Week two. Recently I took the University of Mary students to the top of St. Peter's to the cupola. It was a day of rain in Rome, so the view from the top of the dome was not optimal, but we were, for goodness sake, standing at the apex of St. Peter's Basilica and looking out on one of the greatest cities of the world. Even through the drizzle we could see the Colosseum (80 AD) off in the distance, the Pantheon (126 AD), the Roman Forum (no date can mark all that it contains), and approximately a gazillion churches and basilicas, if I may use a technical term. It's overwhelming. I took scores of photos. Now they all look, as I surf back through them, like drizzly grayed-out photos taken from St. Peter's on a rainy day. With almost everything in life, you have to be there to experience its fullness.
All hail Monsignor James Shea, the president of the University of Mary, for establishing a Rome campus. I've had the opportunity to observe the 24 students who have spent this semester in Rome. About three-fifths of them are North Dakotans, the others mostly from Minnesota and South Dakota. One or two of them flew on an airplane for the first time to come to Rome.
One young woman had been working her family's grain harvest in northern Minnesota for 18 straight days before she flew. Her mother packed while she drove grain truck. Then, suddenly, they were here, halfway around the world, many of them getting their passports stamped for the first time, in a place where not very many of the local folks speak English, and where most of the assumptions and rhythms of daily life in the American Midwest break down fast.
Nor, when they arrived after 15 hard hours of travel, a day later than they set out, were they allowed to rest and unpack and regroup. No, they were taken immediately on a long day of jet-lagged touring around Rome to get some sense of the immensity of the adventure they have undertaken. If a liberal education is designed to take us out of our comfort zone without disabling us from preserving our core value system, Monsignor Shea's Rome campus is one of the supreme educational opportunities that begin in the faraway state of North Dakota.
It is said that on a very hot summer day in Iowa you can actually see the corn grow. Since Labor Day these students — the raw seed stock of North Dakota and Midwestern life — have grown in ways that will take your breath away. They are still kids, of course, college students, children of the heartland, full of laughter and the somewhat alarming exuberance of late adolescence. But they have undergone a cultural metamorphosis here that will mark them for life.
Some of them are nursing majors, or engineers, or business majors, but here in Rome they are all being baptized together in vast ocean of high culture. Rome is a humanities course on steroids: painting, sculpture, mosaic, architecture, music, history, literature, engineering, urban landscapes, sometimes all within the walls of a single structure.
Thanks to their experience here, they now know the difference between Renaissance and Baroque. They know why, when, and how Michelangelo was prevailed upon to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508-12). He did not think of himself as a painter, and then he painted a whole ceiling of stunning masterpieces.
They know why, and under what historical circumstances, he was brought back decades later (1536-41) to paint the Last Judgment on the wall above the altar in that chapel. They know how to talk about the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. They can discuss Gian Lorenzo Bernini's magnificent, uncanny, astounding "Ecstasy of Saint Theresa"without smirking.
They know now how to change buses, on the (to put it kindly) erratic Rome transit system, and wind up where they wish to be. They can order food without pointing at the menu. They attend Mass in Latin, Italian and English. They have tried food they would reject outright in Bowman, Bowbells, or even Bozeman, Mont.
They have broken their connection — for some an addiction — to television, for there is none at the U-Mary Rome campus, and the Internet is sufficiently dicey here to discourage incessant recourse to Facebook or email. And, perhaps most astonishing of all, they cannot use cell texts as their primary way of dealing with the rest of humanity.
Some of what they have learned, some of what they have become, will be hard to communicate back home. I have throughout my whole life found that transaction — trying to explain to others, even my closest friends and kin, why something was so meaningful, so important, so tender, so mysterious, so compelling, so destabilizing — a challenge, usually a matter of frustration.
So in the end the stories we tell repeatedly usually slip to that which is universally translatable: the time you ordered what you thought was X, and it turned out to be something that should never ever have found its way to a plate; the day you tried to find an angel food cake mix or sweet potatoes in a Roman grocery store; the day you left your wallet on the tram. These are important stories, the stuff of all travelers, delightful to tell, entertaining to hear.
But there will be other stories, too, harder to find words to express, and they are equally or more important. The young man from Wishek, a football player and business major, who stood in front of Michelangelo's David (Florence) and cried for the first time at the unbelievable beauty of what the human spirit can create at its best.
The young woman from Harvey who really understood for the first time the sacrifice of the cross when she saw an old Italian woman struggle to kneel on rheumatic knees at a Mass at St. John Lateran. The sense of helplessness one feels in the face of Raphael's staggering talent, or the feeling of shared humanism (confidence in the human project, kinship with a people who lived thousands of years ago) one feels for the Romans of Hadrian's time while craning one's neck towards the oculus of the Pantheon. Or the sadness of trying to gaze at Michelangelo's Pieta long enough until you have drunk it in completely, realizing that you can never bring enough to it to give it the loving attention that a piece of art that perfect deserves.
For the moment I want to concentrate on the students who are North Dakotans. I can see from watching them day after day, in study, in community, in laughter, and in recreation, that their lives in some important way will never be the same. They will return to the Great Plains deeper, fuller, a little more complicated, perhaps a little more restless than they were when they boarded that plane months ago.
As a mere Congregationalist, I cannot say for sure, but I think they will be better Catholic Christians for this experience. I think they will almost automatically become leaders at the University of Mary, in Bismarck, in North Dakota, and in America, thanks to this profound adventure. What a gift U-Mary has given them, and what a gift they are going to give back to the social fabric of North Dakota. Not one of them is cocky. Not one of them is, "Yeah, I can't wait to eat a real pizza!"
(Which, if you think about it…)
"Spaccato interno della Basilica di S. Paolo fuori delle Mura." Giovanni Battista Piranesi. c. 1751. From the New York Public Library Digital Collections.