Monday, August 22, 2011

And so we went to Rome...

And so we (finally) arrived!

It is about time that I share our trip to Rome, right? I've been spending the past two weeks or so settling into my new apartment in Minneapolis, MN. I figured that I should finally put up the Rome post before I start law school (orientation) tomorrow. But more about that later!

The end of our vacation was close and this was our last stop: the port of Civitaveccia. We weren't going to get back on the ship, and so we loaded all of our stuff off onto the bus. From the port city we took a short drive to the ancient city of Rome! I couldn't believe that we were actually here. During our drive my sister, who had been in Rome last fall studying abroad, pointed out to me the imposing walls of Vatican City. It was very exciting.

We arrived at Hotel Cicerone, just north of Castel San'Angelo and a few blocks away from St. Peter's square. The history of the Church in Rome goes back much longer but it was in 1929 that the Church signed the Lateran Treaty which officially established Vatican City as its own sovereign country within the boundaries of Rome. My parent's (unknowingly) couldn't have picked a better spot! It wasn't soon after my baggage was on the floor that I was practically dragging my family out the door to walk around and explore the city. My parents were tired so it was only the kids that went out that afternoon.

My little brother and sister.
I was simply taking everything in. We were hungry so stopped by a panini shop to order a ham sandwich. At first we didn't know how to order the food, but eventually we figured it out while the local Italians drinking espressos ("American" style coffee must be ordered as such) smiled at us.  Once filled up we were ready to start our adventure!

The next couple paragraphs are a mix of information from our guide and things we learned while in Rome to acquaint you with it:

Rome has a mythic history stretching back to the 8th century BC when Romulus founded the city on the Palatine Hill. A series of legendary kings succeeded him until Tarquin the Proud was deposed in 509 BC, which marked the end of the first period of monarchy. A Roman republic was established and flourished for five centuries.

A civil later erupted between three generals -- the "Triumvirate" --with the famous Julius Caesar emerging as the victor. He was later assassinated but his successors declared themselves emperors and thus, the Roman Empire was born. From Persia to Spain Rome's legions marched and the Latins called the Mediterranean Mar Nostrum or "Our Sea". Wherever they went the Romans established cities, fostered trade, and united (sometimes by force) different peoples under one banner. Pax Romana was unlike anything the world had ever seen and it was in this environment that the shoot of Christianity took root and grew.

The Western Empire lasted until its conquest by the barbarians in the 5th century, while the Eastern Empire based in Greece and Asia Minor lasted nearly a milennia later before falling to the Turks.

Rome, although long past the days when she received tribute and was the envy of the world, now remains as the capital of Italy. The city is also important for Christians because for many centuries it was (and still is for Catholics) the spiritual capital of Christianity. Rome is not called the "Eternal City" for just any reason. The Church's presence here goes back much, much longer than than the 20th century -- all the way back to the first Apostles who came to evangelize here.

I think every Catholic to some extent feels a tug to visit Rome at least once in their lifetime.  And as a convert, this was for me a homecoming.

This is because it was here in this city that St. Peter, St. Paul, and a number of Christians only known to God were martyred. The Romans punished the followers of Christ because they refused to pay homage to the "divine" emperor or sacrifice to the pagan gods. They accused Christians of crimes such as cannibalism, being unpatriotic, and causing dissension.

For three centuries Christians were persecuted until Constantine the Great (and Licinius) legalized the religion with the Edict of Milan in 313 AD. Only a few short years later the once persecuted faith was made the official state religion as Constantine attributed the Christian God for his victory over a rival claimant to the throne. Nothing would ever be the same again.

We believe that St. Peter's martyrdom here in the center of empire is important not only because Peter was the leader of the apostles, but that Jesus also charged St. Peter to lead his Church:
"And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven." (Matthew 16:18-19)
His successors - the popes along with his brother bishops and presbyters - and all Christian people throughout the centuries never let the apostolic fire die out. From their time to now, The "One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic" Church prevails. She has survived barbarians invasions, the egos of emperors, greedy kings, feuds within and without, tragic schisms, revolutions of all kinds, captivities of her popes, the rise of nationalism (and other ideologies)...and much more.

Rome may have changed hands many times since ancient times, but the successors of St. Peter are still there. The bishop of Rome, and by extension the entirety of the Catholic Church, remains to preach and safeguard the fullness of the Gospel handed down to us from the very beginning by the Apostles and as revealed to Church by the Holy Spirit down the ages. That is what we believe.

These few paragraphs, of course, are only a brief synthesis of Catholic belief but I hope it helps underscore Rome's role in our faith. 

We stayed in Rome for about 3 days. Although that didn't offer us much time to really get a good sense of the entire city, we made a good effort to hit most of the major sites. I was simply grateful for being here anyway! Here are a few photos from our trip, but if you want to see the full album I'll link you to my Facebook page so you can see them.

I won't bore you with every single detail, but I will try to give you some highlights of the trip.

One of the most memorable parts of the trip was when I visited St. Peter's basilica. Basilica comes from the greek basileus, which means 'king'. In ancient times this was a place where state affairs and important government functions were carried out. The first basilica here was built by Constantine as a memorial to St. Peter's. In the Middle Ages, it was reconstructed.

It is hard to describe the feeling and put it into words for you. Musical chant echoed throughout the church as Mass was being celebrated in one of the many chapels. Pilgrims and tourists walked to and fro snapping pictures, admiring statues and relics, or silently prayed. Rays of sunlight pierced through the windows and illuminated the church. I silently went apart from my family and made it to Confession too. Blessed John Paul II's tomb, only recently put there after his canonization last May, attracted many people.

The highlight was standing before St. Peter's tomb. It is said that St. Peter died in the persecutions of Nero and was crucified on Vatican Hill. He asked to be crucified upside down because he did not see himself worthy to die in the same way as his Savior. Although there were people all around me, I did not realize it; I simply stood there for some moments reflecting and praying...


I walked around a little bit more and then we finally made our way out.

Another important site I remember seeing in Rome was the (recently opened) John Paul II museum. Ever since becoming Catholic, and even before, John Paul II has become one of my heroes. His life was a light in a century that was filled with oppression, totalitarianism, and genocide. The gentle voice of this shepherd inspired not only his fellow Poles, but an entire world hungering and thirsting for God. It was great to learn more about the man that was Karol Wojtyla and now Blessed John Paul II.

We also got to celebrate my 22nd birthday in Rome! It was extra special that it was the day that we visited the basilica. My mom even went to one of the shops run by some of the nuns on top of the St. Peter's to buy a cross necklace for me. Coming from her, it meant a lot.

Besides seeing churches and other sites, we also got to see some of the traditional sights around Rome including the Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, and a bit of classical Rome too. The Colosseum was an imposing structure. We visited the Palatine Hill where Rome was first settled and the emperors later built homes and gardens. We even explored a little bit at night and captured a beautiful photo of Castel San'Angelo and St. Peter's from across one of the bridges on the Tiber...


Overall, it was a grand way to finish our vacation. In one sense we had come full circle. In ancient times, it was said that all roads lead to Rome because it was the heart of the Empire. In a spiritual sense, this still remains true; little did I know many years ago when I first entered into the Christian faith that I would be one day be baptized Catholic. I have "crossed the Tiber", so to speak.

All the saints, the martyrs, the virgins, the Apostles, countless men, women, and children have taken the same journey.  Although our stories may look different, the destination is always the same. The journey does not end here of course. Please do not hear me wrong. This is not simply a geographic sojourn but most truly a spiritual one -- and it is one that continues until we are all truly home...

Home. How sweet those words sound!

"And so we went to Rome..." -Acts 28:14


By the way, I'm starting law school orientation at the University of St. Thomas tomorrow (Monday), so more information about that later. I've been in Minnesota the past few weeks settling in. Like I said, the story continues! :)

Monday, July 25, 2011

Neapolis - (Pompeii, Mt. Vesuvius)


I apologize for taking so long to get this post up. When I think about my procrastination during the summer I laugh because I know I should be blogging more during this time. After all, I do not have to worry about school-work, studying, or anything like that -- especially with law school coming up soon. Our family has been occupied for the past few weeks, but I promise you that we will eventually get to Rome somehow!

I want to write this post and share with you our visit to Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius via Naples. We were nearing the end of our trip and returned to Italy after narrowly passing through the short strait between Sicily (Messina) and the "heel of Italy". This time we traveled along her western coast on our way through the Tyrrhenian Sea and our first stop was in the port of Naples.

As always, our port guide and shore excursions helped accustom us to the area and give us most of the following information about this unique part of Italy. If we recall that Greek colonists spread out around the Mediterranean in ancient times, we will not be surprised that they found the sunny shores of southern Italy a suitable place to plant the seeds of Hellenistic civilization. The Greeks called one of these new settlements "Neapolis" or "New City", from where we get the modern name of Naples.

With the rise of Rome, further to the north, Neapolis and other Greek colonies in Italy were eventually conquered, with the former firmly under Roman rule by the 4th century. (Ironic isn't it? The descendants of Aeneas, after having fled Troy, conquer the descendants of their conquerors!). The Greeks were a stubborn bunch though and never were completed conquered by the Latins. They maintained their customs, language, and much of their culture for many centuries afterward -- arguably to the benefit of the Romans, who incorporated many of these elements into their own system in an example of old-world cross-cultural exchange.

The Romans, as the Greeks, treated southern Italy as the breadbasket of their fledgling republic and later empire. The region was also renowned for its natural beauty. Some of the most beautiful sights in all the Mediterranean can be seen along including the Amalfi Coast, island of Capri, and city of Sorrento. We had the option of taking of taking a variety of excursions, but I decided to go apart from my family and take the Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius hike.

Then as it is now, this region of Italy was a popular location for rich Roman patrician families, politicians, and later, emperors, to visit. Pompeii was one of these resort towns. The city's end, of course, is inextricably tied to that of fateful eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 77 AD eruption which left most of it and the nearby town of Herculaneum buried underneath volcanic rock, ash, and dust.

It was not until 1748, when southern Italy was controlled by the Spanish (reunification would not come for over another century), that the excavations were initially made and the world became slowly reacquainted with Pompeii. Seeing it for the first time, I can only imagine what the first archaeologists thought of the discovery! It was as if 1st century Italy was preserved in time as the volcano trapped in a short instant all unlucky enough to not to have escaped in time.

And so, we got off the boat, took a short drive through Naples (saw a cameo "shell-art" workshop), and then headed to Mt. Vesuvius. The hike itself wasn't too bad. The slope was gently winding and there was an easy path for all of us to follow, although it took me a fair amount of time to walk my way up there. But it wasn't too bad as I had the chance to relax and take in the beautiful view of the surrounding countryside of Campagnia and the Gulf of Naples:

We also saw lots of the native wildlife, plants, and many beautiful flowers:

Eventually, I reached the topic and got a chance to look into the volcano crater. It was a bit surreal to be on top of an actual volcano. The last eruption of Mt. Vesuvius was in 1944, in the waning days of World War II. Who knows when it will erupt again? 

Some locals left an icon and wrote a prayer of intercession to the Blessed Virgin Mary and Jesus to protect the town:

This is a view from the topic of Mt. Vesuvius. Sorrento is shrouded in the mist to the left and the island of Capri is towards the back center:

After the hike up Mt. Vesuvius I walked the trail back down to where the buses were waiting. Rocks kept on getting in my sandals, which wasn't fun, but at least it was easier than going up! We drove next to the ancient ruins of Pompeii which were just a short distance away. The ancient city seemed surprisingly well preserved and it was easy to recognize the common elements that Pompeii shared with other cities of the period: stone-cobbled roads, houses, shops, gymnasiums, fountains, theaters and courtyards, temples, etc.

We walked through the ancient ruins and it was hard to think that only a few centuries ago most of this was buried underneath all the volcanic rubble. The lower right picture above is that of a pagan temple. It was fascinating to learn how some elements of Roman pagan worship were preserved and transformed by the early Christians in their liturgy. 

Our guide explained that a bull or other animal offerings were sacrificed here -- the Romans believed that blood sacrifice appeased the gods. They would ritually offer up the "Host" for the sacrifice on the altar on these steps, similar to what a Catholic priest when he celebrates the Eucharist and joins the church's sacrifice with that of the cross on Calvary.

The temple complex is back there, but before the Romans entered their temples they would ritually cleanse themselves from a water font. In Catholic churches today, similar fonts remain to recognize that we are entering a sacred place and a house of God (where the Host or Eucharist resides). The rest of the city was complete with whole neighborhoods with everything from street signs, water fountains, and shops.

You can see Mt. Vesuvius in the background. It's strange to think we were just up there looking down on the city.

The body here is preserved in plaster after the ash covered the humans, their forms were preserved. You can also see pottery and other items that archaeologists recovered.

We left the old city of Pompeii and spent the last bit of time in Naples shopping, having a taste at Neapolitan pizza, and sight-seeing. Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius were fun for the day, but our next stop was Rome. As the old saying goes, "All roads lead to Rome." And in my case, this was going to be an extra-special homecoming.