July 14 Thursday Scavi Tour, American Ambassador

We left the hotel at 8:30 a.m. to walk to the Vatican for a tour of the excavations underneath the Vatican. We had to wait for to be cleared through the entrance, and Ray Dunmyer explained that the Swiss Guards are all recruited from Italian speaking cantons in Switzerland. The pay isn’t so great, but it looks good on your resume. A young man might serve in the Swiss Guard for three or four years and then move on to other pursuits.

Our guide Jonna was excellent. She is working on a Doctorate at the Gregorian University and was well versed both in the history and theology of the Vatican.

In 1939 during some renovations in the Vatican Basement, they started to dig in the floor, and struck the cornice of the roof of a structure underneath the floor. Pope Pius XII gave permission to undertake excavations, but they had to be done secretly, and no part of the present structure could be destroyed. What they found underneath the Vatican were the remains of a necropolis, a City of the Dead, sort of like an above ground cemetery, where people were buried. In the first century Nero built a Circus, where many Christians were martyred. Nero’s Circus were outside the walls of the City. Up on the slope of the hill behind Nero’s Circus there were pauper graves. According to legend, when St. Peter was crucified upside down in Nero’s Circus his body was taken by Christians and buried on the slope of the hill behind the Circus. After Nero, his Circus fell into disuse and people began using the area as a Necropolis.

When Constantine won the battle of Milvan Bridge, he began building churches and monuments in Rome. He determined that Peter had been buried on the Vatican Hill and undertook to build a church on the site. He supposedly located the altar right over the grave of Peter. The archaeologists conducting the excavation had to remove tons of material secretly. One story is that they extended the Vatican Garden extensively. They found the Necropolis first. It had been filled in by Constantine to provide the support for his church. As they diggers got closer and closer to what they believed was the grave of Peter they ran into several obstacles including an ancient wall full of graffiti. When they came to the level of Peter’s grave they discover 136 bone fragments. A biologist studies them for 10 years carefully and came to several conclusions. They are the bones of a man from the First Century. There are bones from every part of the body except the feet. Probably Peter was crucified upside down, and they cut his feet off in order to get him off of the cross. The bones were stained with a purple die that came from the imperial cloth Constantine had used to wrap them. The excavators for many reasons believe they found the bones of Peter. The bone fragments were put in plastic boxes and put back in place underneath the altar of the church.

Our guide was quite impressive. There are only 200 people per day who are taken on the Scavi Tour. So most people never get a chance to see this. When we came out of the tour we went up into the Dome of St. Peters up to the cupola. There was an elevator to take us part of the way, and then there were 300 – 400 steps that had to be climbed. At the top of all those steps was a magnificent view of the Vatican City and the City of Rome. It was well worth the effort, though it left us really hot and sweaty. So we walked back to the Hotel, freshened up, and changed clothes for our meeting with the American Ambassador to the Vatican at 3 p.m.

Jonathan Miller had arranged for the meeting through the office of Senator Richard Shelby. The security at the Embassy was very impressive. We had to pass through several metal detectors, surrender our phones and our cameras. There was a large Italian Military Vehicle parked across the street from the Embassy, and the grounds are protected by Italian Secret Service. We were ushered into an attractive meeting area over-looking the Circus Maximus and the ruins of the Imperial Palace.

Ronald Regan appointed the first ambassador to the Vatican. Since that time there have been eight Ambassadors to the Holy See. President Obama appointed the current ambassador Dr. Miguel Diaz, who is a theologian who taught at St. John’s College in Minnesota before accepting the Ambassadorship.

Ambassador Diaz explained that as an ambassador he is not there to do theology, but today it is impossible to deny the importance of religion in society in the world. He talked about how we are living in a time of the “globalization of God.” We have a separation of church and state, but not religion and society.

He reported he had just held an interagency seminar in the State Department on engaging communities of faith.

He pointed out how we just cannot get around the impact of religion on the world stage. “When a Pastor burned a Quran in Florida Ambassadors from around the world especially from Muslim countries contacted me. I had to represent the United States.” Another function of the ambassador is from time to time to issue statements about human rights including religious freedom. Right now they are monitoring conflict in China between the Roman Catholic Church and the Chinese government over the appointment of Bishops. He concentrates on the love of God and neighbor. Love over hate, charity over indifference.

The Ambassador sponsored a conversation entitled Building Bridges of Hope. He invited Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders to talk about conflict resolution, economic justice and the environment. Another conference he sponsored as Building Bridges of Freedom specifically aimed at ending the trafficking of women especially in what has become an international sex slave trade. “I can’t do theology as a government officer, but I can invite others to come together to talk about ways to change the world. This is a different way of developing consensus.”

Another conference he is involved in is Building Bridges – God, Diplomacy and the Common Good. Diplomacy needs religion and religion needs diplomacy. We can begin to build networks of religious leaders, who can work together for the common good.

“I will return to the University someday, but I hope I can use this experience to further serve – religion and society. So from the embassy, we do conferences, conversations and one on one interactions with the Vatican and the Diplomatic Community.”

“I have a lot on my plate as a result of migration due to conflict in the Mediterranean world. We need to be proactive rather than reactive to developments in the world. We need actions more than statements. The mission is unique. We talk to other ambassadors to the Holy See. The potential is always much greater than what is realized.”

John Paul II was very active diplomatically. He may have been a part of bringing down the Berlin Wall. Benedict is more focused on European secularism. Don’t worry about secularization. From the perspective of Karl Rahner spirituality will come out in the end, because it is so central to the human experience. The internet is creating new religious communities. How is the experience of the divine in an internet age. We need to raise a whole new series of questions. Weekly participation in worship may no longer be the measure of secular or religious.

Asked about the decline of Christianity in the Middle East the Ambassador said, “Peace thrives when we protect minorities and diversity. Protection of minorities is important for US policy.”

“If I could help Americans to understand. To just listen until you can appreciate a global perspective of faith and other issues. It is so important. We cannot isolate ourselves, because we are interdependent beings. Think WE! The Spanish word for we, nosotrous, means ‘the community of we others.’ Community of difference – Rabbi Sachs – love of strangers.”

When there is economic distress it becomes hard to love strangers. But the internet makes it hard for us to wall ourselves off. John Paul II helped to tear down the Berlin Wall. Now there are other walls that have to come down. Today there are walls of religion and cultural difference that need to be overcome. San Eggidio does a tremendous work of reaching out.

The Ambassador is a person of great energy. So I asked him how his energy is related to his spiritual life. He did not want to answer the question directly out of respect for the line between church and state, but he mentioned that he hoped that as a result of the practice of his faith he has something of the Spirit. I wish we had an opportunity to visit with him outside of his role as ambassador. He seems to be an individual of authentic faith.

Our conversation came to an end and he graciously had his picture taken with us. What a fabulous ending to our trip. I need to think about the Ambassadors words for a time. He tried to avoid doing theology, but I think he pointed toward how we need to connect with the divine in our world today and in the future. Several times he mentioned the internet in changing the cultural context and how we form community, and how we will think of spiritual community.

For our last dinner in Rome we went out to a restaurant that is operated by a community of Carmelite nuns, who come from all over the world and wear their native dress to serve the dinner. The restaurant is in an old Palatzo with renaissance decoration, and according to one of the nuns, this is where one of the Renaissance Popes kept his family. Their costumes were colorful, and at 10 p.m. as part of their community devotion and for the benefit of their guest they sang the Ave Maria (see video when I have a chance to post.) They sang very nicely. According to Ed Hurley this restaurant was John Paul II’s favorite restaurant in Rome before he became Pope.

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