The walled town of Lucca is not far from Rome. A three hour train journey from Rome takes you into Pisa where a transfer is made to a train going to Lucca, a short thirty-minute ride. The train runs across the Arno River. This is the Tuscany region of Italy, well-known for its Chianti wines and beautiful medieval Churches. Pisa, Siena, Florence, and Lucca are all situated in Tuscany. St. Gemma’s relics are found here, outside of the walled city not far from the railway station.
Gemma Galgani was born in 1878. The experience of trauma and death go back to Gemma’s childhood experience of her mother dying; she was seven years old when her mother Aurelia had died. Gemma was attached to her mother, and Gemma knew and felt her mother’s love being the eldest daughter. Gemma’s spiritual life was abruptly marked by the death of those whom she loved and strengthened her spiritually. When Gemma was sixteen years old she dealt with another death: that of her brother, Gino, a seminarian, only a few years older than her, barely eighteen years old. The death of her brother had a traumatic impact on Gemma because he was her brother and because of her spiritual affinity with Gino. She asked her father if she could discontinue her studies until she recovered from Gino’s death.
When Gemma was nineteen years old, her father Enrico died. The family was left with the father’s debits. Gemma and her siblings had no support whatsoever; they were left in the street when their home and the father’s pharmacy had been sequestered by authorities. Gemma was left to bring comfort to her brothers, sisters, and aunts. To support the family Gemma worked in a sewing school.
Gemma and her siblings moved to their paternal aunt’s home; during this time Gemma refused a series of marriage proposals responding that she had offered herself entirely to Jesus. On December 8, 1897, Gemma pronounced the Vow of Virginity.
In the early months of 1898 when Gemma was 20 years old, she experienced increased sufferings from an abscess in the lower back, ear infection, brain tumour, and paralysis of lower limbs. Gemma was miraculously healed by the intercession of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. Gemma received several locutions and apparitions of the Passionist, St. Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows who called Gemma, “my sister.” The young St. Gabriel was made known to Gemma by the writings of the Father, Germano Ruoppolo.
FIRST: Visit a Marian shrine and pray before the Virgin Mary for her continued intercession; that Mary, the Mother of Our Saviour, will deepen your Communion with her Son, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Rome’s well-known Marian shrines Santa Maria Maggiore, La Madonna del Divino Amore, Santa Maria in Trastevere, Santa Maria del Popolo (Augustinians), la Madonna del Carmine (Carmelites) are waiting for you.
SECOND: Confess your sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation at one of the four major basilicas, Saint John Lateran (Franciscan confessors), Saint Paul outside the Walls (Benedictine confessors), Saint Peter Basilica (Franciscan confessors). Santa Maria Maggiore (Dominican confessors) is the closest to Rome’s Termini train station, a 5-10 minute walk. Ask about the conditions to receive a plenary indulgence. Dominicans have been confessors at Santa Maria Maggiore since the 16th century at the invitation of the Dominican Pope, St. Pope Pius V (1504-1572). Go to your preferred confessor and experience the your renewed spiritual state in the company of Roman martyrs and Saints.
Our Lady of the Snows. Saint Mary Major. Salus Populi Romani, “Salvation of the Roman people,” all point to the same solemnity in Rome celebrated August 5th. Yes, Our Lady of the Snows in August – in Rome!
The history of the basilica has its origins in the 4th century. A wealthy Roman Christian couple, Giovanni and his wife, wanted to offer their possessions to the Virgin Mary by dedicating a Church to her. In a dream one evening, between August 4-5 they couple dreamed the Virgin Mary would notify him where it was to be built.
They visited Pope Liberius to given an account of their intentions and the dream; the Pope had a similar dream. by the name of Giovanni and his The Virgin Mary appeared to Pope Liberius (342-346) and they went to the site indicated by the Virgin Mary: the Esquiline Hill. Upon arriving, the hill was covered in snow.
And so, in the month of August snow on the Esquiline Hill; a sign from Mary. And so, the Church was dedicated to Saint Mary of the Snows, Sanctae Maria ad Nives. Planning and design of the basilica as the pilgrim experiences today was under the pontificate of Pope Sixtus III (432-440) – or even projected under Pope Celestine I (422-32). The basilica as early as the 4th century reflects the view of Rome as being the centre of the Christian world which can be traced to the presence and martyrdom of the early Apostles, Peter and Paul.
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.
Fr. David Bellusci, O.P.
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