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Rome

Pope John Paul II: Rome, April 2005

Friday, 7 April, 2017 0 Comments

Tutto il mondo a San Pietro. That’s the way it was in Rome in early April 2005 as we joined the crowds intending to pay their respects to the saint-to-be, Pope John Paul II, who was lying in state at St. Peter’s Basilica. From that memorable day, here are our notes of a pilgrim’s (sometimes grim) progress in the Eternal City.

10:23 a.m. The sun is in the sky. A fortifying breakfast has been consumed. The major prints have been read. It is almost time to get in line. But let’s have one more espresso before the work begins.

The TV in the corner of the bar here on the corner of Largo Branaccio is showing a huge throng of people filling the Via della Conciliazione, which leads from the Tiber to St. Peter’s Square. The influx has to be seen to be believed and the numbers are almost alarming. More than a million pilgrims are expected to view the body of Pope John Paul II today and the television reporter is saying that 18,000 people an hour are moving through the basilica and past the body.

I suppose one conclusion we draw from all this is that the 1960’s are finally over. Remember? “God is dead!” The pope is, but he’s still acting out the central Christian belief that redemption is there to be sought. Anyway, here goes. Time to enter pilgrim territory.

Would it have been better to have risen at dawn yesterday, instead of dawdling over breakfast? Too late now for retrospect. What follows is the chronicle of a day in the life of a pilgrim in Rome.

11.20 a.m. There’s a shuttle bus service operating from the main station, Termini, to the Tiber. Seems to be free as well. At least no one stamping tickets. Unfortunately, the bus driver decides to call a one-man strike at the Palazzo Venezia and we have to foot it from there.

12.20 p.m. The line is forming south of Ponte Sant’Angelo. The imposing dome of St. Peter’s is visible in the distance. Something about the size of the crowd and the enormous speed with which it is swelling says that getting there may not pan out as expected.

1.20 p.m. Standstill. In the battle for popularity in Poland’s mobile phone market, it is even-Steven between Nokia and Siemens. This observation is based on a quick survey of surrounding pilgrims. The phones are as varied as their owners — big, small, simple, sophisticated. Poland has come a long way and it’s not surprising that its people have stormed Rome to give thanks to the man who gave them back their identity.

2.20 p.m. Along with the Poles, the other major national group represented here is the Italians. They’ve planned for a long day if the variety and amount of sandwiches is anything to go by. My neighbour, Carlo from Salerno, is eating a lovely looking one made with delicate brown bread and filled with sausage and spinach. Panic begins to set in here. What if I miscalculated on the food front? What if this takes eight hours instead of the expected five?

3.20 p.m. Headgear is a must. The sun is beating down, which is better than rain, of course, but not so charming if you cannot move. Another must is a book. Mine is Despair by Vladimir Nabokov. An odd choice, I agree, but the selection in the train station book shop was bizarre. In the English books section it was Nabokov or Michael Moore. “I can readily imagine what Pushkin might have said to his trembling paraphrasts,” Nabokov writes. A new word for the vocabulary, that, paraphrasts.

4.20 p.m. We make it onto the Ponte Vittorio Emmanuel. What’s it now? Four hours? And we’ve covered a distance that would take a slow walker five minutes on a normal day. Except this is a day when more than a million pilgrims are trying to get to see a hero. People still very cheerful, though. City workers are supplying us with bottle of water and the gesture is appreciated.

5.20 p.m. Ah, ha! Oh, oh! Now we can see why progress has been so slow. On the other side of the Tiber, to our left, a huge river of people is pressing forward. What’s it going to be like when we merge with them? Chat to Julia Baker, an English pilgrim. Charles and Camilla. What we’re seeing today suggests to her that the Church of England will fold its tent when William ascends the throne. It’s not a spiritual experience anymore and that’s what people hunger for. The fact that Charles is here means that he knows the game is up, she says.

6.20 p.m. We take the bridge! But a wave of worry ripples through the crowd. Italian authorities are sending out text messages telling people not to join the lines. Apparently, they are worried that it will get out of control. Lots of excited conversation. We are determined to press on, however. There can be no turning back now we tell ourselves.

7.20 p.m. Helen and George are from just outside Seattle. Not exactly young, either, but they seem to be coping well. They get alarmed when we look back at the mass of people we have left behind on the bridge. What if? The only consolation of being stuck on the corner of Borgo S. Spirito and Via S. Pio X is the architecture. Alarm! No more food left.

8.20 p.m. If only we could get onto the Via della Conciliazione. We could then see St. Peter’s. What we can see, though, is a huge screen showing scenes from inside the basilica with people filing past the body. The picture quality is stunning. Wonder what the screen resolution is?

9.20 p.m. Where would we be without our mobile phones? Fingers flying. Messages pouring in from Ireland, England, Germany and Italy. “Did you hear that Saul Bellow died yesterday? “U will get to heaven for this!” “Was JP a footie fan?” “4-2. Blues better.” The Chelsea-Bayern Munich Champions League game has enough goals to keep us alert.

10.20 p.m. Now, we’re getting places. Surging along the Via della Conciliazione we are and up ahead, bathed in light, is the world’s most impressive church. Big screens line the way and thousands are joining in the prayers that pour forth. Along the bottom of the picture, the crawler says “live from the Basilica” and we can see George W. Bush, Laura Bush, George Bush Snr., Bill Clinton and Condi Rice kneeling beside the body, deep in prayer. Jeers go up from the Michael Moore faction but one pilgrim applauds and earns stares. No one challenges him, though.

11.20 p.m. We are in the square! It’s a sea of flags and pennants and emblems borne aloft, mostly Polish, red and white. The imagery is ancient, as if a mighty host of yore was assembling for an encounter that would remake history. Impossible not to be overwhelmed by it all.

12.20 a.m. “Attention! The Basilica will be closed for cleaning between 2 am and 5 pm.” The announcement booming out across the square in Italian, English, French, German, Polish and Spanish fills us with dread. The crowd control has been impressive up to this but it’s not going to be easy to deal with these people if they are locked out within sight of the Grail, to use a Dan Brownism. We are packed against each other now, tired, hungry and thirsty and kept awake and alive by forces beyond our powers.

1.20 a.m. “The Basilica doors will be closing in thirty minutes!” Sprits are high, however. We are certain that our bloc is going to make it. We look back and see thousands upon thousands who won’t be with us. The poor things. How will they endure until 5 am? Where will they get the energy to complete the mission? Pity for them is mixed with satisfaction for our own good fortune. Human vanity and weakness are constant.

1.50 a.m. We enter the Basilica. Too exhausted to appreciate its wonders: The frescoed hallways, the Pieta. Up ahead a blaze of light.

2.10 a.m. Face to face, at last. “What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?” Hamlet (II, ii, 115-117).

Tranquil, he is, despite the bursts of flashes from all kinds of photographic devices. This is how the new pilgrim gathers relics. No piece of the robe, no sliver of bone. A digital image.

Saint John Paul II

Mission accomplished. Time for a quick prayer. No candle to light but the Vatican offers pen and paper where one can list ones wishes for the world and hope that they will be granted. And then we’re out into the morning. Suddenly, one is aware of how sore the feet are and what it is like not to have peed in 15 hours. Time to find a bar, lots are open. Coffee, cognac, a cigarette to round it off. Text a few people, even though they are in bed. No point in sleeping. The need for it seems to have disappeared.


The Christian conundrum

Tuesday, 28 February, 2017 0 Comments

Early Christianity expanded rapidly through Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece and Italy. Because it had no linguistic, cultural, ethnic or territorial centre, it spread to towns, cities and communities that differed widely from one another. The rulers of Rome had seen nothing like it and were confounded by this new and challenging ideology. The British classicist Mary Beard discusses how the Romans viewed the conundrum of Christianity in her excellent SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. Snippet:

“First, it had no ancestral home. In their ordered religious geography, Romans expected deities to be from somewhere: Isis from Egypt, Mithras from Persia, the Jewish god from Judaea. The Christian god was rootless, claimed to be universal and sought more adherents. All kinds of mystical moments of enlightenment might attract new worshippers to (say) the religion of Isis. But Christianity was defined entirely by a process of spiritual conversion that was utterly new. What is more, some Christians were preaching values that threatened to overturn some of the most fundamental Greco-Roman assumptions about the nature of the world and of the people within it: that poverty, for example, was good; or that the body was to be tamed or rejected rather than cared for. SPQR All these factors help to explain the worries, confusion and hostility of Pliny and others like him. At the same time, the success of Christianity was rooted in the Roman Empire, in its territorial extent, in the mobility that it promoted, in its towns and its cultural mix. From Pliny’s Bithynia to Perpetua’s Carthage, Christianity spread from its small-scale origins in Judaea largely because of the channels of communication across the Mediterranean world that the Roman Empire had opened up and because of the movement through those channels of people, goods, books and ideas. The irony is that the only religion that the Romans ever attempted to eradicate was the one whose success their empire made possible and which grew up entirely within the Roman world.”

Is past prologue? Could a faith-based or technology-driven belief system challenge the fundamentals of our world? Note: The phrase “What’s past is prologue” comes from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, Act 2, Scene I. In contemporary usage, the phrase stands for the idea that history sets the context for the present. The quotation is engraved on the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C.


How to Win an Election with Cicero

Monday, 26 September, 2016 0 Comments

It is being reported that the television audience for tonight’s debate at Hofstra University in New York between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump could top 100 million. At this point in the US presidential race, many voters will have made up their minds but there is always the chance that one of the candidates might say or do something tonight that could influence the media’s interpretation of the debate. And it is the media that will decide the “winner” and the “loser”.

Whatever the reading of the debate, however, the battle will continue tomorrow. With the polls suggesting that the outcome is too close to call, it’s all to campaign for, which means it’s time to consult Cicero.

In 64 BC, the great orator Marcus Tullius Cicero ran for consul, the highest office in the Roman Republic. He was 42 and successful, but he was not a member of the ruling elite, and that was a major disadvantage. Still, he had a trump card, so to speak: the Commentariolum Petitionis, or “Little Handbook on Electioneering,” which some historians believe was written by his brother Quintus. Regardless of the authorship, the writer knew his Roman politics, which sound remarkably familiar.

How to Win an Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians by Quintus Tullius Cicero was translated by Philip Freeman and published in 2012 by Princeton Press. Snippets:

  • Running for office can be divided into two kinds of activity: securing the support of your friends and winning over the general public. You gain the goodwill of friends through kindness, favors, old connections, availability, and natural charm. But in an election you need to think of friendship in broader terms than in everyday life. For a candidate, a friend is anyone who shows you goodwill or seeks out your company.
  • There are three things that will guarantee votes in an election: favors, hope, and personal attachment. You must work to give these incentives to the right people. You can win uncommitted voters to your side by doing them even small favors. So much more so all those you have greatly helped, who must be made to understand that if they don’t support you now they will lose all public respect. But do go to them in person and let them know that if they back you in this election you will be in their debt.
  • You must have a wide variety of people around you on a daily basis. Voters will judge you on what sort of crowd you draw both in quality and numbers. The three types of followers are those who greet you at home, those who escort you down to the Forum, and those who accompany you wherever you go.
  • You desperately need to learn the art of flattery — a disgraceful thing in normal life but essential when you are running for office. If you use flattery to corrupt a man there is no excuse for it, but if you apply ingratiation as a way to make political friends, it is acceptable. For a candidate must be a chameleon, adapting to each person he meets, changing his expression and speech as necessary.
  • Keep the doors of your house open, of course, but also open your face and expression, for these are the window to the soul. If you look closed and distracted when people talk with you, it won’t matter that your front gates are never locked. People not only want commitments from a candidate but they want them delivered in an engaged and generous manner.

Cicero famously defeated Catiline, but he made many enemies during that race for consul and both he and his brother, Quintus, were murdered two decades later during the strife that accompanied the fall of the Republic and the rise of the Empire.

Cicero


Amoris Laetitia backgrounder

Friday, 8 April, 2016 0 Comments

Pope Francis to make key marriage pronouncement” is how the BBC puts it in the run up to today’s publication of Amoris Laetitia, the Apostolic Exhortation about Catholic teaching on the family. The text, rumoured to be 250-pages long and divided into 300 points, will be presented by Cardinals Lorenzo Baldisseri, Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, and Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna, at a press conference in Rome. Scheduled to begin at 11:30 Central European Time, the event will be broadcast live via the Vatican’s Television Centre.

Where did the BBC gets its headline? The document has been surrounded by secrecy, with no leaks to the media before its presentation. This makes Amoris Laetitia unusual, seeing that Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, was published by the Italian magazine l’Espresso three days ahead of the official presentation.

What can we expect? The focus will be on the “many new situations requiring the Church’s attention and pastoral care.” In other words, partners living together before marriage, communion for divorced and remarried Catholics and homosexual unions vs. heterosexual marriage, to name just three areas of contested cohabitation that are facts of 21st century life. The Guardian has already pre-empted liberal disappointment: “Pope Francis to dismay reformists with ‘modern families’ document.” Francis wouldn’t be Francis, however, if he didn’t have a surprise or two up the sleeve of the papal cassock.


The Eternal Roma

Saturday, 5 September, 2015 0 Comments

“In my life I have been fortunate to have explored fascinating places around the world. There is one particular city though, that keeps giving me new emotions every day. It is Roma (Rome),” says video-maker Oliver Astrologo. In this beautiful clip, Oliver captures what Henry James noticed a century ago when he visited The Eternal City: “Here was history in the stones of the street and the atoms of the sunshine.”


Visca el Barça vs. mia san mia on the second screen

Tuesday, 12 May, 2015 0 Comments

A number of initiatives have been started in recent years to encourage more women to learn about computing, such as Ada Developers Academy, and Google, for its part, says it has given more than $40 million to organizations working to bring computer science education to girls. The reality, though, is that tech is still very much a man’s, man’s world and this impression was reinforced last week at the EIT Innovation Forum in Budapest, where Emanuela Zaccone was the only female nominee for the 2015 Awards.

Zaccone is the co-founder of TOK.tv, a platform that lets users chat to their friends while watching a game, such as tomorrow night’s Champions League semi-final between Juventus and Real Madrid. As it happens, the two teams are TOK.tv partners and Zaccone pitches her second screen play as a win-win for both sides as their fans, scattered around the world, can sit on the same virtual couch during a match and the clubs can monetize this engagement. And what about tonight’s Barcelona vs. Bayern Munich game, which pits the Catalan Visca el Barça against the Bavarian mia san mia cultures? Zaccone smiles. “We’re talking,” she says. The two teams are global players in every sense of the term and their joint presence on the TOK.tv platform would add considerably to its reach.

Back in 2007, when Emanuela Zaccone was working on her PhD thesis at the University of Nottingham, she had a hunch that a combination of social media streams and audio-visual content would lead to to new forms of audience participation in entertainment. She was right. From her vantage point in Rome today and in her role as Social Media Strategist at TOK.tv, she’s proving that a woman can transform a man’s game.

Emanuela Zaccone


Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Sunday, 18 January, 2015 0 Comments

The Latin phrase Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? is found in the Satires of the Roman poet Juvenal. The literal translation is “Who will guard the guards themselves?” and the question is commonly posed when referring to the problem of controlling the doings of people in positions of power, which brings us to Saint Fanahan.

It is said that he arrived in Brigown in County Cork in the seventh century and founded a monastery there. Over the generations, a cult of prayer and pilgrimage developed at St. Fanahan’s Well, just a short distance from the ruins of Brigown Church, which is all that is left of the monastic settlement. In the 13th century, a Norman family named “de St. Michel” founded “Villa Michel” in Brigown and the name evolved to Mitchelstown. Every year on 25 November, people from the community pay homage to Saint Fanahan, who now sits in stone in front of the Mitchelstown police station, guarding the guards.

Saint Fanahan


Thankfully remembered

Thursday, 27 November, 2014 0 Comments

“Do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not, but reckon up the chief of the blessings you do possess, and then thankfully remember how you would crave for them if they were not yours.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Marcus Aurelius


Francis redefines the Popemobile

Wednesday, 18 June, 2014 0 Comments

When he greets crowds at the Vatican, his custom Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen is completely open. So writes Alex Nunez in a Road & Track piece titled “Pope Francis on why he eschews a bulletproof Popemobile“. The Pontiff in trading security for intimacy and is quoted as telling Barcelona’s La Vanguardia: “It’s true that anything could happen, but let’s face it, at my age I don’t have much to lose.”

There might be more to that fatalistic quip than meets the eye because on Monday the Vatican’s news service announced that that Francis is drastically curtailing his schedule by suspending his popular Wednesday audiences in July and skipping his daily Mass at the Casa Santa Marta, where he lives.

He’s had a busy year so maybe it’s just a well-earned break.


The epic of a digital relic of a saint-to-be

Sunday, 27 April, 2014 0 Comments

Tutto il mondo a San Pietro. That’s the way it will be today in Rome for the canonization of John Paul II and John XXIII. Back on 6 April 2005, we joined the crowds in Rome intending to pay their respects to one to the saints-to-be, Pope John Paul II, who was lying in state […]

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#nota notandi

Tuesday, 15 April, 2014 0 Comments

The Latin Letters Office in the Vatican Curia is said to be the only modern workplace where the language of Cicero is still the lingua franca. Part of the day job is tweeting. Since Pope Benedict XVI started the Pontifex Latin Twitter account in January last year, it has gained 235,000 followers and Chicago native Monsignor Daniel Gallagher, who’s tasked with keeping pontifical reflections within the 140-character limit, told USA Today of the challenges facing him when he has to turn this…

… into this …

Gallagher’s approach: “The word ‘taboo’ comes from a Tongan/Fijian word that means ‘forbidden, prohibited.’ The Romans had a similar, even stronger, concept in Latin with nefandae, which comes from nefas, which comes from ne-fari, which means ‘not to be mentioned.'”