It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to (The Lord of the Rings, I.III).Often have I found these words true in my life, even when simply going out my door for a simple walk.
Such was the case yesterday afternoon when I left the Casa Santa Maria to meet a good friend from Quincy and her companions who were touring Italy. I left a little later than I had intended and so was making my way through the crowds with some speed when a man called after me asking me how to get to Saint Peter's.
I explained the route to him, but before I set off on my journey again, intending to keep my feet, (I always walk faster than the tourists and pilgrims), but he said something or I said something that sparked a conversation that quietly told me I should let myself be swept off (I cannot remember who it was or even what it was).
He was in Rome only for a few days with his wife and sons and arrived only that morning. He was born in Greece and so was Greek Orthodox, but spent the last 61 years in Australia. He married an Australian woman, a Catholic, and his children were also Catholic, which made things difficult for him when he returned each year to Greece and his family did not speak Greek.
At any rate, family custom dictated that he should have been named George, but when his father served in the army his comrade was killed and he was wounded. He prayed to God for safety and rescue, promising to name his first-born after the Saint on whose day it was on which he prayed. He was rescued and kept his promise (it's a Greek Saint whose name I never quite caught).
The man's father died when he was 19 and, blaming God, he abandoned the Orthodox faith and God, but something was happening in his life in recent years that set him out on a journey in search of God.
If my father had followed family custom, I should have also been named George and my father died just before my 8th birthday. I can't explain the bond that is felt by those who have lost a parent at a young age, but there is frequently an instantaneous understanding and friendship.
I told him I was on my way to Saint Peter's and would be happy to accompany him there. As we walked, he asked many questions about God and about the Catholic faith and history, which I was glad to answer. The route which I know well has never taken so long or been so rewarding.
When we arrived at the Angel Bridge, he thanked me for my time and for my help and asked me to continue on without him because, as he said, "I'm about to cry," so moved was he at the experience of being in Rome, at finding a Catholic priest seemingly by chance in the middle of the day taking the same route he was on and who shared some of his experience. He felt the hand of God at work and I was humbled to have been used by the Lord in such a simple way.
This is the constant danger of living in the Eternal City, of taking it all for granted and getting too used to walking the streets where the early martyrs walked and shed their blood, of visiting their tombs, and walking to Saint Peter's every day simply for a little exercise and because I can.
I met my friends about 30 minutes later than planned, but they didn't mind; they have just been seen Pope Francis again (they were at the Wednesday Audience two weeks ago) and enjoyed watching some of the workers dismantle a jumbotron.
They were hungry so we decided to go to a quiet restaurant and visit. Besides, one of them who is not Catholic had lots of questions to ask.
I had planned to take them to a nearby restaurant that Father Keyes recently introduced me to, but it is closed on Sundays. There are still a great number of people in the area of Saint Peters so finding a place to eat was not easy.
Eventually I saw a place that looked as though it could accommodate the 8 of us, but it was a German restaurant (and prepared the meal for Pope Benedict XVI's 80th birthday, but I didn't know that until we left). That turned out to be providential, because my friend cannot eat acidic food (which makes most Italian a no-go) and German food is the favorite of one of the others. It was another opportunity to lose my feet.
When a couple of hours together in the restaurant and then talked more in St. Peter's Square. As we left the Square, tears formed in many of their eyes as they looked again upon the Basilica and recalled they graces they received on their 3-week tour of Italy. It was another reminder that I cannot take my time here for granted.
After a while, they accompanied me back on the route on I took with the Greek man and we stopped at a gelateria with the best pineapple gelato in Rome. Afterwards, we walked a bit more and then we parted ways. They began their return to the U.S. this morning.
All in all, it was a great day of spiritual conversation with friends, for which I am grateful.