East Meets West in Rome
Patrick Henry Reardon on an Ecumenical Experiment
Around noon, the cab dropped Denise and me at our hotel just off the northeast corner ofthe massive piazza fronting the monument of Victor Emmanuel. I shall never forget the bitter wind in the Eternal City that winter day in 1996. Even for the feast of Stephen, this was fearsome weather, worse than I had ever known in Rome during the winters I lived there in years gone by.
Denise was very tired, and understandably so, after a sleepless night during the transatlantic flight, preceded by a weary Christmas afternoon spent in the airports of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Indeed, we had missed that previous night’s sleep as well, because of the midnight Divine Liturgy, followed by the festive family activities of Christmas morning. Anyway, cold and exhausted, Denise did the sensible thing and headed right for bed.
My Cultural Center
Not I. We had not been to Italy in several years, and I wanted to get started right away. I had missed the place so very, very much. Rome has always been, yet remains, and to the end will be the cultural center in my world of reference, ever since that boyhood day when I picked up a book and ascertained the main thing, the caput rei, that every little boy and girl should learn early, namely, that “All of Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which the Belgians inhabit.” That book I bore in my pocket now, along with some others that Denise and I would read in situ over the next several days.
Bundled against the weather, then, in heavy jacket and cap, I went off alone for the next few hours. Skirting the Victor Emmanuel Monument, I walked southeast past the Mamertine Prison, sanctified centuries ago by the Apostle Peter. Resolving not to visit that holy place until Denise could be with me, I continued past the Forum and the Church of Sts. Cosmas and Damien, toward the Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine. I knew exactly where I wanted to make my first stop on this pilgrimage. Veering south again at the Arch, I passed between the Coelian and Palatine hills, marveling how the large and richly odiferous roses still adorned the latter in this bitter weather.
At the end of the little valley I turned west to face the large, oblong, empty field that lies between the Palatine and Aventine hills. This is the Circus Maximus, deeply soaked of old in the martyrs’ blood. From another pocket I extracted a New Testament and Psalter, and using these I spent the next half-hour pacing out the Way of the Cross on the hallowed soil. I kept my back to the bitter westerly wind that blew from over the nearby Tiber. This bleak field is the spiritual center of Rome, I think, along with the catacombs and the holy graves of Peter and Paul. (St. John Chrysostom speaks of those two apostolic tombs as the eyes of Rome looking out upon the whole world.)
The next stop on the pilgrimage lay close by. I walked back over to the Coelian Hill to pay my respects to the man chiefly responsible for the evangelization of Western Europe. As I rang the bell at the gate of the ancient monastery dedicated to the Apostle Andrew, I reflected lovingly on the Benedictine monks who, in 596, had exited this gate in order to bring the gospel to England and, in due course, to all of northwestern Europe. This old abbey was the home of the father of Western European civilization, St. Gregory the Great, who became pope of Rome in 590, determined to use the vast prestige and authority of that office for the spread of the gospel to the unconverted barbarian tribes to the north.
I expected my summons at the bell to be answered by a white-robed Camaldolese Benedictine hermit, for I knew that this monastery had long served as the generalate house of that order. To my considerable surprise, however, the gate was opened by a tall young man clad in a black ryassa and skufia, Byzantine monastic robe and headdress. My first thought was that there must have been a change since I was last there, and that the monastery was now staffed by Catholic Byzantine monks. Still, I gathered my wits and properly wished the young monk a cheery buon giorno, asking for permesso to come into the church and pay miei respetti to St. Gregory the Great.
No, he explained patiently, this request was totalmente impossibile because the church, vede, was siempre locked up during this ora di giorno, and I would just have to ritornare at another occasione if I wanted to entrare. He was sorry, he said, but that was simply the stato di cose and there was assolutamente niente he could do about it.
A Sacerdote Ortodosso
This, of course, was pretty much the answer I had anticipated, recognizing a hallmark “No” situation when I see one. I was ready for him, nonetheless.
Pregho, aspetti, I requested, while I pulled out, from yet a third pocket, an official letter of introduction from Metropolitan Philip, my archbishop, complete with the archdiocesan seal. While the young man perused the stately letter, composed in English, I finally recited the magic words that will usually open locked doors in Rome. I explained that I was a sacerdote ortodosso, and that I had come a very lontana distanza, d’America davvero, to be there.
The words sacerdote ortodosso, let me say, were the Open Sesame of the hour. Everything changed at once. Following the spirit of the last several popes, folks in Rome are very friendly to the Orthodox, and I was the latest beneficiary of the blessing. Ah padre, scusi, the monk said, certamente I could go in to preghiare in the chiesa and stay as long as I wanted. Telling him grazie mille and mentioning that he was tropo gentile, I walked down the cloister and entered again one of my favorite churches in the whole world.
I prostrated before the altar and then stood to reflect for some time, remembering that wise Father of the Church to whom all English-speaking people (and German-speaking, for that matter) owe a mighty debt beyond redemption. I thought of holy Gregory, who preached his sermons on Ezekiel and Job while civilization itself seemed to be crashing down around him.
I recalled that blessed author of those Dialogues whose delicate sense of cadence I admired even as a teenager (Fuit vir . . . gratia Benedictus et nomine, for instance). I remembered Gregory’s important years at the Byzantine court. I pondered how later, as pope, he held Rome together when no one else was able. I also reflected that the Lenten Presanctified Liturgy of the Orthodox Church, named for “St. Gregory the Dialogist,” was first celebrated in this place.
And finally, I thought on the men that Gregory sent to Canterbury at the end of the sixth century: Augustine, Laurence, Peter, and the rest. My mind traced once more the further missionary journeys of Anscar, Boniface, Willibald and his sister Walburga, and the other Englishmen who evangelized the European continent. I started singing the Trisagion with all my heart. I sang it in Greek and Latin, and then in Slavonic, thinking what a glorious place this was and what a fine start to our pilgrimage to Rome.
Preparing to leave, I expressed my gratitude once again to the young monk who had permitted me to enter the church, but he begged me to delay my departure for a moment further. He inquired whether I would like to return on Sunday and concelebrate the Divine Liturgy in the church. This truly took me aback, but I thanked him for the kindness of the thought, explaining that it is impossible for an Orthodox priest to concelebrate the Holy Eucharist with Roman Catholics.
Anch’io sono ortodosso, he responded, “I also am Orthodox.” Seeing my surprise at this news, he then explained to me that he belonged to a group of Orthodox monks who lived there at the monastery of St. Andrew along with the Camaldolese Benedictines, and that I would be welcomed to join the Orthodox monks for the Divine Liturgy the following Sunday. I could hardly believe my ears. I thanked him again, profusely this time, and walked away nearly in a daze. Such a prospect, to share the Holy Eucharist in this blessed place, was beyond my most extravagant fantasies about this trip to Rome.
Deeply moved, I decided to take the long way back to the hotel, mainly to let the idea sink in. I passed through the Circus Maximus once again, in order to walk along the other side of the Palatine Hill. There I came upon the Byzantine church of San Teodoro, a little treasure from the fourth century. I went in to pray in this tiny church, which is smaller than most chapels, to tell the truth. Although Greek-speaking Christians had worshiped in this building for hundreds of years (until a certain unpleasantness in the eleventh century), it did not appear to be much in use at this time. I knelt for a while in the damp darkness before the sixth-century mosaic that adorns the apse. It was growing dusk as I came out.
The Big Event
When I arrived back at the hotel, Denise was up from her nap, so we went out to supper at a little restaurant very near the Trevi Fountain. I told her where and under what circumstances we would be worshiping on the following Sunday. It made her, too, very happy. That night, in spite of having missed two whole nights’ sleep, I lay restless for ever so long, excited by the thought of the coming Sunday, nearly losing a third night of sleep.
During the rest of that week we continued our pilgrimage, praying and singing hymns in all four of Rome’s available catacombs, kneeling in veneration and reading passages from the New Testament at the tombs of Sts. Peter and Paul, reverently surveying once more the excavations under St. Clement’s, going to the Vatican Museum (especially to salute anew the Laocoön that intrigued my youth), reading passages from Cicero in the Forum and on the Campadoglio, reciting “Chapman’s Homer” at the grave of John Keats, visiting dozens of old and beautiful churches, and doing the other things that folks do in Rome.
The big event, however, was Sunday. We started out early that morning, walking in the yet bitter cold down to the Coelian Hill. When I rang the bell this time, we were greeted by a white-robed Camaldolese hermit, to whom we identified ourselves. Si, he said, Loro sono aspettati, and led us into the church. Now I observed something that had escaped my notice earlier. The north nave of the building had been partitioned off from the rest of the structure, and, on entering it, we found it transformed into a Byzantine chapel, complete with iconostasis. The Orthodox archimandrite who pastored the other monks greeted us. He suggested that we stay in the nave for matins and that I later come up behind the iconostasis for the Divine Liturgy. We knelt down and waited for matins to begin.
I had been supposing that these monks were Greeks, I don’t know why, and I was expecting all the services to be in Greek. To my mild surprise, however, matins began in what I took to be the most atrocious, abominable, and nearly incomprehensible Italian I had ever heard in my life. It took me several minutes to realize it was Romanian! Just one surprise after another, I guess. Although Romanian is pretty easy to read, I had never learned to speak it. Now what was I to do? As it turned out, my only priestly function in the Divine Liturgy that morning was to lead the usual litanies, which they encouraged me to do in Greek and Italian.
Denise and I were surprised at the size of the congregation, a hundred or more lay people, all singing in very robust and fervent Romanian. Indeed, in the final hymn there was even handclapping. We loved it. It was one of the most enthusiastic Orthodox services we have seen. These people, Romanian immigrants and workers living in Italy, certainly breathed a zeal for the faith.
Afterwards the monks took us to a commons room to drink coffee and munch on Romanian pastries with several of the lay people. It was a grand time. Some of the folks spoke only Romanian. The Romanian was translated by the monks into Italian, whence I translated it into English for Denise. With three languages at our disposal, we got along fine.
Denise and I learned that this ecumenical monastic experiment came from the joint efforts of Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Theoctistos of Romania, to provide pastoral care for the Romanian Orthodox Christians residing in Rome. The two groups of monks lived in the same monastery and shared the common life in every respect except worship. The canonical hours of prayer were so staggered that the Divine Office was celebrated in church twice each day, once in Romanian, once in Italian or Latin.
Besides providing pastoral care for the Romanians in Rome, this felicitous and wise pastoral arrangement also served to place Orthodox monks on the Coelian Hill, along with the sons of St. Benedict, at the monastery responsible for evangelizing the people of England and founding the see of Canterbury. What an ecumenical blessing! I like to imagine how this kind of thing is received in heaven by some of the parties that would be, surely, most interested in it.
Theodore of Tarsus, for instance, identified by Venerable Bede as the “first to whom the whole English church gave submission.” Born at the beginning of the seventh century in the hometown of the Apostle Paul, Theodore was a monk from the East who is famous for his service to the Church in the West.
Living in Italy as a simple monk, not a priest, Theodore was brought to the attention of Pope Vitalian in 667, when the latter was trying to find someone to take the place of the recently deceased archbishop of Canterbury. Chosen by the pope, Theodore received episcopal consecration to fill that English primatial see on March 26, 668. Pastoring the church in England for the next two and a half years, he was described by Bede as “well trained in profane and sacred learning, familiar with both Greek and Latin literature, of high character.”
I suggest that Theodore of Tarsus represents the sorts of memories that Christians should cultivate these days. Christian history, of course, has no end of really bad memories, if we are looking for them. But why do that? Constantly dwelling on bad recollections is a sinful activity, the sort of thing we expect serious Christians to repent of in the Sacrament of Confession. Some Christians, however, apparently taking that activity for a virtue, have spent far too much time and energy deliberately re-infecting the wounds from the past (1054, for instance, and 1204), lacerations that could well become gangrenous if we are not careful.
I suggest that an intrinsically sinful activity does not encourage an appropriate attitude for Christians to adopt toward one another. Anyway, Christian memory provides much healthier topics on which to dwell, and these include St. Gregory the Great, St. Theodore of Tarsus, and a number of others that I think I have mentioned.
The illustrious Theodore was not a man of either the East or the West, or rather, he was a man of both. Anyway, what does someone like Theodore of Tarsus think of this monastic experiment in Rome? I had no doubts on the point. Denise and I left the Coelian Hill happy that morning, with some sense of what separated Christians who love one another can do to prove it.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. firstname.lastname@example.org
“East Meets West in Rome” first appeared in the December 2002 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95.