I woke up blinking and disoriented in the chilly darkness of our hotel room, craning my neck to see if any light was squeezing through the cracks of the blackout shutters. I rolled over and grabbed my phone, which was displaying the current time on the east coast of the United States in military format. Zelie’s morning chortles echoed from down the hall, bouncing off the marble floors and reassuring me that it was, in fact, morning and we’d all mostly slept through the night.
I roused Dave, lifted the baby from her plush Italian pack-n-play, and we padded upstairs to the breakfast room, situated on the enclosed rooftop of the 7-story apartment building-turned-boutique hotel 5 blocks from St. Peter’s Square. We blinked in wonder at our birdseye view of the cupola while wrestling Zelie into a comically oversized Italian highchair, un seggiolone, threading a swaddle blanket around her waist and securing her to the chair with a sloppy, oversized knot. That blanket would become at turns a changing table, sun cover, sweat towel, handkerchief, and soothing object in addition to a lap restraint. I’m always amazed by how little baby gear we can get by with while traveling.
As we munched on prosciutto and powdered scrambled eggs, we discussed plans for our first full day in the city. The flight over was arduous but manageable (unlike the flight home. Ahem. #foreshadowing) and we’d taken only a modest nap the day before to ensure a quick adjustment to local time. The whole day stretched before us with possibility, already shimmering with the late-summer heat of the city. I wanted to hit a few churches – one, St. Mary Major, I couldn’t remember having been inside at all. Also on the list: The Gesu. Sant’ignacio. Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Sant’agostino. I was hoping to find Ignatius, Catherine of Siena, Francis Xavier. I had some specific prayers in my heart to entrust to the earliest Jesuits, those spiritual and missionary giants. We made it to every church on the list, but mistimed our visits to Santa Maria Sopra Minerva and the Gesu to coincide unfortunately with siesta.
Santa Maria Maggiore was a wonder. It is deceptively nondescript from the outside, rendering the breathtaking vaulted, gold coffered ceilings all the more striking. We wandered around the perimeter, pushing Zelie in her $14 umbrella stroller with the squeaking, battle weary wheels tested by cobbled streets. We’ve learned our lesson never to travel with the “good” stroller. Zelie’s legs dangled from the fraying hammock of the seat, kicking like plump sausages and delighting the crowds of tourists we threaded through.
The basilica houses a relic of the creche – of the manger itself, where Mary swaddled Jesus and laid him to rest on a pillow of straw. It was hot and crowded in the crypt beneath the altar, different languages flowing past my ears like water while I struggled to focus my mind and heart in prayer. I don’t pray well when we make these trips, battling the temporal elements of travel: the sleep disruption, the weather, the crying baby. I’m a comfortable American, safely ensconced in a suburban neighborhood marked by convenience and privacy. I’m never more aware of my personal shortcomings and my impoverished capacity for suffering than when I’m in a foreign country.
Rome is neither comfortable nor private. It is gaudy, glittering, dirty, ancient, intimate, and overflowing with humanity. There are architectural masterpieces on every corner and there is graffiti on most surfaces. Pigeons and garbage, relics and riches. It is a study in contradiction, a layer-cake of human history piled one era atop another, the ancient crumbling in the midst of the modern. Workers erect scaffolding to update and reinforce, polishing away layers of pollution and grime while dropping pieces of trash and debris around their workspace. Ducking into a shabby, off color apartment building on a nondescript sidestreet can yield a magnificent grotto carved from plaster and beams, a 5-star culinary mecca hiding behind the peeling stucco facade.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed in Rome. Spiritually, emotionally, certainly physically. The soundtrack of wailing sirens whose cadence is off just enough to remind you how far you are from home, bells tolling joyfully or solemnly at turns from the thousands of bell towers dotting the skyline. The steady, constant thrum of traffic, of motorbikes weaving through throngs of pedestrians and taxis scraping down streets that seem too narrow for golf carts.
I stood in St. Mary Major with all the feelings of the past summer swirling in my head and my heart, willing myself to connect emotionally with what I saw before me: a piece of the cradle that held our Savior. I was tired, sweaty, and heavy with the grief of being Catholic. As we’d walked out of our neighborhood and past St. Peter’s that morning, we heard the Pope’s voice ringing out from the loudspeakers, drifting down Via della conciliazione during his regular Wednesday Audience, causing my heart to constrict painfully in my chest. We didn’t attend the audience, didn’t even linger at the perimeter of the undersized crowd.
I was too angry.
Ascending the steps from below the splendid altar in St. Mary Major, I made my way back to Dave and the stroller. We spotted a traditional confessional where a white robed Dominican priest was seated, administering the Sacrament of Reconciliation to an Italian woman standing as if at a drive through window at a bank. The sign affixed to his booth read “Polish/Italiano/English” so we took our places in line.
When it was my turn to confess, I lowered my head and laid bare my anger, my hurt, and my rage at the seeming impotence of the episcopacy, the sorrow at being in Rome and feeling estranged from my own faith. The confession was brief and, I hoped, thorough. Father cocked his head to the side and looked at me thoughtfully, speaking perfect English in a thick Polish accent,
“It is okay to be angry. It might even be good to be angry. We are all angry. This is a difficult moment for the Church. Particularly the Church in America.” He smiled sadly, “but the Church is hurting everywhere at this time. And if God is giving you anger that will not leave, He may want you to do something with it.”
I searched his face while searching my own conscience, probing to see whether the anger I harbored was righteous and rightly-ordered, or whether it was shot through with self interest and pride.
I think it was both, to be honest. Anger over the profound injuries caused, and the egregious sin. Anger for the victims’ suffering. Anger for the hypocrisy of churchmen who lived double lives as predators.
But also anger at being humiliated by my own Church. And this may be the selfish, pride-filled anger that had no useful function. The anger at being exposed for being a fool for taking seriously the moral teachings of the faith while men in positions of power and influence laughed and derided our sacrifices. Was I living my faith for the approval of some bishop or cardinal, then, or even the Pope? If all of these apostized and rejected the faith wholesale, would I also leave, citing the evolution of eternal truths into something more relevant to modernity?
I saw immediately the distinction between the anger that father spoke of as being righteous, and the anger that was rooted in self interest. The first kind of anger, Father explained, was given as a kind of energy by God, it was a right response from a properly formed conscience.
“Righteous anger,” he explained, was “applying your energy to make right the wrongs.” He encouraged me as a parent to embrace this righteous anger, pointing out that if I had no immediate capacity for righting the wrongs which I encountered but still harbored this anger, that perhaps God was giving it as a gift, designed to be transformed into fuel for the engines of prayer and sacrifice.
“Anger has a purpose.” He concluded. “Anger that is free from sin and persistent is God offering you an opportunity. Do something with the anger. Ask Him what he wants from you.”
I left that Confession feeling 20 pounds lighter. I’m still angry, sitting at home a week later, nursing a slight headache from the jet lag while I pound the keyboard. But the anger no longer feels suffocating. I can pray and be angry. I can be faithful to my vocation and be angry. I can go to Mass, frequent the Sacraments, pray for the Church, and be angry.
That Confession in the heart of Rome left me with a new understanding of what St. Paul means when he says: “be angry, but do not sin.”
Of all the beautiful sights and sounds from our trip, the sacramental conversation I had with a stranger from Poland is the one that stands apart from all the rest.