Most people who visit Rome never leave the center historic district of the city. They visit the great churches, shrines, and museums, eating at the local cafes and pizzerias, walking through the narrow cobbled streets that have borne the footpaths of pilgrims, senators, generals, popes, and citizens for millenia. Rome is a beautiful city, and I always enjoy my time just wandering through the lanes that still buzz with vibrancy even as they echo the whispers of history. But this weekend, I did something different.
One of our Indianapolis seminarians and I had some free time Sunday afternoon and no real destination in mind as we approached a beautiful winter day in Rome. I had already visited most of the churches and neighborhoods in the city on my presepio tour. So we decided to go somewhere neither of us had been – to the outskirts, the peripheries of Rome. We took the Metro to the last stop – the end of the line – to a neighborhood called Primavalle. The only thing we knew about this neighborhood was that our bishop, Archbishop Joseph Tobin, would regularly spend time there when he lived in Rome, celebrating Mass at a parish there, serving the poor residents of the area, and becoming involved with a lay movement called the Sant’Egidio Community. We had no set destination in mind, other than the neighborhood, and had only a map to make sure we could find our way back to the Metro stop after our wanderings. But it was one of the most memorable and enlightening afternoons I have spent in Rome.
The streets were fairly empty on this cold, winter Sunday afternoon, although we did come across some soccer games being played in a local sports center and several playgrounds with children and families out and about. The first church we came across was locked and closed – even ringing the doorbell could not gain us access. But the second church was open. Named Santa Maria Della Salute, it was a beautiful parish church built in the 1950s, with money coming primarily from Americans. It is staffed by TOR Franciscans, and after spending time looking at the church and praying in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, we came across the pastor, Padre Angelo. I was able to witness the quality of our seminarian’s knowledge of Italian as he talked with Padre Angelo, who was warm and hospitable. He invited us to the parish hall, where a Festival of Families was being held, and where he offered us dessert – wonderful homemade tiramisu – and coffee. There, we met Alessandro who, along with his wife, helps prepare couples for marriage. The engaged couples of the parish were being introduced to the community that afternoon, with a social and then a presentation given by a priest working on preparations for the Synod on the Family. We also met other parishioners who were gracious and welcoming to these two American strangers who had stumbled upon their parish Festival of Families.
What was most memorable and insightful for me was to see parish life in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Rome. In the center of the city, it’s hard to know how the faith is lived out by average Italians. The beautiful churches are filled with many more tourists than local parishioners. But here, we saw a parish that could have been at home in Indiana as much as in Rome. Couples were being prepared for marriage, babies were being baptized, pastors were tending to the needs of their flock, the hungry were being fed, and the lonely were being offered community and companionship – all centered around a parish church in the middle of a neighborhood.
As we left Primavalle, we stopped to get a slice of pizza from a walk-up pizza stand. We sat and looked around, and we felt as comfortable there as at any of our parishes at home. And I think we both longed to return to our own neighborhoods, to be immersed in the communities of our own parishes, and to bring the light of faith and the presence of Jesus Christ to those we encounter along the way. And, also, to remember that we need to go to the end of the line – to the peripheries – to leave our comfort zones. For there, we find a missionary field longing to experience the love of God and the Church.