Thursday, January 10, 2013


I will be heading away for some private down time—to Assisi and Rome.  Yes, I’ve been there before (over 40 times to Assisi, for instance).  Why am I going again?  For that matter, why do I go at all?
For me, it’s a chance to have a breather from the sturm und drang of ministry—a chance to re-charge.  But why do I go to those places in particular?  I cannot answer without being more specific:  the churches of San Damiano in Assisi, and Sant’ Agostino, San Paolo fuori le Mura, and Il Gesù in Rome.  And I must also observe that it’s why I return to Chicago every summer—yes, to visit friends and family there, but my Job #1 is a section of Resurrection Cemetery in the suburb of Worth.  It’s all about prayer and connectivity.

My Dad always loved the Jesuits, and it was his encouragement that got me to St Ignatius HS.  Of course, he loved Notre Dame too, and it was his encouragement that got me there, but that’s a different story.  I remember him and myself together when I pray the Rosary in Il Gesù—the final resting place of St Ignatius Loyola and of (a part of, anyway) St Francis Xavier.  And I remember being in that church for the incredible Mass commemorating the 30 day anniversary of the martyrdom of the Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador in 1989.  I’m impressed by nothing in that church so much as the associations of family, witness and prayer.  And so I go back.]

That leads me to St Paul’s.  For whatever reason, in 1989, when I’d returned to seminary, my Dad who had died in 1986 was heavy on my mind, and so I went to this church to pray for him on his birthday.  Two things are true that will stay with me forever:  I prayed the Rosary for him in the Eucharistic chapel which was where Ignatius and his early companions spent a night in vigil, after which they took the vows that formed them into the original Jesuits.  But I had an epiphany that day at that church with a Gypsy woman.  She was begging, using her baby and toddler as “props.”  She asked of me, and I told her I’d see when I came back out.  And leaving the church after my Rosary for him, I wondered what my Dad might do, or want me to do.  So I sat down and talked with the Gypsy.  She was a beggar (a professional one), but she was not a thief.  And the children were charming.  I talked with her, talked with the little one, held the baby, and gave her some money, and she was thankful—and I’d touched the face of God.  And so I go back.

My Mom died in 2005, but she lamented over her kids enough to mimic St Monica, the Mother of the famous sinner-turned-bishop/theologian, St Augustine.  And her remains (transferred from a church in Ostia, outside Rome) are in a chapel near the high altar, to the left.  And for Mom I also pray a Rosary there.  Part of the original tombstone from Ostia is on that wall, as well as her sarcophagus.  I miss her as well (we’re truly orphans when both parents die, no matter how old we are).  And so I go back.
San Damiano is my own personal connection from the very first time I set foot in there, in 1983.  I was overcome with the prayerfulness of the place, and when I had the chance I would stay for Evening Prayer with the friars—a spiritual experience not to be missed.  It enriches me for its simplicity and beauty (like the Evening Prayer I used to enjoy with the Communità di Sant’ Egidio).  And so I go back.

The cemetery is where my Father and Mother and baby brother are buried.  I trim around the headstones, place roses, and I sit in my portable chair and pray the Rosary for them.  It’s what I do, who I am thanks to them, and I will continue to hold on.
Why do I go back?  How could I not?  We are a sacramental people, after all, and we instinctively understand the power and importance of things and place.  Are my prayers “better” in those places?  No—but they strengthen me more for their association, and that’s reason enough to return.

There are many churches that I love in these two places, churches that I have not mentioned in this context:  San Francesco and Santa Chiara in Assisi; St Peter’s, St Mary Major, St Prassede, St Sabina, and more in Rome (all of which have their own power over me, but different).  They are wonderful, but (no, not even St Peter’s) essential to my spiritual reality.  I’ll visit the others, to be sure, but don’t have to, not in the same way that I have to pray in those other churches.

And so I go back--of course I do.  Where do you go?