University of Mary

Easter in the Rain at St. Peter's Square


My various work projects had been so demanding that Easter 2015 had hardly even entered my mind before I boarded flights for Rome last Friday. I had no way of knowing that this would be the most intense Easter of my life.

Shortly after landing at Rome's Fiumicino airport on Easter eve, I found myself watching Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004) with a dozen deeply devoted Catholic college students. I had never seen The Passion before, and I can affirm that I will never watch it again. In its own way the film's depiction of the last twelve hours of Jesus' life is gripping, but it is so unrelentingly and graphically violent that I had to cover my face a number of times just to get through it. It seemed to me that no body could ever endure so much grotesque physical abuse, that if Jesus had actually been subjected to the kind of torture depicted in the film, he would never have lived long enough to be crucified.

There are paradoxes here. We know that Jesus was crucified by the Roman authorities after being whipped and scourged and beaten. The Romans were ruthless about such things. So the depiction in The Passion of Christ is probably more realistic and historically accurate than we like to think. And—I get it—the point of Mel Gibson's film is to make us just as uncomfortable as possible without driving us out of the theater. How can we understand God's decision to make himself suffer the ultimate human degradation unless we have something like a real understanding of what that must have involved by way of physical and mental suffering?

As I watched The Passion in horror, I realized that my idea of the crucifixion has always been pretty vague and mythological. Whenever I have stood before Michelangelo's stunning Pieta in St. Peter's—one of the world's supreme works of sculpture—I have never once stopped to recognize that by the time Mary held her dead son in her arms, Jesus' body was torn in every way, pierced by a spear, whipped and scourged right down to the ribs, bloody, bruised, swollen, and profoundly disfigured. The perfection and artistic serenity of Michelangelo's treatment removes the bloodlust from the story, and lets us concentrate instead on the pity of the crucifixion, and even the divine dignity of it, rather than its sickening violence. I give Gibson credit for that—he made the torture and execution of Jesus real for me for the first time.

Too real. The film's obsession with graphic violence felt gratuitous to me. It turned my stomach rather than deepened my understanding of the sacrifice. I could not sleep for many hours, but during that time I was not praying to God or Jesus in praise or sorrow, I was just sick at heart at man's ingenuity in meting out pain to his fellow man.

One more note about the film. Just as Jesus began to climb the steep hill of Golgatha, carrying a cross that even a healthy man would have had trouble hoisting up the trail, a real thunderstorm broke over Rome. We all jumped from the unexpected flash of lightning, and exchanged nervous glances. The last forty minutes of The Passion were, for us, accompanied by a kind of angry orchestral thunderstorm.

On Easter Sunday we got up at first light to hasten by city bus to St. Peter's Square. An audience of more than a million pilgrims was expected. If we had any expectation of getting seats close to the platform on which Pope Francis would celebrate the mass, or for that matter to get any seats at all, we had to get to St. Peter's three full hours ahead of time, and then jostle our way to preferred seating once the security team began to let people pass through the magnetometers. At times it felt more like a badly organized Super Bowl than a Papal mass at the Vatican, but the students I was with were savvy and ready to forge their way (politely but unhesitatingly) to excellent seats. I do not exaggerate when I say that there were elderly nuns in the crowd who locked arms and surged forward like a Greek phalanx. People come from all over the world for this sacred occasion.

When we took our seats, about ten rows back from the protective fence, it had begun to drizzle. Just three hours to go! Then it began to rain. Then it began to rain hard. Then it began to rain cats and dogs. I had brought a couple of books in my backpack to occupy the long wait before the mass began, but they would have been ruined in minutes if I had pulled them out. By eight a.m. the crowd entirely filled the vastness of St. Peter's Square and spilled over blocks deep in every direction. Just two and a quarter hours to go! As far as I could tell there was roughly one umbrella for each hundred people at the Vatican. If ever there was a moment that called for a loaves and fishes miracle, this was it. The number of umbrellas did actually seem to increase over time, but it rained well more than an inch Easter morning, perhaps two, and no matter how many umbrellas interlocked to create a kind of ad hoc pilgrim's awning, that water had to go somewhere. The net effect was not to keep us any dryer than we would have been bareheaded, but to concentrate the flood into icy rivulets that suddenly ran off the umbrella ahead of you (or behind you) and down your back.

By the time the mass began at 10:15 a.m. we were as wet and cold as it was possible to be, sitting in cheap plastic chairs that had become shallow pools of rain water, trying to get a glimpse of the Pope, or anything at all for that matter, through the sea of brightly colored umbrellas. We were about as close to Pope Francis as it was possible to get, and yet we could neither see him nor even see the giant Jumbotron that televised the event. Most of the students had begun to shiver, sodden with rain, chilled by wind, with the temperature at about 40 degrees.

Nevertheless, almost everyone who had come to St. Peter's Square stayed—because it was Easter, because individuals had ventured, at great expense, from all over the planet to experience this moment, because (we all had to feel) what's a little discomfort in the face of Jesus' agonies? We stayed, too, because we were in the presence of Pope Francis, who has in his remarkable ministry struck an unusually strong chord with the peoples of the world. My group stayed also because Tom Schulzetenberg, the director of UMary's Rome program, had been given the high honor of reading a short text to almost a million pilgrims.

Hours later, once we had gotten out of our soggy clothes and showered for a very long time, we broke bread together back at the Rome campus. I had smuggled in jelly beans and chocolate eggs and Jello from Dakota. Jello, it turns out, doesn't perform very well outside of its home court. Here in Rome it was just a dark red slurry on our plates.

This was the Easter I will never forget.

St. Peter's and the Vatican, Rome. Giovanni Battista Piranesi. 1750. From the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

All Hail Monsignor Shea for Creating the U-Mary Rome Campus


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.

The Joys and Sorrows of the Electronic Globe


I am spending Thanksgiving in Rome. I give thanks to the global internet for making it possible to write these words 5,185 miles away from the turkey my mother and daughter are cooking in Dickinson. The students I am teaching for the University of Mary are down the hall Skyping their families back home. We live in an age of technological miracles. How is it that humans can zip around the planet this way and communicate more or less effortlessly over vast distances? If our civility and peacefulness and generosity of spirit were equal to our technological wizardry, the world would now be approaching utopia. But while we give thanks for the abundance of our lives, radical Islamists are cutting the heads off people including American journalists, they regard as infidels. And we, admittedly, are killing Islamists we regard as evil doers with drone strikes and cruise missiles. As humans overcome space, the paradoxes of human nature become more biting. We can send video of stupid pet tricks to the far corners of the planet effortlessly, and free, but we cannot get water to dying people in sub-Saharan Africa.

Just as I wrote that last sentence, my computer "rang," and Skype announced that my daughter was video calling. And suddenly there she was, sitting at the kitchen table of the house I grew up in in Dickinson, not quite clear as a bell, but a hundred times more clear than when Neil Armstrong bounced down onto the surface of the moon. I could see her expressions as if I were sitting across that table from her. I could see, for example, that she got a good night of sleep in her first night in North Dakota. Good news for a busy college student at the end of a hard semester, and for her doting father who worries that she studies too hard.

We talked for 45 minutes, for free. For free! How is this even possible? If you had said to me when I was a junior in college (1975) that the day would come when you could talk free for most of an hour between Rome and North Dakota, I would have said, "Never gonna happen." If you had said that there would be video, too, free, I would have said, "You've been reading too much science fiction." But there she was, laughing, telling stories, talking about the chaos in Ferguson, Missouri, asking me about my flight to Rome, etc. Behind her I could see my mother bustling about the kitchen making her famous pumpkin chiffon pie for tomorrow (I wrote this on Thanksgiving eve). Mother is the epitome of domestic efficiency, and—if the truth be told—she is a kind of kitchen Nazi who does not welcome help when she is hard at cooking, baking, or clearing up. She was cracking eggs while my daughter was cracking jokes, and from time to time Mother would chime in from four or ten feet away with a wise crack of her own, or "refute" something my daughter was saying. They have the most amazing love for each other that I have ever seen between grandmother and granddaughter, but they are neither of them very sentimental in that love. They tease and jostle each other in a kind of running dialogue. When Mother said something particularly opinionated, I could actually see my daughter raise her eyebrows for her father's benefit. Fortunately, there is no recording of the video conference.

I was telling my daughter about a field trip I have planned for my students on Monday—to Ostia Antica, the ancient port of Rome where the River Tiber meets the Mediterranean. I told her one of the things I want these students to see is the place where St. Augustine's beloved mother Monica died. There is a famous passage about it in Augustine's Confessions. My daughter is a classics major—Latin and Greek—and so before I had really begun my description she was telling me where Monica was finally buried in Rome, and that in that church we could also find a painting by Caravaggio. So my 20-year-old daughter in the middle of the plains of western North Dakota was teaching her father, the teacher, half way around the world. 

So now as I write these words in the aftermath of that sweet conversation I feel bittersweet. On the one hand, I am so thankful that I was able to connect tonight (their today) with the two women who mean most to me. To see my mother separating egg yolks from egg whites, and waving her wooden spoon mock-menacingly at my daughter when she disputed some anecdote, while my child rolled her eyes and laughed with pure joy, was a great delight and comfort. It was almost as if I were in that kitchen. I could see the stairs up to the second floor. I could see the big kitchen window and the snow-strewn yard beyond, and that wonderful glaring white light of North Dakota on a cold crisp November day. I was with them in some genuine way, and it was infinitely more familiar and intimate than a long distance telephone call. And yet…

As I write the last of these words, I am overcome with sadness. Being away from them during my favorite holiday of the year (theirs too) was going to be hard, and I had worked up some pretty strong stoicism to get through this. In some sense it would have been easier to remain resolutely in this zip code than to peer in virtually on theirs. I wanted to hug my child. You know that hug that redeems everything in life. Even a four second hug can serve as a full top-off on love. There she was, tantalizingly close, full of youth and life and joy and love, eating the occasional barbecue potato chip, as if we were not engaged in spectacular form of techo-badminton. But she was also untouchable. It felt like one of those ghost stories in which something or someone is completely "real" until you reach out to hold them, but then your hand goes right on through the illusion. There is a story in Virgil's Latin epic the Aeneid (Book Two, I think) that works like this. If we were still Skyping, my daughter would now inform IM me the passage, with a slightly (and carefully) raised eyebrow that her father could have forgotten precisely where to locate the passage. So now I have decided to have my U Mary students read one of the twelve books of the Aeneid next week.

So here I am, sitting in an office on the Rome campus of the University of Mary. One by one the students have shuffled off to bed. The campus is quiet (it is only quiet when they sleep!). It is now technically Thanksgiving here in Italy, where Thanksgiving is not celebrated. But I'm not really here now, though the fingers that type these words are tired. I am across the world at that kitchen table in Dickinson, listening to the love contest between the two women who flank my heart, and contributing the occasional sentence. I can smell that pie.
And I am immensely thankful, in a way that I would not be if I were there, but with a wash of sadness like the vanilla mother is swirling through those beaten eggs.

Spring Break in Rome: With Thanks to Monsignor Shea

By the time you read these words I will be walking the streets of Rome with my favorite person in the world.

Over the years I have written fairly frequently about my daughter. My reason for doing so was that she was having a typical Great Plains childhood in a town the size of Mott—growing up with daily access to a family farm, 4-H, cheerleading, the Christmas pageant at church, driving a grain truck during wheat harvest, the local loudmouths denouncing the Federal Government while waiting for their USDA deficiency payments. You know, rural life on the Great Plains.

Since she went off to an eastern university I have written about her less, because her experiences now are less meaningful as a window on the Great Plains, which is my principal subject. I frankly doubt that she will ever come back, except for holidays and burials. In her short lifetime she has witnessed a hardening of the spiritual arteries of rural Kansas (let's pretend it is only Kansas), and she never took to the windswept bluffs and the seasonal rivers of the plains the way her mother and father each did. Ah, but I had the greatest mentor in the world.

Sometime back in October, she called me from her dorm room and said, "I want to talk about Spring Break." My heart sank. Film loops of the 1960 "classic" Where the Boys Are had instantly begun to run through my head—and they were at the innocent hijinks end of the Spring Break spectrum. What if it's Girls Gone Wild in Fort Lauderdale, Cabo, South Padre Island, Jamaica, Aruba? The dreaded and deadly Aruba! But then she interrupted my nightmare reverie with, "Dad, if you are free during those dates would you take me to Rome for Spring Break?"

I doubt that she could have spoken any other sentence in the world that would have pleased me more fully: Rome, Spring Break, Papa. I cleared my schedule. We booked tickets. She chose the hotel.

Nerds Gone Wild.

There are so many "must see" sites in Rome—things you must see every single time you go—that there is never much time for the scores of second tier attractions, and the thousands of third tier attractions, any one of which would be the most important cultural destination in North Dakota or Montana, if Caesar Augustus (63 BCE-14 CE) or Pope Julius II (1443-1513) had happened to have built them here. There are only a handful of inexhaustible cities on earth, and Rome is at the top of the list: Rome, Paris, London, Vienna. . . If you went to Paris once a year for the rest of your life, you would never be able to conclude, "Well, I have now seen everything Paris has to offer." Rome, if anything, is even more inexhaustible. Our plan is to walk ten miles a day, maps and apps in hand.

It is her first trip to Rome, my fifth.

My daughter has been studying Latin in a curriculum so rigorous that its sends me reeling when she calls at 11:30 p.m. to ask me about a passage in Catullus or Ovid. So our primary interest—this trip!—is classical Rome and Renaissance Rome, though she has also expressed interest in visiting a museum dedicated to Goethe, and the graves of the English poets Shelley and Keats. The only thing I have insisted upon is that we see as many of Bernini's statues as possible. If it is possible that there is a sculptor greater than Michelangelo, I believe it is Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). Virtually our first stop will be Bernini's "Ecstasy of Saint Teresa" at the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria.

I cannot imagine going to Rome and not seeing the Sistine Chapel no matter how many times you have seen it, no matter how frustrating the crowds are, or the guards who are trying to manage those crowds. Or Michelangelo's Pieta, the exquisite sculpture of Mary, the mother of Christ, holding the broken body of her son. Such works of art—there are literally thousands in Rome—are among the greatest expressions of the human spirit on earth, equal to Hamlet and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and the Parthenon and Dante's Inferno. They are also among the greatest expressions of humankind's spiritual hunger. To see them is to ache for human possibility.

This time, I get to see these things through the eyes of the person whose soul I am most invested in of all the souls on the planet. In the old days I would be leading her from painting to statue to tomb to ruin to mosaic, promising gelato as a dividend for just one more cultural stop. Now she will be leading me to places and works of art she has been reading about in her university core curriculum, and explaining their significance (or their significance to her) while I stand beside her filled with pride and double wonder—wonder at the things we stop to observe, and wonder at the young woman observing them. This happened last spring when my mother and I went to New York for Easter. We three went to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and about half an hour into the experience this young sprout said, "Dad, Grandma, I want to show you my favorite Monet." And off we marched into another room. It was one of the supreme moments of my life. I stood next to her as she explicated the painting, looking a good deal like National Lampoon Vacation's Clark Griswold when he is blinking off tears of sentimental family love.

Back home in THIS paradise, my mother and I spent two summers back in the mid-70s wandering around the badlands of North Dakota for a project she was doing with a grant from the ND Department of Public Instruction. She interviewed 50 ranchers and cowboys. I took the photographs and ran the reel-to-reel tape recorder. We camped half a dozen nights in places she did not really want to camp and we cooked camp stews on a wee stove together at the end of remarkable days adrift on scoria roads. That was almost forty years ago now, yet for both of us it remains the very center of our relations of mother and son, and whenever we need a dose of renewal in our friendship, we hearken back to those days of miracle and wonder.

The Pantheon and St. Peter's 2014 will be one of our dad-daughter centerpieces forever, I hope.

A week ago I had the honor of dining with Monsignor James Shea, the president of the University of Mary. He served me a simple dish of exquisite subtle pasta that he put together effortlessly while he offered wry advice about places to linger and places to eat in Rome. We are so fortunate to have Father Shea in our midst, for as long as we can keep him. His learning, his grace, his vision, his boyish life-affirming out-loud laugh, his belief in the spiritual traditions of Rome and the spiritual possibilities of the northern Great Plains, make this a better, richer place to live. He is also our premier guide to the Eternal City.

"Parte di ampio magnifico Porto." c. 1751. Giovanni Battista Piranesi. From the New York Public Library Digital Collections.