Stories from Rome: May 20

This is not a short blog, but we hope meaningful one.

A book on Pilgrimage we read before we left home identified seven stages of pilgrimage: desire (what do I long for?), motivation (what do I want to get out of this?), timing (why is now an important time for this?), being led (how is God guiding me?), letting go (can I drop my expectations and be open?), prayer (how do I incorporate a rhythm of talking with God during my journey?) and sharing (what stories will I tell to others that are meaningful?).

The stages are not sequential, although the order makes sense. I find that the stages are cyclical. The more I let go the more I see what I am really longing for. The more I share the more I see how God is leading me. The more I pray, the more I am able to let go. This last stage of sharing comes right now in the form of blogging, but I know there will more stories to share when we come home.
The lesson for me, and the author's point, is that pilgrimage is seen as an event, but it should be seen as a way of life. Christians are on the way, on a journey, walking with Jesus—all phrases that describe a pilgrimage.

Coming to Rome our desire was to rest from the Holy Land, but also to take in this ancient city: walk the streets, see the sites, explore the churches that are around every corner. But we also had a desire to begin to mark our days with the rhythm of prayer. We are using the book "The Rhythm of Life: Celtic Daily Prayer" which is divided into seven days with a theme for each day and four times of prayer each day using liturgy from different centuries and Christian traditions. The prayers are responsive, so Amy and I take turn reading the leader parts and read the corporate sections together. Each prayer time includes scripture reading, praise, confession, the Lord's Prayer, praying for others and a benediction. It takes about five minutes and reminds us at different times of the day that God is present and with us.

God has been present with us, surprising us and giving us great reminders that we are being led.

We went to the Ponte Sant'Angelo Methodist Church for English speaking people of all nationalities. The service was held in a small church along the river, right across from the Castle. The visiting Pastor Dennis is from Ghana, and works with African refugees in Rome. He walks the streets around Termini Station and in the refugee camps offering food and conversation for the refugees. The refugees would rather be in the UK or the US, but Rome is as far as they can get from their African country, mostly without their families. He was the guest preacher.

The regular pastor from London is half time with the church and half time heading up the protestant council in the Vatican. The church is an historic British Methodist Church that was given to the Italian Methodist Church, so that the property is paid for and the rental properties help support the church. The church body itself is very small, and expands with visitors and students weekly. Yesterday there were about 50 people in worship; they came from England, the Netherlands (a young couple who returned after coming several years ago with a church singing group), Australia (a man who works for Cisco and leads Bible Study Fellowship), Sacramento (a missionary woman living in southern Germany who plants BSF prayer groups and studies in the middle east, whose husband was currently in Belarus, Ukraine, Russia), South Carolina (a college junior finishing up her semester abroad and returning next week to a small Methodist college in Spartenburg), Virginia (a four year student finishing up her degree at the American University in international relations and next week moving to Cairo to be journalist) and Carmel (the wife of an army officer who is attending the Italian war college near the Vatican and becoming a Foreign Field officer for American Embassies) and New York.

The man from New York is Charles Ryo, a Korean Methodist pastor who has taken three years off to get his degree in piano performance from the Pontifical Institute, also the organist, and graduated from Glendale High School class of '79—a year behind Amy! Charles served for several years as a PC(USA) pastor as well. We discovered our Glendale roots when he said he was raised in high school in Los Angeles. Where? I asked. Glendale. And that began a long conversation with Amy as I was finding out more about Dennis' ministry among the African Refugees. His wife and high school children are still in Ghana, and he is getting papers so they can join him in Rome.

What was even more remarkable were the scripture texts (Acts 16:16-34—Paul in Philippi and John 17:20-26—that they might be one) and the message Dennis preached on being led by the Holy Spirit as Paul was led by the Holy Spirit, and filled with faith. Dennis told of Paul and being led by the spirit to Macedonia instead of Asia (which Amy and I have visited in previous trips and could picture very well), being thrown in jail and praying and singing to the Lord. Romans 8:38-39 tells us we are more than conquerors because nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. Dennis ended the service by praying for people all over the world, from Thailand to Iraq to Darfur who are suffering through the violence done by others. It means so much more in an international setting like this church, and from a man whose accent is unfamiliar. Being led by the spirit is the point Dennis drove home and what we experienced all day long.

We went home, had lunch, repacked our things and went on a walk to St. Peter's Square. There was a group from Abruzzo, Italy called the Comunita di Neocatecumenale. They danced with drum and guitar singing simple songs with Alleluias. When I asked a man who was holding the sign about the group, he directed me to young adult who spoke Spanish. We talked together about this group, about 50 or so of all ages, mostly young adults, who had a new experience of faith. Wikipedia says the group takes "its inspiration from the catechumenate of the Early Church, by which converts from paganism were prepared for baptism, it provides a post-baptismal catechumenate to adults who are already members of the Church. Deeply committed to the "New Evangelisation" called for by Pope John Paul II … is responsible for hundreds of "Families in Mission", living in many cities around the World. The Neocatechumenate is implemented in small, parish-based communities of between 20-50 people. There are around 40,000 such communities throughout the World, with an estimated 1 million members."

This group is a major supporter of the World Youth Days, which we saw in Paris in 1997 and Elias Chacour (author of Blood Brothers and a Palestinian Christian priest in Galilee) has supported the movement as a way to preach the gospel to his own Melkite Church. Sounds like a missional movement within the Catholic church that show life, intergenerational mission, and great enthusiasm!

There were other surprises that day:
--A French woman in line for gelato near the Trevi Fountain who spoke beautiful English. She lives in a small town near Lyon, just 80k from a small town we visited in 1997.

--A restaurant we thought was going to be the one a friend recommended to us, but now is called La Locanda del Pellegrino (The Pilgrim's Inn). We met the chef Biagio and ate there that night. The restaurant is just two blocks from our apartment on Via del Pellegrino!

--We connected with a few people from SBPC who happened to be in Rome. Two of them were on their honeymoon...

--We spent some time with Nicole, who was in our youth group in northern California, is here in Rome playing beach volleyball in the Swatch FIVB World Tour.
                                                           One night we went to Trastevere, the neighborhood across the Tiber river from us. We identified a place we wanted to visit, but got lost and ended up on the bridge that connects to the Isola Tevere. The sunset was remarkable, beautiful, and it reminded us of home. We walked to Santa Maria en Trastevere Church and were surprised to find a worship service in progress. We got a liturgical song book and sat in the last row. A woman and a man behind us (who were acting as ushers) showed us where we were in the liturgy. It was beautiful to participate in worship in this medieval church, which is the oldest in Rome dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Large columns in the Nave and beautiful mosaics in the half dome over the altar. There was a small choir in the nave helping to lead the rest of us as we sang antiphonally with the leader. It was simple and beautiful. Later, the priest gave a homily on Mark 16. I recognized the next with a few words like "andate", snakes, and "I will be with you forever."

After the service we talked to the woman behind us. Cecilia has been a member of the Sant'Edigio Community since she was in high school, just a few years after it began. The Sant'Egidio community is one that was also started after Vatican II, as a community formed around living the simple gospel and caring for the poor. Later I saw on their material they are committed to (1) prayer, (2) preaching the gospel, (3) caring for the poor, which means poor, children, elderly, (4) ecumenism, or building bridges with all Christians, and (5) dialogue as way of resolving conflict. She was a gentle soul, sharing with us her heart for the work of the community. Now there are 50,000 worldwide in the community.

She said the priest said about the gospel reading that we forget we need Jesus to be with us. We go through the day forgetting our call to make disciples. If we remembered our calling, we would remember our need for Jesus to be near us. We were impressed by how open she was with us. I was moved by the simplicity of their message. I was encouraged that there were parts of the Catholic church, like the Communitad Neocatecumenale, that was experiencing faith in a personal, yet world changing, way.

They meet in this historic church, which has its own parish church, at the suggestion of the Pope himself. The Pope visited the abandoned convent where they were meeting, and saw they had outgrown the facilities. He suggested they meet in the evening for vespers and Sunday for mass in the Santa Maria church because it was a declining congregation. How fitting for a movement that goes back to the basics of the faith to meet in this most historic church.

We left and began to search for a light dinner. We found an hosteria and sat in the back of the restaurant. In this section there was a young family with two preschoolers and a large family at a long table. An older man was grilling spiedini at the open fire grill. It turns out this was his birthday party and he was serving his children and grandchildren. We stayed till the end and counted ourselves lucky to participate in singing Happy Birthday and clinking glasses with Nono. We walked home amazed at the day we had.

Yesterday we had our second of two days of private tours of the Vatican because of gift someone gave us to be Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museum. Marco, our guide, led us through the Sistene Chapel before anyone else was there. For some reason it was more emotional for me than it was the first two times I saw it: 30 years ago and 13 years ago. 30 years ago I was 20, and I was taken by the size and novelty of it; I had studied renaissance and baroque art history at UCLA, and it was my first time in Rome. Last time we had the boys with us and we rushed through Rome in two days.

This time I identified with Michelangelo's story: he started the ceiling frescoes when he was a young man and returned to the Last Judgment later in life. Obviously he had discovered new techniques of painting, and his characterization of the judgment was more honest, raw, transparent than his ceiling depictions of creation, Noah, Adam and Eve, and the prophets with Sibyl. Jesus is muscular, taken from the classic Apollo face and the Belvedere torso that had been recently discovered in his time. Mary is cowering behind Jesus, Peter is looking right at Jesus, and Jesus' right arm is lifted (like the power of God in the Psalms), and his left hand across his body.

Michelangelo painted all the characters, except Jesus, naked, and the Council of Trent later covered them up. There has been a restoration project to uncover what was covered over. What I love about the bodies is that we come to Jesus as we are, naked and all. If we are in Christ we have nothing to fear. Michelangelo painted himself as a soul without a body, as if to depict his being "skinned alive" by his critics of the work. MA set a new standard for depth, emotion, classic realism, and he pulled together all the theology of his time.
Our tour included a visit to the restoration labs, where we talked with the maestro and technicians of the painting labs. They are restoring art from the 1500s and we got to watch and learn. What came through was their passion. I asked a woman who was working on a painting if she loved what she did. She lit up. "Si, si." The Maestro, who has worked almost five decades in restoration, calls this his passion for life. To bring back to life works of art for the sake of future generations.

We also had a chance to see the Vatican Gardens on this tour. This is the place where the Pope comes every afternoon at 2pm to spend time alone with God.

There is a theme to this blog. Surprise, worship, beauty, passion are all part of the journey of life.

Che Bella.

PS. The first picture is rain coming through the oculus (27' wide) in the dome (142' high and wide) at the Pantheon. Rain comes in and drains in the middle of the marble floor.


  1. Wow Mike

    So cool to experience God's rhythm!! what a trip. keep the posts coming brother.


  2. We enjoy immensely your long report. It was not too long for us. It was very rich. I am amazed at your ability to remember all the details about the people you met and where they came from and what they do, etc. Surprisingly, I was quite taken by your description of Michaelangelo and his work and art. That was very enriching. I'm together with you quite fascinated with these people that are in renewal kind of communities. We need to hear more about such groups and what they are doing. I'm sure they have many lessons to teach us. I
    'm glad you're following that four-times a day liturgy. All very inspirational.


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