O God, come to our aid. O Lord, make haste to help us…
—The opening prayer of Vespers today
The Lord is our refuge and our strength, a true help in our troubles. Therefore we do not fear…
—Psalm 45, chanted at vespers this evening
I write this from Norcia, Italy, a splendid little walled city tucked in under the Apennine mountains in central Italy, where grow the famous lentils of Castelluccio. I believe it is one of the most peaceful spots in the world, not least because of the prayers that rise here daily from a group of about 20 young monks, who chant their petitions in the ancient language of the Church, Latin.
Here Father Cassian Folsom, an American, has, since 2000, guided a renewed Benedictine monastery (the original one was closed under the Napoleonic laws in 1810, so it was empty for 190 years).
Norcia in the birthplace of St. Benedict, the Patron of Europe. Yesterday I was in Assisi, where St. Francis was born, lived, and died. The two saints gave their names to our two most recent Popes, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and our reigning Pope, Francis.
As you know, we have been helping to organize one of the events during the five-day visit to Rome, which began this afternoon, of Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, head of the Department of External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow.
That event is a “Concert for Peace” in honor of Pope Francis, offered by the Russian Orthodox Church, with music sung by a young Russian opera star, Svetlana Kasyan, on Tuesday night at 9 pm in the Auditorium Conciliazione on via della Conciliazione #4, in Rome, a few steps from the Vatican.
Svetlana, who is Russian Orthodox, has said she admires Pope Francis greatly, and she has invited him to attend the concert. The concert, along with the other events associated with Metropolitan Hilarion’s visit — he will be received by Pope Francis on Monday — suggests that the pace of Catholic-Orthodox dialogue is quickening.
On the very same days, November 10-12, the Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, Angelo Scola, will be visiting Moscow, where he to will have a full schedule, including a meeting with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill. Scola was widely regarded as one of the leading candidates for the papacy at the last conclave, which elected Pope Francis.
Also in this context must be read the announcement two days ago by the Vatican that Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit Rome and be received by Pope Francis in about two weeks, on November 25.
This evening at Vespers in Norcia, knowing how complicated and unpredictable all human affairs may be, I offered a little prayer that these coming days provide some positive impetus for the cause of the unity of Christians, and for the cause of peace in the world.
And as I did so, this is how the monks prayed:
Christ is made the sure Foundation,
And the precious Corner-stone,
Who, the two-fold walls surmounting,
Binds them closely into one:
Holy Zion’s help for ever,
And her confidence alone.
All that dedicated city,
Dearly loved by God on high,
In exultant jubilation
Pours perpetual melody;
God the One, and God the Trinal,
To this Temple, where we call thee,
Come, O Lord of Hosts, today!
With thy wonted loving kindness
Hear thy people as they pray;
And thy fullest benediction
Shed within its walls for aye.
Here vouchsafe to all thy servants
What they supplicate to gain:
Here to have and hold for ever
Those good things their prayers obtain:
And hereafter in thy glory
With the blessed ones to reign.
Glory be to God, and honour
In the highest, as is meet,
To the Son and to the Father,
And the eternal Paraclete,
Whose is boundless praise and power
Through the ages infinite.