Musical Mission; Hungry for Justice

Ubiquitous Caroling Stirs the Yuletide Spirits

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By Catherine Smibert

ROME, DEC. 22, 2005 ( Christmas caroling is making a comeback in Rome.

Though St. Francis of Assisi accompanied all of his original Nativity scenes with musical reflections, the Italians only lay claim to one traditional Christmas song: “Tu Scendi dalle Stelle.”

This year, many of the ecclesial lay communities are taking to the streets and caroling as a means of evangelization.

“It’s a musical mission,” said a consecrated member of the Shalom Community, Rafael D’Aqui, between songs in Piazza di Spagna. “We try to redirect peoples focus toward the real reason for the season.”

Rome’s churches are getting into the same spirit by opening up their exquisite interiors to visiting choirs and anyone who happens to pass by.

After a week of singing with her choir around the city’s churches, Emily Shenk commented on how amazing it was to witness the universal power of music.

“I began to understand that our audience didn’t care that we didn’t speak their language or always sing familiar songs,” said Shenk. “They cared that we wanted to celebrate the holidays with them through music.”

Also breaking the language barrier was an international array of Christmas songs performed at the Auditorium of Rome, or “Il Parco della Musica.”

Rome’s “Gospel Festival,” as in gospel music, runs Dec. 20-31. The feast continues Jan. 1-8 with the Strauss Festival Ensemble. The treble choir of Rome’s St. Cecilia Academy will also perform their quota of Christmas concerts. These performances help raise funds for charities such as the Community of Sant’Egidio.

Some of the pontifical colleges are getting in on the action by going beyond their usual English-language carol service.

The North American College began its Advent with an evening entitled “Lessons and Carols,” while the English College held an entire weekend of song and theater. In addition, the Irish College has arranged for a lot more songs in their Christmas liturgies while opening their doors to visitors.

Each of these music-centric experiences offered a sense of joy and peace and the universality of the Church. But catholicity peaked when I met a group of students from the Gregorian University.

They were showing others how to do as the Romans do, by singing all carols in Latin, regardless of the modern nature of the tune. Maybe you’d like to try one too:

“Rudolphus, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”

Reno erat Rudolphus
Nasum rubrum habebat;
Si quando hunc videbas,
Hunc candere tu dicas.

Omnes renores alii
Semper hunc deridebant;
Cum misero Rudolpho
In ludis non ludebant.

Santus Nicholas dixit
Nocte nebulae,
“Rudolphe, naso claro
Nonne currum tu duces?”

Tum renores clambant,
“Rudolphe, delectus es?
Cum naso rubro claro
Historia descendes!”

With a little practice, you can get the hang of it.

* * *

Lean Cuisine

Amid a season of festivity, one diplomatic banquet in Rome served its guests cold rice and tap water last week.

The idea for the event came from the new U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, Francis Rooney. He had the support of his U.S. colleagues, Tony Hall, the ambassador to the U.N. Agencies for Food and Agriculture, and Ronald Spogli, the ambassador to Italy.

No, they haven’t gone mad. It was a “Hunger Banquet.” They were merely trying to raise hunger awareness and give a sense of the reality of global income disparity.

As they arrived, the VIP guests were called upon to take a glass of champagne and select a piece of colored paper out of a basket. This exercise determined which “income group” they would be put into and, essentially, what they would be eating for the rest of the evening.

So, 15% of the guests were treated to a full-course meal, served on silver. Another 25% of the crowd, representing the world’s middle-income group, were lucky to get a little bean protein with their rice.

The remaining 60% received plastic plates containing a little portion of cold rice and were told to venture into the garden of the ambassador’s residence, the stunning Villa Taverna, to collect their water from the tap. They represented the majority of the world that goes hungry every day.

In his speech at the refined affair, Ambassador Rooney said it was a way the United States was trying to respond to the appeal made by Benedict XVI during a recent meeting of world leaders at the Rome headquarters of U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

“Pope Benedict called for greater international solidarity in the fight against starvation and malnutrition,” Rooney told his hungry listeners. “The United States has answered that call.”

The ambassador said that in partnership, U.S. officials look to the Holy See to use its moral authority to protect the human dignity of every man, woman and child — which includes the right to not go to bed hungry.

“We know that the issue of global hunger is a complex one,” said Rooney, “so we are pleased to partner with the Holy See around the world, and with you here this evening, to raise awareness of — and find solutions to — the scourge of global hunger.”

* * *

Learning the Ropes

There is nothing like experiencing firsthand what is being taught from textbooks to help you better grasp the subject matter.

That includes Catholic undergraduates who have the privilege to study in the Eternal City for a spell. One U.S.-based college offers its student such a chance, with facilities that put them oh so close to the heart of the Church.

In fact, Christendom College’s Rome campus on Via Aurelia is a hop, skip and a jump away from the Vatican.

I recently encountered an unhappy group of students from this campus as they were passing by St. Peter’s Square to say goodbye at the end of their semester. Their dismay lay in the fact they couldn’t stay longer.

They directed me to a vast number of other graduates of the program who felt the same way.

Thomas Cole of Manassas, Virginia, said his Rome semester “demonstrated the richness and beauty of authentic Catholic culture and of the faith itself.”

He says this is vital because “too often we, as Catholics, are either unaware of, or simply take for granted, the valuable patrimony of culture and Truth that has been bestowed upon us by Christ through his Holy Mother Church.”

Some of the students emphasized the importance of being in Rome to and being able to learn more about the sacrifices made by our Church forefathers.

“The chance to go, live, and see the actual places where martyrs shed their blood for the faith … to see the crafted monumental structures of simple believers … really reminds one that the faith is actually something alive and historic,” said Brian Hadro, also of Manassas, Virginia. “It rekindles a fire to know more still.”

A student from Savannah, Georgia, Mary-Rose Lombard, described her time abroad as the culmination of all the classes she had previously taken at Christendom.

“The beauty and glory of the faith were written on every stone and with so much beauty it would be hard to return to daily life without taking it with you,” she said.

Another student, David Rudmin, of Harrisonburg, Virginia, noted the tangibility of a faith experience in Rome, saying, “It challenges not only one’s explicit understanding of what Western civilization is built on, but also so many subtle prejudices that one didn’t even know one had … what holiness really smells like.”

Quinn Beekwilder of Sacramento, California, said that for him the Eternal City presents the Church in action in a way that is very rare to our typical daily experience of it. “I don’t think there’s anywhere else where you walk down the street, see a couple of carloads of cardinals, and don’t think twice about it.”

Mary Reilander of Pembroke, Ontario, was struck
how the city really is the center of Catholic culture and marveled at how great it was to just decide from one day to the next whether she would go down the road to see and hear the Pope.

Connecticut-raised Linda Antunes said she never completely grasped the universality of the Church until participating in such occasions.

“There is something absolutely transcendent about standing among a crowd of strangers who do not speak your language, but who feel like brothers because they share … an adherence to the Catholic faith,” she said.

These experiences, said Antunes, help her and her fellow Christendom students feel as if they can begin to live up to the motto of their school, “Restoring all things in Christ.”

And that’s just what Christendom College president Timothy O’Donnell was aiming to achieve when he began the study-abroad program.

After his most recent visit to lead a pilgrimage group, O’Donnell spoke with me of the importance of a Roman experience and how encouraged he was by the Pope’s support for this work.

O’Donnell said that as he presented Benedict XVI with a spiritual bouquet from Christendom, the Holy Father thanked the college for all it was doing.

* * *

Catherine Smibert can be reached at

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