Letter from the Eternal City

'I write from Rome.' That is the literal truth, but I gave serious consideration to not saying it.

Somewhere in the skies over the Arabian Gulf, an old memory came in to my head of Nicholas Wiseman, the first post-Reformation Catholic Archbishop of Westminster. When the hierarchy was restored to England in 1850, Wiseman unwisely wrote ahead to London announcing his appointment but addressed his letter 'from without the Flaminian Gate'. In those days, of course, educated English men and women were brought up on the writings of ancient Romans, so they instinctively responded to a phrase so evocative of the imperial mystique of Rome. From the Prime Minister down, there was denunciation of this 'Papal Aggression' represented by Wiseman's ill-chosen piece of grandiloquent triumphalism. Once again, Queen Victoria was not amused. Anyway, I hope I am not falling into Wisemanism here. It just so happens that I am in Rome for a few days, and I am, in fact, writing from there.

I am staying, thankfully, in the heart of the city, in a convent that now operates as a sort of B&B. It was built in the sixteenth century on the traditional Roman pattern, a four-storey set of wings around a central courtyard. This is 'traditional' in that peculiarly Roman sense: it is essentially the same design as the houses of the rich in Caesar's day and long before that. Thankfully, the plumbing and air-con have been worked over in more recent centuries. It is very comfortable and, in that respect, is like a lot of Rome. The Romans don't go in for exterior display. Age and decay are often the motifs of the buildings on the outside, polished and plush is the style within. It contributes to that sense one gets that Rome is just there, it has always been there. It doesn't even make a point of being ancient, it just is what it is.

To take a case in point, I am staying just next to the Piazza Argentina, the other side of which is on the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, the main street through the city. The piazza is a pile of ruins of at least four temples, a fenced-off hole about the size of three football fields that sits about twenty feet below the present street level. It has some impressive columns etc, etc, and would be a 'site of great cultural importance' anywhere else. But here it wears a neglected sort of look, there's no actual access to the monuments and the weeding hasn't been done any time recently. But the truly Roman thing about it is its present function. It is a cat sanctuary. The feral moggies of the city live there with impunity, and can be adopted on weekdays from a small subterranean office. The first time I had a look at the piazza there was a party of Italian high-schoolers gazing into the hole. What were they doing? Counting cats, of course. The rest is just another bit of old Rome left lying around, and clearly not of much interest.

There's another site, another temple, on the other side of my convent. It's not much more than tennis court size, but it has four and a half good stone temple columns re-erected and masses of stone blocks and Roman brickwork lying around. There's nothing to tell you anything about this one. It's quite apparent that there used to be a building similar to my convent on top of it, because the buildings around it now have massive stone buttresses to support their walls where the old building would have propped them up. I imagine some 19th or 20th century developer, inconsolable when he found a temple under his building site. Anyway, it's another little bit of Rome that is now 'just there', like so much of the city, dirty and ignored by the locals but a bit of a marvel to us barbarians.

I'm in Rome for the annual meeting of the Anglophone Conference on Safeguarding. This brings together people working in the child protection field from around the English-speaking church. I'm here with others from Australia who work for the National Committee for Professional Standards or for diocesan or religious congregations' child protection offices. The theme this year is 'Celebrating Hope' and is about bringing together experiences from around the world of some of the positive things that can be done for survivors of childhood abuse, for those abusers who may be struggling to live with the realisation of what they have done, and for the church personnel who daily share the burdens of the survivors they support. I'm guessing that, in Australia, talking about hope in regard to these things will seem somewhat unreal and perhaps quite inappropriate, but this is the thirteenth Anglophone Conference and I can assure you that the discussion has not, therefore, just seized on the positive at the first possible moment. The realism of the people here about the history and effects of sexual abuse in the church has been built up over many years. 'What good can we do for people, and how?' is not a wrong-headed question for these people to be asking.

Finally, I'll quickly mention that I had lunch on Saturday with our two student priests in Rome, John Lovell, who has just been ordained a deacon, and Graham Fullick. They are now returning home for their summer break and will be seen around the diocese in the next couple of months. Of course they are now to some extent Romans and so take the place for granted. Accordingly, here in the heart of Rome, we had a lunch of beef and Guinness at an Irish pub. What else would you expect?

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Bishop Bill Wright Image
Bishop Bill Wright

Most Reverend William (Bill) Wright is the eighth Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle and is the pastoral leader of more than 150,000 Catholics in the region.

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