Last month I spent a week in Rome and met someone important.
Despite what you might suspect of the travel habits of Jesuits, I’ve not visited Rome frequently. All told, I traveled there for the first time after graduating from college (“Look! The Coliseum!”). Twenty years later, on my way back from two years in Nairobi, I spent a week in Rome and visited with my mother’s family in Sicily. Finally, in January, I was there on business for our editor in chief, Matt Malone, S.J. Last week took me there for a screening of Martin Scorsese’s new film, “Silence,” which was shown to 300 Jesuits at the Pontifical Oriental Institute. Later in the week, I spoke at the Lay Centre, a living and learning center for lay students studying at the Catholic universities in Rome.
In the midst of meetings and meals with new and old friends, Jesuits, Vatican officials and journalists, and stopping into various churches to pray, I learned a great deal. For one thing, the new superior general of the Society of Jesus, Arturo Sosa, S.J., is a wonderful man. I hope you’ve seen by now the video (on America’s website) of Father Malone’s interview with Father Sosa, who is warm and witty. Later in the week, Father General celebrated Mass for the great Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., superior general from 1983 to 2008, who died on Nov. 29. Flying back from a sabbatical in Spain was Father Sosa’s predecessor, Adolfo Nicolás, S.J. Thus the Church of the Gesú in Rome hosted a historic event: One superior general celebrated a Requiem Mass for a former superior general with another former superior general as concelebrant.
Earlier in the week, in fact, a Jesuit friend told me how confusing it was to bump unexpectedly into Father Nicolás at lunch. To Jesuits in Rome, even those who work closely with him, the superior general is invariably “Father General.” So when Father Nicolás, recently back from Spain, sat down to pranzo, my friend sputtered, “Hello Father Gen… Father… Father Nicolás!” Then next to him sat Father Sosa. “Hello Arturo… Father… Father General!”
Rome for me is a heady place where it’s easy to lose your spiritual bearings. It’s hard to leave the door of the Jesuit Curia and pass St. Peter’s Basilica on the way to a screening with a well-known film director and not get a swelled head. It’s easy to forget what’s important. Fortunately, God reminds us.
One afternoon, dashing between one meeting and the next, I was importuned by a beggar. “Panini, panini, panini,” he said plaintively, asking for a sandwich. Now, my rule is to give money when I have it, but I opened my wallet and saw only 20 Euro notes (roughly $20), which was a little steep for me. So I said, “Mi dispiace,” I’m sorry, and kept walking.
He kept following me. “Panini, panini, panini.” I got angry. Why was he following me? I’m busy!
Then it dawned on me. You idiot! Why are you in Rome? Why are you even a Christian? To see beautiful churches? To see a movie? What’s the most important thing you could do right now?
So I checked my anger, which was not coming from God, and asked the man to follow me.
Inside a bakery near St. Peter’s, my new friend pointed to a sandwich behind a glass case, and we waited. The line was interminable, and my anger returned. Again, I realized how un-Christian I was being. I had barely spoken to him. So I said, “Come si chiama?” What’s your name?
“Lorenzo,” he said quietly.
I almost cried when I heard it. I remembered the story of St. Lawrence (Lorenzo), the third-century archdeacon of Rome who was charged with caring for the church’s financial resources. When the Emperor Valerian, after a bloody persecution, ordered Lawrence to bring him the “riches of the church,” Lawrence, who had already distributed the funds destined for the poor, did something surprising. He brought in the poor of Rome and told the emperor, “Here are the riches of the church.”
That’s who was standing beside me, I realized.
Maybe you read the news about the Jesuit screening of “Silence,” which was a success, and deservedly so. It’s a magnificent film. But while you may have read about that, I think God was focused elsewhere. When I get to heaven and God asks me what I did during my week in Rome, I won’t say that I met with this Vatican official or that one, visited this church or that, or even saw a good movie. I’ll answer that I spent a little time with your friend Lorenzo.