Learning from the Past

As a student living in Rome, I have to be candid when talking about life in the Eternal City. Often, friends and acquaintances back in the States, whose only picture of Rome is taken from a quick in-and-out vacation or from romantic clips on television, present me with their own idealized vision of what they imagine it must be like to live here.

The Secular Infection

While recognizing the great blessing it is to call Rome home, a city that is overflowing with architectural beauty and spiritual sanctuaries at every street corner, I also have to remind the curious of the troubled moral state in which Europe currently finds itself. At times, the extreme secularism of the city thrusts itself violently in front of a soul’s eyes. It can prove to be quite an overwhelming experience; doubts trickle into the mind and hope for Europe’s future fades. But in spite of the enormous inroads that secularism has made in the psyche of Europe’s conscience, there is still reason for optimism and hope. This issue came up recently while I was having lunch with a good friend, Wanda Gawronska, who happens to be the niece of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati.

Wanda is 78 years old, but her indefatigability, coupled with her sharp-as-a-tack intellect and contagious joy make her a pleasure to spend time with. As we strolled down the winding, cobblestone streets of Rome on a sunny afternoon, we came upon a small trattoria, a traditional Italian restaurant, and sat down for a quintessentially Roman lunch. In between catching up on the latest news and the changing courses of food, we shared our frustrations with Europe’s cultural decline. We agreed that the problem is rooted ultimately in a spiritual infection burrowed deep under the skin of European society. It has manifested itself in a host of political atrocities that decimated or impoverished a sizeable percentage of Europe’s population over the past century.

Wanda has certainly absorbed the wisdom of history, European history in particular. Of Polish heritage on her father’s side, she has witnessed many of the political convulsions that have surged over the European continent over much of the last century. Aware that history and experience are often the best teachers, Wanda is deeply concerned that many young Italians seem oblivious to their own past and the lessons that can be drawn from it.

Harmonizing the Spiritual and Worldly

As the lunch progressed and we moved from the main course to dessert, so too did the conversation change focus to a discussion of the lives of the young Karol Wojtyla and Pier Giorgio Frassati. Here were two young men, normal in every sense of the word, deeply active in sports, culture, theatre, literature and politics, while at the same time remaining absolutely devoted to their faith. What is today cast as something of a contradiction — that is, a serious spirituality integrated with a keen interest in worldly happenings — was naturally and harmoniously blended in the lives of these two young men.

Secularism has created a disparity where none ought to exist; namely, in bifurcating the spiritual from the natural and worldly. The spiritual is perceived by the secularist’s eye as rarefied and unrelated to the “real world.” So in order to fully experience the real world and remain grounded, it is thought best to steer clear of theology and talk of the transcendent. But following this path would lead one to work against that which makes the human person most human, namely his transcendent destiny.

Over the course of my conversation with Wanda, one of the words that probably popped up the most was “normal.” We continually returned to the central theme that Pier Giorgio was a normal young man. He struggled with exams, experienced a broken heart over a love that was not meant to be and lived with a turbulent, often unpleasant family life. But at the same time, this “everydayness” and the difficulties that often accompanied it were fused together with a faith that complemented and completed the mundane and good things of this world. Pier Giorgio’s hikes in the mountains were not stifled by his deep spirituality; they were made more human and real as a result of it.

Needed: Rediscovery of Authentic Beauty

Similarly, Karol Wojtyla’s appreciation for theater was not held back or limited because of his profound, even mystical prayer life. On the contrary, his close union with God and the experience of His presence magnified his understanding of the relationship that exists between the stage and the real world. George Weigel explains that, as a young actor, Wojtyla came to appreciate the “drama of the moral life…the gap that exists between the person I am and the person I ought to be.” By immersing himself in the world of the stage, Wojtyla came to a better and more complete understanding of the human person’s place in the world.

What Europe — and, it could fairly be said, the United States — need to do is rediscover the authentic beauty of the created world and see its fulfillment in a life of faith. Europe can overcome its current cultural crisis through a process of rediscovery. This rediscovery of culture, and faith’s role within culture, will serve to enrich the experience of modernity, breathing authentic life into society, and it will lead to a rediscovery of self at the personal level. Despite the frustrations and disappointments, Wanda reminded me of the need to remain hopeful. The same lesson can be drawn from the lives of Pope John Paul II and Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati.

© Copyright 2005 Catholic Exchange

Maldonado-Berry works for the Vatican at the Vatican Information Service in Rome. He is also studying Social Communication at the Pontifical University of Santa Croce.

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