Under the Roman Sun
Much is happening in Rome: the departure of Archbishop Ranjith and the arrival of American theologian Augustine Di Noia in the liturgy Congregation have been officially announced; the Pope has issued a letter on the Year of the Priest, which begins tomorrow; the embattled editor of the Osservatore Romano has defended himself; Benedict has changed his doctor, while he continues to write his second book on Jesus; and I have spent a wonderful day with my son, Christopher, who just passed through the Eternal City on his way to Russia…
By Robert Moynihan, reporting from Rome
Rome is peaceful this week, even as the Vatican “wraps up” the year of work in preparation for summer. So there are many things to report, but I thought I’d start with the most important to me: I just experienced a shining morning with my son, Christopher, who visited Rome for a day, after long absence. He was en route from the United State to St. Petersburg, Russia, where he will spend the summer studying the Russian language. Now he has gone, and the internet in our office is down, so here I am sitting in a cafe on the via delle Fornaci, just 100 yards from the Vatican, with my laptop, writing this newsflash…
Two days ago, Christopher, who is 19 and has been attending college in America, arrived with his fellow scholar, Will. After I picked them up at the airport, we walked at night through the old city, and ate at Mario’s in Trastevere just before midnight.
Yesterday morning, we were able to go into the Vatican, where I had a brief meeting, and to see the hall of maps, which runs along the terza loggia (where the Secretariat of State is), and go out on the balcony overlooking the square. There we stood, in the blazing morning sun, silent at the scene spread out below.
The Pope was holding his general audience in a colorful, crowded square. (Years ago, when Christopher was just a year old, and his head a mass of yellow curls, we once met Joseph Ratzinger on the square, and the Pope picked Christopher up and held him.)
“I think this may be the single most beautiful construction of human art and architecture in the world,” Christopher said, looking down at Bernini’s colonnade and up at the facade of the basilica. Then: “Do you think we can still get to the Sistine Chapel, and into the basilica, to see the Pieta, before we go to the airport?”
“I don’t think we have time,” I said. “We’d have to go out and all around to the entrance to the Museums, to get to the chapel, and the basilica is closed now, during the audience…”
He seemed disappointed, and so was I. But then, just as we were leaving the terza loggia, by pure chance, we ran into a monsignor, an old friend, and exchanged greetings.
Then I said, “Well, Christopher and Will have to leave for the airport… and we were planning to try to see the Sistine Chapel, but we don’t have time…”
The monsignor looked at his watch. “How much time do you have?” he asked. “About 20 minutes,” I said. “Well,” he said, “we could try to go through the palace itself. I’ll take you.”
And so we headed down a stairway, and through splendid marble rooms, to the back door of the Sistine Chapel. He knocked on the door, and the door opened a crack, and he spoke to the guard inside, and we were let in, and stood beneath Michelangelo’s ceiling, and the finger of God stretching out to touch the finger of Adam.
“The beginning of things… and the end,” I told the boys, indicating the fresco of the Last Judgment. “And what follows that end, has not yet been written about. But it will be as much more real than this world we now experience, as this world is more real than the nothing out of which it was created…”
Then it was time to go.
We had entered at the Porta Sant’Anna, but now we had to leave by the Scala Regia and the Bronze Doors. As we walked down the broad stairway, we came to a Swiss Guard. I asked him if we could go for a moment into the Basilica, and see the Pieta. He said yes..
So we went down into the Basilica, and were there alone, not a single other person in sight, and stood in front of the Pieta.
“This is the only work Michelangelo ever signed.” I said. “It sums up the sorrow of all sorrows, the sorrow a mother feels at the loss of her son. And yet, she is serene…”
In the silence, I said a prayer for their safe travel. And then we had to leave, and it was down to the Bronze Doors, and out to the left by a back way, and past the Vatican bank down to the Sant’Anna gate, and out to the Square to find a taxi to take us to Fiumicino, and the airplane that would carry them to the East… (continued at bottom)
On June 16, Pope Benedict XVI named U.S. Dominican Father J. Augustine DiNoia an archbishop and secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments.
“I am happy the Pope has entrusted to me an area that he considers so important,” the archbishop-designate told Catholic News Service shortly after the Vatican announced his new assignment.
“I think the liturgy should give us a sense of the heavenly liturgy; it’s about God, not us,” he said.
Archbishop-designate DiNoia, 65, has served as undersecretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 2002.
His episcopal ordination will be July 11 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington; U.S. Cardinal William J. Levada, prefect of the doctrinal congregation, will preside at the liturgy, he said.
At the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, Archbishop-designate DiNoia succeeds Sri Lankan Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith, who was named archbishop of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Archbishop Ranjith, a former nuncio, had served as the congregation secretary since 2005.
One of the major tasks facing the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments is overseeing the final approval and use of a new English translation of the Mass. It was widely believed the Pope would choose another native English-speaker as secretary of the congregation after he appointed Spanish Cardinal Antonio Canizares Llovera to be congregation prefect last December.
Born July 10, 1943, Di Noia was ordained a priest June 4, 1970.
The complete CNS news story can be found here: http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/0902744.htm
A reader recently wrote: “I recently read of an article in Osservatore Romano (the Vatican newspaper) that stated our president Barack Obama was not the extremist opposed to Catholic teaching many feared he would be. If this is true, what are they talking about? Obama supports embryonic stem cell research; non-traditional marriage; promoting and exporting abortion around the world; homosexual partner benefits… Could you please investigate this and perhaps write an article setting the record straight? Regards, Deacon Jim Rock”
What follows is a first — not a final — attempt to give some background regarding that statement in the Osservatore Romano.
Today in the National Review in the US, an interview appeared with the editor of the Osservatore Romano, Gian Maria Vian, in which he defends his statement that “Obama is not a pro-abortion president.”
The interview was conducted by Delia Gallagher, who is an old friend (she was for two years the managing editor of Inside the Vatican before going to work for the television network CNN).
“My analysis,” she wrote to me, “is that the Secretariat of State doesn’t mind what he (Vian) has written because it helps to give a ‘soft welcome’ for Obama’s expected visit to the Pope in July.”
Here is the interview in its entirety, without further comment — which means I am sending the interview along now even though more could be said, and will be said, in future…
Why He Said What He Said
by Delia Gallagher
When the Director of the Vatican newspaper, Gian Maria Vian (photo), declared a few weeks ago that “Obama is not a pro-abortion president,” a comment that came after an editorial which on balance spoke positively of the US President’s first 100 days, ire was raised across the Atlantic.
Many US Vatican commentators roundly reviled him as a lone, liberal voice, un-representative of “real” Vatican thinking, ignorant of US politics, in charge of a paper that is not taken seriously at the Vatican. He was even called a traitor and pro-abortion.
US commentators may take umbrage with what he says, but they are wrong to discredit him. American Catholics who wish to understand the sometimes vastly different Vatican view of things would do well to know more about Vian and why he said what he did.
Gian Maria Vian is firmly ensconced in the Vatican inner-circle: he was personally tapped by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State, and the Pope’s trusted right-hand man, for the job as Editor-in-Chief. He has known and worked with Bertone for 25 years.
His family have been close collaborators with Popes for over a century: Pope Benedict XVI called the Vian family “illustrious…with a great tradition of faithful service to the Holy See.”
Vian’s grandfather, Agostino, wrote for L’Osservatore Romano and was married in 1903 by Pius X, then Patriarch of Venice. His father, Nello, also a contributor to the paper, was chief Vatican librarian and close friend of Paul VI; Gian Maria was baptized by Paul VI in St. Peter’s Basilica.
He has not dropped in from left-field.
Since taking the helm of L’Osservatore Romano in October 2007, he has been widely praised in Italy for renewing the paper, transforming it from an un-read chronicle to a sure place for eye-catching and original articles: ask any Vatican journalist and they will tell you that they now read the paper to get their stories.
Just last Wednesday, I attended the book launch of Vian’s new volume, In Defense of Pius XII, (not yet published in English) where the former editor of Italy’s conservative daily, Corriere della Sera, lauded L’Osservatore Romano under Gian Maria’s leadership. Sitting next to Vian, in the front row, was Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.
All this is not to say that Vian’s views are those of the Secretary of State or the Pope. His statement is an “unofficial” view; and sometimes for an organization with diplomatic responsibilities, an unofficial view is convenient. Diplomats in Rome read L’Osservatore precisely because they know it reflects Vatican thinking at the highest levels.
In my analysis, Vian’s statement and the L’Osservatore Romano’s appraisal of the Obama presidency so far, may be the Vatican’s unofficial way of “raising the bar” for the new American president who is expected to visit the Pope in July. What better way to receive the man who will have great power over important issues than in a climate of confident expectation, rather than condemnation? Even if “they” did not say it, they may not mind that it has been said.
Interview with Giovanni Maria Vian
Editor-in-Chief, L’Osservatore Romano
June 13, 2009
“I don’t think one can ask for a condemnation or a benediction a priori”
You were quoted as saying, “It is my clear conviction: Obama is not a pro-abortion president.” On what basis do you hold this conviction?
Gian Maria Vian: I made that statement in an interview to an Italian journalist of “Il Riformista” who called me on the day the President was at Notre Dame for the controversial ceremony of the conferring of the law degree honoris causa. I was in Barcelona; I gave the interview over the phone and based my observation primarily on the speech President Obama gave on that occasion. A speech which demonstrated openness. In this sense, I said that he didn’t seem a pro-abortion president.
What do you mean?
Vian: He considered abortion, at least in his speech at Notre Dame, as something to prevent and above all, he said, we must proceed in the attempt to widen the consensus as much as possible because he realizes that it is a very delicate issue.
Of course, Senator Obama made decisions that certainly cannot be defined as pro-life, to use the American term. He was rather pro-choice. Yet I believe that the Senator’s activity prior to his presidential election is one thing, and the political line he is following as President of the United States is another.
We have noticed that his entire program prior to his election was more radical than it is revealing itself to be now that he is president. So this is what I meant when I said he didn’t sound like a pro-abortion president. Besides, he stated that the Freedom of Choice Act is no longer a top priority of the Administration.
Naturally, it is also a sort of wishful thinking. Let’s hope that my conviction is confirmed by the political actions of the administration. This is basically the same attitude of watching, waiting and hope of the Catholic bishops of the United States.
Did you hear from the Pope or the Secretary of State about your comment that Obama is not a pro-abortion president?
Vian: No. It was an interview on the fly. As usual, I didn’t ask permission from either the Secretariat of State or the Pope. It was an impression that I communicated based on the speech he had just given. President Obama said we should try to confront this question without too much division, that it is a tragedy, a frightening drama, let’s look for common ground – I think his words should be appreciated.
Some would say they are only words and it is his voting record and actions which speak more loudly.
I admit that it is legitimate to be diffident in the face of the words of a President who previously has demonstrated a pro-choice line, but I hope that he changes. I hope that he understands that a politics of pro-life is good politics, not because it is religious, not because it is Catholic, but because it is human. This is what the Church repeatedly says, and in particular Pope Benedict XVI. The appeal to natural law is important because it is not based on religious principles, it is based on human principles which can be agreed on by all.
So you were fully aware of the record of the Senator, the criticisms of the US bishops and the political situation in the US?
Vian: When we published the infamous article on the first 100 days, we wrote that the moderation that President Obama had so far demonstrated compared to what was expected in no way eliminated the reasons for criticism that the US Bishops Conference expressed many times.
So mine was not an ingenuous statement. I must say that it was an interview which mirrored my personal point of view and that what is more important is what is published in L’Osservatore Romano. The editorial line of the paper is above all reflected by what is published in the paper, but the two things aren’t that far apart.
I realize that Obama is much more pro-choice than McCain, who was his adversary, but Obama won and let’s hope that that his actions on these themes are less radical than they have been before the elections. At least that is the case so far.
On the article judging President Obama’s first 100 days did you hear any reaction from the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Bertone?
Vian: No. Naturally we spoke about it because it created a lot of noise but he did not say that it was an article that wasn’t right or should not have been printed.
The article on the first 100 days was written by the head of international news, Dr. Giuseppe Fiorentino. I reviewed it and added some things on the ethical questions saying, again, that this greater moderation shown by the President compared to the propaganda of then-Senator Obama does not mitigate criticism, especially in the field of bio-engineering, the use of embryonic stem cells and in general with respect to ethical questions. That he is more moderate than expected does not mean that there is approval, obviously, on the part of the Holy See, or of its newspaper.
On the ethical question, Michael Novak accused me in the Italian paper, Liberal, of actually being pro-abortion. Given the fact that Novak has come to visit us at the paper and was very kind and said he would be happy to write for us and is besides a gentleman, I responded to his article in a very cordial manner saying that such an accusation towards the newspaper of the Pope, that it is a pro-abortion paper, makes me smile, so as not to say in a more crude manner that it is ridiculous.
Should a reader interpret the editorial line of the newspaper to be also that of the Pope and the Secretariat of State?
Vian: Well, we need to distinguish something here. The paper is not official: it is not the expression, in every single part, of the point of view of the Vatican, that is, of the Secretariat of State. But it is obvious that it is an authoritative point of view of the Holy See, because ours is the only newspaper of the Holy See and has a century and a half of history. We were started during the American Civil War. That finished in 1865 and we were started in 1861. It’s a paper with a very long history and it has always been rightly interpreted as the expression of the thought of the Holy See, without a doubt, but that is not to say that every word that comes out in the paper is exactly the thought of the Pope or the Secretary of State.
But the average reader would assume that he will find in the Vatican’s newspaper an editorial line that is in agreement with the Pope…
Vian: Let’s say that L’Osservatore Romano expresses a line generally in agreement with the Holy See. This is obvious because the paper is owned by the Holy See. My editor, in the Italian sense of the owner of the paper, is the Pope, via the Secretariat of State. I could not possibly create a paper in disagreement with the owner, just like no newspaper director could create a paper in dissension with the owner. If I ran the newspaper like that, I would have already been fired.
Do you receive regular feedback from Cardinal Bertone or the Pope on articles that you publish?
Vian: I am here since the fall of 2007 and I have never had a problem. The Pope and the Secretary of State have so far given me and the newspaper their full confidence.
I know the paper very well: my grandfather wrote for this paper, my father wrote for this paper, my brother wrote for this paper and I wrote for this paper from 1977 until 1987 and then 20 years later I’ve come back as director. I knew the paper very well, it was the newspaper that arrived at home every day when I was a child.
I did not imagine I would find the autonomy that I have found here. Sure, we have made mistakes. But I jokingly say that it’s my editor, the owner, who is infallible, not me, not us.
We make mistakes, but so far not the Pope, the Secretary of State or anyone in the Secretariat of State has ever said, ‘You’ve made a serious error.’
They are happy that we do our job and we our happy that they do their jobs.
We work in autonomy except in a few areas of particular interest on international questions and then we work in close collaboration with the Secretariat of State.
What are those areas?
Vian: Nuclear themes, disarmament, Iran for example, Korea, but especially Iran. In general, near and middle East is a sensitive area. Then there is China. On these international themes we are in constant contact with the Secretariat of State.
Does that mean they review your articles, make suggestions?
Vian: We send them the articles, but only on those international themes. And I must say that it’s very rare that they tell us no, you can’t publish this because although I’m new, my journalists know their work very well. Apart from that, they send us the texts of the Pope and there is really nothing else, to tell the truth.
I decide the editorial line of the paper which I evaluate together with the heads of the paper’s departments: Vatican, international, cultural and religious information news.
So the Pope does not intervene directly?
Vian: The first request of the Pope was: more room for international news, more attention to the Eastern Christians, Catholics such as the Maronites and the Melchites, but also the Orthodox Churches, and more space for women.
What did the Pope mean by “more space for women”?
Vian: The Pope wishes to highlight as much as possible the role of women in the Church and in the Roman Curia, some even said that he had wanted a woman as director of L’Osservatore Romano, which has always been directed by lay people.
I interpreted his request of more space for women as indicating both a desire to increase the number of women working at the paper, about a quarter of our staff are women, and I hired the first full-time woman journalist in the history of the paper, as well as giving more space to stories and issues about women. On bioethical issues, particularly abortion, I prefer that we have a woman write the story.
Our interview with Mary Ann Glendon, then US Ambassador to the Holy See, was conducted by a woman, Prof. Lucetta Scaraffia, and published on the front page of the paper with a full color photo of the two.
Mary Ann Glendon declined to receive an award and speak at Notre Dame, to protest the Obama invitation and support the bishops…
Vian: It was a brave choice and I have the greatest respect for it and for Mary Ann Glendon. She is a well-respected intellectual and a courageous woman who was a very good American ambassador to the Holy See.
Do you think your editorial line could be seen as undercutting the US Bishops?
Vian: No. In our international religious news we systematically support the position of the US bishops. I said very clearly that to consider L’Osservatore Romano as distant or not supportive of the US bishops’ conference is false, it is a game played by those who want only to use our paper to paint a picture of divided Catholics.
Unfortunately, L’Osservatore Romano is mis-used by everyone for their own agenda: the theo-cons, the neo-cons use it for their purposes, liberals try to use it to say the Vatican is distancing itself from the bishops. This is unacceptable; it has never happened and I deny that accusation most fervently. L’Osservatore Romano has never distanced itself from the bishops. In fact, after the comments which appeared primarily on the Internet from the US, we re-iterated that the paper is absolutely at the side of the American bishops and that their position cannot be considered a political stance.
What do you mean by a political stance?
Vian: Well they say that the conference, or at least the presidency of the US bishops’ conference has a conservative Republican line – no. On questions such as the defense of life the bishops speak in the same way to Republicans as they do to Democrats.
But you have said that Obama is not a pro-abortion president which is not the position of many US bishops…
Vian: I don’t know the opinion of all of the American bishops but we have collaborators in the US and I am in contact with the English section of the Secretariat of State and also have personal contact with some American bishops.
Have you heard from any of the bishops on this topic?
Vian: Recently and directly, no. I learned indirectly of the reactions of cardinals and bishops in the United States and their opinions are very varied. Besides, in politics, there are no dogmas; there are no dogmas of faith.
What do you mean by no dogmas in politics?
Vian: A Catholic can vote Republican or Democrat. In fact, there were Catholics who voted Democratic.
But if a Catholic in good conscience should not vote for a candidate who supports abortion, often they can only choose the Republican…
Vian: In fact, the paper has never taken political positions, not in Italy, Spain nor in the US, also because the Holy See has diplomatic relations with countries and therefore institutional relationships with different states outside of particular administrations so it would be absurd if the Holy See were to support Republicans rather than Democrats.
Some US Catholics feel that the Vatican, predominately European, does not understand their particular situation. That there is a more liberal, leftist, socialist European culture here which influences the way you see the US…
Vian: I respect this point of view. Naturally any American who is versed in politics will be more prepared than I am on the topic. I am European, Italian and have a cultural formation obviously different from an American but this does not equal a liberal point of view, in the American meaning of liberal. Or a socialist point of view. I don’t recognize myself in this description.
There is a problem between Europe and America, this is true. Pope Benedict says that the US has much to teach Europe because they give public space to religion that is not invasive but democratic, respectful of all opinions. On his pastoral visit to the US, the Pope cited a beautiful distinction of the United States. He said that the United States is a secular country for love of religion. I second that sentiment entirely. I, too, believe Europeans must learn from the US how to be more open to a serious consideration of religion and its public consequences.
At the same time, Americans should not assume that everything that comes from Europe is leftist and should be ignored.
I have always had great respect and admiration for America, perhaps also because my father studied, in the early 30s, Library Science at Ann Arbor University, Michigan, sent by the Vatican Library, and always had great memories of his time there. I have always enjoyed American Catholics because they offer a new point of view, younger and very useful sometimes for the whole Church.
How much do you think your thinking about President Obama represents the thinking at the Vatican?
Vian: I don’t think Obama has yet defined a precise line on certain questions. Of course his decisions on international help for reproductive health are dangerous because they could signify supporting the campaign in favor of abortion, which is unacceptable. Were this to be confirmed, it would be unacceptable. But I don’t think one can ask for a condemnation or a benediction a priori. We need to see day by day what happens. At L’Osservatore Romano we are doing that; waiting and seeing and we hope that the wishes of the bishops find confirmation and we hope that Obama does not follow pro-choice politics not because we want him to follow Catholic politics but because we hope and want Obama to guide politics at the service of the weakest and the weakest are the unborn, the embryos.
And the fact that he has not done so as Senator…
Vian: I thought that – and Dr. Fiorentino too – McCain would win. I was impressed by McCain’s fair-play attitude in conceding the election, when he said: Obama is also my President. I met former President Bush when I came with the Pope to the White House and I thought he was very likeable. I think Bush was very courageous in his politics from many points of view, of course with errors that he has admitted, but I believe history will re-evaluate him. But Obama is now President of the United States. He is President of the United States! Let’s hope his politics are good and if not, we will criticize him.
It is not the job of the director of L’Osservatore Romano to conduct the foreign affairs of the Holy See. I just do the newspaper and try to do it as best I can, in a balanced way. I try to correctly inform my readers on the present administration, as I did with the previous one. If the present administration makes morally inadmissable choices, we will report it as such by reporting the criticism of the administration that the US bishops make.
Some say the newspaper isn’t taken very seriously at the Vatican…
Vian: L’Osservatore Romano counts here and I hope that it will continue to count and become even more important.
I have said that there has been a misunderstanding because people don’t read the L’Osservatore Romano, which I understand because it’s in Italian. Unfortunately we don’t have the money to translate every single article into English.
I think that if American Catholics could read the L’Osservatore Romano every day, and did not trust wire reports, although some of the agency writers are very good, but getting information from bloggers is like going to the bar where every one has their own opinion. But debate is good. I’m happy that the L’Osservatore Romano is being talked about.
(Editor’s note: We will attempt to have a further conversation with Vian in the coming weeks. We would be happy to receive readers’ comments on this interview, and suggested further questions to ask.)
Pope Benedict changes doctors
Pope Benedict XVI has changed his doctor, replacing the physician who treated the late Pope John Paul II for many years.
Patrizio Polisca, a 55-year-old cardiologist, takes over from octogenarian Renato Buzzonetti, the Vatican said in a statement.
Dr Polisca, who had been Dr Buzzonetti’s assistant for some time, becomes the deputy director of the Vatican office for health and hygiene.
The Pope’s new doctor was born in the central Italian province of Pesaro and is a specialist in heart surgery, resuscitation and anaesthesia.
He became Dr Buzzonetti’s assistant while John Paul II was still alive and accompanied the late Pope on his final journeys.
The Year for Priests Begins Tomorrow
Pope thanks God for gift of priesthood, but also recognizes failures
The Catholic Church must acknowledge that some priests have done great harm to others, but it also must thank God for the gifts the majority of priests have given to the Church and the world, Pope Benedict XVI said in a letter released today.
“What is most helpful to the Church… is not only a frank and complete acknowledgment of the weaknesses of her ministers” in the face of the recent scandal, “but also a joyful and renewed realization of the greatness of God’s gift” of the priesthood, the Pope said in his letter for the Year for Priests.
Coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the death of St. John Vianney, patron of parish priests, the year-long focus on priestly ministry will begin tomorrow, June 19.
Pope Benedict’s letter to the world’s priests marking the occasion was released by the Vatican June 18.
The Pope entrusted the Year for Priests to the Blessed Virgin Mary and asked her “to awaken in the heart of every priest a generous and renewed commitment to the ideal of complete self-oblation to Christ and the church.”
“Despite all the evil present in our world,” he said, Jesus’ victory over sin and death “gives us the strength to look to the future with confidence.”
The text of the pope’s letter in English is available online at: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/letters/2009/documents/hf_ben-xvi_let_20090616_anno-sacerdotale_en.html.
Concluding Note on this June Day in Rome
Reflecting on this day in Rome, I was reminded again of how simple are the blessings of this world. A visit with a son, a dinner, a few hours spent together…
And I recalled a passage I had once read in an early Christian author by the name of Minucius Felix, who lived at the end of the second century A.D, and wrote just after the year 200 A.D., according to most scholars. How far we are from those times, some 1,800 years, and yet, how close…
And as I thought back over the years, and of the many good times I experienced when my son was small, I remembered taking him with me to the oceanside near Ostia, and whirling him around until his toes just touched the water, and throwing seashells into the waves, and trying to make them skip, and how he laughed when they skipped two or three or four times over the surface of the water.
And this is the passage which I recalled, and found again, written in about the year 200 A.D.:
“With this discourse of his, we passed over the distance between the city (Rome) and the sea (Ostia, by way of the Tiber river), and we were now walking on the broad and open shore.
“There the gently rippling wave was smoothing the outside sands as if it would level them for a promenade; and as the sea is always restless, even when the winds are lulled, it came up on the shore, although not with waves crested and foaming, yet with waves crisped and cuffing.
“Just then we were excessively delighted at its vagaries, as on the very threshold of the water we were wetting the soles of our feet, and it now by turns approaching broke upon our feet, and now the wave retiring and retracing its course, sucked itself back into itself.
“And thus, slowly and quietly going along, we tracked the coast of the gently bending shore, beguiling the way with stories. These stories were related by Octavius, who was discoursing on navigation.
“But when we had occupied a sufficiently reasonable time of our walk with discourse, retracing the same way again, we trod the path with reverted footsteps.
“And when we came to that place where the little ships, drawn up on an oaken framework, were lying at rest supported above the (risk of) ground-rot, we saw some boys eagerly gesticulating as they played at throwing shells into the sea.
“This play is: To choose a shell from the shore, rubbed and made smooth by the tossing of the waves; to take hold of the shell in a horizontal position with the fingers; to whiff it along sloping and as low down as possible upon the waves, that when thrown it may either skim the back of the wave, or may swim as it glides along with a smooth impulse, or may spring up as it cleaves the top of the waves, and rise as if lifted up with repeated springs. That boy claimed to be conqueror whose shell both went out furthest, and leaped up most frequently.” —Minucius Felix, Octavius, Chapter 3
(The complete text may be found here: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/octavius.html).
And so as another Roman day draws to a close, my thoughts turn to the simple things of life, to children skipping shells by the seaside, and gazing up together at the ceiling of the Sistine chapel; to the journeys of sons, and to the joys, and sorrows, of mothers, and of fathers, as they watch their children grow…