Taking the Scapular

A walk in the park and a visit to a special church

By Robert Moynihan, reporting from Rome

“This is the house of Peter, but they have made it into a museum. I think there should be more prayer.” —one of the ushers working in St. Peter’s Basilica

The Pope is tired

“There is one thing I can tell you,” the monsignor said to me. We were sitting in his office not far from the Pope’s own apartments. “It is sometimes tiring to be Pope…”

“I would imagine he would become tired,” I said. “I get tired just trying to follow all he is saying and doing, and I’m just watching. And in this heat…!”

“Yes, he is sometimes very tired, that I can confirm,” the monsignor replied, quite seriously.

“Vale, ti amo!”

This evening, as I walked up the via delle Mura Aurelie, then through the beautiful Doria Pamphili Park, I decided to take some pictures with my Iphone.

On the last turn on my way up, just before the top of the hill, I noticed these words spray-painted on the brick wall: “Vale, ti amo! Massi”

The words mean: “Valeria, I love you, Massimo”

Those words have been there for about a dozen years now.

I wonder sometimes how Valeria and Massimo are doing.

Well, I hope…

And I recall a poem that my mother wrote, when she was a teenager more than half a century ago.

She showed it to me when I was a boy, and said, “This is a poem that one a first prize in New England among all high school students.” And I suppose that is part of the reason why I thought perhaps I too might become a writer….

Her poem was in praise of young people, bold enough in their love to dare to write their names on a wall, just like Massimo and Valeria, wanting not just their friends but the whole world to know that they were alive, and in love, and not just for a moment, but forever, down the years and centuries, until, if it would be possible, the very end of time itself…

Among all the other news from Rome, this I thought worth reporting: “Massi” loves “Vale,” and has painted it on a wall for all the world to see…

The Lodge

At the top of the road, I turn to the right. In the distance I can see the entrance to the villa, but just before the entrance, on my right, is a rather forbidding gate with an arch over it, and the words “Il Vascello.”

It is the center of one main branch of Italian freemasonry.

I’ve been by it a thousand times, but I’ve never been inside.

However, I just discovered that there was an interesting lecture there last night, on the 4th of July, about a book of poems by Morris L. Ghezzi: Le lacrime di Hiram. Autobiografia incompleta di un Libero Muratore (The tears of Hiram. Incomplete Autobiography of a Free Mason), published in 2008 by the Jerrahi Halveti Sufi Brotherhood.

Now, I wondered, what does Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam, have to do with Freemasonry?

In fact, the poet, Ghezzi, has written a book about it: Sufism and Freemasonry, which he is also presenting in various places in Italy this summer.

At the July 4 gathering were present: The Honorary Grand Master Ghezzi (University of Milan), Gabriele Mandel (General Vicar for Italy of the Jerrahi-Halveti Sufi Brotherhood), Fakhraddin Gafarov (a concert artist who performed Sufi music pieces), Daniele Guizzo (Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Bologna and of Iranian Linguistics and History of the Persian Language at the University of Venice Ca’ Foscari), Bernardino Fioravanti (Chairman of the Library Service) and the Italaian Grand Master Gustavo Raffi.

Of course, there have been rumors over the years about the penetration of freemasonry into the Church, and even into the Vatican.

And now it seems that there is a considerable inter-change between freemasonry and Islam, in its mystical Sufi form. In a time of a global “war on terror” which in some way seems to pit the Islamic world against the secularized West, this seems somehow significant.

If I am ever going to shed more light any of these matters, I guess I will have to visit Il Vascello.

Is this a museum?

I visited St. Peter’s Basilica yesterday (Saturday) morning.

Crowds of tourists from every nation on earth were flooding in at the entrance and milling about.

In front of the statue of the Pieta, as many as 15 or 20 cameras were raised and pointed at the statue of Mary holding the dead body of her son, each straining forward to capture the image and bear it away with them.

A low murmur of many languages filled the great hall. I heard bits of Japanese, Italian, English, German, Russian, Spanish, and other languages as well.

I struck up a conversation with Pietro, one of the Vatican guards.

“What do you think of all this?” I asked him.

“I don’t like it,” he said. “This is not a museum. It is a church.

“This is the house of Peter, but they have made it into a museum. I think there should be more prayer. I think this back part of the basilica should be open to everyone, but the front part should be closed off and open only for those who come here to pray. After all, it is about Him, about Christ. He died for us, for you and for me… Does anyone here even know that?”

He gestured at the crowds. Two young women were leaning back, their camera at arm’s length in front of them, trying to take a picture of themselves against the backdrop of the long nave.

We stood in front of the Pieta. “And what do you think of this?” I asked.

“Ah!,” he said. “Sublime. It is simply a mother holding suffering in her arms.”

A little boy name John, an American from Connecticut, 8 years old, with his parents and two older sisters, was looking at the Pieta. I asked him what he thought of the sculpture.

“I love it,” he said, excitedly, smiling and moving his arm in a circle, indicating the entire basilica. “I love the statue because it looks so real. The folds of the dress look almost like they are moving, because of all the wrinkles. It’s just great.” He pointed upward. “I love the shafts of light which come streaming down from the windows.”

I looked up. Suddenly I saw what he was referring to. There were two powerful beams of light flooding down from the windows above. I hadn’t noticed them. I had been looking down, not up…

“We all like it very much,” his father, Tom, said. “It really is a wonderful museum. Are there local people who are relying on it as a church too?”

“No, Tom, I think it is closed on Sundays,” his wife corrected him. “Isn’t it?” she asked me.

The Doria Pamphili park

Once past Il Vascello and into the park, I could get moving at a swift pace. But I hadn’t gone far before I was interrupted by a familiar voice.

“Hello, Robert,” the powerfully-built American said.

It was Cardinal John Foley, walking with his secretary. Foley was the head of the Vatican media office for many years, and the Pope has now named him the Grand Master of the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher. This means he is in charge of the church in Jerusalem built over Golgotha, the hill where Jesus was crucified, and over the tomb where he was buried, and from whence the stone was rolled away.

I chatted with the cardinal for a moment, about old matters and future plans, then we went our separate ways.

I noticed that the blackberries are swelling now, and just beginning to turn red (photo). They won’t be ripe for another couple of weeks.

I remembered walking in the park with Christopher, my son, when he was a boy, and it seemed strange to me that he will be 20 this month.

The 20 years have passed like a whisper, though there were a few difficult moments which seemed at the time to last much too long.

I have always tried to live near the park, and I think every town should have a park.

We were not meant to spend our lives surrounded by cement and steel — we were meant to walk in fields and under the canopy of trees.

I don’t need to argue the point. Here is a picture that I think ends the argument. It shows the double-line of umbrella pines along the end of the path in the first part of the park.

It looks to me like it is a painting from 200 years ago, but I took it with my Iphone this evening.

Walking through those trees, which haven’t changed in 25 years, always seems to bring a certain calm…

The Pauline Chapel Again — The Transfiguration

Pope Benedict is 82, but he is working almost around the clock, day after day.

Starting July 13, he will take a month-long vacation in northern Italy — where he, too, will have a chance to walk on mountain paths in the fresh air.

But before his departure, he still has the signing and publication of his long-awaited social encyclical, and then the meeting with US President Barack Obama on July 10 at about 5 p.m.

Yesterday evening, Pope Benedict went to the newly-cleaned Pauline Chapel and celebrated Vespers. This is what he said about the Michelangelo frescoes of The Crucifixion of St. Peter and the Conversion of St. Paul.

The frescoes of Peter (here) and Paul (below)are like “two acts of a single drama,” Benedict said — a drama which lies at the center of the faith, that pascal mystery where “cross and resurrection, death and life, sin and grace” find themselves face to face, and from which finally emerges the design of the salvation accomplished by Christ.

As the Pope meditated on the two frescoes, he came up with this interpretation: “Peter and Paul stand opposite each other, and one could even think that Peter’s face is turned precisely toward the face of Paul, who, in turn, cannot see anything, but bears within himself the light of the risen Christ. This is therefore how the two icons can become two acts in a single drama: the drama of the pascal mystery, Cross and Resurrection, death and life, sin and grace.”

Even if the chronological order of events was reversed (since Paul’s conversion was long before Peter’s crucifixion), the Pope went on, “the design of salvation emerges, that design that Christ himself accomplished, bringing it himself to fulfillment.”

Thus, “for those who come to pray in this chapel, and above all for the Pope himself, Peter and Paul become masters of faith. With their testimony, they invite us to go very deep, to meditate in silence on the mystery of the Cross, which accompanies the Church until the end of time, and to receive the light of faith, thanks to which the Apostolic community can extend up to the ends of the earth the missionary and evangelizing action that the risen Christ entrusted to her.”

The Pope continued, referring to the fact that the Pauline Chapel is not a public chapel but will be reserved to the Pope and his closest friends and advisors, the Pontifical Household: “Here there will not be any solemn ceremonies with the people; here the Successor of Peter and his collaborators will meditate in silence and adore the living Christ” in the Eucharist.”

This is the same Christ (photo), he said, whom “Peter, James and John contemplated prior to Christ’s death on the mountain of the mysterious event of the Transfiguration, which the great painting of Simone Cantarini represents also in this chapel with singular power.”


A challenge and a danger

A man with whom I had lunch yesterday has served in the Vatican for a long time. He is a man who loves the faith, but he fears the faith has been under serious attack from without, and from within, with many losses, which grieves him, and sometimes angers him…

He tries to keep his sense of humor, but even his jokes about the Church and the Vatican bear witness to his sense of loss. (I was going to put one of the jokes in here, but then decided against it.)

There is always a challenge, and a danger, when human beings handle sacred things.

They can treat them too seriously, and become rigorist, even mean-spirited, even filled with anger and hatred — which is the opposite of the peace and serentiy and long-suffering and humility which are the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

But they can also treat them too lightly, superficially, even mockingly — and this, too, is a shame.

“Spiritual power is real,” my friend said. “The power over consciences, for example. This is an awesome power. It is the power to orient the lives of people, even of entire nations.

“If used wisely and humbly, it can be a wonderful help to others, and to humanity, but if used unwisely, if used with pride and egoism, it can be a terrible thing. People can suffer more horribly due to matters of conscience than due to a physical ailment…”

“Is that where the angels and demons are?” I asked.

“Yes, exactly,” my friend said. “Fortunately, during all the years you have been in Rome, you have never understood anything. But this has been your good fortune. You have never understood anything, and that has saved you.”

His words were “ha salvato la tua vita” — “has saved your life” — but I think he was speaking metaphorically.

The Bones of St. Paul…

Antoine-Marie Izoard, a French journalist with the I.Media news agency in Rome — and a good Catholic — is perplexed.

At a press conference in the Vatican on Friday morning, July 3, Cardinal Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo, archpriest of the papal basilica of St. Paul’s Outside-the-Walls in Rome, contradicted a news report that Izoard wrote more than a year ago about what was found in the tomb of the Apostle Paul when it was investigated two years ago, on May 12, 2007.

Izoard, relying on what he tells me are reliable sources, wrote that the investigators had found a human femur (thigh bone) inside the tomb — perhaps the thighbone of St. Paul himself.

But the official report given to the press Friday by the cardinal makes no mention of the bone whatsoever, saying that only “microscopic fragments” were found, and the cardinal has suggested that any reports to the contrary are just “fables.”

It’s a mystery, and Izoard says he is perplexed by it all…

Maimonides and Writing in a Time of Persecution

A seemingly irrelevant but actually rather important digression…

Some years ago, while studying the intellectual history of the middle ages, I came across the writings of the great Jewish theologian and philosopher, Moses Maimonides (photo).

Maimonides was born in Cordoba, Spain in 1135 and died in Egypt in 1204. He was one of the greatest Torah scholars of all time. With the contemporary Muslim sage Averroes, he promoted and developed the philosophical tradition of Aristotle. Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas were notable Western readers of Maimonides. Today, his works and his views are considered a cornerstone of Jewish thought and study. His greatest work was A Guide for the Perplexed.

But the most interesting thing about Maimonides came to my attention when I read a commentary on him by Leo Strauss.

Strauss (1899-1973) was born in Germany, but left Germany in the 1930s and came to America where he had a long career as a professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

In 1952, Strauss published Persecution and the Art of Writing. I that book, he argued that some philosophers write “esoterically” (in a veiled or hidden way) in order to avoid persecution by political or religious authorities. Strauss believed that Maimonides wrote on two levels: a superficial level, and a true, deeper level which only a very few would even guess was there.

But strangely, reading Strauss, I found little contradictions and seeming mistakes in Strauss’s own text. This left me with a question: was Strauss really serious when he wrote that great philosophers hid their true thoughts in their writings, and revealing them to a few by a hidden code, or was he just having fun?

Later, the Straussians and neo-Straussians became very prominent in American political life, especially in the past 10 years or so, and this also has been a puzzle to me. Why was Strauss so important?

For more on this point, see an article which contains many assertions which I might not agree with, but which does provide information about the Straussian viewpoint, at least as it is understood by its critics: https://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article5010.htm


The Brown Scapular

I felt this afternoon that I needed additional spiritual protection — let’s say, an insurance policy — so I went to the church of Santa Maria in Traspontina, on the via della Conciliazione.

I have worn a scapular, which is a bit of brown wool with an image of the Madonna and child on one end and an image of the sacred heart of Jesus on the other, at different times in the past, but often I have lost it, and not found it again for some time.

So I went to the back of the church and asked Father Peter-Thomas to give me a scapular, and agreed.

There, in the early evening gloom of the sacristy, he said a blessing, and inducted me once again into the order of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel.

By wearing a scapular, according to ancient pious tradition, a person who dies has a special protection against demons, or the devil, who would happily destroy his soul, and take it away at life’s end…

According to traditional accounts, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to St. Simon Stock at Cambridge, England, on Sunday, 16 July, 1251.

In answer to his appeal for help for his oppressed order, she appeared to him with a scapular in her hand and said: “Take, beloved son this scapular of thy order as a badge of my confraternity and for thee and all Carmelites a special sign of grace; whoever dies in this garment, will not suffer everlasting fire. It is the sign of salvation, a safeguard in dangers, a pledge of peace and of the covenant.”

One of the side chapels is dedicated to St Knud of Denmark (Canute), the Danish king who was martyred in St Albani Church, Odense, Denmark on July 10, 1086.

The middle chapel on the left side is dedicated to the Apostles Peter and Paul. Two columns preserved here are said to be the ones the Apostles were chained to when they were flogged before their executions. The altarpiece depicts these events.

I paused for a moment by that chapel, and thought of Peter and Paul being whipped for the witness they bore to the crucified carpenter who conquered man’s final enemy, death itself.

(Visitors to Rome may visit Santa Maria in Traspontina and receive their own brown scapular: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Maria_in_Traspontina)

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