Sunday, September 26, 2010

Another Wonderful Model for Youth: Blessed Chiara Badano

Who believes in coincidence? Not me. Everything happens according to God's perfect timing and it can be nearly electrifying to watch things unfold according to His plans.

Yesterday, a series of events led me to attend the Beatification of Chiara "Luce" Badano at the Sanctuary of Divine Love several miles away from the center of Rome. It took a long walk, the Metro and a bus to get there but it was well worth it. Thanks to Wanda and her friend (who happened to be named Piergiorgio!), I had a ticket to get inside the new church and ended up sitting six rows behind Mr. and Mrs. Badano throughout the Mass. After Mass, I was able to watch them being interviewed by various TV stations.

I had not heard of Chiara Badano until August 22nd when I was visiting some friends in Alabama. In honor of their wedding anniversary, another family hosted a little gathering that I almost didn't attend. It was during a conversation there that Chiara's name came up. When I heard that the beatification would take place on September 25th, something told me I was meant to attend.

Chiara Badano died at the age of 18 in 1990 -- the same year that Pier Giorgio was beatified. She suffered from bone cancer but her spirituality allowed her to embrace her suffering and give it all to God. The story is inspiring and you can find it (in English) on her website: All of the events were streamed live on the internet and you can watch the recordings (with English translations) from this website:

Like Pier Giorgio, Chiara is often noted for being a regular teenager who showed that we can be holy. One of her meditations during her battle with cancer was, "If you want it Jesus, so do I." She also reflected often on these words, "I'll be a saint, if I am a saint now." Those words struck me as a good way to examine my conscience. Am I being a saint now? Chiara planned her own funeral with the intention for it to be a true celebration of her meeting with Jesus. Her last words to her mother were, "Mom, be happy, because I am. Goodbye." Throughout the Mass, I could not help thinking about the suffering that her parents endured then and the tremendous joy they were experiencing 20 years later. Imagine losing your only child and then witnessing her beatification.

The lives of these two Blesseds are incredible examples of how we can be modern and Christian at the same time. We are all called to be holy. We are all called to be saints. As they unveiled the large picture of Blessed Chiara Badano in the presence of her parents and thousands upon thousands of others who attended, the choir sang "Gloria!" On earth and in heaven, the choirs sang. Blessed Chiara Badano and Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati...pray for us!


This morning, I stepped out of the 21st century and into the 8th century when I attended the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in the Melkite tradition at the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. Many of you may not know that I am born and raised Byzantine Catholic. I grew up hearing the Liturgy chanted in Old Slavonic, so today's Italian mixed with Arabic was quite different, but it was very comforting to experience the Eastern Rite here in Rome.

On a side note, the exterior wall of Santa Maria in Cosmedin is famous for the Bocca della Verita (the Mouth of Truth) -- a tourist staple. People stand in line to put their hand inside the mouth and see if they will pull it out unharmed. If you have seen the movie, Roman Holiday, there is a cute scene with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck standing in that spot. Till next time...Verso l'alto!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Rome Sweet Rome

Okay, the technical difficulties with the blog seem to have resolved. And I have a few minutes for a quick update. So....

On Friday, Wanda and I went to Torino by train. It has never been my favorite city but it is the resting place for the relics of Pier Giorgio, so I am always glad to go for a little while. I attended Mass at the beautiful Consolata - a place that Pier Giorgio loved to go. Afterward, it was very appropriate to finish the novena in front of his tomb in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. The big market was taking place that day, as well, so I milled around there just a bit. By 2:00, we were back on the train for Pollone.

The next day, we went our separate ways again. I have friends and family in the Modena area, so I stopped there for two nights before rejoining Wanda here in Rome. The small town where I stayed was called Castellarano. Lucky for me, they were having their annual festival. It was a wonderful way to spend the weekend. I arrived in Rome on Monday evening, a bit tired after the long day of train travel. But no rest for the weary. Wanda had planned a dinner on her terrace with a French priest and an American seminarian who are both interested in forming some sort of group to promote Pier Giorgio's spirituality here in Rome among young adults. It was a delightful evening. Yesterday afternoon, we met with another American student who is also interested in doing some work on Pier Giorgio's behalf.

The weather here is wonderful and a very welcome and much needed change. I walked to St. Peter's in the morning and caught my first glimpse of Pope Benedict yesterday at the start of the Wednesday Audience. I didn't have time to stay for the whole thing but enjoyed watching him zipping around in the Popemobile to the delight of the crowd on the piazza. A little later, I had lunch with one of Wanda's sisters before she headed out of town. And in the evening, I was able to spend time with a cousin who lives here in Rome. A very enjoyable day from beginning to end.

Now that I am feeling better, I have also been indulging my cappuccino habit. This morning, I went to one of my favorite cappuccino spots: Bar 67 in Trastevere. It's not far from the Basilica of St. Cecilia so I stopped in there to pray awhile in
front of the altar where one of the most beautiful sculptures in Rome (in my opinion) can be found. One of the very nice things about Rome is that the churches are open during the day and you can stop in one after another for a moment of peace and prayer. That means lots of opportunities to pray for all of you! Verso l'alto!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Prayers from Pollone

It has been a week since we arrived here in Pollone. In just that short period of time, I have received news that a friend in Nashville needed a heart valve replacement, our bishop underwent six-bypass surgery, a beloved monsignor passed away, another friend has bleeding in the brain. In addition, I have received many prayer requests via email and the Facebook page. There is always so much to pray for! I can only imagine how Our Lord's heart aches for the billions of people who call upon Him each day with such great needs.

One of the special graces of being here is being able to experience the constant calm that emanates from Pier Giorgio's bedrooms. There are two -- the one he lived in when at this house, and the one he died in at the family home in Turin (moved here many years ago.) I spend the majority of my time in the room where he died. For some reason, it feels like the appropriate place to pray. Literally, prayers are placed at the foot of his bed on little slips of paper. Calling on his intercession, that is also where Wanda and I pray the novena nightly for your intentions. We will be here another few days, just long enough to complete the novena, before returning to Rome.

On Sunday morning, we had the unexpected joy of having Mass in Pier Giorgio's room. When we were in the mountains on Saturday, we attended Mass at the old church in Oropa where the Brown Madonna is enshrined. Afterward, Wanda spoke to one of the priests and he was very much interested in coming to the villa. He is from Poland but is stationed in Switzerland. The majority of the Mass was in Polish, but he made an effort to add a little English for my benefit. He had a voice that reminded me so much of Pope John Paul II and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to him, even when I didn't understand a word he was saying! A beautiful thing it is indeed to be Catholic and part of the universal Church.

During the week, I attend evening Mass at the old parish church here where Pier Giorgio often served on the altar. I enjoy making the short walk through town and think of how often he passed by the same houses on the same streets. The other day, I walked down to the cemetery and visited the tomb of Pier Giorgio's beloved sister Luciana and the rest of the family. The house is not the same without her. In fact, I have been sitting in "her chair" for meals and told Wanda that I feel like I am sitting on top of her!

We have had beautiful weather here -- none of the customary rain and a clear view of Mount Mucrone. You can't help but feeling closer to God when you look up at a mountaintop from below and sense His majesty. It is easy to understand how Pier Giorgio was moved to write, "Mountains, mountains, mountains, I love you!"

Even though I have still not loaded all the photos or managed to blog more regularly, be assured of my constant prayers from Pollone. Verso l'alto!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Home is where Pier Giorgio is!

Before I left for Italy, I was determined to blog more. But not long after arriving, I came down with what I think was just a very bad cold. Now, two weeks and a lot of miles and cities later, I am feeling better but still trying to get over a nagging cough. That's my excuse for the very infrequent blog posts! Tonight, however, I am determined to satisfy those of you who have been wanting more.

I will start in Poland but will use subheadings for those of you who want to go straight to Italy! :)

Wanda and I arrived in Warsaw on Friday, September 3rd. It was my first visit there and a privilege to go with her as it is the place of her birth. We got settled in our rooms and I went straight to bed. Woke up feeling terrible with still a bit of a fever and was disappointed that I would not get to see Warsaw. I only had Saturday there because the plan was for me to go on my own the next day to some other places and rejoin her later. Around 2:30 in the afternoon, I awakened to what sounded like a marching band. Now, Wanda is a great lover of music and often has something wonderful playing. So, I wasn't sure if it was coming from inside the house or outside. It got me out of bed, though. Sure enough, a marching band was coming down the main street. I could also see a lot of booths set up and a festival of some kind taking place. It was the push I needed to get moving. Wanda was not in the house, so I ventured out alone.

One of my first thoughts after spending just a little time in Poland was that I owe a major apology to everyone who came on the FrassatiUSA pilgrimage with me last year. I quickly realized how intimidating it is to be in a country where you do not understand a single word and how I had not considered that when they were with me. Even saying, "I don't speak Polish" is difficult in that language. I didn't stay out long.

Wanda returned shortly after I did and was surprised to see me on my feet. I convinced her I was well enough to see Warsaw and she took me to the old town. We walked past the President's palace where a bit of turmoil is still unfolding over a monument to the former president who died in a plane crash. We timed it perfectly to see the changing of the guard at the palace. We also saw weddings galore. It was like a Las Vegas chapel. One wedding was going on inside the church and another bridal party was waiting outside for their turn! My sense of Warsaw was that it was more American than other places I have been. There was a Subway sandwich shop across the street and a big Starbucks coffee shop -- two things I have yet to see in Italy. My energy was at an end and we called it a night.

I am only half Italian but full hard-headed and was determined to start the journey to the other cities that I had wanted to see. So, Wanda brought me to the train station on Sunday morning. She has been teasing me a bit about my Blackberry (which she sometimes jokingly refers to as my Raspberry) being a part of my body. The night before I left Warsaw, I was starting to type her instructions into the phone but she said she would write them out. That paper is one of the most valuable things she has given me these last few years! She wrote out the essential information I would need for finding my way and some key Polish phrases. Although I was assured by many people that "every young person in Poland speaks English," I quickly found this was NOT the case. In Czestochowa I met only one. Fortunately, he was in the train station and able to help me use the luggage lockers there. With just a backpack to carry, I headed off to Jasna Gora.

After a lot of pointing and showing my paper to a few different people on the street, I found my way. There was a special event going on -- some sort of Mass for farmers. The main street was filled with booths with local products, farm supplies, tractors and everything imaginable. A large outdoor Mass was taking place. In Polish, of course! I went inside and attended the Mass taking place in front of the image of the Black Madonna. It was completely packed. After Mass, I had an opportunity to sit and pray a rosary for everyone's intentions. I finished my time there by making the little journey on my knees around the sanctuary where the image is enthroned. Back down the hill, I stopped to watch some performers in traditional Polish attire. Then back to pointing at my paper and finding the train station. Managed to get on the right train to Krakow!

The second person I met who spoke English was a young woman who came into my car on the train just as it was pulling out. We had a wonderful conversation all of the way to Krakow about everything Polish. Two older women joined us and we included them in the conversation with the first young woman serving as translator. It was a thoroughly enjoyable trip. I love riding the trains in Europe. Some people complain that they are not reliable but I find it to be quite the opposite. It is such a relaxing way to see the countryside.

I was met in Krakow at the station by a Polish Dominican brother who brought me to where I would be staying on Stolarska street -- just across from the American Embassy and a minute away from the main square. It was cold and dreary and drizzly and I was surprised to find the heat on inside. In my previous blog, I mentioned how Brother Michael took me to the Priory and showed me around, including the spot where Pope John Paul II dubbed Pier Giorgio "the Man of the Beatitudes." He introduced me to Brother Lukasz. Between the two of them, I had the best guides for Krakow and the surrounding area.

On Monday, I took the six+-hour tour to Auschwitz. It was incredibly intense and left a lasting impression upon me. Over the years, I have viewed a lot of films and read a lot of books on the topic. The first office for FrassatiUSA was right next to the Tennessee Holocaust Commission and I had many opportunities to discuss the Holocaust and obtain resources in different languages. But, obviously, there is nothing like being there. It was very special to visit the cell of Maximilian Kolbe and say a quick prayer there. Our guide recommended two books. I purchased one that day and finished it the other night. It is titled, "I was Dr. Mengele's Assistant." Powerful and unforgettable. It was overcast and dreary that day which was quite appropriate for the sights that we saw. Too much in and out of the cold for me again, so I was back in bed not long after returning to Krakow.

Krakow (again!)
Trying to prevent a total relapse, I decided to sleep in on Tuesday. I joined a walking tour of Krakow at noon in the main square. Every place has its own special flair. One of the amusing traditions in Krakow is the bugle playing from the highest tower of St. Mary's every hour on the hour. I enjoyed it the whole time I was there. Our walking tour guide was very entertaining and I was able to see some of the most notable sights. Most of all, I loved seeing Pope John Paul II waving to us (okay it was a poster) from the Archbishop's house. I'm not a good one for appreciating architecture and art, etc., but did enjoy heading up to Wawel Castle and the other main points along the way. When the tour split up, I went back to the museum for JP2. I must say, what a totally COOL pope he was! In the middle of one room was a collection of his sports gear, skis, a kayak, shirts given to him by sports teams. I mean, what a guy! Later, I had my first real food in days -- pieroghies in Poland. :) I give Krakow two thumbs up and recommend a trip there to anyone. Not to mention the fact that the US Dollar is worth three zlotych, so your money goes a long way. But hurry before Poland switches to the euro!

It was either the salt mines in Wieliczka or the birthplace of JP2. For me, an easy choice. Unfortunately, there was not an organized tour for Wadowice. It was cold, windy, the usual. And I had to find my way there and back on my own without a cheat sheet from Wanda! The girl at the info booth drew me a map for where to catch a bus. Okay, I found the spot but to call it a "bus" was quite a stretch. It was a total death trap with a driver who was on and off of his cell phone the whole time. He used the brakes often and at the last possible minute. My stomach was three rows in front of me the entire time. After an hour and 20 minutes, we arrived at the final stop. From my first look at the town, I wondered what I was thinking. But after walking to the house where Pope John Paul II was born, I had no regrets. It was just great to be there. The weather was horrible but every once in awhile the sun peeked out for a second. It was the feast of the Birthday of Mary -- how appropriate to spend it in the hometown of a pope whose motto was "Totus Tuus." Attended Mass in the church where he was baptized, confirmed, received first communion, served as an altar boy. It was a wonderful experience. After a couple of hours, I flagged down the bus heading to Krakow. Much to my relief, it was a real bus with a professional-looking driver.

Thursday, September 9th -- destination Pollone and the Frassati Villa. Wanda left Warsaw early that morning and we met at the train station in Krakow. It was planes, trains and automobiles all day long! We took the train to the Krakow airport, then a shuttlebus, then a plane to Milano, a car, another train, another train, another car and finally arrived!!!

The second-to-last train I took was standing room only. She found a seat but I was stuck in a wall-to-wall throng at the entrance to the carrozza. Apparently, some accident down the line made this train the one everyone needed to catch. Probably about a dozen of us were crammed into a space meant for one or two. It was like that everywhere. A father with his five-year-old daughter were standing in front of me. A woman was complaining for at least 15 or 20 minutes after the train got moving. All I could think of was the cattle car ride to Auschwitz. No air, no light, no facilities, no space, no food, no water, no hope.

Driving up the main street in Pollone (which happens to be named Pier Giorgio Frassati Street!), Wanda pointed out a new addition. In honor of the 20th Anniversary of Pier Giorgio's Beatification this past May, the town has hung some banners from a few key streetlights. It added to the anticipation of getting back here since leaving last July 5th. What can you say about having an opportunity to sleep in the house where a saint slept, to live in the house where a saint slept, to pray in the room where a saint lived, to kneel at the foot of the bed where a saint died, to pray a novena with the niece of a saint? As many times as I have been here, I know that it is a special grace and one that not everyone can experience. So the first order of business was to begin a novena for all of your intentions. I always find the novena in honor of Pier Giorgio to be very powerful but there is no comparison to the experience of praying it in his room. I went to sleep very happy to be back in Italy, most especially to be here.

I woke up on Friday morning feeling like a small child on Christmas morning -- wanting to go everywhere and see everything. But I really needed to get some rest and so did not overdo it. The weather was beautiful and majestic Mount Mucrone was standing taller than ever. Wanda and I had some business to take care of and I didn't venture far. But in the evening, I did walk up to the parish church for evening Mass. This is a tiny town. I knew what I would find upon arriving at the chapel. The tiny pews and the space in the back where my long legs would fit. The same short little old Italian ladies who lead the rosary. Old Don Mario (the priest) who has been serving God for more than 60 years. It's a little home away from home here.

Today was another picture perfect day. Wanda was inspired to take a ride up into the moutains in Oropa. Just fantastic. We ended with the 4:30 p.m. Mass in the Old Church -- where Pier Giorgio would regularly go to pray at the feet of his beloved Brown Madonna. The church was packed and it was just wonderful to attend Mass there. Afterward, Wanda talked with a priest who is coming tomorrow morning to say Mass here in Pier Giorgio's room. What a great way to celebrate Sunday morning in Pollone!

Well, that is a trip down travel-blog lane! I really wanted to get some pictures uploaded here and onto the Facebook page but it is getting late and I am supposed to meet Wanda in Pier Giorgio's room at 10 p.m. to continue the novena. So, maybe tomorrow... Thanks to everyone for all of the prayers for my safe travels and health. Know that wherever I go, I bring you with me and remain united to you through our common friendship with Blessed Pier Giorgio. Verso l'alto!

Monday, September 6, 2010

In the Footsteps of Pope John Paul II

There is so much to write about the last several days but, as usual, so little time. Wanda and I headed to Warsaw last Friday. On Sunday, we parted ways for a few days and I journeyed to Czestochowa and then Krakow. I took a 6+ hour tour to Auschwitz and Birkenau today. Tomorrow, I am going to venture on my own to Wadowice -- the birthplace of Pope John Paul II.

Well, that's the short version. The long version goes on for pages and hours and is too much for a blog post. But there is one great story that I have to share. Here in Krakow, I am the guest of the Polish Dominicans -- a group of 92 priests and brothers. Some of them have Pier Giorgio as their patron and a small group just recently visited the Frassati Villa in Pollone. Upon my arrival, Brother Michael took me to the priory to show me some areas that are closed to the public this week (for their retreat.) One place was the earliest room where they studied in the 13th century, the refectory, an underground storage area, some spectacular artwork, the prison where one priest was kept for three years! All very cool things to see but not the highlight.

In a certain sense, these Dominicans are where it all began for Pier Giorgio. Thirty-three years ago, on March 27, 1977, the Cardinal of Krakow -- Karol Wojtyla -- attended the opening of an exhibit about Pier Giorgio. The exhibit was in the halls of the Priory in the large common area outside of one entrance to the main church. It was then that Cardinal Wojtyla was so overcome with emotion and encouraged others to go view the exhibit. As I understand it, the Dominicans were having a retreat at the time that focused on the Beatitudes. Accordingly, Cardinal Wojtyla offered this exhortation: "Go and look at these photographs. Behold the man of the eight beatitudes who bears in himself the grace of the Gospel, the Good News, the joy of salvation offered to us by Christ..."

The title stuck and Pier Giorgio became known ever since as the "Man of the Beatitudes."

Last night, I stood in the spot where Pope John Paul II (then Cardinal Wojtyla) was photographed looking at a picture of Pier Giorgio prior to making those remarks. It was a real moment of completeness for me. Perhaps, just perhaps, if Pope John Paul II had not spoken of or promoted Pier Giorgio so much, I might never have known whom he was. A common thread definitely runs through both of their lives. And both of their lives have so profoundly impacted the direction of mine. For those reasons and many more, it cannot be more appropriate for me to be here now and to be so inspired by the inspiration of Pope John Paul II. Setting off for his birthplace tomorrow is a little pilgrimage of gratitude, I suppose. Having so often visited his tomb, it will be nice to see where it all began for him.

On a sad note, I also retraced a few of his footsteps today, as well as those of Pope Benedict, at Auschwitz in Block 11, Cell 18, where St. Maximilian Kolbe died. Visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau is an intense experience summed up well by Pope Benedict during his remarks in 2006: "Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this?"

Well, it may be a few days before I write again. God-willing, that will be from the Frassati Villa in Pollone where I will rejoin Wanda on Thursday. Looking forward to praying for you there.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Bells of St. Mary

There are many pleasures in Rome. One that I had forgotten was the beautiful sound of the church bells that mark the time here in Trastevere. Every 15 minutes, the bell tower of the beautiful basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere tolls a certain tone once for each hour and once for each quarter of an hour. You never need to look at a watch. Unfortunately, I haven't been feeling very well since my arrival here and am forced to spend the entire day today in bed. The bells are my consolation. A wonderful consolation.

Upon arrival, despite a pounding head, I did take a walk down to St. Peter's. It is almost a tradition for me to visit the tomb of Pope John Paul II upon my arrival in this city. I was filled with emotion as I knelt behind the ropes and reflected on all that has transpired these past few years. I prayed for all of the benefactors of FrassatiUSA, everyone on the mailing list, everyone on the Facebook fan page, all of my family and friends. There are so many special intentions. I also asked that holy man to advance the cause of Pier Giorgio Frassati. I think he would have loved to have been the one to canonize him. Now it will be up to someone else some day.

Another favorite spot of mine is the Divine Mercy church here -- officially it is the Church of the Holy Spirit. They have Eucharistic Adoration every day and it is a very peaceful, holy place. I enjoyed being there for Mass.

Of course, here in the piazza where I stay, I am fortunate to be able to regularly visit Santa Maria in Trastevere. It is a beautiful place and a church that is very alive in Rome. During yesterday's homily, the priest made a point worth reflecting on at length. He spoke of how we have become so preoccupied with the rights of every sort of group, the rights of animals, etc. But we have forgotten that with every right comes a corresponding duty to live up to the responsibilities that the right bestows. Ultimately, all of our rights, our very dignity, come from being sons and daughters of God. And with those rights comes the duty to love God in return and live lives worthy of such a distinction as to be called children of God.

Not feeling well has kept me from spending much time with Wanda so far. However, I did get to visit with her and another of her sisters for a little while yesterday. We will make up for lost time in the days ahead. Thanks to everyone who has sent well wishes and the promise of prayers. It is all very much appreciated. Verso l'alto!