The last two weeks have been full of encounters and surprising experiences! As soon as I arrived, I was immersed in the Roman ecumenical world by participating in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which has taken place every year since 1908, between the feast of Saint Peter and the feast of the conversion of Saint Paul, in the northern hemisphere. This year’s readings, meditations and prayers were prepared by the churches of the Middle East and invited us to walk together with the text of Matthew 2:1-12 which tells us of the visit of the Magi to the Child Jesus.
The presence of the seat of the Catholic Church as well as the antiquity and the importance of this city in the Christian faith means that many churches are present in Rome. That special week, which is the occasion for many celebrations and ecumenical meetings, culminates with the Papal vespers at Saint-Paul-outside-the-walls on the day of the conversion of Paul, the apostle of the non-Jews.
At the Anglican Centre, this week of prayer was particularly lively this year because we received a group of students from Nashotah House (an Episcopal Church seminary located in Wisconsin) as well as pilgrims who came through The Living Church Foundation. This week has been for them and for us at the Anglican Center a great moment of meeting, conviviality and discovery in prayer and study.
Archbishop Ian Ernest and I accompanied the group on some of their visits. The first of them, which inaugurated this week together, took place in San Gregorio Magno al Celio. San Gregorio is an important place in the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the Communion of Anglican Churches. In fact, it was from there in 697 that Pope Gregory the Great sent Augustine on a mission. The mission of Augustine (who would become the first Archbishop of Canterbury) was to convert the Anglo-Saxons. In 2016 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the first visit of an Archbishop of Canterbury to Rome since the 16th century (a very important phase in the ecumenical rapprochement between Anglicans and Roman Catholics), the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Pope Francis sent out on mission nineteen peers of Catholic and Anglican bishops to be in their jurisdictions ferments of unity and collaboration in the service of the same Lord Jesus Christ.
It was therefore particularly moving, on the evening of our visit to San Gregorio, to celebrate in this same sanctuary an evening prayer according to the rite of the Episcopal Church. Sharing the same history, the same places, the same mission and the same Lord unites us despite our still imperfect communion. We have more in common than the institutional division of our churches would lead us to believe.
It’s been almost three weeks since I arrived in Rome and I haven’t posted anything here yet. It is true that I have been very busy, especially at the Anglican Centre, where I have helped Archbishop Ian Ernest and the whole team to organize the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The fact that I was very busy, however, is not the only reason why I did not write. There is no shortage of things to write « home » about: the warm welcome I received from the rector of St. Paul’s, Father Austin and his wife Maleah; my first Sundays at St. Paul’s where I was able to meet some parishioners and participate in the service in English at 10:30 a.m., then in Spanish at noon; or even the many ecumenical meetings I had at the Anglican Centre where every Thursday morning a group of Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics, Orthodox and of course Anglicans gather together to pray.
Yet in all of this, in this new place for me, in this new context, I felt the need to take time to listen and get to know “the spirit of the place” before writing anything.
For the ancient Romans, the genius loci (spirit of place) was an actual spiritual being that inhabited and protected a particular place. Private and public place had their genii. With the christianization of Roman culture, these spirits were also converted, their patronage being recognized as angelic protections, that of the Virgin Mary or of the saints. It gave rise to a very embodied and omnipresent popular piety which is very present in Rome (and even more so in southern Italy, I was told!)
In Rome all churches are under the patronage of a saint (or several!) whose life and obedience to Christ brought the Christian community together. The first and most important of these churches is St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome built around the tomb of St. Peter on the Vatican Hill. I had the chance last week to visit the basement of the basilica with a group of pilgrims and American students from Nashotah House. What struck me during this visit is the way in which the sacredness of the whole church, that of the assembly and of each of the faithful who take part in the body of Christ derives in a very physical sense from the martyrdom of Peter. When Peter was tortured, crucified upside down during Nero’s persecutions of religious and political minorities, his body was buried in a simple tomb near where he was executed, on the Vatican hill (which was already a cemetery). In the years that followed, the Christians of Rome built him a mausoleum of the same type as the polytheistic mausoleums, called a « trophy », the remains of which can still be seen today. With Peter, the pagan « trophy » took on a new meaning, that of the victory over death acquired by Christ and in which each of us can take part. Emperor Constantine and then the popes built and rebuilt successive altars in the basilica just around and above Peter’s tomb, in a way that looks a bit like Russian dolls or the different layers of an onion.
So today when the Pope celebrates Mass at the high altar, he does so in the presence and continuity of the martyred and sanctified body of Peter, which is for everyone the sacrament of a life completely offered to Christ, like Christ himself offered himself completely for us. More than a spirit, it is the same body that brings the Church together, the body of Saint Peter which is itself part of the body of Christ who he followed until death.
The Episcopal Church of Saint Paul’s in Rome, having chosen as patron saint the apostle of non-Jews, (also martyred in Rome!) is part of this continuity. For us Christians the « spirit of place » that keeps us and makes us grow in the knowledge of ourselves and of God is an incarnate Spirit. It is he who engenders Christ and each of his disciples. The life of Christ, his death and resurrection and all the testimonies of the saints, transmitted by the Bible and by tradition, give us life in their wake. It is in the body of Christ that we are gathered and protected, in each Christian community that welcomes us, where we can find love, comfort, forgiveness.
The Bible readings of the past few weeks tell us about inhabiting a specific place and time. What does Jesus do during those hidden years that go from his early childhood to adulthood where his ministry began? What does he do from his twelfth to his thirtieth birthday? These years of Christ’s « hidden » life are, I believe, the years in which the God that he is grew in humanity: not only because he grew in strength and maturity but because he silently did the experience of our humanity, and of all his creation, his human family, and his town in Galilee. During his hidden life he communicated with the world which surrounded him unawares of who he was so that all the world could be welcomed in his Father’s fold.
Rome is full of the presence of Christ, visible and invisible, and I am happy to be able to live here for a while. When your heart fails you can just look up and see a Madonna around the corner or walk into a church. Places and encounters pray with you and invite you to pray all the time:
“Resisting the tendency to restrict prayer to set times, we are to aim at Eucharistic living that is responsive at all times and in all places to the divine presence. We should seek the gifts which help us to pray without ceasing. The Spirit offers us the gift of attentiveness by which we discern signs of God’s presence and action in creation, in other people, and in the fabric of ordinary existence.”
The Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, “Prayer and Life,” Chapter 22.
Before going to Rome where I am expected on January 10th, I made a detour to visit my family in Brittany, France. This gives me the opportunity to tell you a bit about the region of Europe I come from before taking you to Rome.
Brittany is a region with a cultural identity quite distinct from the rest of France because it was an independent duchy for a long time before being annexed to France in 1532. Even though Breton is now spoken by only 200,000 people because of the pressure of Parisian cultural hegemony and forced cultural assimilation policies, Breton culture still stands out in music, cuisine and conviviality. I will surely have the opportunity to talk about it in another blog or even share some recipes!
Like the Welsh and Irish cultures, Breton culture and language are Celtic in origin (the only Celtic culture left on the continent!) but it has been strongly influenced by many others, beginning with the Latin and Roman one. Christianity in Brittany is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, but it is also marked by its Celtic heritage. If you want to know more on the subject, we recorded a class on Celtic Christianity at St. Esprit. I explain a little how this way of being Christian has marked the Breton landscape.
In addition to Catholicism, there is also a small Protestant presence in Brittany, mainly in towns like Rennes. Often born from the Protestant Awakening in the 19th century, these communities are generally flourishing and bring together Christians of all origins. Anglicanism is also represented in Brittany by a small community of English expatriates. They have a few churches, notably in Dinard, a former seaside resort where the English have been coming as tourists since the 1830s. These Anglican communities (called chaplaincies and belonging to the Diocese of the Church of England in Europe) have hardly ever had missionary ambitions and this continues to this day. They only offer services in English.
All this to say that my native Brittany is quite different from Rome where I am about to go! This difference does not necessarily appear when you look at Europe from the United States, but it nevertheless testifies to the diversity of the European continent. I think this will be key in my experience of Rome : there, I’m expecting to find many familiar things but also to be unsettled by notable cultural differences.
Voilà ! The hour of departure has arrived, or rather the time of being commissioned. Below is a link to the service at the French Church du Saint-Esprit in New York City during which I was sent on mission. St. Esprit is my home parish, the one that sponsors me through my discernment process and consistently supports me through its prayers and contributions. The Christmas season is a great time to leave a place I “know”, like New York, to begin a journey to a place where God and the Church are calling me to serve. Christmas is indeed the season when Christ journeyed from heaven to dwell on the earth building a true bridge reconciling both shores.
On one of my last evenings in New York, I took a stroll along the East River. It’s a walk that I really enjoy. The East River is not a river but a sea-way, it is the smallest width I know between two shores of the Atlantic Ocean, and a stone’s throw from St. Esprit! Since I have known St. Esprit and its neighborhood, I have always found this walk heartwarming. The Rev. Nigel Massey, our rector, introduced me to it one evening after a long day of work. I can spend long minutes staring at this ocean inlet. When you’re on this side of the East River, the other side of the Atlantic feels so close and at the same time so difficult to reach. At least, that’s what the imposing 59th Street bridge suggests: if you need such a massive bridge, crossing mustn’t be easy! This walk and this view embody well what agitates and troubles me, the tensions which flow through me as a Frenchman and a Breton having lived in the United States and on the point of returning to serve in Europe. The tensions of being in this world without being of this world are tensions that all Christians share. Crossing has never been easy for anyone. I know that this crossing experience is not uniquely my own. I share it in common with many of our parishioners at St. Esprit, and many recent immigrants to our diocese, who have left a part of themselves – their families or memories across an ocean; in Africa, Europe, or Asia. It is also a gap that is so present and yet so continually forgotten in the United States: the fact that most people who live in New York have in one way or another crossed an ocean in order to get there. When I look out at this view, I tell myself that what is impossible for men is not impossible for God, and one of the most powerful signs that he gave to his people is precisely that of bringing his children from one bank to the other, without their drowning or even getting wet.
When I cross the Atlantic, it is never in a trivial way. There is always something going through me and this time more than ever, because I carry with me the voice and the memory of those who sent me. I don’t know yet what the other side will be like because I will be approaching it at a different place than usual. During this little stop on one of the banks of the East River, in the wind, a song came back to me that comforted me a lot and reminded of the miracle of Christmas when “laid himself down” in the crib for us :
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Sail on, silver girl
Sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way
See how they shine
Oh if you need a friend
I’m sailing right behind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
Simon & Garfunkel, Bridge Over Troubled Water, 1970