Feb. 22, 2013
The Year of Two Popes
A 'Predictable' Journey to Rome Takes an 'Unpredictable' Turn
|Entrance to the St. John’s University campus in Rome, where Monsignor Irwin is teaching this semester.|
An uneventful flight. That is all you can really hope for in international flying these days. Gratefully US Air 718 from Philadelphia to Rome on New Year’s night 2013 was “uneventful.” Having taken the flight several times I could predict it all. The boarding routine is predictable, the amenities in flight predictable, the movie and television diversions predictable, the food and drink predictable and the time for darkening the shutters in the cabin and allowing light in the next morning equally predictable.
I mused during the flight that this was going to be a very different academic semester for me. Having taught at The Catholic University of America since 1985 and served as dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies from 2005 to 2011, I was leaving Washington for Rome for four months. I thought to myself, this will be unpredictable. I had lived in Rome for six years from 1974 to 1980, earning my doctorate and then on staff at the Pontifical North American College (NAC). It was during those years, 1978 to be exact, that the Church experienced “the year of the three Popes.” And I was on the NAC staff and was an eyewitness to many of those events. I mused about that as the pilot skillfully flew us across the Atlantic — for me one more time but this time, I thought, would be different. But I had no idea how different.
My teaching assignment was to teach two undergraduate courses — one on the Mass and the other on Christian Feasts, Seasons and Devotions. The students were juniors from CUA and Loyola College in Baltimore, in Rome for a jam-packed semester of courses, Italian lessons and travel. This would be an unpredictable experience for me as professor, priest, and elder statesman to these eager undergrads.
I also had two personal goals. One was to finish a manuscript on assessing the liturgical reforms of Vatican II, which I (audaciously!) entitled What We Have Done – What We Have Failed to Do. My academic specialization — the liturgy — has had a hard time of late, with mixed signals from Rome and the U.S. bishops about how to conduct the liturgy, not to mention the permission Pope Benedict XVI gave in 2007 to expand the use of the (Tridentine) Mass in Latin we used up to Vatican II. I wanted to offer a “discussion starter” in this book for pastoral ministers about ways forward in the liturgical reform. I did not ever want the book to be controversial, but these days, where two or three are gathered and discuss the liturgy, there are at least four opinions!
|A shop where our correspondent stops occasionally to buy a slice of pizza.|
My other personal goal was to welcome friends to Rome, to see the sights with them, and to show them (and my students) the Rome I love. The Rome that is itself predictable, not to say inexorable. Rome has a life of its own despite who the players are for some indeterminate period of time. There is a certain impermanence because of people like diplomats, those who work here for multinational corporations, and Vatican personnel who serve here for a while and then move on. But there is also a permanence in the hotel owners, shopkeepers, restaurant waiters, (and chefs) whom I have come to know over these 40 years (!).
I think the word “inexorable” is really more accurate. Rome exacts a certain conformity even as you want to be creative. It has gone on and will go on before any one of us comes and goes. Like Washington, D.C., (where I live), it is a town of movers and shakers. But what many forget is that eventually all the shakers move. Let me give an example. A week into my stay before classes started, I was walking by a Vatican apartment building near St. Peter’s which houses eight archbishops or cardinals and their domestic staffs. As I walked by, I noticed a large truck with eight Vatican workers in blue overalls and jackets. They had just finished loading a dining room suite onto the truck. Wooden table on its side, two cupboards covered with moving pads, and a dozen chairs with dark blue and gold damask covers. I thought to myself: Either someone has new furniture or someone is moving. The dining room furniture would be driven to a large Vatican warehouse to be in storage for the next hierarch with sufficient rank to ask that he borrow it for his apartment. Until the time he gets new furniture or moves. At which time the dining room suite will find its way back on a truck and to the Vatican warehouse. Movers and shakers indeed.
|Monsignor Irwin’s apartment building in the Prati section of Rome.|
Many have a “love-hate” relationship with Rome. It is inefficient, its bureaucracy stunningly inefficient. Many things simply do not work. But it is a city of relationships, people wanting to know you and you them, personally interested, hospitable to the core, eager to share what they have, all the while realizing that these are far more important than efficiency or obvious productivity. It is a town of gossip. It is that simple. “Have you heard,” “did you know,” “well I heard” and phrases such as these are heard regularly at coffee bars, restaurant tables, and in the shadows of major churches and minor basilicas.
But still I was looking forward to every minute, especially catching up with fellow professors at Roman universities and many friends (priests, bishops, and, yes, cardinals) in the Curia. What I did not realize — no one could have — was that six weeks later what I thought would be a predictable four months in Rome would become anything but. I was going to witness the transition from one papacy to another with the present Pope still alive. I would be here for the year of the two Popes!
US Air 718 was not “a bumpy ride.” Gratefully it was uneventful. I deplaned, retrieved my bags, got a ride to my rented apartment in the Prati section of Rome (halfway between St. Peter’s Square and the campus CUA shares with St. John’s University). I unpacked, showered, and walked to the tomb of St. Peter to say a prayer of thanksgiving for an uneventful flight and asking for an enriching four months here.
Little did I know.