raffy's parents, who have kindly agreed to host me for the night. After that, the long flight home.

More Vatican

More Vatican

Since, I'm leaving Rome tomorrow, I decided to wag the conference and spend time looking at the Vatican some more.

First, I visited the Vatican Museum. It's a great barn of a place, over multiple levels and with long, elaborately decorated corridors. The museum is itself a major work of art, and incorporates many rooms of Raphael's frescoes as well as the Sistine Chapel, site of Michelangelo's greatest paintings. I didn't have time to pay too much attention to the exhibits themselves, and decided to concentrate on these frescoes.

The Sistine Chapel was commissioned by Pope Sixtus (hence the name). In the 1980s the frescoes in the Chapel, including the famous Creation and Last Judgement by Michelangelo and Raphael's lives of Moses and Christ, were cleaned and made visible again for the first time in centuries. A few areas have been left uncleaned and you can see that they were almost black with soot. Now they are full of colour and very impressive. The Chapel itself has flat walls and a curved ceiling - nothing special. It's the frescoes that make it.

After my visit to the Sistine, I wanted to visit St Peter's again to visit the tombs of the Popes and climb the dome.

The tombs in the crypt of the Basilica. You go down a passage on the northern side of the outside Basilica. I saw JP2's tomb, which is very popular and had a small crowd praying around it. People leave small papers with prayers intentions there. I said a prayer there to JP2 and Mary for our little group in Melbourne.

In one area you can see a mosaic wall that covers the tomb of Peter. If you book in advance, you can visit the excavations behind this wall, and even see the tomb marked, in Latin, 'Here is Peter'. No such luck for me, but I've come pretty close to a Pope today anyway.

When you climb up the stairs to leave the crypt, you emerge close the the Papal altar which is directly over Peter's tomb.

I then climb the dome. I have to leave the
Basilica to do this because the entrance is very close to the crypt entrance outside. The lift takes you up about 100 metres and then you've got a few hundred steps to get to the top. The passages are narrow and stuffy in summer. The first stage takes you inside the dome, at its base, so you can look really closely at the mosaics on the inside of the dome. I love mosaics, so I enjoy this. It's amazing how the colours are graded to produce beautiful effects from a distance.

The passage to the top of the dome runs between the inner and outer domes. The higher you go, the more the walls tip inwards, until you are climbing with one hand leaning on the inside dome! But it's worth it when you get there - a cool breeze and unbroken views of Rome and the Vatican itself.

The walk down is a little more spacious and much easier. This time I emerge inside again, but at the rear of the Basilica.

This is my third visit to the Basilica. I've decided I like it a lot.

Back to the conference for dinner, and now I'm off to bed. Train to Milan at 12:30 tomorrow and then home to see you all.



After waiting about 30 minutes, activity began on the stage. A trickle of visiting bishops and Vatican dignitaries made their way gradually to the rows of seating on the stage. This was to the right of a single chair in the middle which was obviously reserved for the Pope.

At the same time, a few serious-looking gentlemen in dark suits began to take up position, while five colourfully uniformed Swiss guards ringed the stage. Anticipation grew, then the side door opened and Pope Benedict the Sixteenth shuffled onto the stage with his slight stoop, shy smile and red Prada shoes. The audience erupted with cheering and got to its feet, which was perfect since the first thing he did was lead us in a prayer.

The business of the audience then began. First, we got a reading about St Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus - in Italian, French, English, Spanish and Polish in succession. Then the Pope read out a roughly 8 minute reflection on the reading - all in Italian!

All was not lost however. A French prelate came to the microphone to acknowledge all of the pilgrimage groups from France, each cheering in turn, and getting a wave and a smile from the Pope. He then handed a summary of the reflection in French to the Pope, who read it out. Next came the turn of the English-speakers. The conference I am attending was called out, and we responded with an anaemic academic wave and a pigeon-chested cheer. No bellows of 'Benedetto' or 'viva I'll Papa' unfortunately.

We went through all of the languages this way. Two nationalities stood out: the Germans and the Poles. I recently read that church music is better in Germany than anywhere else, and it shows. Most German groups struck up a choir performance of a couple of verses when their name was called, and they were all excellent. One group even managed to bring in two trombones for accompaniment (I have no idea how). On the other hand the Polish groups were just incredibly noisy, yelling their heads off in approval when they were called out. The occasional singing wasn't bad, but not as good as the Germans.

The whole atmosphere was festive and good-natured, but serious where appropriate.

Once this phase was over, the Pope led us in a Latin recitation of the Our Father, followed by a Papal blessing which he assured us extended to our families as well.

The final act was his official welcome of the prelates and the blessing of the disabled and sick, who crossed the stage one after another in a convoy of wheelchairs. After this, he moved down towards the crowd and shook hands with a lot of people, including our conference organiser.

At this stage the Pope was being mobbed, and all I could see was a little white hat bobbing up and down in a sea of people. So I decided I was finished, and walked out to St Peter's Square again.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Waiting for Benedetto

Waiting for Benedetto

This morning we gathered at the hotel to headv down to the Vatican for the Pope's Wednesday public audience. We've been told there are a limited number of seats available. I got one of the green tickets for entry to the hall, but it's pot luck really. If you don't fit, you end up watching on a screen outside.

It's a complicated trip down there (Roman buses!) Around 9am we joined a queue of about 100,000 people (exaggerating slightly) at the southern edge of St Peter's square. The hall we're all haeding for is a standalone building to the south of the Basilica.

It's slow and hot progress, but I managed to creep forward in the crowd and be one of the first few of our group to get past security. Our group was now strung out like the proverbial Brown's cows, so I made my own dash for the hall.

The hall seats about 3000 people, and it is filling up rapidly. The atmosphere is happy and relaxed. A few groups are singing here and there, and people chat excitedly. I'm sitting amongst a group of African nuns, waiting for the Pope to arrive.

Three words: Second. Row. Seat.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Grandeur of Reason

The Grandeur of Reason

On Sunday night a bunch of people who had arrived early for the Grandeur of Reason conference decided to go out for dinner. At about 8pm we set off to cross the river in search of good Italian restaurants. We found plenty, but they were filling up. After a bit of wandering about a group of 6 of us peeled off and I found myself having dinner with John and Alison Milbank (ask Rick) and a couple of other people. I havev graduated from grappa to something very nice called lemoncilla.

The conference the next day was a bit challenging. There were paper sessions which I was able to keep up with, offered by students and academics, and I was able to ask some intelligent questions. But the joint plenary sessions are way over my head. I'm told this is normal for a first theology conference. I plan to have lunch with Tracey Rowland today or tomorrow (Wednesday) to talk about my thesis topic - not too soon, because she's pretty jetlagged.

This morning I took the metro to Roma Termini to get my ticket to Milan, and dropped into St Mary Major. Another beautiful Baroque church, but I am still suffering from St Peter's overload. I recommend that anyone visiting Rome sees St Peter's last.

On Wednesday morning we'll have a Vatican tour and attend the Pope's weekly audience. I'll report again then.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Sunday: St. Peter’s again

After a long night’s sleep (11 hours!) I feel I am recovering from the last two weeks. At breakfast, I discovered that there are several other Australians in the hotel who are here for the conference I will be attending. One New Zealander is a student of Tracey Rowland’s, who will be supervising my degree next year. I immediately started to feel more at home.

Fortified by breakfast I decide to set off for St. Peter’s again. It’s cooler this morning, so the walk is more pleasant. I enter the Square again, this time taking my time. I took a panoramic shot of the Square from the right of the entrance:
The columns of the square are three deep, supporting a massive roof topped by terracotta tiles. In the center of the Square is mounted an obelisk brought to Rome by the Emperor Caligula and used as the finishing line of the Roman race track which once existed near here. The re-use of the obelisk expresses the triumph of the Church over pagan Rome.

Entering the basilica again, I got one of the audio devices to explain the various works of art and the building. But before using it, I moved directly to the front of the church, where a crowd was gathering for the celebration of the 10:30am Mass. The mass area, which had been open on Saturday, was closed to tourists on Sunday. “Attending Mass only!”

Well, what’s the point of being a member of a club if you don’t use the privileges once in a while? In I went, behind the High Altar and canopy, and below of the stained glass picture of the descent of the Holy Spirit. Directly beneath the glass is a sculpture of the Chair of Peter, indicated by the surmounted Papal crown. The sculpture contains a relic, an old wooden chair that is, by tradition, the original chair of Peter. Testing has shown it dates back to the early Church. Sorry about the quality of the photos; it's very hard to get good shots in the dark! I'll get a book with some better ones later.

The procession included two cardinals, about ten bishops and eighteen priests, and eleven altar servers. Only the second reading was in English, and the first reading and sermon were in Italian. Everything else was in Latin. They handed out Mass books that covered Italian, Spanish and English, but they weren’t much use for a Latin Mass (though they would have been really useful in the past two weeks). Once you realise you aren’t going to understand a word, you just have to enjoy the service and go along for the ride, looking at the altar and the amazing decorations.

After an hour and a half of chant, Latin and incense, the Mass finished. I turned to the American next to me and said: “That was intense”.

After Mass I took the guided audio tour of the basilica. It makes much more sense when explained. The most famous Popes of the twentieth century lie in state, including John XXIII and Benedict XV. There are many areas devoted to major events in the life of Christ and the life of the Church. Here is a shot of a list of all the Popes starting from St Peter himself.
The papal altar is the centre of the whole Basilica. There are two older altars buried underneath this one, and under that, the tomb of Peter himself.
Something important also occurred to me as I walked around the basilica. Your first impression is of power. The basilica was designed to emphasise Papal authority, and it achieves that. But another element starts to emerge: the element of play. For example, I’m not sure what these ladies are doing, but they seem to be enjoying themselves.

I visited another couple of Baroque churches nearby, just to see how they look, but it’s impossible to top St. Peter’s. The Vatican Museum’s are closed this afternoon (Sunday), so I head back to the hotel for dinner.

A cloud of witnesses

I took a taxi from Roma Termini to the hotel. Have you heard all of those tired clichés about Roman taxi drivers? Every one of them is true. It’s best to just close your eyes until you get to your destination.

After checking in at my Rome hotel, I decided to head for Saint Peter’s Basilica. Although the hotel blurb said it was only “minutes” away, this turned out to mean about 30 minutes. It is hot in Rome, much hotter than northern Italy, so I was sweating when I approached Saint Peter’s Square. Here is my first glimpse.
I entered the Square. Of course, it isn’t square at all, and is surrounded by a circle of massive pillars, three deep, with Saint Peter’s Basilica at its head. The colonnade is surmounted by the statues of hundreds of saints, and the eye follows them to the church itself. The effect is of being embraced. You are literally surrounded by a cloud of witnesses.

After going through security, I entered the Basilica itself. The effect of the inside is hard to describe. At a first viewing, it is too much to take in. It seems that every surface and corner is a piece of art. The focus of the church is the High Altar underneath its Baroque canopy, and behind this is the stained glass window of the Holy Spirit, beneath which is the Chair of Peter.

After spending an hour exploring the Basilica, decided not to take any photos today. Not because there is nothing to photograph, but because everything seems worth photographing. I need to think about this. Time to go back to the hotel for a Spartan meal and an early night.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Leaving Rimini

Leaving Rimini

After final farewells, especially to Carlo and Meg, as well as Fra Mauro (our Obi Wan Kenobi), I have set off for Rome by train. Right now (Saturday lunchtime) I'm travelling at around 200kmph on the EuroStar service between Bolonga and Rome. I prebooked my seats earlier this week as a precaution, because lots of people are heading home at the end of the holiday season. As it happens, there is plenty of room in the carriage.

I'm glad I will have some time to think about everything that has happened over the last 11 days. There is a huge amount to absorb, and though I'm not exhausted at all, I am a bit tired.

On to Rome.

Scepticism refuted

There seems to be scepticism in some quarters that I actually sang to a crowd of over 100 people! I anticipated this and here is some photographic evidence.
Josh from Melbourne will vouch for me!

Friday at the Meeting

I didn't spend a lot of time at presentations today, but spent the day catching up to people. Frank and Margaret were at the Meeting for a few hours today, so we had lunch together.

They have been having a great time in Italy, and Malta is next on the list for Margaret. They'll be back in Melbourne later September/early October.

In other news, I met up with Emilio from the CL group who visited us in Melbourne. Here he is with his friend Veronica.

He send his greetings to everyone in CL Melbourne, especially the WYD pilgims.

I also had my last dinner with the Fidenza people tonight. I saw Beatrice and wished her the best, and she renews her love to all of you.

Tomorrow morning I'll take the 10:40am train from Rimini to Bolonga, and get the express to Rome from there.

Friday, August 29, 2008


No explanation necessary.

Vitamin N

Below, the Italians get some essential Vitamin N. Apparently it's necessary for the Italian metabolism.

Charles the Great

Here's a photo of Carlo and his wife Meg, along with Fr John of Burma. I'm not sure if her name really is Meg, or whether this is a concession to my atrocious Italian pronunciation.
There seems to be very little that Carlo cannot do here in Rimini. Every big meeting, we get front row seats by some mysterious process. Lifts and food materialise without apparent effort.
Carlo, he da Man! Capische?

Thursday morning: Waters and Allam

This morning we all went to a presentation by John Waters of the Irish Times and Magdi Allam of the Corriere della Sera. I met Waters briefly at La Thuile; is a quiet type, with longish hair and a receding hairline, a typical Irish poet.

Allam is another type altogether, mercurial and forthright. Last year, he converted from Islam and was baptised personally by the Pope. Now a critic of Islam, he arrived with a security detail of about 10 armed guards.

Waters spoke about the pressure of modernity on genuine Christian belief, his past alcoholism, and his return from despair. He wrote an article in a recent Traces in which he described the death of one of his colleagues at the Irish Times, and her despair in the weeks before her death. Despite her recognition that beauty pointed to something Other, she could not believe that included her. In his article, he described her final interview as being like "the cry of an animal in the forest", a chilling phrase that I will never forget. An animal cries, but it expects no answer.

Allam's talk was about his experience of Islam and his final decision, in the wake of the Pope's Regensburg speech on faith and religion (and the Muslim violence that answered it), to abandon an Islam that he realised could never really be reconciled to human rights. He has said this before; and that is why he needs the guards.

Wednesday night: international dinner

On Wednesday night the parishioners of San Giovanni al Porto held a dinner for about 100 international guests, rather like the one we provided for the CL group from WYD, only larger. I think I was probably one of the oldest guests there.

Early in the night we had a visit from Vicky Aryenyo, the Ugandan woman I mentioned a few posts ago. This enabled me to get my first decent photo of her. It's been impossible up to now, because she is always surrounded by a mob that would do a rock star proud.

Josh and I were the only Australians there, which was a bit inconvenient because each country had to perform up on stage! Easy if you're a big group of Brazilians with plenty of rythm, not so easy when there are two of you. Josh piked completely, so I provided (fortified by a glass of the local wine) a slightly unorthodox rendition of Waltzing Matilda without accompaniment. This seemed to do the job, and Australia's honour was saved.

On the way home, the organiser (a formidable woman called Valeria who is involved in politics here) told us a bit about the town. The Left has been in power locally ever since the war. According to her, in Rimini you're either in CL or in the Communist party. It wouldn't surprise me to find plenty people in both.

There is no street named after Saint Anthony of Padua here, despite his historical connection with the city. Valeria and her friends are trying to get the local authorities to fix this. Her Italian friend (husband?) in the car cracked a joke about renaming the Piazza Gramsci after Anthony. Gramsci is a famous Italian Communist, and all of the Italians in the car thought this enormously funny.

I discovered a couple of days ago that the first Rimini Meeting (1979?) was an initiative of the local CL community. I asked Valeria how big the community was when that happened, and she answered "very small". Food for thought.

Wednesday evening: the Tiberian bridge

On the way to a dinner tonight, I got completely lost. This had one benefit; I got to see the Roman era bridge in Rimini when I was doubling back.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Wednesday: the Old City

This morning I skipped the trip to the Meeting and went into the Old City of Rimini to see the Exempla exhibition on the revival of ancient art in the 13th century. I got to take a bit of a look around the Old City.

Here is one of the main piazzas of the Old City.

You can make out, on the left near the corner, a statue of Julius Caesar dating from the 15th century. On the right you can make out a small domed building. That's a small chapel dedicated to St Anthony of Padua. On this very spot, he showed the Blessed Sacrament to a mare, who spontaneously knelt, confounding the heretics present who denied the Real Presence. We said a decade of the Rosary there for one of the CL people who lost their passport yesterday.

In the middle, the franciscan priest is Fra Mauro, who is staying with our group at the hotel.

Piccolo Mundo

It's a small world. The Meeting is largely staffed by volunteers, and guess who was serving at the restaurant where we had dinner on Tuesday tonight!

We both did a double-take when we saw each other, and then recognized each other. Beatrice sends her love to everyone in Melbourne.

I also bumped into John Zucchi from Canada again today. He sends his regards to you Rick.

Asia people send their greetings

Here are a few photos of the Asia area people who were at la Thuile. John and Hilary Tang are from Malaysia:

Here is John Kinder with Lisa from Burma:

Here are Arthur from Korea and Diana from Shanghai:

Here are Maria Lourdes (MaLou) from the Philippines and Mariam from Egypt (Fr Amrogio also looks after Egypt!)

Finally, here are Marcello from Shanghai, Josh from Perth, Adele from Shanghai , and Francesco from Korea:

Photos again

As you will have noticed, I can post photos again. The hotel have given me access to their secure network. So I'll catch up a bit with the pictures.

Tuesday at the Meeting

The Meeting today had a couple of great events. In the morning we heard from three formidable African women who have shown amazing faith, hope and charity in terrible circumstances: civil war and AIDS.

Marguerite Barankitse is a Tutsi noblewoman who has grown a ministry looking after orphans of war and AIDS in Burundi, while Vicky Aryenyo contracted AIDS from her husband. They were introduced by the woman who helped Vicky and her sick young son, Rose Busingye.

In both cases, hope and forgiveness are closely linked. Dozens of Marguerite's family were killed in the civil war and genocide between the Tutsi and Hutu, and battle she refused to take part in, and in which she helped everyone irrespective of tribe. She was forced to watch as Tutsi troops killed dozens of her friends in front of her. But despite this suffering she has no bitterness, and has devoted her life to her 1,000 orphan children. She is assisted by members of the Movement from all around the world.

Rose is a nurse who works with HIV infected women in Uganda. Many of these women are ostracised and abandoned by their husbands. Vicky's story (she speaks English) was that her husband infected her with AIDS, then abandoned her and her three children. After several hellish years of poverty and isolation, she and her family came into contact with the Meeting Point group led by Rose. Both she and her infected son are on retroviral drugs now, but Vicky says the biggest change came when Rose once said to her: "Vicky, there is more value in you than the value of this disease." Vicky has forgiven her husband (who she no longer sees) and now works with other HIV-infected woman in the group.

Just before lunch, I heard a close friend and biographer of Alexander Solzenitsyn speak. Solzenitsyn, who died a few weeks ago, survived the Gulags of Soviet Russia to speak for all who didn't survive. There is an exhibition here about his life, and the saddest exhibit is an enlarged copy of a page of mugshots of about 100 people who were imprisoned and later shot as 'enemies of the people'. They don't look like enemies of anyone, just annoyed, baffled, scared or sad. They disappeared from human sight. But not from God's sight, as Solzenitsyn reminds us.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Monday at the meeting

Monday at the meeting

After Mass at the hotel (we've got 3 priests staying with us) we drove out to the exhibition centre. As predicted, it was even busier than yesterday.

I attended a few sessions. The first was introduced by our own Fr Ambrogio Pisonin and we heard talks by two Japanese, a full time sculptor working on the Segrada Famiglia cathedral in Barcelona, and a Buddhist monk who is a promoter of Giussani's writing in Japan. The monk, sensei Habukawa, is a well-known and popular figure here, and a long time friend of Giussani's before his death. Apparently, Giussani once said of him that had Habukawa been born in 1st century Galilee, he would certainly have been one of the Twelve, which is pretty high praise.

After this, we saw a session where Fr Lele from Taipei talked about their community there. It was packed - at least 1500 people came. Fr Lele shared the floor with wonderful nun working with drug addicted youth, and a community leader in Naples (which has all sorts of social problems). The stories were personal, and revolved around how a new way of looking at reality was changing people who faced very difficult circumstances.

In the afternoon, we heard a talk by Michael O'Brien about his life and work as an artist, and the importance of fatherhood and motherhood in bringing us into touch with God..

After dinner with the Fidenza people, I had an English tour of an exhibition about the Movement's work in prisons. This was perhaps the most moving for me, seeing how even hardened criminals have the same needs and hope as all of us.

We got back to the hotel at midnight, which seems to be becoming a pattern.


There is a different attitude to alcohol here. So far, alcohol has been served at every meal I had (except breakfasts of course). It's usually wine, but Italians love their beer ('birra') as well.

Our dinners with the Fidenza group are well lubricated, starting with an apertif of spirits, followed by wine with the meal and grappa with dessert.

This all seems pretty healthy to me, provided you don't go overboard. As someone recently remarked, the best way to thank God for beer and burgundy is not to drink too much of them. Just enough!

Sunday dinner with the Fidenza community

Sunday dinner with the Fidenza community

On Sunday night the Asian group (including myself and John Kinder's family) met for dinner with the Fidenza community (think I've got that right) who are hosting us at Rimini. Fidenza is about 3 hours drive from here. This means they arrange and pay for our accomodation, and drive us to and from the Meeting.

Carlo is the member of the community, send his regards to Rick. He mentioned to me that Rick showed him a photo of the Melbourne community last year, and that he (Carlo) remarked that if beauty is the sign of God, then the women of our community are proof God is present. I don't recall if Rick passed this on, but I thought it was worth repeating if he did!

Good death, bad death

Sunday afternoon I took in a presentation from Stanley Hauerwas, one of my favourite theologians (ask Rick), who spoke about medical ethics and the way we don't accept the fact of death.

He noted that when people are asked today how they want to die, they always say "suddenly, painlessly, in my sleep". In other words, they want to die without knowing they are dying. (I can plead guilty here. Once, when asked how I would like to die, I replied "vapourised in a surprise nuclear attack").

A thousand years ago, people wanted the opposite. A slow death was a good death, because it meant they could reconcile with their enemies before they faced judgement. They were more concerned about God than about death, and understood that death was not the end. Today, we are the opposite.

On that note, both grim and hopeful, I'll finish!

Rimini, Saturday and Sunday

Rimini, Saturday and Sunday

Just to fill you in, I arrived in Rimini on Saturday evening after dark. The bus dropped us off at the central train station where Paolo from the Hotel Monica picked up our bags. We took a bus to the hotel, past about 5 km of tourist and souvenir shops. The entire town is packed with holiday-makers, and they apparently require no sleep.

The next morning I took the bus(es) from the hotel to the exhibition centre where the Meeting is being held, along with Lisa, Josh from Perth, and John and Hilary Tang from Malaysia. (I had planned to upload photos of everybody, but ...). We got here a few minutes late for the big Sunday morning Mass, and I watched on a screen outside. I suppose watching Mass in Italian on a screen counts for the Sunday obligation? They distributed the Eucharist all the same.

After lunch with the Tangs I went off alone for a couple of hours to size up the Meeting. It is huge, spread out over an exhibition area about 3 times the area of the new Melbourne Exhibition Centre (Jeff's Shed). There are many large lecture rooms, and many exhibition booths, connected with the aims of the Movement to greater or lesser extents.

And it is crowded. I mentioned later to one person that it might be less crowded on Monday. She said it gets worse.

I took in a couple of visual exhibits. The first was an exhibit on the desecration and looting of Churches in Turkish occupied Cyprus. Meanwhile, mosques on the Greek side are renovated with taxpayer funds. A bit depressing and angering. It reminded me of the Pope's Regensburg speech, and the Byzantine emperor he quoted, who asked why there was so much violence in Islam; a question that still demands an answer 800 years later.

The second was an exhibit on the story of the Tower of Babel, one of my favourite Bible stories, and its relationship to the Jewish enmity towards the Babylonian empire. An interesting fact: the Romans identified God with light, while the Middle East identified God with height.  Hence the Jewish 'most high God'.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Po Valley

The Po Valley

After leaving La Thuile the bus crossed northern Italy to reach Rimini, skirting Milan, Parma and Bologna on the way. The trip took about 7 hours.

The valley of the river Po has a distinctive look, very different to Australia. It's hard to say why. Partly it's physical. The soil is light brown, rather than dark or reddish, the trees are different and the light has a kind of hazy warmth rather than the Australian harshness. But I think it's really about the relationship of people to the land.

First, it's a land clearly lived in. There are buildings and settlements scattered everywhere, often within walking distance of each other. Fields are small and generally well-tended. The ancient, unfriendly expanses we see in Australia aren't apparent.

Second, even the meanest barn is stone or brick, lending an air of permanence. Very old structures are mixed up with new ones, indicating long occupation.

Finally, we always have the feeling in Australia of a battle with forces beyond human scale. You don't get that feeling here. Italy is old, but Australia is ancient.

No photos

After leaving La Thuile I haven't had any access to the Internet. Unfortunately the wireless access here at the Meeting of the Friendship of the Peoples in Rimini requires a Telecom Italia account - something to do with new terrorist laws.

I can send in text from my work Blackberry, so I'll do that until I can find an internet cafe somewhere, and upload some photos.

Hopefully the hotel in Rome will have proper access!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Saturday's Final Assembly

Saturday's Final Assembly

This morning we had the final Assembly and Mass for the meeting. My summary of Fr Carron's remarks follows:

The denial of God is something that creeps into our lives and culture. Is comes from a division between the real God who is the origin of everything, of "all in all", and God as an intellectual concept. Our experience of God and our thoughts about him are split. How does this happen? It's because of a false understanding of the relationship between experience and reason. We need to recover the right relationship: true experience always engages our reason.

What draws us out of this false understanding? It's always the affection we feel for ourselves, for our own neediness. We are surprised when events demonstrate our dependence. If we think about this, it generates wonder at our own existence. We easily might not exist. We discover a new way of looking at ourselves, marvel at ourselves, and begin to take our deepest needs with a new seriousness. This new and complete acceptance of ourselves leaves us free.

This affection for our own smallness, this recognition of our own hunger, requires a poverty of spirit. We have to accept that our neediness isn't something about us: it really IS us.

Too often we 'go through the motions', and treat the Movement as an external 'spiritual exercise'. Or we seek an answer to our neediness in the 'answers' manufactured in our culture or the advertising industry. Even the Gospels can become mere history for us. But reading the Gospels isn't a history lesson; Jesus gazes on us with sympathy, just as he gazed on the Apostles.

Where can we encounter the love that can meet this neediness of ours? In Christ, who came for the poor not the rich. But if we don't share His affection for ourselves, if we are ashamed of our neediness and try to avoid it by pursuing our own 'worthy' projects, we block Christ.

The solution is a tenacious attachment to reality. Jesus' method is to look at the facts. And He cannot look at these facts - the birds of the air, the flowers of the field, the sower of seed - without seeing the Father that they point to. We too must embrace reality in this way, not what we imagine or feel, not for any external reason, but simply because reality is there, and it points to the Father in this way. The philosopher Feuerbach was wrong: we do not believe for out of fear, but out of wonder. We believe because we can see that 'He is'.

How many of us have really unleashed this path of faith? We know the theory. But how has our perception of reality changed? Has the immoral division between experience and reason been conquered? Have we accepted our own need? Otherwise, we wake up alone tomorrow morning, living a private faith without roots in reality.

The facts of reality can only be read with a reason that has an affection for humanity and wants to see its need fulfilled. There can be no genuine reason or knowledge without this affection. We don't have to create the answer to this need; once we see clearly, we can recognise it. This isn't an intellectual clarity; it's a matter of humble acceptance of our neediness and dependence.

This clear knowledge isn't automatic. We tend to be suspicious of knowledge that requires work because we have been taught that true knowledge shouldn't require effort. This is wrong. It's based on an ideology, powerful in today's world, that knowledge exists independently, and can be extracted from reality by the methods of numerical science. Anything not found out this way is not real knowledge.

The Pope has gone into battle against this false scientistic concept of knowledge. The problem is that this concept leaves our reason unengaged with reality outside of the laboratory. Faith then becomes just an arbitrary irrational choice.

When we break out of this kind of dualism it is through the impact, the gaze of an Other, seen through the facts of reality, that moves us to ask 'why?' When we meet someone (or Someone) who has this loyalty to experience, then we can't help being attracted by the desire our need generates in us.

Once we understand this we see everything as a sign. To love something or someone without this recognition of the Other within and beyond it is ultimately corrupting.

The test of our fidelity to reality is satisfaction. We have made the journey of faith when we experience this satisfaction, the fit between our need and what we have gained. We don't need someone else to tell us when this happens.

Who makes this journey? The one with affection for their own needy humanity. Our problems arise when we hate and despise ourselves. Without this affection, the Movement is just another political project, an attempt to find a 'place in the sun' in this world.


Today we had the traditional big walk into the mountains. After the Angelus in the carpark out front of the hotel, we drove to a town up the Aosta Valley called Courmayeur, in the foothills of the Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc) massif, hitching rides in tha cars of other CL people. The view from the foothills at Courmayeur is amazing:

The mountains are almost free of snow, except at the peaks. We walked along the slopes, with strands of conifers and scrubby beech-bushes broken up by glades of grasses, bluebells, dandelions and daisies, and mountain lilies of various kinds.

The walk took us up to the shoulder of the mountain, looking across the valley to Mont Blanc:

We had a packed lunch up there, and a bunch of people sang the traditional mountain songs:

Here is the panorama of the Mont Blanc massif, seen across the valley. Somewhere in the clouds are the peaks. I've stitched it together from 3 photos:

A pretty amazing day, finished off by Mass and sharing from the VP of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, and one of the CL priests from Madrid.

Friday, August 22, 2008


One thing I haven't mentioned so far is how good the organisation is here.

The Assembly meetings have about 500 people in attendance, from dozens of countries. The timing is tight, and there are few delays. Translation is provided through wireless headsets in several languages: English, Spanish, French, German, Portugese, Polish, Russian and Arabic. I pick up a headset aat the beginning of each session, and hand it back afterwards.

The translators sit in booths at the rear of the building, listening to a feed from the microphones. Our own John Kinder does a lot of the Italian-English translation, so I get to hear of a lot of him, if not see him!

We have mass every evening, with translation provided there too.

There is also a well-stocked bookshop which opens after the session, though the English stuff is a bit limited. Credit card facilities are available.

All in all, very impressive!

Thursday morning Assembly

We had a sharing from the Brazilian Movement this morning. Things happen there on a huge scale. The Movement supports 50,000 university students, and has negotiated lower uni fees allowing many poorer people to get a university education. They have 100,000 other participants.

The story they told was about their problems with one of the universities they were working with, and how they overcame them despite the university pulling out of their agreement. As Carron out it, these people walked straight through a cordon of armed police, and challenged an eviction order by telling the bailiff the story of the ten lepers. The bailiff gave up and went home, and has joined the Movement.

What kind of certainty is needed to accomplish such things? A certainty based on an experienced reality. And the proof of this faith is freedom, especially freedom from fear.

Carron then summed up the past two days for us, homing in on two issues.

First, the temptation to shift away from faith as knowledge and into a cold moralism. This happens to all of us; at a certain point I start to ask whether I am "worthy". When this happens, I become ashamed to admit I am simply attracted to Christ. I want to earn my way. I start to talk about coming to School of Community for the fellowship, or some other reason, anything but the real reason, anything that avoids the fact of my dependence.

This shift to moralism is really an immorality, and refusal to acknowledge the beautiful things Christ does for us. Christ isn't interested talking about our unworthiness. When we accept this in simplicity, we are attracted to Him. We forget our unworthiness, and turn back to reality. As we heard in a film last night, "The things that you have to do simply wear you out. It is what attracts you that moves you".

The second issue is the reduction of faith that our culture forces on us. Anyone who reduces Christianity to a formula, who divorces it from the fullness of reason and our humanity, has not experienced real faith. Where is the 'shiver of risk'? When I affirm the reality of Christ, is it a mere feeling, or a conviction in my guts? We could latch onto doctrine in order to avoid this challenge, but that would just be a formula again. Faith implies a movement. Without the risk of a movement towards Christ who lies behind and within reality, we might avoid mistakes, but we won't have real faith or knowledge of reality.

Giussani's solution is radical: don't start from some cooked-up idea of God, start from the experience of human reality. It's in Chapter 10 of The Religious Sense. Our self is awakened in the encounter with this reality. This is the beginning of knowledge; wonder in the face of reality. I cannot explain this reality without acknowledging a Mystery even more real than reality itself.

A sign is not a label we place on reality. Reality itself is a sign. Reality represents something Other, something within and beyond it. We recognise this whenever we ask 'why does this reality exist?' It's like getting a delivery of flowers; the first thing we ask is 'who did this?'
So: faith does not begin as a feeling or an idea. It begins as the fact of an event, something undeniable. It is not some emotional or philosophical leap into the invisible. It is something Other that hits us, moves us, makes us jump like nothing else. If I do not seek this reality, I end up with a 'fideism' instead of faith, belief based on subjective feeling, an ideology that I can give no reason for. Real faith is a reasonable step, based on an encounter. It starts outside of us, not inside. Faith isn't about what we can't see; it is primarily about what we can see.

As children of Descartes and Kant, we find this hard to grasp. Thinkers like Feuerbach took their ideas further, saying that faith is nothing more than an irrational leap in the dark. How do we know this is wrong? Because this conception of faith, of knowledge, leaves reality unexplained. Reality requires a reasonable explanation, including an explanation for the fact that I exist. We don't want to leave our heads at home to have faith. True faith involves our reason and our full humanity.

The test of this faith is whether it gives the satisfaction our heart's desire. This isn't the same as being smart and successful. It is more like wearing shoes the right size - we know immediately when we are wearing the wrong size, and in the same way we know immediately what satisfies our hearts. The problems arise from our lack of loyalty to our own experience, our own selves - if we lack this loyalty, we can fail to acknowledge our dissatisfaction. We need the simplicity, the humility, to recognize our true needs. The alternative is a kind of idolatry, a false idea of what we need.

What we really desire is the infinite. Only a real and mysterious You can correspond to our need. This is what we are invited to; anything less makes faith unreasonable. Each of us has a personal responsibility to these facts of our experience; we can't shift this responsibility to others.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Wednesday afternoon Assembly

Wednesday afternoon Assembly

The Assembly this afternoon took up where the morning session left off, and we went straight into interventions.

John Kinder remarked to me afterwards that he has not heard so much personal sharing before. People shared about work and family situations, and how their experiences (not always pleasant) had revealed their own dependence and Christ's presence. In fact, these two revelations are inseparable.

Here are a few points from Carron:

"Christ's presence isn't like some beautiful gem. If it doesn't have a human dimension, what good is it? Christ always seizes the human in us".

"The sign that an encounter is real is that it changes us".

"There will always be those who choose not to respond. The question isn't what they are going to do, the question is what are you going to do?"

"Everything a human does is to achieve happiness. This doesn't mean we avoid sacrifice - but our reason for sacrifice should be our happiness, not some cold moral duty".

"If I stay within the limits of my own capacities, I will achieve little".

"Christ is the 'you' that makes our 'I' possible".

The key point for me came at the session, when Carron made a simple observation: when we lack confidence in Christ's presence in our lives, then we are afraid of loss and lack trust. This is what proves we haven't accepted the reality of Christ. A point for me to ponder.

National Retreat 6-8 June

National Retreat 6-8 June

Both John Kinder and I had a long discussion this afternoon about our proposed national reetreat in Melbourne on June 6-8 next year. Fr Ambrogio is keen to see a regular national event in Australian and is happy with those dates, so it's basically agreed that we'll go ahead with our plan. Possibly we will start the formalities on the Saturday night, to give the Perth people more time to get over to the East, and run over into the Monday public holiday.

Fr Ambrogio would like to host a Vacation meeting rather than the Exercises at that time. This has advantages. First and foremost, we would already have access to the English print translation of the Vacation from the Northern winter, and wouldn't have to rely on a dodgy audio translation.  After this year's experience, that sounds OK to me. We have little to lose, since the Exercises follow the same theme as the earlier Vacation anyway.

Any comments?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


Got a few extras books for School of Community.

Also, I got 11 Books of the Hours, just because they seem so scarce. That'll be enough to keep us going for a while. And a couple of Canti books for Peter and Christina K, who will be leading our music :-)

Let me know if there's anything else we might need!

Wednesday morning Assembly

After breakfast, we met for the Wednesday morning Assembly. It was wonderful. I was feeling very disconnected after last night's misadventure, but it all seems to be 'clicking' now.

Here are my brief notes of Carron's address. My remarks are in brackets:

Refusal of the Mystery in life turns our hearts to stone, to misery. The only alternative is to seek an openness without boundaries.

The Assembly is meant to be a help with this openness, but one of the dangers we face is losing the structure of these gatherings, of never really taking them in. If we don't really reflect on what we hear, no continuity or narrative emerges, and we get nowhere. [The same could be said about any School of Community or any other event in our lives]. Each gathering must penetrate us and increase our self-awareness. Otherwise, we simply return to our banal existence.

The gap between God as the origin of our being, and God as we talk about Him, must be closed. We do this through experiencing Christ in our lives. Anything that is not the fruit of this has nothing to do with reality. We cannot live off empty words, and if we try we end up abandoning the attempt in disappointment.

We live in a world where this gap is normal. This becomes apparent when we try to talk about the Mystery of our existence in public. In this place, let's close the gap. Let's ask questions, let's help each other - but only out of our lived experience, not out of some theory.

Some great comments that came out of the sharings (Interventions):

"Faith becomes experience through adversity. It is the recognition of a Presence in that adversity".

"The more we get into messes, into problems, the more He wants to help our weakness. We are bothered by this. He isn't".

"Faith is verified in the freedom it brings. It's about the joy we receive, not about being some kind of good guy".

"Reality isn't always beautiful, but I am glad because Christ is there".

"We sometime wants to be 'worthy' instead of happy or satisfied. But God sends a Person to bring us to a fullness we cannot achieve ourselves."

"How often in everyday life do you really experience Christ? This is the real measure of our faith".

"How can we be so certain? Because we talk about reality, not about some idea about God".

"We know we are being real when we see our need as a gift, not something that makes us losers".

Sunrise in La Thuile

Jetlag has advantages...

Missed it!

I met up with John Kinder last night, along with a bunch of people from the Asian region. Still feeling pretty tired after the flight. After dinner, an Assembly was held in the hall down the hill, but I missed it! No-one told me where the Assembly was happening, so I couldn't find them, and missed Carron's introduction.

I wandered around for an hour, and gave up, and went to bed feeling thoroughly annoyed and sorry for myself. Second time today I've been where I shouldn't be.

Off to La Thuile

After that, I headed back to the airport to get the bus for La Thuile. On the way, I picked up some lunch:

Don't say I don't work hard for you all!

A minor problem at the airport: I was given the wrong information about where to wait. By the time I called the International Seretariat, the bus had already left! Luckily for me, they doubled back to get me, because there is no other way to get to La Thuile. It's too far off the beaten track.

On the way, you really get the feeling you're not in Australia:

San Ambrogio

After the Duomo, I moved on to San Ambrogio, Saint Ambrosio's favourite church. It's a Romanesque brick construction with two tall bell towers. The inside reminds me a lot of the Bunbury Cathedral in W.A.

The real interest (to me anyway) of the church is Saint Ambrosio's body in the crypt, lying in state between two Roman era martyrs. The martyrs wear red, while the saint wears his robes of office. Their bodies are directly below the altar of the church. It certainly freaked out the other tourists.
It is strange to think how long this place has been a church. Nothing like it back home!

The Duomo, Milan

I've got a few photos of my trip to Milan. My first and most important stop was the Duomo. The Milanese will be very familiar with it, but at first sight it's very impressive. The whole marble surface is festooned with elaborate reliefs and statues. I've got some good shots of Judith and Holofernes, Abraham and Isaac, and David and Goliath (all of which involve severing or near-severing of heads) and the Tower of Babel.
Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find Saint Augustine's baptismal font, Rick. It isn't at San Ambrogio; apparently it's under the Duomo. A 4th century baptistry has been uncovered there, but it's not open to the public.

I climbed up to the roof of the cathedral, where everything, including tiles and gutters, are made of carved marble. Just to add a little detail, I found this carving of a bird in a stairwell. It's a small example of the elaborate work.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Arrived in Milan

Arrived in Milan

I touched down at Malpensa airport at around 6am local time this morning. Italian customs and immigration are a breeze compared to Australia, and I was through in about 30 minutes.

I took the exress train from the airport to Milan Cadorna, and am having a little breakfast on the Via Dante, before I set off for the Duomo, the main cathedral. Then it'll be back to the airport to meet John Kinder from Perth. I'll get a few  pictures and I should get a chance to upload some tonight at the hotel in La Thuile.

Sunday, August 17, 2008


Hi Melbourne CLers

As most of you know, I am leaving on 18 August for Italy, travelling to La Thuile, Rimini and Rome to meet with the global Communion and Liberation Movement.

I'll be spending a total of three weeks in Italy. I'll spend the first week at La Thuile for the Responsibles meeting, and the second at Rimini for the Meeting of Friendship of the Peoples. In addition, I will send a third week in Rome for the Grandeur of Reason conference. The conference is not a CL event, but it overlaps the Movement's concerns very nicely.

I'll be posting messages and photos from time to time while I'm moving about. Please feel free to leave comments and ask questions, and I'll try to answer them in subsequent posts.