Rome, Santa Maria Maggiore --
Europe’ first country to be dramatically hit with the Cronavirus was Italy which went into lockdown early-March. People could not leave their regions separating families – or even their homes. In Rome, like other parts of Italy, movement was only possible with a self-declaration form justifying reasons for going outdoors. Medicine, groceries, walking a dog were permitted. Government emergency acts meant Churches cancelled liturgical services and shockingly even the city of Rome fell into dead silence. As the world watched Italy from their screens, a mysterious virus would spread across soon implementing Italy’s lockdown laws.
On Friday March 27th, Pope Francis addressed the world from Rome, and held Eucharistic Adoration at St. Peter’s under the portico facing an empty rainy square. The surreal image was experienced for those who prayed with the Pope live-stream.
What about the Sacraments in the eternal city? Interdictions came from the Italian government with State of Emergency measures beginning in March. The closure of Churches which was determined by Bishops was controversial. When Cardinal Angelo De Donatis the Cardinal Vicar of Rome executed the order to close all of Rome’s Churches, Catholics reacted bitterly to the Cardinal's decision on social media -- a city not only with parishes, but shrines, monasteries, and religious institutes. Papal intervention offered hope some Churches would remain open, unlike the De Donatis decree where all Churches were to be closed.
Roma, July 10, 2020
I accompanied a fellow Dominican to the “Fatebenefratelli” hospital; it was my first experience at a Roman Catholic hospital in Rome. After the Covid fever scan at the hospital entrance, and the hand disinfectant procedures, the Dominican Brother I was accompanying withdrew to the doctor’s office.
I had a chance to explore the beautiful hospital in its spiritual setting, a health facility in a monastic environment. This well-known hospital in Rome is run by the Order of Hospitallers founded by St. John of God. The Order was originally established to care for the poor and infirm in the mid-1500s. The Roman hospital preserved the original monastic structure of the Order.
This historical preservation of ancient buildings whether the Classical, Medieaval, Renaissance or Baroque periods, is regulated by Italy’s Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities; old buildings or statues are not taken down, but preserved and restored.
Father Tuomas is a Finn and an ordained priest in the Roman Catholic Church. Father David Bellusci, a Dominican and friend of Father Tuomas, is unable to attend Father Tuomas's Ordination, but he travels to Finland to receive Father Tuomas's priestly blessing, and he interviews Father Tuomas on his faith journey to Catholicism and the Priesthood.
Ross River, December 25, 2019
The drive across the Yukon -- stretches of snow, tall trees fence the road, winding bends – point to Ross River Nation. I am with a seminarian from Toronto -- from Croatia -- accompanying me to serve solemn Mass… Christmas day.
The morning is still dark at 10am. The sun begins to break through clouds directly overhead. Our destination hidden somewhere behind the white hills, frozen lakes, and Pelly River. Daylight dispels morning darkness. Visibility. I identify fir and hemlock and pine.
Gas station, general store, the mission Church appears at a distance. Logs hold the sacred space, House of God, together. We are in Ross River Dene Nation. Jean-Claude sets the furnace toasty warm; a welcome from the freezing eastern Yukon cold. Mirko, the seminarian, prepares the incense and indicates the pages for the Roman Canon.
I meet members of the community; Dillan and his son, Theodore. Then, Irene, Jean-Claude’s wife, introduces me to Maggy, Theodore’s great-grandmother. Maggy transmitted her Catholic faith to the family, something of a matriarch. Gregg and Pamela sit in prayer, having driven from Faro to join us for the Christmas celebration.
In the sanctuary hangs a picture of St. Katheri Tekakwitha. Dillan holds his son, Theodore, sitting in the front of the Church directly in my line of vision. The three-year-old remains attentive throughout the entire liturgy: incense, homily, bells Consecration, capture the little boy’s attention -- and he comes up for a blessing.
One Faith, one Baptism (Dillan told me Theodore was baptised), one Spirit, one Body, adhering to the Catholic Church professing the same Gospel for two thousands; the Word that transforms our lives – the Word made flesh that saves us.
Together at the centre of Ross River, like the angels and shepherds, we worshipped our Saviour, the Christ Child.
Rome, August 8, 2019
Feast of St. Dominic.
At the Piazza of San Martino ai Monti where the medieval Capocci tower stands, beyond the tower is the monastery of the cloistered Dominican nuns of the Annunciation. The nuns moved to the San Martino location in the 1930s when Mussolini’s government acquired the Alessandrino district for excavation purposes and the construction of the Via dei Fori Imperiali. At the earlier location, a mural of the Annunciation remains visible on ‘Tor dei Conti.
A painting inside the sanctuary depicts Pope Pius V, a Dominican Saint associated with the Council of Trent, inviting another foundation of Dominican nuns to Rome September 7, 1562. In fact, the same Saint also called the Dominican Fathers to be Confessors at Santa Maria Maggiore and who remain the Confessors of the Papal Basilica to this day. The Counter-Reformation pontiff, St. Pius V, strengthened Rome’s spiritual life with the Dominican presence.
The nuns remain cloistered so that the monastic enclosure separates the nuns from the sanctuary with a grille -- only during Mass the gate is opened so the nuns can receive the Body and Blood of Christ from the Priest at Communion time.
Naantali, July 17, 2019
The religious expression of Catholicism means that a person is called to flourish in their vocation, whether it’s married life, religious life, or the priesthood. And in each of these vocations, the person is called to live their full spiritual potential -- the perfection for which God has created them: holiness. Monastic life has flourished as centres of learning and sanctification. One such Order was founded by the Bridget of Sweden who founded the Order of the Most Holy Saviour also known as the Bridgettines in 1344. The Bridgettines received their approval by Pope Urban V in 1370. The Order flourished of monks and nuns attached to the same Abbess sharing monastic grounds separated by their cloisters. The Abbess elected by the nuns and monks governed the monastery. These abbesses were well-educated women and had the gift of courage to lead and govern. Bridgettine spirituality was embraced by the local people and penetrated their lives placing Christ at the center following the visions of Bridget. Monasteries opened across the Nordic countries and in her own lifetime Bridget was known for her communion with God; pilgrims visited her for prayers, intercession, guidance.
The Lutheran reformers, instead, viewed these independent monasteries as incompatible with the narrow reformist doctrines, but also as an opportunity to acquire significant monastic assets. Instructed by Genesis (1:28), and Luther’s De Votis Monasticis “On Monastic Vows,” the Lutheran reformers argued the woman’s God-given duty was to marry and bear children, supporting Luther’s position on the uselessness of religious life. With Lutheran teaching dominating the Swedish reformers who imposed themselves on devout Roman Catholics, Swedish or Finn, the Reformers were determined to bring an end to monastic life.
Turku, July 18, 2019
Given the late Swedish creation of Helsinki (1550), the presence of the Catholic Church in Helsinki certainly does not have the history that the Catholic faith expressed in Finland’s city of Turku. The beautiful city of Turku with the Aura river flowing through reveals signs of its medieval and Roman Catholic past – and present. Turku, its Finnish name is also known by its Swedish name, Åbo.
Looking at the flag of Turku immediately present is the AM – Ave Maria -- on a blue background with the lily on four sides. The flag dates back to 1309 reflecting the earlier consecration of the cathedral to the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1300. The Cathedral of Medieval Turku was placed under the patronage of the Virgin and St. Henry, patron of Finland. These two elements, flag and Cathedral are indicative of a Roman Catholic town already settled and flourishing in the Middle Ages. The Dominican Order having arrived in Finlandia in 1249 established themselves in their new convent of St. Olaf in Turku close to the newly consecrated Cathedral. Turku was elevated to the status of Archdiocese and recognised as the most important Church in Finland. Blessed Bishop Hemming’s relics were located in the altar of the Roman Catholic Cathedral. Bishop Hemming of Turku knew Pope Clement VI and was also friends with St. Bridget of Sweden. The town’s Marian flag, the cathedral under the patronage of the Blessed Virgin and St. Henry, the Archbishop’s cathedral chair, demonstrate Turku’s solid link with the Church of Rome.
Helsinski, July 15, 2019
My visit to Finland was motivated by a Finnish friend of mine who had boldly left his Lutheran past to become a Roman Catholic. But not only did Tuomas embrace Catholicism, he was recently ordained as a Roman Catholic Priest. And so my visit to Finland, was to receive the priestly blessing of this courageous friend.
Helsinki, or Swedish, Helsingfors, was created during Swedish control of Finland and later taken over by Russia until the Finns succeeded in claiming their independence from Russia during the period of the Communist revolution of 1917.
Visiting Fr. Tuomas, I also discovered Catholic Finland. My arrival in Helsinki could not ignore two magnificent Churches, the Russian Orthodox which reflected the prominence of Russia and its russification policies and its Orthodox presence; then, the opulent Lutheran Church shaping the Helsinki skyline with twelve statues of Apostles financed through Finland’s taxation system privileging the Lutheran Church.
Could Petra have been a stopping point of the wise men following the star that would lead them to Bethlehem? It’s certainly probable. If we consider the geographic position, and commercial centre of Petra around the beginning of the Christian era, we have good reason to believe the Wise Men at least sojourned in Petra – perhaps even bought their gifts there. With the Nabateans, nomadic Arabs who monopolised the merchant trade route, Petra flourished in the 1st century BC, especially in the spice trade.
The Nabatean inhabitants were especially skillful in collecting rainwater a precious commodity in the desert not only for human consumption but also to provide camels with plenty of drinking water for their long journeys across the dessert. It was in 106 AD that the Nabateans were defeated by the Romans and became part of the Roman Province of Arabia. So when did the Wise Men appear? Petra connects African and Arabian trade routes and even the northern route extending to Syria. Petra connects the Arabian trade route to the east as the Wise Men coming from the east followed the star west.
The Wise Men are all from the east, Balthasar from Arabia with frankincense, Melchior from Persia with Myrrh, and Gaspar from India with Gold. They may have brought these gifts from the homeland, or with all the commerce in Petra, they may have obtained their gifts right in Petra. So, on this eastern axis they moved west. It makes sense to refuel in Petra whether an abundance of water filled the camels with liters of energy. A sophisticated town with inns for travellers, food, and that most important desert commodity: water. Then, of course, in the center of commerce, the Wise Men had the opportunity to explore and compare, Frankincense, Myrrh and Gold, as they returned to the path of their bright star leading the way north.
Mount Nebo, June 18, 2019
Standing on Mt. Nebo, overlooking the Plains of Canaan, it’s hard to imagine how Moses could have reached so close to the Promise Land, to observe from the Mountain what had been promised him -- and the Israelites. But Moses does not move beyond Mt. Nebo – he could only again stretch out his arm, but this time to designate the land to which God had directed him and the tribes of Israel. Moses died without setting foot in the land of Canaan (Deut. 34:6).
Mt. Nebo represents one of the most powerful biblical stories of freedom, regret, incertitude, disappointment. To experience a lifetime journey, an arduous trek through the desert, to reach one’s destination, led by God, and to die before even experiencing the reward of years of sacrifice and fidelity, how so very human! Moses’ story is the story of those who follow God. Moses like Jesus after him acts in conformity to His divine will; the fundamental difference between the Old and New Covenantis that we place ourselves before God and His Mercy, thanks to His Son Jesus Christ. Jesus stands for us – He stands in our place.
Jordan reflects the desert journey, years of wandering, the call to trust and hope. And God leaves us with leaders who are chosen to carry out His will – for us. This has been the role of the prophets, Jesus Christ as mediator, and the priest who mediates in persona Christi.
The Church dedicated to Moses reminds the pilgrim travelling through Jordan, Moses walked these hills. A Byzantine Church from the 4th century along with a monastery, serves to commemorate the life, mission and death of Moses. The mosaic covered floor remains.
Honouring God’s prophet who saves the slaves from drowning in the Red Sea, Moses points to someone far greater, the Son of God, who saves us from sin, by offering his Blood. And the Promised land is more than Canaan; the land Christ promises us is Paradise.
Fr. David Bellusci, O.P.
List by Titles
Martyrs of Jordan