Perhaps you know that I spent the Thanksgiving holiday in Rome. The primary purpose of my journey was to visit the North American College, the American seminary, and to be the celebrant and homilist for the Thanksgiving Day Mass at the College.
It was also an opportunity for me to visit with the priests and seminarians from the Providence Diocese who are working and studying there.
For the American seminarians and priests living at the College, Thanksgiving weekend is a big deal. The centerpiece of the observance, of course, is the beautiful and impressive Mass on Thanksgiving morning. I was truly honored to have been invited to be the celebrant and homilist on that occasion.
Liturgies at the NAC (and at all seminaries I’m sure) are meticulously planned and prayerfully celebrated, and the Thanksgiving Mass was no exception. The Mass included beautiful music and the participation of two archbishops, about 60 priests, the 250 or so seminarians, some public officials, and a number of invited guests from the city.
The liturgy was followed by a festive Thanksgiving dinner with the traditional fare. We were seated at tables arranged by state or region, appropriately decorated with local themes. The dinner included prayers, some lively entertainment, a toast to our country, and the singing of “America the Beautiful.” From beginning to end, it was relaxing and fun.
Other activities of the long weekend included the “Turkey Trot” 5k Race around the Vatican walls very early on Thanksgiving morn, (I skipped that part), iconic movies, and on Sunday the “Spaghetti Bowl,” the intensely competitive football game between the “old men” and “new.” The old men prevailed once again.
As I mentioned during my homily that morning, it had been 43 years since I was in Rome on Thanksgiving Day, then as a 4th year student. I could never have imagined that I’d return someday as a bishop to lead the signature liturgy. So many memories of my time at the College washed over me as I wandered the expansive building on the Janiculum Hill, praying, reflecting, and reminiscing.
Of course I also had several opportunities to go into the historic city for touring, shopping, lunch and dinner. I have to confess, walking the streets of Rome can be a pretty distressing experience. In the midst of so much history, art, architecture and religion, frankly, Rome is a mess! Traversing the city you encounter gridlocked traffic, constant noise, stifling pollution, aggressive beggars and street performers, and graffiti — ugly, in-your-face graffiti on every wall, tunnel, underpass and overpass. There’s good reason why the “eternal city” is sometimes called the “infernal city.”
The intriguing thing, though, is that even in the midst of the mess, you can readily recognize the special presence of God. Perhaps it’s the sheer number of churches and shrines; or the regular ringing of the church bells; or the history of the Church that has played-out on its streets for two-thousand years; or the proximity of the Pope, the Bishop of Rome; or, perhaps, the sincere devotion of the countless pilgrims who find their way to Rome from all over the world. Without a doubt, Rome is special. God is there!
While reflecting on this two-edged experience, it struck me that our lives are sometimes like the City of Rome. They have, first of all, a certain amount of messiness. The human clutter often comes from an unexpected turn of events. Perhaps it’s a serious illness; the death of a loved one; the loss of a job; or an intractable marriage or family problem.
Maybe the messiness comes not from a dramatic crisis but just the graffiti of everyday life: the challenges of work, caring for our homes, paying the bills, or managing the hectic schedules our kids keep every day. (“What! You have soccer practice? Why didn’t you tell me?”)
But here’s the point: Just as God can be found in the chaos of Rome, so too can God be found in the messiness of our everyday lives. We know that God doesn’t force himself into our lives. His presence can be discerned only by silence, prayer, reflection and with the eyes of faith. Pope Francis has reminded us that, “the light of faith is unique, since it is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence.”
The presence of God in our daily lives shouldn’t be at all surprising, for as the Word of God Incarnate, Jesus entered into a messy world. I suspect that the streets of ancient Jerusalem and Bethlehem were as messy then as they are in Rome today. But Jesus chose not to hover above us like some sort of divine drone, but he “pitched his tent among us,” walking right into the midst of his unruly and unkempt flock.
Jesus doesn’t take away the messiness of our lives, any more than a magic wand could fix the problems of Rome. But his divine presence, much like the cool, dark, quiet churches of Rome, provides a sanctuary in the midst of the chaos.
As we continue to travel through Advent, let’s try to be more aware of the presence of God in our everyday lives, in good times and in bad. Let’s try to discern the spark of divinity in the darkness of the world. It shouldn’t be too hard to find Him for, after all, Jesus is Emmanuel, the God who is with us.