Monastery, unique to Italy, worth a day trip from Rome

By Laura Ieraci

Grottaferrata Monastery

The Basilica of St. Mary of Graces, the church of the Monastery of Santa Maria in Grottaferrata, was completed in 1024.

GROTTAFERRATA, Italy — Pilgrims to Rome, interested going off the beaten path, may want to venture about 30 minutes out of the bustling city and step into the 1,000-year-old Monastery of Santa Maria in Grottaferrata, unique in Italy as the last vestige of the many Byzantine-Greek monasteries that once dotted the southern Italian landscape.

Here, the chant and prayers of the Catholic Byzantine Church, typical of Italy’s historic Byzantine south, remain preserved.

Grottaferrata is located in the hills that surround Rome, called the Castelli Romani. “A Greek Catholic island in a Roman Catholic sea,” as Father Michel Van Parys, the abbot, described it, the large monastery was once swarming with monks of the Byzantine-Greek rite. Despite efforts to revive the community, the monks have now dwindled to eight — six are grey-haired. But the monks keep the daily office of prayers — mostly in Greek, with some Italian — and all are welcome.

An icon of St. Nilus, who founded the abbey in 1004

An icon of St. Nilus, who founded the abbey in 1004

The monastery was founded in 1004 by St. Nilus, a monk from Italy’s southern Calabrian region. Tradition has it that he and his disciples were headed to Rome and stopped to rest near a crypt in the hills close to the Eternal City. The crypt, which dates to the first century B.C., had been used as a pagan temple but was converted into a Christian chapel in about the fifth century. The Virgin Mary appeared to St. Nilus there and instructed him to build a church in her honor. He died a year later, after having established an abbey on the site. His fourth successor, St. Bartholomew, brought the church to completion in 1024. The basilica incorporates the ancient crypt as a side chapel.

A 12th-century mosaic above the church’s original doors

A 12th-century mosaic above the church’s original doors

At least two mosaics date to shortly after the church’s construction. Above the original doors is a 12th-century mosaic of Jesus on a throne, flanked by Mary and John the Baptist. A monk, represented in miniature, stands at Jesus’ feet. The larger mosaic that runs above the arch of the sanctuary symbolically depicts the scene of Pentecost: a white lamb in the center sits at the foot of an empty but bejeweled throne; six apostles are on each side. Those immediately on either side of the throne are Peter and Andrew, to whom tradition attributes the foundations of the Western and Eastern Christian churches respectively.

Also above the sanctuary are mosaics of St. Nilus and St. Bartholomew, which date to the 18th century. Off the nave to the right is a chapel with 17th-century frescoes, depicting the lives of the two saints.

The baroque marble iconostasis, which includes the icon of the Mother of God in the upper portion, is not original to the church.

The baroque marble iconostasis, which includes the icon of the Mother of God in the upper portion, is not original to the church.

The baroque, ceiling-high marble iconostasis, which distinguishes the altar space from the nave in the East, is not original, but was added later. The exact date and origin of the Marian icon, encased at the top of the iconostasis, is unknown, although tradition says it was donated in 1230 by Pope Gregory IX.

The abbey remains very much at the heart of the town of Grottaferrata. Though mostly Roman Catholic, the locals are much attached to the abbey and some attend the Divine Liturgy; others sing in the all-male choir.

In its heyday, the monks operated a large printing press for Eastern Catholic liturgical books in Greek and Slavonic. Printing machines with Greek keys are now on display in the abbey’s museum.

(To reach the monastery from Rome, take the train from Termini station to Frascati. Grab a taxi outside of Frascati’s train station for about 2.5 miles to Grottaferrata.)

With clenched fists, pope addresses social ills in Naples

Pope Francis in Scampia. (Screen shot)

Pope Francis in Scampia. (Screen shot)

Pope Francis this morning issued stark warnings to people who rob others of hope; with a strong voice and a clenched fist, he condemned mafia dons, drug traffickers and those who exploit workers.

And he shook his head in wonder that anyone could treat an immigrant as if he or she was a worthless annoyance.

In Naples’ Scampia neighborhood, one of those “peripheries” of poverty and degradation the pope speaks about so often, an immigrant woman from the Philippines asked the pope to please remind people that immigrants are children of God.

“Have we reached the point where that’s necessary?” the pope asked the crowd. “Are migrants second-class humans?”

“They are like us, children of God,” he said. What is more, they are reminders that this world is not the permanent home of anyone and that “we are all migrants (moving) toward another homeland.”

“We are all children of God,” he said, “beloved children, desired children, saved children. Think about that! None of us has a permanent home in this world.”

The pope also insisted, loudly and repeatedly, that high unemployment rates — especially among youths — were a detriment to society and a failure of the current economic system and public policies.

The problem is not simply the poverty joblessness creates, he said, but the way it robs people of dignity and of hope for the future. “When one is unable to earn his daily bread, he loses his dignity,” the pope said.

While Naples is popular for its pizza, its songs and dance, its popular piety and religious art, it also is the notorious home of the Camorra crime ring, delinquency, corruption and drug abuse.

“Tell me,” the pope told the crowd in Scampia, “if we close the door on migrants, if we take away the jobs and dignity of people,” what will happen? Corruption “is a temptation, it’s a slide,” he said.

Everyone has within them the possibility of being corrupted, of paying someone under the table or looking for easy cash, he said. But “something that is corrupt is dirty, eh. If we find a dead animal, it is going bad, it’s corrupt, it’s ugly. But it also stinks. Corruption stinks! And a corrupt society stinks. A Christian who allows corruption is not a Christian. He stinks, understand?”

Pope Francis began his day with a 7 a.m. helicopter flight from the Vatican to the Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary in Pompeii, outside of Naples. After praying there, he went to Scampia and then on to Naples’ central square, the Piazza del Plebiscito for Mass.

Addressing mafia members and other criminals during his homily, the pope said: “Humbly, as a brother, I repeat: Convert to love and justice. Let yourself be found by God’s mercy. Know that Jesus is looking for you to embrace you, kiss you and love you.”

“The tears of the mothers of Naples, mixed with those of Mary our heavenly mother,” also are pleading for the corrupt to change their ways, he said. “These tears can melt the hardness of your hearts and lead everyone back to the path of goodness.”

And to the struggling people of Naples, Pope Francis said, “Don’t let anyone rob you of hope. Don’t give into the lure of easy money or dishonest wages,” he said. Hanging on to hope, he said, is the first step in resisting evil.

After Mass, Pope Francis went to a local prison where he greeted hundreds of inmates and hand lunch with close to 100 prisoners who had been chosen by lottery. The prisoners reportedly included 10 from a prison block set aside for prisoners who are homosexual, transgender or HIV-positive.


Bigger than St. Patrick: In Italy, St. Joseph is the man

VATICAN CITY — Today’s feast of St. Joseph is a big day in the Vatican.

In addition to being Father’s Day in Italy, St. Joseph’s feast day is a paid holiday for Vatican workers. It is the name day of retired Pope Benedict XVI (who was born Joseph Ratzinger). And, the guardian of Jesus is one of Pope Francis’ favorite intercessors; he formally inaugurated his pontificate on St. Joseph’s feast day in 2013.

Retired Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis

(CNS/Paul Haring)

In his homily upon taking office two years ago, Pope Francis first wished Pope Benedict a happy feast day and pledged to him the prayers of the whole church.

Then, he went on to describe St. Joseph and look particularly at the lessons he, as the new pope, would draw from him. “In the Gospels,” Pope Francis said, “St. Joseph appears as a strong and courageous man, a working man, yet in his heart we see great tenderness, which is not the virtue of the weak but rather a sign of strength of spirit and a capacity for concern, for compassion, for genuine openness to others, for love. We must not be afraid of goodness, of tenderness!”

As pope, he said he “must be inspired by the lowly, concrete and faithful service which marked St. Joseph and, like him, he must open his arms to protect all of God’s people and embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important, those whom Matthew lists in the final judgment on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison. Only those who serve with love are able to protect!”

(Courtesy of Il Sismografo)

(Courtesy of Il Sismografo)

On several occasions, most recently in the Philippines, Pope Francis has spoken about his personal devotion to St. Joseph and his reliance on him as an intercessor.

Meeting families in Manila Jan. 16, the pope noted how God spoke to a sleeping St. Joseph in his dreams. Not once, but twice. First, when he told Joseph to marry Mary; and then when he warned Joseph to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt to flee Herod’s murderous plans.

Pope imitates his statue

Pope Francis demonstrates the posture of his statue of St. Joseph. (CNS/Paul Haring)

“I have great love for St. Joseph, because he is a man of silence and strength,” the pope said. “On my table I have a statue of St. Joseph sleeping. Even when he is asleep, he is taking care of the church! Yes! We know that he can do that. So when I have a problem, a difficulty, I write a little note and I put it underneath St. Joseph, so that he can dream about it! In other words I tell him: pray for this problem!”

The other thing St. Joseph’s feast day brings to ItalyStJoeFood is sweet: zeppole with black cherries and bigné di San Giuseppe. Once the feast is over, the variations on a cream puff disappear until next March.

Updated note: The Vatican press office reported that shortly after noon today, Pope Francis telephoned Pope Benedict to wish him a happy name day.

Remembering election night

VATICAN CITY — The election night introduction of Pope Francis to the world on March 13, 2013, took only 12 minutes. These minutes were some of the most important of my photographic career. For months I had obsessed about every detail of covering the election of the new pope.

Beginning in October of 2012 I began having a strong feeling that something big was going to happen to Pope Benedict XVI, although I never imagined he would resign. Throughout the fall and into early 2013 I began planning for what Vatican journalists politely call the “papal transition.”

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In planning how to shoot a new pope’s first appearance, my two major concerns were getting the photos out quickly and making sure they were in focus. I had already photographed seven “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and the world) Christmas and Easter blessings from the same balcony where the pope would make his first appearance. I knew how difficult focus can be at a far distance when the subject is not very big in the viewfinder. I had always anticipated shooting the appearance of the new pope in daylight, not at night, which makes things even more difficult.

Thanks to God’s grace the election night photos went well. My new 600mm lens didn’t lock up, as it had the night before, and proved to be exceptionally sharp. In the end, despite all the technical problems and worries, this was a blessed moment and God was in control. The results are in the slideshow above.

What Pope Francis spoke about in year two of his pontificate

VATICAN CITY — On Sundays and holy days, Pope Francis leads the recitation of the Angelus or Regina Coeli prayers at noon. He introduces the Marian prayer with a little reflection, usually on the day’s Gospel reading. To mark the second anniversary of his election tomorrow, I took the texts of all those reflections he gave in the past year and this was the result:

A social worker’s response to the euthanasia question

By Elliot Williams

VATICAN CITY — Last week, I had my first experience doing interviews within the walls of the Vatican. While attending the Pontifical Academy for Life’s conference on care for the elderly, I had the pleasure of speaking with Bishop Noel Simard of Valleyfield, Quebec, along with a few passionate professors and doctors from around the world.

Bishop Simard spoke eloquently on how the last moments of a person’s life can be moments of “serenity,” and “a chance for the person to accept and reconcile” with family members and with God. He also referred to aging as treasures of wisdom, much like Pope Francis has done in the recent past.

I then thought of another person who could provide valid information on caring for the elderly – perhaps the best source I had – my own mother, Dawn. She has worked as a social worker for the elderly in the greater Philadelphia area for over a decade. As an employee at an independent living community in Huntingdon Valley, PA, she knows the struggles senior citizens go through on a daily basis all too well. Dawn got her start, however, when she applied for a job at the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging (PCA), after taking care of her dying father during the last few years of his life.

Having just moved to the area, my mom knew very little about the city she now had to navigate in order to reach her elderly clients who were scattered throughout various neighborhoods, some more dangerous than others. Other than nurturing my grandfather, she had virtually no experience with elder care. Yet, after a long period of prayer, she genuinely felt a strong vocation for this line of work — strong enough to convince the corporation that she was fit for the position.

“It’s not that I felt I was so good at it [social work],” she says, “but being exposed to all the difficulties that older and sometimes ill seniors face made me realize this was a part of our population that needs help and attention.”

She recalled an instance that directly led her to this career path. “I remember being with my dad at the doctor’s office and the office manager spoke so rudely to an elderly patient about her medical insurance that I became upset. I felt blessed that I was able to handle all of these difficult tasks for my dad but realized that this was not the case for every older adult having to manage our current medical maze.”

My mother continued by saying that older adults who have given so much of themselves throughout their lives are somehow being forgotten, abandoned and left out. She, like the bishop, calls the aging “treasures of wisdom”, and spoke highly of the final stage of her father’s life.

“The last years of his life proved to be a blessing in disguise. These were the times he shared stories of his life that I never knew.  My father had been in my life many years before his illness but the last three are the ones I remember the most. I too shared my own stories with him, as his adult daughter, so he truly got to know me – who I grew up to be.”

Dawn helps her seniors with issues of nutrition, meals, transportation, medical insurance, government benefits, and many other modern day challenges. She’s seen many of her residents die, but they do so on a “divine timing that just seems right,” whether they go peacefully in the night or endure a great deal of suffering beforehand. In opposition to the use of euthanasia, she says, “Just like we don’t determine when we enter this world, we should not determine when we leave.”

In our current age, handing the elderly over to caregivers is a common practice, and some might devalue those who can’t work or operate a smart phone. While my mother certainly loves her residents, helping them find value in their own lives is perhaps the hardest part of her job.

She says, “They always leave my office reminding me, ‘Don’t get old, Dawn’ and I always answer back, ‘It’s better than the alternative [dying], right?’ They just laugh.”

Elliot Williams is a Communication major at Villanova University. He is originally from Abington, PA, and is studying abroad at Roma Tre University, while interning for Catholic News Service’s Rome bureau. Elliot is an avid Nutella fanatic.


Tribute to Nadia Hilou: A Catholic Arab Israeli legislator who promoted tolerance, coexistence

By Judith Sudilovsky

JERUSALEM — News of the death of Nadia Hilou, the first Christian Arab woman to serve in the Israeli Knesset, left me greatly saddened. She was a strong defender of women and children’s rights, a great proponent of tolerance, coexistence and peace in a place where those things are sorely needed.



A social worker who lived in the mixed Jewish-Arab town of Jaffa where she was born, the 61-year-old was an example for both Jewish and Arab Israelis on how life in this complex land should be lived.

I had the opportunity to interview Nadia, a Catholic, numerous times following our first meeting in 1999, just before she lost her second bid to the Knesset. She was then, as she was always, poised, professional, determined and principled. Always a fighter, she told me she had decided to join the Labor Party following the assassination of Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

She did not allow her two losses to discourage from running again for the Knesset. I was pleased to be able to interview her following her third successful campaign in 2006, when she did win.

In interviews, Nadia was no-nonsense and always had a keen way of zeroing in on the topic at hand without mincing words. Speaking fluent Hebrew, she addressed Jewish Israelis and led them to see issues from a different vantage point in her own unique way without skimping on her own truth.

Last summer she spoke out against the war in Gaza, condemning the violence on both sides; her first concern always was the women and children whose lives were being threatened by the fighting.

Despite the growing extremism and racism, she never gave up hope on her mantra which rings in my ear: Jews and Arabs must learn to live together.

– – –

Editor’s note: Hilou died Feb. 27.


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