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THEO 101 in Rome

by Gerald Schlabach and Bernard Brady


What better place for students at a Catholic university to study theology than in Rome? More religious art and church architecture is in walking distance than anyone can process in a lifetime. Historical artifacts continue being unearthed to teach us about the complex relationship between faith and culture—sometimes glorious, sometimes tragic. Pilgrims greeting the pope weekly in St. Peter’s square and at other special events reflect the rich multicultural hue of the global church. And this year at least, students and professors so inclined were able to celebrate the Jubilee Year of Mercy by prayerfully passing through Doors of Mercy in the four major basilicas of Rome.

Still, if theologians and first-year university students are paying attention, a challenging paradox presents itself at the very center of the worldwide faith community in Rome: Pope Francis himself is teaching, pleading, even cajoling people of faith not to be captivated by the center, but to go out to the margins and accompany the marginalized.

To teach the University of St. Thomas’s introductory course on The Christian Theological Tradition in Rome this January, therefore, we sought ways to do both. We certainly found ourselves as enthralled as any of our 26 first-year students by the wealth of cultural, historical, and theological resources that Rome offers—together with sites such as Pompeii, Assisi, Siena, and Florence. But we also looked for ways to follow the Pope’s lead by using Rome as a prism that might bend the class’s attention back toward other places where Christian theology calls believers to live out their faith.

The syllabus for THEO 101 in Rome sought to match readings and classroom work with site visits. Art can be a form of biblical interpretation, we suggested as we invited students to reflect on how many distinctive works depicted Jesus. Does he look human? Does he look divine? Is he meek? Is he athletic? Is he a judge? Is he a companion? A new colleague in the Theology Department, Jennifer Awes-Freeman, helped to design assignments aimed to incorporate reflections on art and architecture into the classroom. At the suggestion of Awes-Freeman, students were required to turn in sketches along with some of their essays. The point was not to practice sketching skills, but to slow down, notice details, and fully experience art and artwork that had especially inspired in students a feeling of awe, wonder, discord, beauty, sadness, hope and so on—in other words, that sense of transcendence which may inspire people to pray or simply stand silent in the presence of the sacred.

By teaching people not only about Jesus but about major events in biblical and church history, artists effectively become theologians. The class noted the role of Constantine in the history of Christianity as we walked by the Arch of Constantine or viewed a statue of him outside the Archbasilica of St. John’s in the Lateran. We read St. Catherine’s striking portrayal of Jesus as a bridge in her Dialogue a few days before seeing the Ponte Vecchio in Florence that was thought to inspire her. Seeing a video of the Second Vatican Council meeting in St. Peter’s Basilica, where the class visited several times, made the Council come alive.

Historians dispute how many Christian martyrs died at the hands of gladiators or the claws of wild beasts in the Roman Colosseum, but public arenas around the Roman Empire certainly provided venues for such events. Visiting the Colosseum just a few blocks from the class’s hotel offered an obvious way to bring to life that strange third-century testimonial, The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity. So did clips from the popular Hunger Games movies, which Professor Schlabach used to illustrate the power dynamics at work when Christians refused to let Roman elites define their worth or place in society.

The many churches of Rome, sometimes with layers of rebuilding, are testaments in stone, mosaic, and fresco to Christianity’s complex interaction both with its host cultures and among Christian communities. Visiting the Catacombs of San Sebastiano, the burial place for some Christian martyrs, certainly underscored the place and importance of martyrdom in the early Church. But on a walking tour of churches at the heart of the city, Professor Brady took the story of faith and culture forward into later centuries. The class began at the Church of San Clemente, where excavation below the visible eleventh-century structure has opened up one of the first public spaces in which Christians worshiped after legalization in the fourth century. It ended with such pinnacles of baroque art as Bernini’s chapel of Santa Maria della Vittoria by which the Roman church competed for awe and prestige following the Protestant Reformation.

Students of course had ample opportunity to enjoy the museums, archeological sites, and cuisine that attract many tourists to Italy. They quickly became experts of the subway system, finding through their journeys the best pizza, pasta, and gelato places. Yet even in their more touristy moments, students often saw reminders of the breadth of Catholicism in Rome as they encountered pilgrims, priests, and nuns coming from all over the world to this “center.”

When center and margin are in a healthy and mutually challenging relationship, Christianity often experiences its greatest times of renewal. Visiting Assisi only a few days after attending the pope’s weekly “general audience,” students needed little prompting to notice the resonance between Francis and Francis. Beloved far beyond the Catholic world, St. Francis of Assisi helped renew the medieval church by taking his model of single-minded following of Jesus from the margins to the center. Currently stirring the world’s imagination, the pope who took his name now models a movement back to the margins and the marginalized as he washes the feet of prisoners, visits the homeless, and travels to war-torn regions of the world.

We incorporated Catholic social teaching into the course not only through readings but by arranging a meeting with the executive director of Caritas Internationalis, the Vatican organization working to promote charity and justice throughout the world. The inspiring work of that organization put a human face on theological and moral ideas that the class had been discussing.

For some students, though, a meeting in a cramped church basement was a highlight that rivaled the imperial ruins and baroque wonders of Rome. That was where the class met with Claudio Betti of the Community of Sant’Egidio. Sant’Egidio is an “ecclesial movement” of lay Catholics that began as a few high school students read the Bible together in the years following the Second Vatican Council. Soon they began to ask themselves how to live out the gospel and committed themselves to befriending the poor. Sant’Egidio has gone on to engage in international peacemaking and to work with the papacy itself to set up interreligious dialogue and prayer for peace, while growing to 60,000 members in 73 countries.

The take-home message from Sant’Egidio was clear. If a handful of high school students in the 1960s could do that, then Francis’s vision for going back to the margins might apply to students from Minnesota, too. Whatever they had learned in the center for Christianity that is Rome, the most lasting lessons might be ones they could carry with them anywhere.