Iter Italicum

In Rome I stayed at the Raphael, a fairly plush hotel that caters to Socialists, and one day Bettino Craxi, the secretary of the PSI, burst from the elevator, flashing the very smile that one sees on posters all over Rome. There is yet another election going on. I was on my way to see the pope. Ken Woodward seems to think the pope is a socialist. Maybe Craxi is a royalist.

During the Holy Year, one wants to be freed from such questions, if only briefly, if only in Rome. I attended the Mass the Holy Father said for the sick on Sunday, June 5. It was particularly moving to see the pope, so recently himself on a bed of pain, concelebrate Mass with a platoon of ailing priests while around the improvised altar on the steps of St. Peter other sick people gathered, on litters, in wheel chairs, attended by nurses. The pope said some things about the point of pain from a Christian perspective, but the real sermon was his hour long visiting with the sick.

Perhaps fifteen thousand people were there. It began at 6:30 in the evening with the sun still high in the sky and we faced west. Nurses and interns moved about with bottles of water. Someone lit up a cigarette during the offertory. Ahead of me a Capuchin agreed to hear one confession and for an hour or more was kept busy by those who came to sit in the chair beside him and confess their sins.

The Mass for the sick was part of the Holy Year events. Confession, Mass, Communion, visiting one of the major churches, St. Peter’s among them, praying for the pope — these are the things one does to commemorate the year. I went to confession in St. John Lateran. By the time I got to the Scala Santa across the way it was too late to make the penitential ascent on my knees. God is merciful.

How good it is to be in Rome and see the pope and cheer him from the square with Catholics from all over the world, with non-Catholics too, some of them fellow Christians, some just tourists acknowledging a celebrity. At noon, waiting for the pope to appear in his window and lead the Angelus, I read Le Figaro. The bad news of the world seemed trivial when the familiar man in white was suddenly visible in his window.

Bishop of Rome. Christ’s Vicar on Earth. Servant of the Servants of God. I never met a pope I didn’t like but this one makes special claims on our affection and respect. How long has it been since we had as intellectually sophisticated a pope as this one? As I write, he is on a trip to his native Poland. Is that what makes him a socialist, the fact that he is Polish? It certainly makes him aware of what currents are running in the modern world. How does one think benignly of a system that holds a Catholic nation captive, particularly when that nation is one’s own? It is no easy matter to be a Christian in the modern world.

I went on to Milan where in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana I held in my hands an autographed manuscript of St. Thomas Aquinas, a portion of the Summa Contra Gentes. This is an almost religious experience for an old Thomist like myself. On this very vellum, Thomas wrote his all but unreadable shorthand . . . But then, not far away, one can see the corpse of St. Ambrose, patron of the city, converter of St. Augustine. And beneath the main altar of the cathedral is the body of St. Charles Borromeo. One feels literally in touch with a vast patrimony, spiritual, intellectual, cultural. It seems at once presumption and mandatory that such a journal as this one be related to that great tradition. I returned refreshed.

And thinking that we ought to have a symposium on Catholicism and economics. Perhaps ask a number of people to comment on Ken Woodward’s remark that the pope is a socialist. I think we will.


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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