This summer I lived in Rome for three weeks while studying at the Centro Pro Unione. I have very mixed feelings about the city. On the one hand, I associate Rome with distant church leaders who care more about serving their own careers and the finer things of institution, keeping their distance from the struggles and experiences of the people of God back home. Pope Francis has expressed such sentiments in much more spiritually-rich words than I could express.
Yet I went to Rome not to immerse myself more deeply in traditional Catholic piety, but rather to learn more about the efforts that Catholics are making to encounter those outside the church. The Catholic Church has made enormous strides in dialoguing with other Christian denominations in pursuit of unity. The Catholic Church has also striven to collaborate as much as possible with other Christian communities to give witness to what we believe. I studied the history of Christian divisions and milestones in the movement for unity alongside Protestant ministers. Together we also learned about the efforts of Christian churches to dialogue with non-Christian religions in pursuit of peaceful coexistence and a more just and sustainable world. There was a Muslim student in our course as well, and in total I studied with people from six different countries across three continents.
Beyond my classes, I also gazed upon many beautiful and fascinating works of art that people have admired for centuries. It’s amazing to imagine that people have stared at the same works inspired by the same faith that I have studied, pondered, and experienced in my own prayer life. I wrote the following note to my friends on my last day in Rome:
Rome was for me place of deep encounters with people from my past, present and future. Pope Francis often reminds us that our faith is not a museum but a living relationship with God and one another. While the stunning artwork of many churches in Rome could certainly find a home in any museum, Rome is also home to many of the sites that shaped the faith of our founder Isaac Hecker and countless other Christians over the centuries. … As Isaac Hecker left Rome after his second visit in 1870, he wrote, “My present experience in one way and another seems to have prepared me to lay a foundation for action which will be suitable not only for the present but for centuries to come…. I shall return with the resolution to continue them with more confidence, more zeal, more energy.”
I feel that same optimism now, filled with awe and gratitude for the privilege to minister as a Catholic in the twenty-first century.