Tuesday 10 September 2013

Visit to Pistoia Servites  Lovely surprise today: visiting Sister Ermanna were the two artists responsible for the excellent Maria Maddalena Starace Museum in Castellammare and the chapel windows at Via Appia convent. Piotr Mercurj and Barbara Ferabecoli were well known to me, after I visited their studies down by the sea at Ostia a year ago. Now they had been commissioned to to glass and woodwork art in the chapel of the Pistoia Servite Sisters about five miles from here. The sisters direct a large care-home for the elderly, and their big chapel is now the local parish church. Their facilities have all been renewed over the past few years, and their chapel is a delight. Piotr and Barbara took myself and Sister Ermanna to visit the convent, where we met the present Mother General, Sister Emanuela. We were shown round the rooms and facilities, which I viewed with greater interest after seeing so many of our Servite House care-homes for the elderly. Needless to say, I took my camera with me, and recorded the tasteful and skilful work of our friends. Piotr is Russian and looks about 50, but hes’ a good bit older. Barbara, who does most of the stained-glass work, looks about 25 but… they are lovely people and I was pleased to see them again.


Shopping in the Rain  In the afternoon I wanted to go into central Rome to get some religious objects, which I found helpful to give to people in distress. Sister Ermanna decided that we would go by car, even though I don’t mind using the bus and the underground. But she has a special pass for parking in the Vatican, which would bring us very near the shops I wanted to visit. Just as well! We parked easily enough, and shopped equally easily. Lots of little things, easy to carry. But as we left the shops, the heavens opened. I jokingly said that we are used to rain like this in England, but it wasn’t true. This was a deluge of Noah’s Ark proportions! We had umbrellas, but – paraphrasing the Good Book – what was that among so many (raindrops)? We got soaked. But then, Rome is quite warm, somewhere near 30 degrees, and we soon dried out as we joined the going-home traffic out of Rome, chaotic as always, but never jammed. I was pleased with the afternoon, just like the morning.

Wednesday 11 September 2013


I presided at the morning Mass with the sisters, who sang as though it were Sunday. Our reading was from Colossians, the part about “being dead to previous ways” after Baptism. I shared some reflections, especially how the writer emphasised all the bad things that believers were leaving behind. But I took them into the deeper significance of the text, which means that in a certain way we leave everything behind, good things as well as bad. Perhaps it was too early in the morning, but they certainly appeared to be listening.


Study Time After breakfast it was time for study. Over the past six years I have been part of a small commission set up after the last General Chapter in 2007 to prepare a General Directory for the Order’s Constitutions (Rule of Life), consisting of features taken out of the main Constitutions texts because they could be subject to future variation without sending them to the Holy See in Rome. You can’t just cut out the various articles, without making connections between them and the paragraphs they were taken from. And we had to work out carefully which parts would be “permanent” and which parts could be passed over to a “General Directory”. You don’t need to know all the details, but the secretary for the working Commission was myself. The other members of the team were fr Hubert Moons, dear friend fr Venanzio Ramasso, German fr Gottfried Wolff, Mexican lawyer fr Miguel Flores, and General Council representative fr Franco Azzalli. It was an excellent working-group, and we sent out drafts around the Order, receiving various amendments and comments. Our final text, beautifully written up by fr Franco and published in various languages, was sent to all the friars to study. Along with the text was my own record of the meetings, as a kind of introduction. Well then, now the whole thing will be presented to the General Chapter in Pietralba, and it’s quite like that I may have to be the presenter. Maybe not. I hope someone else will do it. But – just in case – I needed to do homework, and refresh my mind on all the texts, explanations and so forth. So I sat in the garden in the convent at Via Appia, and ploughed (I think they say “plowed” in USA!) my way through the necessary homework.


There’s plenty of other homework. Indeed, the many reports from each Provincial, from each special administration like the Formation group, the Finance group, the Lay Groups co-ordinator, the Missions and Social Justice co-ordinator, and then the General Secretary, the Liturgy Commission Director, and – at the top of the list – the Prior General himself. Fr Ángel’s Report touches on all the other reports, and it’s our duty as delegates to study them all and come to the General Chapter reasonably prepared. I’ve tried to do this homework in recent weeks, and I know our Prior Provincial fr Bernard Thorne has been doing likewise. At least we’ve been given time to do these things, despite the fairly busy lives that we all seem to live.


So, here I am, the evening before travelling north to the mountains, hopefully prepared and ready as best I can.


Nepi Visitor A visitor came to the convent today. It was fr Luciano De Carolis, from Servite Priory in Nepi (the priory which hosted the beatification of Blessed Cecilia Eusepi last year). We had bright, cheerful conversation about this, that and the other. He will visit the General Chapter next week to present the relics of Blessed Cecilia and remind the Chapter of this teenage saint who has inspired so many people.


These two days in Rome have been a kind of retreat for me, sharing prayer in this very prayerful community, and relaxing with time to study and reflect.


Thursday 12 September 2013


Name of Mary Mass with the sisters today was the Mass of the Holy Name of Mary. But I asked them to continue with the ordinary weekday readings, because the Letter to the Colossians that I spoke about yesterday continued today. Its theme was very baptismal – putting on Christ, meaning putting on kindness and humility and various other garments, “and over all these robes, put on love”. It’s a beautiful text, and comes to its climax by saying that Christ is the centre of everything, so that our tribal and social distinctions are no longer valid. And the writer adds, appropriately for today’s celebration, “let everything that you do be done in the name of Jesus”.


Journey north to Bolzano  After breakfast I was given a lift by Sister Ermanna into central Rome. Traffic was busy, of course, at 9 o’clock in the morning, but she got me to the station in good time for the 10.15 Silver Arrow train to Bolzano. The train ran late, taking 5½ hours instead of 4½, but it was easy enough. I did some homework for the General Chapter, and dozed off for part of the journey. It went through Florence, Bologna, Milan and then Verona. Here I noticed our brothers frs Bernard Thorne and Colm McGlynn climbing on board the train. They had taken the Dublin to Verona flight and the last leg of their journey was by train, the same train that I was on. It journeyed on into the mountains through the ancient city of Trent (where the Council of Trent was held in the mid 16th century. At Bolzano we were met by a tall African friar in Servite habit – instantly recognisable, but I’m sure we too were very recognisable! He was fr Matthieu, originally from Cameroon and now in the community of Pietralba, studying at Innsbruck University across the mountains. He drove us through dizzy winding mountain roads for about an hour, till we reached the huge, mountain-side shrine of Pietralba – Weissenstein (White Stone in German, much spoken in these parts).


Arrival of Friars Friars were arriving from all over the world. There would be about 75 of us. The shrine has a hotel, where we have our meals, a vast pilgrim-lodge, where we are living and holding our sessions. The church and priory are perched at the top of a wide mountain meadow. In wintertime it is covered with several feet of snow. And all around are the freshest, breath-taking wonderful mountains of the Dolomites, with pinnacles, lower-range forests, ever lower-range meadows full of wild flowers. You just have to resort to the silence of amazement to adjust to such greatness and beauty.


And that’s what we did, until 8 o’clock, when the largest group of brothers arrived in a long coach driven from Rome. They had stopped half-way for lunch, then visited Monte Senario outside Florence, and rolled in to Pietralba just in time for the evening meal.


First impressions Before that I had sorted out my room, and the ever growing collection of papers and documents for the coming meeting. Then I took my camera out for a first visit to the shrine, an ancient and peaceful place dedicated to the Mother of Sorrows. I think White Stone refers to the small sculpture of the Pietà – Our Lady with the Dead Body of Christ – around which the shrine has been built. I wondered into one little chapel after another, especially the Chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows, which requires you to stoop before entering, and can only hold one person at a time.


Communications  It came as a consolation that the brothers have organised the Internet for the participants here. I want to be able to send news and views to people during our 3 weeks here. And the mobile phones don’t work up here in the mountains, except for “texting”. I sent fr Peter Conniffe an “arrived safely” message, and he replied that he had been in the hospital for the past 7 hours with his Mum, who is very poorly. It was her 97th birthday last Saturday, but a planned evening celebration on Sunday had to be cancelled, and they had called a doctor instead. I am remembering Muriel in prayer. And I’m praying for fr Matthieu’s sister in Africa, who took meningitis last week and died. He seemed very stoic about it, poor man, but we know all about the horror of meningitis striking young people!


Friday 13 September 2013


It’s relatively quite cold here in the mountains, although our brothers from India and Africa would use stronger terms. Anyway, the rooms are wonderful, and I had a good night. There are not activities this morning, as people settle in. After breakfast, I did a “Sound of Music” and took to the hills with my camera. It really is so beautiful. I don’t seem to be able to forward my photos on the Internet, which I was hoping to do while still here. You may have to wait to see them – views and scenery that will melt your heart.


Fraternal Encounters It has been good to meet old and new friends in the Servite Order. The brothers from India remember my visit to them 2 years ago. Then there’s fr Bernardino Zanella from Chile whom I haven’t seen in 40 years. We worked together on the Constitutions all those years ago.He’s one of the older brothers here, and surprisingly so am I! Of all the participants, only 6 of them are older than me. And Austrian fr Reinhold Bodner has attended more General Chapters than me, but I’m the next one along. Makes me feel old, but these mountains have the opposite effect! American Provincial John Fontana is here, and Yvon Chalifoux the Canadian Provincial. I know all the Italian Provincials from our European Provincials’ Meeting in Ronzano, Bologna last year – Lino Pacchin, Gino Leonardi and Sergio Ziliani. And their various colleagues. Noël Rath, old friend from North European days, is here as a delegate now that the French friars come under the jurisdiction of the Piedmontese/Bolognese Province. Now there’s a new face, I thought to myself, and was pleased to meet fr Daniel Trottier from Québec City. And Nivaldo Machado is here from Brazil; he’s not the Provincial now, but he was when last I saw him. Sergio Mendoza was another new face, from Buenos Aires in Argentina. But I haven’t seen Mel Loftus yet, from South Africa – he’s probably recovering from the long journey. And poor Giuseppe Xotta won’t be coming at all. He travelled from Uganda, but has taken seriously ill, now in hospital in an induced coma after a systems collapse. He’s in our prayers too. 

The Prior General fr Ángel M. Ruiz was here to greet everyone on arrival. So was fr Franco Azzalli his deputy. General Secretary fr Camille Jacques is everywhere, and General Treasurer fr Piergiorgio Mazzolleni is the vicar, or prior, of the Chapter gathering, and makes sure everyone has whatever they need. He hovers around, ever attentive – doesn’t miss a thing! 

Opening Ceremony  The official opening of the General Chapter began in the chapel of the ancient shrine of Our Lady at Pietralba. (Have you located Pietralba in your mind yet? It’s an hour of winding roads beyond Bolzano, a huge priory on a hillside amid the Dolomite mountains. There have been pilgrimages and Papal visits here with up to 50,000 people gathered on the hillside in front of the monastery.) Anyway, we lined up in procession from the chapel, across the forecourt to the Conference Centre where we hold our meetings. First went a flaming Light of Christ, then the Holy Bible, the Icon of Annunciation from Florence (a copy, of course!) and then each of the 48 Chapter friars (2 missing still), bearing flags of the many nations from which we come. I was carrying the Union Jack, and Bernard and Colm had the flag of the Republic of Ireland. There was Swaziland, Philippines, Brasil, Canada, USA, Colombia, Argentina, France, Germany, Austria, India, and numerous others.


We took our places in the assembly room, with 9 tables of six places each, and our name tags distributing us into work-groups of language compatibility and varied types of friar – our General Council was well able to mix the groups successfully. Each one has complicated, useful electronic equipment, including multi-language headphones and console, as well as a voting console.


The Chapter Vicar is fr Piergiorgio Mazzoleni, our General Treasurer and a good organiser. He brief us all on practical matters like laundry, timetables, personal needs and so forth. Appointed as a kind of facilitator for the meeting is the Master of  Students in Rome, fr Paolo Orlandini, whom I consider a real friend. He seems to have been asked to keep the atmosphere light, to offset too much formality.


And there’s a young man who was ordained priest only last Saturday, who is a whizz-kid with eletronics, and he spoke about the machinery, as well as Internet and TV matters here in the relatively isolated world of mountains.


First tasks Regulations  I remember from 45 years ago in Madrid, at the famous General Chapter of Majadahonda in 1968, how many long, long days the brothers spent discussing a approving a collection of Rules of Procedure. It was new to people then. Thank God things have matured in subsquent years. We were invited to study and approved the Rules of Procedure for this Chapter, which were presented by fr Eugene Smith very clearly and helpfully. A couple of tweeks had been made to earlier Rules, with a view to encouraging more general involvement in discussions. This means less full-assembly discussion and more work in groups. This seems a good idea, because the same people (including me) tended to do all the talking, while the more shy brethren never said anything. After questions, the new booklet of Rules of Procedure received our first unanimous vote, 48 on 48! Yes, I said that two are missing: one is delayed, but the other – as I mentioned – is fr Giuseppe Xotta from Uganda, and he is very seriously ill in hospital in Vicenza.


Opening Mass Holy Spirit  We celebrated the Mass of the Holy Spirit in the Shrine church at 6.30pm, asking guidance for everything we are doing. All sorts of languages were used, and the Prior General fr Ángel M. Ruiz gave a homily about the Holy Spirit and Mary, with the quotation from St Luke about “rejoice!” and “do not be afraid!”. All sorts of intercessions were made, including for those who are sick or troubled, and a prayer for the people in Syria and its raging wars.


The sun went down in glorious colour across the mountain ranges around the priory. I took some photos and they will reach you eventually. I’ve now found a way of putting them on the internet. How? By getting up early in the morning, while the web-lines are not so busy!


Saturday 14 September 2013


Early? Well, we had to get up early anyway, because the Morning Prayer and Mass were at 7.30. Good job we’re in the mountains, because it was easy to wake up and feel refreshed. A glorious morning, even if the air was more cold than fresh! Duly showered, I wrote some diary (you’re reading it now!) and went out to take some early morning photos of the mountains.


Mass of Holy Cross The Annunziata Province’s turn to prepare and present the Liturgy for Morning Prayer. The Provincial fr Sergio Ziliani presided, with various friars around him. We all concelebrated from the benches of the church at the Shrine. They asked me to do the 1st reading in English, which I was happy to do. The Mass seemed quite pontifical, for 7.30 in the morning, but then … Sergio spoke about the Holy Cross, it being the Solemnity of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. He mentioned how so much human suffering divides people into have’s and have-not’s, rich and poor, healthy and sick and so forth, and that Jesus took the part of the poor and abolished the sense of division, insisting that all folk are worthwhile and belong together.


Work Session  After breakfast the Assembly set to work on choosing a Presidential Board for guiding the work and programme for the coming three weeks. The Rules require that each of the six members of the Board be electeed separately, by paper ballot, with anyone eligible on the first ballot, the top five on the second ballot, and the top two on the third ballot. Yes, sounds complicated or at least long-winded, and so it proved. Names emerged and gradually move up the list, until the following six were elected: frs Sergio Ziliani (Annunziata Provincial), Hubert Moons (Prior at Monte Senario), John Fontana (USA Provincial), Gottfried Wolff (Tyrolese Provincial), Benito Isip (Philippines Vicar Provincial) and Paulo Sergio Angeloni (Brazilian Provincial). Quite a team and it seems that they get on well together. That’s important, because they are the charioteers who guide the 50 horses of this General Chapter.  Maybe it was just as well that we spent quite a long time on that decision!


Awkward Matter Six years ago the General Chapter voted to increase the term of office of Provincials and officials from 3 years to 4 years. But the majority in that vote was not the two-thirds required by the Holy See at the Vatican for such changes. This issue could be dealt with here, but ahead of the election of the Prior General next Saturday. So the General Council proposed the same change, along with a parallel change of General Chapters from every 6 years to every 8. I knew this would run into trouble: you can’t expect a new gathering of the friars to simply slip into the rhythm of the previous General Chapter or of the General Council in the past 6 years. And so it turned out. And we ended the working day with all sorts of group discussions, speeches and votes, to find that the majority didn’t want to change the 6 year thing to 8, and sent the 3 years to 4 text back to the proposing committee to amend and present again later. Sounds familiar, to those who know what Chapters are like. But I’m sorry that it had to happen this first working day, because these early days are meant to be more spiritual and refreshing. Oh well… we have Evening Prayer later this evening, at 7 o’clock, as the First Vespers for tomorrow’s Solemnity of the Mother of Sorrows. Then there’s a classics concert in the Shrine church at 9 o’clock. And we’ll hold our spiritual Bible reflection tomorrow morning instead of this afternoon, a Lectio Divina with time for silence and for spiritual sharing.  If I go to the concert this evening I’ll tell you about it tomorrow…