July 8, Friday, Waldensians, Curia, Ancient Rome

Today was a day of connections.  Two years ago we met with Harvey Cox in Boston, and some of us read his book The Future of Faith:

My own favorite example of a “heretical” group that survived centuries of excommunication, persecution and exile to become a small but significant part of the Christian family is the Waldensians. . .

For many years now the Waldensians have maintained a church, a bookstore, and a seminary just off the Palazzo di Giustizia in Rome, a short walk from the Vatican.  I happened to be staying at that seminary in the summer of 1996 when Pope John Paul II issued an unexpected invitation to the “Valdese” as he called them, to meet him for a special gathering in St. Peter’s Basilica. . .  I joined the “Valdese” to walk along the Tiber to St. Peter’s square.

When we arrived, to our astonishment the Vatican staff gathered our small group not in some little reception room as we had expected, but around the high altar in St. Peter’s itself. . . . After a few minutes the Successor of Peter entered in glistening white papal regalia, walked slowly to the altar, and then told us in deeply sincere tones, that it was now time to leave our differences behind and search out what we all have in common. . . .

Still, in its own way, John Paul II’s welcoming of heretics and schismatics is a hopeful sign.  It suggests that even within the heart of the Catholic Church the Age of Belief, with its insistence on creedal conformity and doctrinal correctness, is passing, and an Age of the Spirit is stirring.

We started our day by visiting that Waldensian seminary and meeting with the Dean of the Seminary, Yann Raedalia.  He teaches New Testament, and there are 5 other members of the faculty.  They are a very old and small group, about 30,000 in Italy, 10,000 in Rio de la Plata – Uruguay and Argentina.  They have merged with the Methodists in Italy, because the Methodists have many immigrants coming from Africa, and that is the source of greatest energy of their movement.  There is some tension, because the European Waldensians are fairly tied to traditional worship, silent in prayer and oriented toward more learned study, while many of Africans have a pentecostal background, they like to shout in prayer focusing on the direct and immediate experience of God.  Leadership style is also very different.  The Europeans have rules for making democratic decisions, while the Africans tend to rely upon charismatic leadership. “We are trying to be church together, rather than becoming separate ethnic enclaves.”  Thus the European Waldensians have become “twice a minority.”  The are protestant in a overwhelmingly Catholic country and because they do not have many children, and their generation transmission of the faith has largely failed due to the increasing secularization in Europe.  In the words of the Dean we see a new interest among the young in things spiritual, but they are interested in believing but not belonging.

The Waldensians began in the 12thcentury founded by Peter Waldo, the son of a rich business man.  He embraced the concept of poverty in the religious life, almost 100 years before St. Francis. The focus of the movement was on preaching to the common people in the vernacular.  Even women were allowed to preach.  They were considered by the church to be heretics.  The movement spread into Lombardy, France and Czechoslovakia.  John Hus was a outgrown of the Waldensian movement.  The Waldensians influenced the Reform Movement in French speaking Switzerland.  The movement was wiped out in France by Louis XIV.  The Waldensians survive mainly in Italy in the Piedmont Valley.  Through international diplomacy the Waldensians survived.  In 1848 the King of Savoy granted toleration to the Jews and the Waldensians.

The Worship Service with the centrality of the sermon is traditional Waldensian spirituality.  People are very quiet.  African worship is very interactive with lots of shouting and praise.  But even the African community is suffering generational transmission failure.

Trying to be church together will not be accomplished in one generation.  But if the immigrant is not integrated into the society by the third generation then sociologically they are likely to turn against the dominant culture to be over against the society that does not accept them.  That is why Muslim residents of France are beginning to turn against French culture and insisting on a distinctively Islamic identity.

There are two styles of being secular.  There is the English system of pluralism, most successfully practice in the separation of church and state in America.  And then there is the anti-religious secularism of France.  Trying to be “church together” will hopefully be a laboratory for finding our way into a new religious and cultural future.  Note, there has been such an influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe, the Orthodox church has grown 600% in 5 years.

The Waldensians have a good relationship with the Roman Catholic Church.  Thye are invited to participate on ecumenical commissions as token protestants.  They have been invited to teach on Roman Catholic faculties.

The Pope does not oppose Berlisconi.  He likes to keep Berlisconi “at Canosa” – a reference to the subordination of the Holy Roman Emperors by the Papacy.  Berlisconi has no morals, but he kisses the Pope’s shoes.  Morally touchy issues are “written in the sand” and the government does not address them, because the church wants to maintain the status quo. People are no longer fighting for what they want, they are afraid they will lose what they have.

Dr. Raedalia then took us on a tour of the seminary, showing us the chapel and the Library.  We did not have time to see the church, because we had to find our way over to St. Peter’s to meet with a member of the curia, Archbishop Ferrel of the Pontifical Council for Ecumenism and the Commission for Jewish relations.

Archbishop Ferrel was born in Ireland, and he wanted to become a missionary.  So after becoming a priest he was sent to Connecticut for 10 years,  He was then brought to Rome to work in the Secretary of State’s office, and then he was invited to become part of the new Pontifical Council for Ecumenism.  This was a new department in the curia created by Pope John XXIII in order to invite ecumenical observers to come to the Second Vatican Council.  So he asked Cardinal Bayer to form this new department, and since Cardinal Bayer was an Old Testament scholar, he wanted to include the Jews, and that is how the Commission for Jewish relations was formed.  Archbishop Ferrel’s organization is very close to Tantur.  Cardinal Bayer changes to occur in the church for centuries.  Today there are those who would like to turn the clock back.  Bishop Ferrel believes that Paul VI did a brilliant job of following up the work John XXIII had begun, but he is under appreciated, because he has been so overshadowed by his successor John Paul II.  Paul VI visited Jerusalem in 1964, where he met with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch.  This may have been the first meeting between the leader of the Greek Church and the Latin Church in 800 years.  The Icon of Peter and Andrew that was in the room where we were meeting was a gift of the Greek Patriarch to Paul VI.  It is a picture of the Apostles Peter and Andrew, who were brothers, symbolic of the meeting of the two leaders.

There is supposed to be a big Interfaith Meeting in Assisi in October.  Bishop Ferrel is busy working on the issue of who will sit where.  Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists are all invited to this meeting. Because the climate of interfaith relationship is problematical the Bishop does not forsee any great breakthroughs for the conference.  There is a hope that the meeting can produce some statement condemning the use of religion to justify violence and a general commitment to peace.

The Pontifical Council for Ecumenism is carrying on 15 formal dialogues with Christian Churches.  One fundamental issue that separates Rome and the Byzantines is the issue of the authority of the Pope.  The orthodox churches have lived as a second class civilization under the Turks and then under communism. Even under the Czar the Russian Orthodox were not free. This colors the conversation between Rome and the orthodox.

In the 3rd phase of the dialogue between Rome and the Anglicans the issue of gay bishops and gay marriages has created a stumbling block that goes further than the gay issue.  Rome has a very clear central teaching authority, the Anglicans do not.

The dialogue with the Lutherans goes on and on and doesn’t come to any agreement.  In 1999 Rome and the Lutherans seemed to agree on justification by faith, but then the Pope seemed to have some reservations around the theological understanding of the church.  The Lutherans interpreted this as taking back the agreement on justification.  So there is no mutual recognition of the eucharist between Rome and the Lutherans.  Part of the problem about the theology of the church is that the Reformed tradition is more spiritual in its concept, while Rome is more concrete, an institution moving through time and physical reality.  The ordination of women, especially women as Bishops is a big stumbling block in relationships with protestants.

The Commission for religious relationships with Jews discusses issues of common concern.  For instance, when Rome authorized a reprint of the Good Friday liturgy, no one thought to take out the prayer calling for conversion of the Jews.  So the Pope wrote a new prayer taking out the offensive language, but no one thought to change the title of the prayer.  Sometimes in Rome the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing.

Bishop Ferrel believes that the whole church is at a point of theological weakness.  There are no great guiding lights in theology.

The Catholic Church cannot join the World Council of Churches, because Rome is the only universal church, and Rome disagrees too much with what the World Council does — too focused on social issues.

Some of the most important issues in the church are the transmission of the faith to the younger generation, ecumenical spirituality, and the effect of migration on churches.  There is a real crisis because no one seems to be succeeding in the transmission of faith to this youngest generation.  As we move into the future he believes we will be revisiting the ontological issues of what does it mean to be human?  We have lost clarity.  The relationship between the people and the world, their environment has changed, and young people have become out of touch with the interior life.

We went from our meeting with Archbishop Ferrel to lunch and then we met our guide Magdalena for a tour of ancient Rome.  We started by seeing the pillar of Marcus Aurelius, who represents the golden age of ancient Rome, and perhaps its greatest Emperor.  We then walked to the Pantheon, a temple where all the gods were worshipped.  This is the building with the largest dome and a whole in the center.  There are elaborate drains in the floor for when it rains.  The Pantheon is still used as a church, and on Pentecost Sunday firemen of Rome climb up the outside of the dome and drop rose petals through the hole in the roof.

We passed one of the de Medici Palaces and saw a very unique statue of an elephant with an obelisk on its back.  The obelisk was brought from Egypt, and the elephant is the representation of a real elephant, an albino, that was given to the de Medici’s, and this is where the expression “white elephant” comes from.  For when the de Medici’s accept the gift, they had no idea how much forage was required to sustain an elephant.  Thus the term white elephant gift.

We visited the Coliseum, where 65,000 people could watch the games.  There were 72 gates, and you had to enter the gate for which you had a ticket.  Due to the large number of gates, supposedly 65,000 people could fill or exit the Coliseum in 10 minutes.  Most of the time it is believed that the gladiatorial contest in the Coliseum were not fights to the death.  The gladiators were too valuable.  It was more important to display skill in fighting, rather than a public display of carnage.  Occasionally criminals were executed as part of the events. So some Christians may have been thrown to the lions in the Coliseum.  More probably, the Christians were executed at Nero’s personal circus that was outside the walls of Rome, where the Vatican is today.  Thus the tradition that Peter died on Vatican hill crucified upside down.

We next visited the Circus Maximus, where 300,000 people could attend the chariot races and other spectacles including the execution of criminals. The chariot races were immensely popular and very brutal.  Many people lost their lives in the chariot races.  In the fourth lap the “blades would come out.”  In this sense the chariot race in Ben Hur is accurate.  The Emperor’s Palace overlooked the Circus Maximus, so he did not need to leave his Palace in order to attend the chariot races.

Next we went to the top of the Capitoline Hill in order to look down on the Forum.  We did not have time to take a walking tour of the Forum, but from the vantage point above we could see most of the ruins of the different buildings in the Forum.  This is where the public business of Rome took place.  There were temples including the temple of Vesta, where the Vestal Virgins kept the sacred fire of Rome burning.  Having a daughter appointed to be a Vestal Virgin was a great honor in Rome.  They were appoint at the age of six years old, served for thirty years, and then at the age of thirty-six they were retired with a generous pension, and they were free to marry.  If they violated their vow of chastity while still serving they were buried alive.

We returned to the hotel and then four of us who could still walk set out for the Grand Synagogue of Rome.  It was about a mile and a half walk along the Tiber River in the cool of the evening.  We arrived at the Synagogue and had to surrender our phones and our cameras.  Security was very tight.  In the past they have been attacked.  The liturgy is very unusual.  Their melodies are unique to Rome. Their choir of eight men was very loud because of the echo in the acoustics, although Jonathan commented that the words were sort of indistinct.  Once again as we were exiting the Synagogue Jonathan met an old friend, a fellow Rabbi from Tucson.

We walked for 20 minutes trying to find a restaurant that had been recommended to us.  We walked in a great circle and ended up finding the restaurant right beside the Synagogue.  There is perhaps some symbolism in that event for us.  One of the specialties was fried artichoke Jewish style.  We had a nice meal before returning at 11:30 p.m. to the hotel.  I was exhausted.


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