On my walk home from university the other day, I came upon these Stolpersteine – “stumbling stones” – which are brass cubes laid among the cobblestones in remembrance of the Holocaust victims who once lived in various places throughout Europe.
To date more than 75,000 of these mini memorials have been laid throughout the continent.
When I tried to search the names on the stones that I had seen, I found several news articles reporting that these stones had been stolen and then replaced.
“I’m looking forward to a season of retreat and contemplation,” I told a Dutch priest upon my arrival to Italy.
“And you’re moving to Rome?” he asked incredulously. “Have you been there before?”
Of course I had been to Rome before and I knew exactly what he meant. Rome is extremely chaotic, noisy, and bustling.
But I have the great privilege of living in a place known as a “retreat” of the Passionist Congregation – a beautiful site atop the Celian Hill – about which the founder of this religious community wrote in 1747:
It is one of the most solitary places in Rome, a place of great silence and recollection, almost a mountain, with good air, a garden, with water […] There are cabbages, enough fruit for summer and winter, at least partially, figs, grapes, artichokes, beans, broccoli, enough even to give to your novices. […] It is a fine location, not a better one is to be found in Rome with delightful air – a place prepared by our Great Father for his servants.
This evening I am reflecting on two famous Italians who died on this date – one is Niccolò Machiavelli who died in 1527 and the other is Aloysius de Gonzaga, S.J. who died in 1591. The latter lived fewer than half as many years than the former. And, while Machiavelli is certainly on more course syllabi today, Aloysius de Gonzaga is a canonized saint whose example and spirit continues to be invoked from generation to generation.
Aloysius de Gonzaga came from an affluent and influential family. He decided, however, to renounce his aristocratic lifestyle and joined the Jesuits while he was still a teenager. When there was a plague in Rome in 1591, Aloysius insisted on volunteering at a hospital and it was in this context that he contracted the disease and died when he was just 23.
What does a 23-year-old who died in the sixteenth century have to teach young people today living in the 21st century?
Here is a summary of Pope Francis’ remarks on this point to high schoolers:
Today a Facebook memory came up from three years ago when I happened upon the Church of St. Robert Bellarmine in Rome.
I recognized the patron of the church as the author of a book that I had very much enjoyed reading a few months earlier entitled The Art of Dying Well.
As I stood outside the church, I recalled St. Bellarmine’s remark, “Now every one will admit, that the ‘Art of dying Well’ is the most important of all sciences; at least every one who seriously reflects…”
The most important of all sciences!
Well, if you have not until now considered it a science, here is a excerpt from his preface to introduce you to the tenor of his argument:
Today is the 40th anniversary of the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II.
Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the pope’s longtime secretary, was in Rome today marking the occasion and remembering cradling the pope as he felt “his body slip as if paralyzed and fall into my arms.”
The cardinal also reflected, “Today, 40 years after that event, and 16 years after his death, I think with fear of what it would have been like if we had lost him in St. Peter’s Square back then. How poor and different the world and our homeland, Poland, would have been without his witness of faith and doctrine, without his indications and his warnings in the face of the dangers and turmoil that can threaten us in today’s world.”
Thanks to a dear friend of mine who recommended this fantastic episode of The Rubin Report in which David Rubin speaks with Bishop Robert Barron and Rabbi David Wolpe about what Easter and Passover teach us about freedom and hope.
I am equally recommending the episode and could not be more impressed by the quality of Jewish-Catholic relations presented in this cordial and substantive conversation.
In the course of the discussion, Rabbi Wolpe says, “This South African author, Alan Paton, has a beautiful scene in one of his novels about a guy who goes to heaven and he comes before God and God says, ‘Where are your wounds?’ And he says, ‘I don’t have any wounds.’ And God says, ‘Why? Was there nothing worth fighting for?'”
Among my favourite sites to visit when travelling anywhere are the cemeteries. A couple years ago, I visited the Campo Verano cemetery in Rome to seek out a particular grave. One of the things I remember most is the pamphlet given to visitors to facilitate a self-guided walking tour of the cemetery. The pamphlet was in several languages and in Italian there was a heading that said, tombe delle protagoniste. Wow, I thought: tombs of the protagonists! Such a heading is probably simply rendered into English as “famous tombs”, but this idea of a cemetery having leading characters thrilled me. As I walked throughout the cemetery, I thought about the major and minor characters, the settings, the rising actions in world affairs corresponding to the dates inscribed upon tombstones. The Italian wording filled my imagination with a sense of drama and excitement.