A Lent to remember


The best Lent of my life involved getting up every day at 5:30 a.m., hiking for miles through ankle-twisting, cobblestoned city streets, dodging drivers for whom traffic laws were traffic suggestions, avoiding the chaos of transit strikes and other civic disturbances, and battling bureaucracies civil and ecclesiastical – all while 3,500 miles from home sweet home.

Lent 2011, which I spent in Rome working on Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches (Basic Books), did have its compensations. Each day, I discovered new architectural and artistic marvels, brilliantly explained by my colleague Elizabeth Lev. Each day, I watched with pride as my son Stephen pulled off one photographic coup after another, artfully crafting pictures that would get our future readers “inside” the experience of the Lenten station church pilgrimage in Rome. Each day, I had the opportunity to dig more deeply than I’d ever done before into the biblical and patristic readings for the Mass and Divine Office of the day.

Then there was the fun: freshly baked, sugar-crusted ciambelle from the Roman Jewish quarter after the stational Mass at Cardinal Newman’s titular church; the first stir-fry dinner ever concocted in the Vatican apartment where Pope Julius II asked Michelangelo when he would finish the Sistine Chapel ceiling; rating the post-station church coffee bars for relative quality of cappuccino, cornetti, and restrooms; singing all nine rowdy verses of “Maryland, My Maryland” at a March 25 Maryland Day dinner; meeting the newly-elected Major-Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Sviatoslav Shevchuk, who would become a friend; cringing when my former student Fr. Matthew Monnig, SJ, scolded me about “not going crit” – i.e., academic-skeptical – when I made some comment or other about a particularly implausible legend about a particularly obscure saint; Liz Lev’s incomparable rolled stuffed veal, plus the first wine in forty-some days, at an Easter Sunday pranzone for the ages.

That Roman Lent also taught me a lot about the vitality of the Church in the United States and the effects of that vitality on other Anglophones. While the tradition of pilgrimage to a “station church” in Rome for each day of Lent goes back to the mid-first-millennium, the tradition had lain fallow for some time before it was revived by North American College students in the mid-1970s. By the mid-1990s, when I first encountered it, the entire American seminary community was participating. By 2011, that daily Mass community had grown to over 300 (and sometimes over 400) souls, as students from the Roman campuses of American universities, English, Scottish, and Irish seminarians from their national colleges, and English-speaking ambassadors accredited to the Vatican became regulars.

That Anglophone liturgical and spiritual fervor was not replicated, alas, by the Vicariate of Rome, which also sponsored a daily “station” Mass at the church of the day. On the Friday after Ash Wednesday, 2011, Stephen and I hiked back up the Caelian Hill to the Basilica of Sts. John and Paul to complete the photography Stephen had begun at the 7 a.m. English-language stational Mass that morning. We got our work done just before the Vicariate Mass started in the early evening, and saw a half-dozen concelebrants and perhaps fifteen elderly people enter the basilica for the stational Mass of the day sponsored by the pope’s diocese – a sharp contrast to the 250-300 Anglophones who were there as the sun was rising. The day before, at S. Giorgio in Velabro, the same number of English-speakers had to scurry out of the basilica at 7:30 p.m. sharp to accommodate the half-dozen German priests celebrating their stational Mass: beautifully chanted, but concelebrants-without-a-congregation.

For those who will be in Rome this Lent, there’s no better way to enter into the pilgrim character of the season that to participate in the 7 a.m. stational Mass led by the priest and students of the North American College. If you’re unable to travel to the Eternal City but would like to make the Roman station church pilgrimage from a distance, there’s Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches. I’d especially recommend the eBook edition, in which all the photos are in color and a zoom feature allows you to study closely numerous masterpieces of fresco and mosaic. A foretaste of what’s available pictorially in Roman Pilgrimage can be glimpsed on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FQa1QwNZ5Yw.

Buona Quaresima!

COMING UP: A modest defense of the “liberal world order”

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Some preliminaries:

I quite agree that the United Nations is a sad, and sometimes malicious, joke. I understand that some people have been the victims of a globalized world economy and that the “Davos people” who run that economy have (like most of the rest of us) paid them too little heed. Fifteen years ago, in The Cube and the Cathedral, I warned that the European Union risked becoming the overbearing bureaucratic Leviathan it is today; and it seemed to me then, as it does now, that the EU’s embrace of a sterile secularism, which accelerated Europe’s detachment from its cultural roots, helped destroy a reverence for particularity and for what Edmund Burke called society’s small platoons.

I get it that the American people are tired of wars, that many Poles and Hungarians don’t want their social policy dictated by Brussels, and that Italians and Greeks are tired of having their pleasures disrupted by steely-eyed German accountants. I agree that NATO member states should stop riding American coattails in their laggardly defense spending. I think a visceral defense of British sovereignty was the primary reason for the Brexit “yes” vote, and I find the contemptuous response to that vote by European Union mandarins a signal that, like the Bourbons, those riding the EU gravy train have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

Moreover, and to end this throat-clearing, I think liberal democracy is in grave danger from the ideology of Me and the notion that “freedom” is just willfulness – which is, among many other things, reducing higher education in the U.S. and Canada to a playpen for mini-brownshirts who get violently disruptive when their silly certainties about the plasticity of the human condition are challenged.

And yet I think there are things that can and must be said for the “liberal world order” and for liberal democracy.

The political and economic system created by the United States and its allies after World War II – a system built around common defense measures and free trade – rescued Europe from the self-inflicted catastrophe of 1914- 1945, prevented nuclear war, preserved the peace until the collapse of the Soviet empire, and allowed once-captive nations to reclaim their liberties. It didn’t do too badly by the rest of the world, either. Over the past several decades, more than a billion people lifted themselves out of abject poverty by becoming participants in a system of free trade and the free movement of capital and labor – even as those economic successes helped create conditions for the possibility of free and decent governance in places like Taiwan, South Korea, Chile, and India.

So might it not be the case that the “liberal world order” needs fixing rather than dismantling, as some “populists” propose today? Surely those dismantlers don’t propose a return to the beggar-thy-neighbor economic autarky and myopic nationalism that intensified the Great Depression and helped bring on World War II. As for the security side of the equation, doesn’t the catastrophic condition of the Middle East, after eight years of an American-led withdrawal of western power from the region, demonstrate what happens when those committed to a “liberal world order” retreat from history in history’s most volatile regions? Given Vladimir Putin’s evident determination to reverse history’s verdict in the Cold War, would order be maintained in Europe over the next decade absent a robust NATO?

As for the failings of liberal democracy itself, the lesson to be learned is surely not that efficient authoritarianism makes for better national governance; the lesson is that the democratic project is not a machine that can run by itself. The hardware of democracy cannot run by any software. Rather, democracy depends on a moral-cultural foundation that has been seriously eroded by the Culture of Me. So if the democratic project is not to decay into either chaos or a dictatorship of relativism, a great work of moral and cultural renewal must be undertaken throughout the West: something akin to a new Great Awakening.

Sympathetic as I am to many of their complaints, I don’t see that Awakening arising from the most vociferous of today’s angry and inward-looking new populists. Thus far, the new populism, whether European or American, is much better at identifying what’s broken than in defining how to fix it.