Summer in Asia

At long last, after minimal planning, much delay, and a handful of unexpected obstacles, I have booked all my flights and made most of the necessary arrangements for my adventures this summer in Asia.

It is customary here at NAC for men to spend their first summer abroad doing some sort of apostolate away from their home diocese. Typically that means either learning a new language or doing pastoral or missionary work. I will be teaching English in China for four weeks with two of my classmates, under the auspices of the Maryknoll Society.

It is my understanding that we will have about a week of orientation in Hong Kong before crossing over into Mainland China and flying up to Jilin, in the northeast, to spend the remaining three weeks working with Chinese medical students to perfect their English. It’s not missionary work; we are forbidden from initiating conversations about the Faith. It’s not exactly pastoral either. I suppose there will be an opportunity to learn Chinese, and I’ll learn what I can, but that’s not my purpose there. Rather, I hope to learn about the missions and how the Church engages oriental cultures, as well as get some experience teaching. I think it will prove beneficial to my future priestly ministry (as does the College, which endorses the program).

Since I’ll already be in on that side of the world, I decided to spend a few weeks traveling around the region. My traveling companions and I will spend the better part of our first week in Japan, before the program starts. We’ll stay with the Maryknolls in Tokyo for a day or so, and then go to their house in Kyoto, where we’ll spend the duration of that trip. Then, after the program ends in August, we’ll spend a few days with the Maryknolls in Manila before spending our last few days in Singapore.

I will then return to Rome a few weeks early in order to help out with New Man Orientation before the rest of the house shows up and the new school year begins.

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Flashback: May 1, 2009

If you go out in Rome today, you’re in for a big surprise: today’s the day the Anarchists have their festa. (Reminds me of a song I knew as a child.)

We don’t have classes today, so I don’t plan on going into the city.

Today is the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, which is Labor Day in Italy. Among other festivities, there is a free rock concert held every hear in the piazza outside the Lateran. When I was here back in 2009, I stumbled upon it while looking for the Scala Sancta. I knew something was up when the metro stops nearby were closed, but I decided to try to find them anyway, since it would be my last chance to pray there before the semester ended an I returned home.

What I found was anything but an atmosphere conducive to prayer. But that’s okay; Labor Day is a time to have fun. And, unbeknownst to me at the time, I would have plenty of other opportunities to come back.

The entire area was packed with people, including some walking around selling beer out of buckets. I didn’t partake, but probably only because I wasn’t carrying any cash at the time. But what struck me–and here’s where I get to the point–is how many people were wearing T-shirts with anarchist and communist logos. And there were stands set up for vendors selling said T-shirts, as well as rainbow flags with a marijuana leaf superimposed on them.

Now I’m all for supporting the legitimate rights of workers, but (and I hope this statement isn’t too controversial) I don’t think the way to go about that is found in Anarchy, Communism, or Marijuana. But maybe that’s just me.

Buona Festa!

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Saint Pius V, Pope

The Pope was in his chapel before day or battle broke,
(Don John of Austria is hidden in the smoke.)

Today is the memorial of St. Pius V, who was Pope from 1566 to 1572. He is an important figure in the history of Western Civilization for a number of reasons, but the primary reason for my interest in him is that he was Pope during the Christian naval victory over Turkish forces at the Battle of Lepanto, in which many Christian slaves (who were forced to row the Turkish ships) were freed, and which effectively ended Turkish dominance of the Mediterranean Sea and consequently the threat of their invasion of Italy. The Pope instructed the entire Christian fleet to pray the Rosary immediately before combat commenced, and so the victory is attributed to Our Lady’s intercession. The feast of Our Lady of the Rosary is celebrated every year on October 7th to commemorate it.

Since we don’t have classes today, I took a bus this morning to go pray at the Basilica of St. Mary Major, where St. Pius’ remains are kept in the altar of the chapel in the right transcept (which is closed for renovation), and where he prayed for victory–as the above lines from Chesterton’s poem, Lepanto, commemorate–in the so-called Pauline Chapel, in the left transcept. This chapel holds an icon that is said to have been written by St. Luke the Evangelist on the wooden table of the Holy Family of Nazareth. It is also the chapel where Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, celebrated his first Mass after his priestly ordination.

(I invited one of my friends to come with me this morning, after telling him the significance of it. He laughed, said it was “proprio Emmett”–that is, ‘it’s a very Emmett thing to do’–and politely excused himself.)

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“Cultural Day” in Rome

The Italian government periodically declares “cultural weeks,” when they offer free admissions to some state-run museums, which is a nice way to make some of its cultural treasures available to the poor, etc. (The Vatican Museums also offer free days—more frequently than the Italian state, I might add—but the lines have been prohibitively long every time I’ve tried to take advantage of those opportunities.) Last week was one such week, and since two of my classes were cancelled last Friday, I decided to swing by the Capitoline to see the museums there.

I passed by an art museum on the way, which had a Caravaggio exhibit on display, and decided to make a brief visit. I bypassed the ticket counter, but then was told at the entrance to the exhibit that even though it was free, I still needed a ticket. Fine. So I went down to the entrance to the ticket office and found there was a rather obscene display of what some might call art in between the door and the actual ticket counter. I was not about to subject myself to that, so I left. Oh well, no big loss.

I then proceeded to climb the Capitoline Hill, only to find that the entrance to the museums was not free. Nor was entrance to the Forum. I also found out there was a strike scheduled for noon, so I stopped and prayed at the nearby Basilica di Santa Maria in Aracoeli and then headed back to NAC, not having accomplished much of anything. But sometimes that sort of thing just happens in Italy, and I have come to accept that.

But the morning wasn’t a total loss. I stumbled upon the Campo dei Fiori (a popular outdoor vegetable market) on my way back, and looked for some fresh mint for the purpose of inaugurating Mint Julep season. And I found some very fresh mint: they were selling the plant itself! So I bought one for a very reasonable price, and it should supply all my mint needs for the foreseeable future (as well as keep my room smelling nice!)

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Adventures in Greece

Greece is one of my favorite places. Some of the most important developments in Western Civilization took place there, and the natural beauty of the region rivals that of anywhere I’ve seen. I spent a week there in the Spring of 2009, and I just got back from my second trip a few weeks ago. The focus of this trip was St. Paul, and it was led by a Scripture professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University here in Rome, where I attend classes. (Actually, we spent about equal time learning about St. Paul, the Greek Orthodox Church, and ancient Greek culture.) We spent three nights in Thessalonica, and then four nights at a Jesuit retreat house outside of Athens. Here’s a recap of the week’s events.

Sunday—From Rome to Thessalonica

We arrived in Thessalonica on Sunday evening, after first celebrating Easter Sunday Mass at the College in Rome. The Eastern Church (and, in the interests of ecumenism, all Roman Catholics living in the East) observes Easter according to the Julian Calendar, which was a week later this year. So in addition to adjusting to the time change, we also adjusted to the Liturgical Season change from Easter back to Lent, and observed Holy Week again. After dinner a few of us explored the city briefly before calling it a night.

Monday—Philippi

The first site we visited was Philippi, which was founded by King Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, in 356 BC. It was later given privileged status within the Roman Empire for siding with Octavian (Augustus) in the civil war against the Republican conspirators who sought refuge there. We saw the ancient city and the cell where St. Paul was imprisoned, as well as the stream where he baptized Lydia (Acts 16:12-15). We had intended to celebrate Mass by the riverside, near the baptistery that was built on the site of Lydia’s baptism, but the weather wasn’t cooperating, so we ended up having it in the seating area of the café on the site. Afterwards we briefly visited the town of Kavala (ancient Neapolis) and ate lunch there before returning to Thessalonica to visit a few Orthodox parishes.

Tuesday—Meteora

We traveled past Mount Olympus to the mountains of Meteora, where several medieval monasteries still function today. The landscape was spectacular, and some of the monasteries are built in impressively remote spots, as shown in the picture below.

We visited several monasteries during the course of the trip, and I bought plenty of icons from them. (The spirituality of the Eastern Church is very much tied into the veneration—not worship!—of icons. More on that another time.) Obviously there are many similarities between the Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy: the same Gospel is proclaimed, and all the same Sacraments are celebrated. But one is also struck by the differences in architecture and practice. As I mentioned, icons are heavily emphasized in the Eastern Church, and every parish and monastery chapel I visited was full of them, in frescoes and mosaics on the walls, and in particular on the screen in front of the sanctuary, called the iconostasis. In addition to these, there were also special icons placed on freestanding supports for the purpose of veneration (it is customary to kiss these icons). One thing I witnessed that really stuck with me was a father with his young son who, after venerating one such icon, began to walk away. Then he realized that the boy was still standing by the icon (he was too short to reach it), so he lifted him up so that he could kiss it as well.

Wednesday—From Thessalonica to Athens; Eleusina

We packed up early and flew to Athens in the morning. On our way from the airport to the retreat center, we stopped at Eleusina, which is pronounced “El-ef-SEE-nuh” in modern Greek. Here were the Elysian Fields, said to have been the final resting place of the souls of the just. It was also a very important site for the cult of Demeter and Persephone, an ancient mystery religion that was very influential in Greek life from the pre-Archaic period (roughly 900 BC or earlier) well into the third or fourth century AD. We saw the ancient Roman temple ruins—the Romans conquered Greece in 146 BC—built on top of the earlier Greek temples there, as well as a nice museum detailing the importance of the place.

We arrived at the retreat center in the early afternoon, and once we unloaded our luggage and settled in, most of the group set out for Porto Germeno, which is a local beach. I decided to stay behind, since I’m not much of a beach guy. But plans changed once the bus left, and in addition to the beach, the group went up to a nearby monastery as well. But fortunately for me, the Jesuit priest running the retreat center had planned to go meet them there, so he took me along with him. And the bus ended up being a little late in arriving, which gave me a special opportunity to pick his brain about East-West relations. (He’s got a particularly good perspective on that sort of thing, since his mother is Catholic and his father is Orthodox.) Perhaps I’ll write more about that later.

Thursday—Ancient Athens

We began the day at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, where some of the greatest treasures of ancient Greek civilization are currently housed. I had already been there once, so instead of making an effort to see everything, I concentrated on the Archaic (800-500 BC) and Classical (500-300) Periods. But I also paid a brief visit to the Mycenaean (1600-1100 BC) exhibit, which houses, among other things, the funerary mask of Agamemnon (of which I have a replica hanging in my bedroom at home).

After the museum, we visited the Agora of Athens, where St. Paul evangelized the Athenians by pointing out their temple to an unknown god, and proclaiming this to be the one True God: the God of Jesus Christ (Acts 17:19-34). He won at least a few converts there, including Dionysius the Aereopagite, who may have been the first bishop of that city.

Then I finally mounted the Acropolis in triumph to see the Parthenon, which I had intended to do on my last trip, but was unable because the workers were on strike at the time. Later we went to the Acropolis Museum, which was fascinating in its own right, but not before going down to see the Agora (the ancient marketplace), where Socrates was known to frequent and pose difficult questions about justice to the ancient Athenians. While I was down there, I snuck off into the nearby shopping district to enjoy a gyro and a Mythos beer, thus achieving one of my chief objectives of the trip.

Friday—Delphi

This was probably my favorite part of my first Greece trip, and though the weather was not nearly as nice this time, I still thoroughly enjoyed it. Delphi was at one time the center of Hellenic unity, as it was the site of an Oracle of Apollo, where many leaders came seeking advice (but usually got very ambiguous answers). The Athenian general Themistocles famously received the prophecy there that Athens would survive behind her wooden walls. Some took that literally, and though the held out for some time, the city was ultimately sacked. But Themistocles interpreted it as a directive to build a fleet of ships—technically within the bounds of the prophecy, since the ships were made of wood—and successfully defeated the Persians at Salamis. Thus the Athenian navy was born.

Delphi was also the site of the Pythian Games, held every four years, and second in importance only to the Olympic Games. These pan-Hellenic games, in which every Greek polis of any significance competed, fostered unity on the basis of seeking excellence in competition among equals, and led to the conception of seeking excellence for its own sake. This came to characterize the Greek ethos, in contrast to the so-called barbarians, who sought only victory and dominance, which are the external goods that are usually (but not necessarily) the result of excellence.

While we were in the area, we visited the monastery of Hosios Loukas, which I had also visited on my previous trip. As with all the other monasteries we visited, it was built on a beautiful mountainside. But what set this one apart from the other monasteries we saw is that there were two very large and very old chapels built there, from around the 10th Century, I believe. Not much else to say here, except that I bought a CD of the chant they use in their liturgies.

Saturday—Corinth

Our first stop was the Corinth Canal. All sorts of interesting things to say here, but this post is getting awfully long, so I’ll just link to its Wikipedia page and move on.

Then we climbed Acrocorinth, which is a hill above the ancient city, and was once the site of a temple to Aphrodite, as well as a military fortress from prehistoric times that was occupied in relatively more recent times by the Ottoman Empire.

Next we went down to the second ancient city of Corinth. I say the second ancient city because this was rebuilt by the Romans in 44 BC after completely desolating the ancient Greek city in 146 BC because of their resistance to the Roman conquest. St. Paul spent about a year and a half preaching the Gospel in Corinth. It was there, in the ancient Forum, where he likely first proclaimed his discourse on love (1 Cor 13). Incidentally, this is also the site where he was accused of violating the law by a faction of the local Jewish community and found innocent by the proconsul Gallio (Acts 18:12-17).

Finally we visited the ancient port of Cenchreae, on the Saronic Gulf, where St. Paul left Corinth for Ephesus on his second missionary journey. And with that, we headed back to the retreat house to pack for our own journey back to Rome.

Looking to the Future

I look forward to returning to Greece some day, but probably to see some of the more out-of-the-way attractions. I’m told there’s not much to see in Sparta, but I’d like to go anyway. And I’m toying with the idea of climbing Mount Olympus and/or walking from Marathon to Athens. We’ll see if I actually go through with either of those, or if I can talk anyone into going with me.

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Introductory Post

Who I am

My name is Emmett, and I am a seminarian for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Dallas. I am currently living at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, working on a theology degree from the Pontifical Gregorian University. God willing, I will be ordained to the Diaconate in October of 2014, and then to the Priesthood in the summer of 2015.

Why the name?

The name is meant to imply a connection with St. John the Baptist. I’ve got a particular devotion to him since I was born on one of his feast days. And he’s an important figure in the New Evangelization. He preached about preparing the way of the Lord, and I think there’s a need for a renewal of culture in order for our society to be once again receptive to the Gospel. I intend to expand upon this topic in future posts.

I also think that, while Dallas isn’t exactly a desert, the name is fitting for the blog of a native Texan.

The purpose of this blog

I have been tremendously blessed to have certain unique experiences here in Europe, so the primary purpose of this blog is to share those experiences with family and friends. But I also feel an obligation to put my liberal arts education to good use, so I intend to use this as a medium to muse on things I find interesting. (Hopefully I’m not the only one who finds them interesting.) And finally, as I mentioned above, I hope to reflect on what makes culture conducive to the Gospel, in an effort to promote the New Evangelization.

My views are solely my own, based on a reasonable grounding in the Western Tradition, and subject to correction if necessary. They do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer or any institution with which I am associated.

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