My first full day in Rome … and there’s a transport strike! I really know I’m back here when that sort of thing happens. I think the first word I ever learnt in Italian was “sciopero”, which means “strike”. Some things never change in the Eternal City. I’m staying for a couple of nights at Domus Australia because I can’t move into my Synod residence till Saturday.
Bishop Eugene Hurley and I will be staying at a place called the Istituto Maria Santissima Bambina, which means the Institute of the Most Holy Child Mary. The name is a bit baroque but it’s a great place to be for a Synod, as a few us learnt when we were here a few years back for the Synod on the Word of God. It’s just off St Peter’s Square, through the colonnade to the left if you’re in the Square looking at the Basilica. It’s only a few minutes walk to the Synod Hall and you don’t have to keep going in and out past the Swiss Guard and the Vatican Police. Security in the Vatican is always tight, but it’d be even tighter now with the Pope living at Casa Santa Marta. I lived at Santa Marta while working in the Vatican, and many have asked whether I’ll be going back there for the Synod. But, with all due respect to the Holy Father, I’m not keen on staying at a place where he’s living. Any house where the Pope lives becomes ipso facto the Apostolic Palace, and I’d prefer something a little less fraught. So I’ll be at Maria Bambina, which also has the added boon of a lovely terrace on top of the building overlooking St Peter’s Square – just the place for a relaxing night-cap after a hard day at the Synod.
I was having a bite to eat last night with a few of the Aussie clergy at Domus Australia, including the new Rector from Sydney, Fr Terry Bell. Into the dining-room walked Fr Tom Brophy of the Diocese of Ballarat. He told me he was there with a group who’d been on a study tour of the British Isles and Rome with my old friend and mentor, Fr Austin Cooper. In the group, as it turned out, were other good old friends of mine from Melbourne like Fr Brendan Hayes and his sister Mary-Ann, Fr Max Vodola (who used to be my altar boy) and Mercy Sister Frances Baker.
It’s not just Domus Australia that’s a small world; it’s Rome. At times this large and complex city can feel like a village. Certainly it remains one of the great crossroads of the world, which is one of the reasons I’ve always found it fascinating and enlivening. Temperamentally I’m suited to life at the crossroads; others perhaps are better suited to the more sedate rhythms of the terminus. Last night I sat down and made a list of those I should catch up with while in Rome, and it was amazing how long the list grew. That’s one of the dangers of life at the crossroads – catching up with people over meals and paying the price of a Roman eatathon. I can’t do lunch and dinner day after day in the way I used to.
If the strike allows it, I’ll pop down today to the Synod Hall to collect my stuff and lodge what’s called the “petitio loquendi” which means “request to speak”. Every bishop has three minutes to speak to the whole Synod (it used to be six minutes!) and each of us has to decide whether we’ll speak and, if so, on what. You then fill out a form, giving name, country, office and topic (drawn from the Instrumentum Laboris, the basic working document of the Synod that came out in June). You also have to submit the text, which won’t be published but will become part of the Synod archive, we’re told. You then simply wait for your name to be called once the Synod starts – hoping that you haven’t left the text of your intervention back at the house. Timing is strict: when they say three minutes, the mean it. If you go more than about 10 seconds over time, they simply turn the microphone off, leaving you to mouth sweet nothings while the Synod moves on with profuse thanks to the speaker.
Tonight I’m dining with Bishop Hurley and Bishop Charles Drennan, the Kiwi delegate. We met in Darwin a while ago to compare notes and exchange thoughts on the Synod. Tonight we’ll see how things look on the eve of the Synod. Probably half the restaurant will be full of other bishops doing the same. The other half will likely be Aussies talking about the two Grand Finals that I’ll be missing this weekend. I’m tipping a Broncos-Hawks double.