Unwrapping Gifts | Postcards from Rome 2024

June 2, 2024
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Highlights from Week One: May 20-27

It is difficult to believe that our first week in Italy is behind us. From a swift departure from Chicago to a smooth landing in Florence, we were at the Florentine convent of the Elizabethan Sisters in no time. After two days in Florence, our road led south to Bracciano where we prayed and listened to the Lord in silence for 5 days. These are a few of my highlights:

5 – First Mass in Italy at San Miniato
At the close of what felt like a 40-45 hour day of travel, we attended Mass in a Romanesque church named in honor of Florence’s patron saint, San Miniato. We climbed the hill south of Florence to get to the Piazzale Michelangelo, where we were treated to a beautiful vista of the hub of Italian Renaissance Art and Architecture, Florence. After snapping some pics and resting our feet, we continued up the hill to the summit where stood a noble white and green marble church keeping watch over the same skyline we were gazing at. Once inside and adjusted to the darkness, we were given an introduction to the gravity and dignity that is typical to European churches, especially ones that are about a millennium old. An older Italian priest celebrated Mass for us and after listening to Vespers chanted by the Olivetan brothers, we headed back down the hill to our convent.

4 – First Italian Dinner
Following a brisk walk back to the convent after Mass on our first day, we were eager to try our first authentic Italian food and we were not disappointed. We were all seated at one long table in a relatively small restaurant and once the food started coming out, it just kept on coming. The fraternity building among us formed quickly as we reminisced about the adventures we had that day and the ones that awaited us over the next month.

3 – Florence Duomo Mass and Tour
The next day, we wasted no time is rising early and getting our bodies adjusted to the time zone we now abided by. We hurried out the door and walked to the old city centre where we attended Mass at the side altar of the Duomo (Cathedral) in Florence. Hearing just a couple dozen people sing the Kyrie in such a massive church made quite an acoustic impression. Our tour guide, Christina, then gave us a very in-depth tour of the interior and exterior of the mammoth cathedral. Personally, I most enjoyed the views from the outside of the cathedral which had the distinctive Tuscan marble masonwork.

2 – Convent of San Marco
Our larger group split up into smaller groups of seminarians who now explored Florence at their own leisure. A couple of us went to the Convent of San Marco which is famous for being the home of a majority of Fra Angelico’s artwork. Once a Dominican convent, this cloister now operates as a museum for visitors to enjoy the fresco’s and altarpieces that this artist composed, in situ. I loved our short visit to the convent because of the realism that was displayed by the placement of such works as, the imposing Last Supper in the refectory, the famous Annunciation at the top of the steps, and scenes from the Passion in the individual cells of the monks. Each executed with great detail and expressions, one can appreciate how for centuries, Dominican monks contemplated the life of Our Lord through this art.

1 – Villaggio Betania
To round off an exciting week of travel, we settled down in the sleepy laketown of Bracciano for a 5-day retreat before we left for the Eternal City. This retreat was engaged with so such attention and zeal by both the participants and the formators, that it made quite an impression on me. We were hosted by the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia (based out of Nashville, TN) who gave us a gracious show of Southern hospitality during our stay. With an intense daily regimen of prayer and reflection, I had plenty of time to contemplate the spiritual themes that were presented to us. Although we did not speak to each other for five days, I could feel the camaraderie building up between us as we sought after the Lord together and shared each other’s company at table and chapel. The retreat was one big gift that I think many of us will be still unwrapping in the days and weeks ahead.

Joseph Allaire
Archdiocese of Cincinnati