Scenes of Two Cities:

Musings of an Irreverent Pilgrim

(From America, May 6, 1995, 6-7)


EVEN ON A GREY DAY it can be exhilarating, simply walking the streets and back alleys. Turning a corner and being unexpectedly faced with yet one more charming church facade, one more exuberant fountain, one more frenetic traffic jam.... And who could keep from smiling when coming upon a retail establishment called a "jeanseteria"?

At one end of the piazza, street mimes and jugglers, holding court for a few magical moments, each with his own special routine. Liturgies of delight.... In the middle, struggling art students earn a few lire sketching the faces of giggling school kids and serious lovers, while the critics' circle of passersby indicate their rating of the work by the amount of time they take to stop to observe. Brief excursions into vanity. Harmless enough; touching, really. You wonder where all the sketches end their days.... Down at the other end, a fascinating revelation: Apparently the Romans aren't very concerned about children's belief or non-belief in Santa Claus --- how else explain the three Santas at the same spot, having their pictures taken together right in front of the children?

Dusk: an outdoor Gospel concert in the small piazza in front of the Pantheon. Full-throated American black women pouring out their indescribable blend of suffering, oppression, heartache and the release of unfathomable grace and resurrection, all in the space of a few mesmerizing musical bars. Rich sound reverberating off softly lit Roman apartment walls; spontaneous handclapping that Aquinas might have termed con-natural. A humanity that transcends all the ethnic chasms....

And, of course, the pickpockets along the Forum, God love them. One unwary moment on the part of the pilgrim," a brief let-down of attention, and the walk home without wallet or purse can be very long. Sad that the word "Gypsies" comes so easily to our lips, unfairly branding a whole nation of the human family. And still, these young girls and boys didn't start this; they have learned excellence in their trade from a long line of ancestors. How do we relate to a whole tradition built on thievery? But of course we've got our culture, too, based on security and thief-proof money belts and such. Anyway, in this particular skirmish guardedness wins, the ragazzi move on in their hunt for other innocents, and we get to eat in a decent if modest ristorante. Which culture will outlast the other over the long haul is a much more risky bet....

Later, to Trevi fountain. Three coins over the shoulder and all that. Sitting on the metal railings that are wide enough to let you rest for a few minutes and narrow enough to dig into your derrière and make you get up and move along pretty soon. Who needs meters with such ingenious design? Watching the young lovers. Along comes a raucous troop of young Italian sailors exchanging outrageous flirting remarks with all the bright-eyed girls. Back and forth, sally answered by sally in an age-old game in which no one really wants to win because the sport is its own end.

A morning walk through the Borghese Gardens on the way to visit the gallery and see the statue of David by Bernini. A toothless old shambles of a fellow comes up from behind, makes out enough of our English to guess our destination and goes out of his way to spare us the long walk. Seems they close the gallery on Monday for cleaning (something the guidebooks failed to mention). Simple human neighborlinessùwhy is peace so difficult to achieve?


There is no clear boundary between Rome I and Rome II, no gate to pass through. The inhabitants of Rome II had been scattered sporadically through Rome I, too. You just hadn't paid much attention to them, seeing one here getting off a bus and another there coming out of a bookstore, sprinkled among the ordinary Rome I people.

Then, as you cross the Tiber and begin to move toward St. Peter's, you begin to realize you have moved into a different city. Religious habits of all sorts, soutanes, Roman collars, black berets and the old Roman capelli begin to appear as if out of cracks and crevasses. Whether it is the "church militant" or not, it is certainly the church visible. Nuns of all stripes. Freshly minted Legionnaires of Christ. Among them are surely some of the ever-vanishing Opus Deists. (One imagines that the motto on their shield reads "Who, us?") It makes you wonder about the "vocation crisis." Get all these people back out into the life of the people of God and many a local church would have more than enough....

And they all carry briefcases. No, not exactly briefcases in our American styleùstiff and crush-resistant. Theirs are the soft leather kind. Is there some Vatican PX somewhere that provides government issue?

One wonders what's in all those briefcases. Maybe the decree that will allow some poor mates from far-off Australia finally to have church sanction for a love which has been "valid" for, lo, these many years. Perhaps the draft of a letter the Holy Father will read at the opening of some religious congregation's chapter. Maybe the information that will eliminate some good pastor's possibility of ever becoming a bishop.... A member of one religious community notes that there are members of his congregation who would kill for the chance to become a third subsecretary in the Secretariate for Invincible Ignorance. Thomas More's rueful comment on learning that Richard Rich had betrayed him in return for a royal appointment comes to mind: "For Wales? Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world.. .but for Wales?'

In St. Peter's Square risky memories surface. Did we really hear Pope John XXIII, in those long-gone days, telling us of his experiences in the Italian marines? Mocking himselfùand having us in wild laughterù describing his inability to shoot a rifle and hit the barn? ...Later on, at a visit to his simple tomb, an elegiac moment: Where have all the flowers gone?

It makes you realize what you were missing in all those habited figures you saw crossing back and forth along the colonnades: Do these people ever smile? Hey guys, have you looked up at the scoreboard lately? Calvin's winning big time.... Does the new evangelization have room for joy? Do we proclaim that the Resurrection has already happenedùor are we supposed to strain to produce it ourselves? Living water is bubbly, after all.


The long flight back to J.F.K. offers time for reflection, and one can get some perspective again.

There's really only one city, of course. It is the separateness which is illusory. The same vices and virtues inhabit both stages. The same Spirit groans for completion at the heart of both. The same God delights in all the faces of the human family, whether smiling or gloomy.

Perhaps it's just easier to believe that when you're at the Piazza Navona....