Chapter 15 – Vignette
Rome: My two cities
Mark Coleridge was born in Melbourne in 1948 and educated at St Kevin’s College and The University of Melbourne. He studied for the priesthood at Corpus Christi College and was ordained for the Archdiocese of Melbourne in 1974. Between 1980–84 he studied at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome before returning to teach biblical studies at Catholic Theological College, Melbourne. In 1988, Coleridge returned to the Pontifical Biblical Institute to pursue doctoral studies, which he completed in 1991. After a term as Master of Catholic Theological College, he served from 1997–2002 in the Vatican as an official of the Secretariat of State. He was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne in 2002, and Archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn in 2006. He is a member of the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Chair of the Roman Missal Editorial Committee of the International Commission for English in the Liturgy.
There is a tale told of a French penseur who for years agonised over who or what he was. One day, flushed with long-awaited insight, he awoke to exclaim, ‘Eh voilà! Moi, je suis pluriel!’ The same might be said of the city which over the years has become my second home, the city of Rome. It is plural.
On and off I have lived in Rome for about 13 years, and in some ways I am now more at home there than in my native Melbourne. Home is always home of course, but I have known a special kind of vivacity in Rome which at times makes me feel more alive there and in some sense more myself. Not that I have any illusions about the place. It can be the most frustrating and infuriating place I know. It can be quite unlivable, where Melbourne claims to be the world’s most livable city, though I am never too sure what that means. But beyond all its horrors Rome has an extraordinary and enduring vivacity. Part of that is a fantastically diverse ecosystem, which is why the city is always plural. There is not one Rome; there are many Romes, too many for any one lifetime to explore and know.
The first Rome I knew was Roma studentesca, or the student’s Rome. As a young priest, I was sent to study at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in the early 1980s. I arrived on a stinking hot afternoon in late July, on my own and speaking hardly a word of Italian. However, my first task was to learn some German, so I jumped on a train heading north. I decided to stop in Bologna on the way. I made a mistake in Bologna la grassa, fat Bologna, famed for its gastronomy, by ordering from the menu a dish the name of which I did not recognise – I thought it best to be daring. I was presented with a plate of kidneys, and could not eat a single one, since I gag on offal. This was a considerable spur to learning to translate an Italian menu at least, which I have managed to do rather well over the years. But my first day in Bologna was one of horror when the railway station was blown up, killing many scores of people. These were the anni di piombo, the so-called ‘years of lead’, and for a simple Melbournian it was all a shock to the system. The dark heart of Italy showed itself, and this was the first of many moments when I was forced beyond a shallow enchantment with la bell’Italia of the travelogues.
Returning to Rome after two months in Germany, I settled into what was to be my home, the Collegio San Colombano just near the Australian Embassy. It was my first experience of an international community, and at first I found it exhilarating. In fact, when I look back across my Roman years, one of the best things has been the experience of Rome as a crossroads. It was once the urbs orbis, and in many ways it still is. This is partly because the city hosts two diplomatic corps – one to Italy and the other to the Holy See – and a number of international organisations. But the omnipresence of the Catholic Church – mainly priests and religious from around the globe – is another huge factor in this. As an Australian, I had grown up at the end of the line. No-one really comes through Melbourne: it tends to be a terminus. But everyone pours through Rome, which remains one of the world’s great crossroads. And I came to see that, temperamentally, I was better suited to life at the crossroads than to life at the terminus.
Each day, I bustled off to the Pontifical Biblical Institute, or the Biblicum; even the number 58 bus seemed interesting and exciting. Never had my body space been so constantly and blithely invaded, but that was part of the deal. Everything seemed alluring: the people, the buildings, the monuments. The one exception was the lectures. I had come to the Biblicum with no Greek or Hebrew, which meant that I had to spend the first year learning the biblical languages. To do only this for an entire year at the age of 30 was tough, and I began to feel the pinch.
I had arrived in Rome on the crest of a wave, sure that I would go from strength to strength. But this was not the case. Stripped of the supports and buffers of home, the pressure began to tell. Boring work at the Biblicum, difficult relationships in the house, hopelessly inadequate Italian and the alienation which that brings: for the first time in my life, I felt myself floundering. I can see now that all this was the end of adolescence and the beginning of adulthood. For the first time, I had to come to terms with the prospect of failure, which was compounded by the sense that here in Rome I should be having the time of my life. Well, it was the time of my life, but not the kind of time I had expected. It was confusing and painful, but it was also a turning point. Looking back to those days, I am conscious that it is not just a matter of how much time you spend in a place that creates the bond, but the depth of the experiences you have there. If Rome has in some sense become ‘my city’ it is in large part because there I have lived some of the more decisive moments of my life.
One decision I took was to go to a parish to say mass on a Sunday, since this was something I found myself missing much more than I had expected. So off I went each Sunday to the parish of San Luigi Gonzaga in the fashionable district of Parioli to regale the faithful with my still-execrable Italian. But I was told I was simpatico, and despite the initial agonies I came to feel part of the place. I was even asked to be the Balou, the leader, of the parish pack of lupetti (cubs of both genders). This meant that I was the law-giver of the jungle, having to offer edifying thoughts to unruly 10-year-old Romans in an Italian that they could scarcely understand. I was not a good Balou. I also worked with the young people of the parish and came to appreciate the grace and vivacity of young Romans. I came to know the priests of the parish and was struck by how different priestly life was in Rome compared to anything I had known in Melbourne. In all of this, I began to feel I was living in the real world rather than in some academic bubble. I began to feel that Rome was home.
For Roma studentesca, the Vatican was always the shimmering horizon on the other side of the Tiber River. It cast an aura but was not really part of our daily world. In 1981 I crossed the river to meet the young Pope John Paul II for the first time, little knowing how intertwined our lives would later become. I remember the sense of awe as we made our way up to the third loggia of the Apostolic Palace, around the bend and into the papal apartment. It was a wonderland. We were ushered into the pope’s private chapel where the pontiff himself knelt in prayer. I had to close my eyes to stop gawking. After mass, we met him briefly, and I can remember being surprised that he was only as tall as I am; I had thought him much taller. He asked what I was studying, and I told him the Bible. He replied that he too was a student. ‘Ah yes, Holy Father,’ I replied, ‘but you are a philosopher’. The pope smiled.
By the time I finished those four years in Rome, I felt quite different – and in many ways I was. I had stopped smoking; I had lost weight and got fit again; I had started wearing glasses; I had learnt a swag of new languages. But through it all I had become a Roman. I had entered a world in which every stone is a story and where the ghosts of the pasts are never dead. That world had become my own. It was immensely invigorating to feel a part, however tiny, of that never-ending story, to swim with the surging tide of history. I packed my bag, stuffed with memories good and bad, knowing that I would be back. I knew that my life would be lived between two worlds, and that home would never quite be home as it was. But I did not imagine then that, when I did return to Rome, I would enter a world I did not know.
The second Rome I entered some years later was Roma curiale, the world of the Vatican to the west of the Tiber River. Oltretevere was another planet, and I was already well into my 40s when I landed. I had been asked to do a five-year stint in the First Section of the Secretariat of State, which is really the private office of the pope. The secretariat had been after an Australian for some time, and I seemed to some of the wise to have the skills and experience required. After much uncertainty, I said yes to the offer and packed my bags once again.
For almost five years I lived and worked in the gilded cage of the Vatican. I lived in the Casa Santa Marta, where the cardinals stay during the conclave, and I worked on the third loggia of the Apostolic Palace where I had crept in awe all those years before as I went to morning mass with the pope. What I discovered in the Vatican was a world where nothing is quite what it seems to be. For instance, a world where everyone is called monsignore can seem very patrician. Yet in a world where everyone is monsignore, no-one is really monsignore: it is a strangely demotic world. As one old hand said of the Vatican, ‘Anche i gatti sono monsignori’ – ‘Even the cats are monsignors’.
It is a world where things can move excruciatingly slowly, because, as they say, the Vatican thinks in centuries. But it is also a world where things can move like lightning when the need arises. That is one advantage of a hierarchical universe where decisions are made on high and delivered to subordinates for implementation. This kind of hierarchical world, touched only lightly by the Reformation and Enlightenment, can seem stifling to an Australian. It certainly did to me at first. Everyone has a title and everyone a uniform. There is even a kind of choreography when it comes to getting in or out of a lift. If a cardinal or bishop wants to enter or exit, then I make way for him, no matter what contortions may be required. Yet for all that this seemed stifling at first, I came to see that there is something strangely liberating in a world where you know your place. You are not expected to re-negotiate your position in the scheme of things from day to day; you simply take your allotted place, title and uniform and await the call to assume a higher role. Once I accepted the logic of that, and the humility which it requires, then I felt more at my ease in such a world.
The fact that everyone has a title rather than a name gives the Vatican a great impersonality. This can seem cold-hearted and humanly sterile. But I came to see that its purpose is different. This is a world where you are made to feel a very small part of a vast mystery. This is true of everyone, from the pope to the humblest official. The architecture itself reinforces this sense of things. Each morning, I would walk out of Casa Santa Marta to be confronted by St Peter’s Basilica, the sight of which nearly bowled me over. Then making my way to my office in the Borgia Tower (set between the Sistine Chapel and the Belvedere Courtyard), the architecture and art conveyed the same sense that you are a very small part of a vast mystery. This does not mean that you are insignificant or worthless – on the contrary, it makes you feel rather grand. But here was the truth of the Catholic understanding of the human being before God: very small but very grand. It was humbling but not at all humiliating; it was exhilarating but never inflating.
I came to see too that this was a culture which was not really Italian at its core. It seemed to me to have roots which reached back to the culture of ancient Rome, baptising much that was admirable in the world of the Empire. Through the centuries, that deep substratum has acquired a heavy Italian overlay, but the gravitas found in the Vatican is reminiscent of another time and another culture. Certainly it is a world where nothing is forgotten, where things that happened centuries ago can seem like events of last week. At my desk in the Borgia Tower, I felt myself to be a denizen of the palace of memories, with my office in fact sitting directly above the kilometres of the Vatican Archive.
Yet it is a world which is no museum. I was amazed at the flow of information through the office, information not only about the Church but also about the world and what was really going on. The Holy See is not just a window on the sleepless pageant of the Catholic Church around the world. It is also a window, and one of the most remarkable, on to the state of the world as it really is. This is because the flow of information comes not only from the papal nuncios, but also from the grassroots of the Church, with the vast network which that implies, a network not even the greatest empire could match. It seemed to me that if the Holy See makes a wrong decision, it is not because of a lack of information; it might even at times be because of an excess of information. Much of this information concerns crises both in the world and in the Church; and each day brought a bundle of crises. Indeed, the Holy See is really about ceaseless crisis management.
When i superiori, one’s superiors, rise in the morning, their question is not, ‘Will there be a crisis today?’ but rather, ‘Which will be the first of the crises this day brings?’ That is, I think, why they tend to adopt a kind of Olympian detachment, a calm in the face of catastrophe, which can seem a little cool-nosed or cold-hearted. But without that detachment, they would go mad. It is simply for the sake of survival.
I remember when the American secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, came to visit the Holy See. She was asked why she bothered, given that it seemed like visiting an ecclesiastical Disneyland. She replied simply, ‘There’s a lot of wisdom up there’; and this from a top official of the Clinton administration whose relations with the Holy See were strained. She was right: there is a lot of wisdom ‘up there’. It comes from deep memory; it comes from being in touch with the world as it really is; it comes not from national self-interest but from the humanism which, in my view, is born from the gospel of Christ. It is a wisdom which does not rush to judgment, but which believes that there are always aspects of situations and problems which we have not yet seen or considered. It is a wisdom which insists that we keep turning the prism in the belief that each new turn will yield new and unexpected light. It is a wisdom which insists that things are seldom as they seem at first sight and that only God sees things whole.
That world and its wisdom can seem a far cry from the plains of West Footscray where, when I wrote the present vignette, I had pitched my tent. But these days I carry that world within, so it is always close at hand. From here, I look back on the Romes I have known as a great metaphor of Italy and perhaps of the world. Italy, they say, has been unified, but that is a largely mythic claim or a statement in the optative mood. Italy is still plural. But so too is the world, with all its diversity and fragmentation. And yet a certain unity is undeniable. Here I begin to sound like a theologian expounding the mystery of the Trinity. And perhaps in telling my little tale of Rome I am somehow touching the Trinity as it has taken flesh among us. I like to think so, however true it is that some of my darkest days have been in Rome. That is why I look back now and say, ‘It was the best of times and the worst of times’; it is the best of places and the worst of places. It is home.
This chapter is from Australians in Italy: Contemporary Lives and Impressions, edited by Bill Kent, Ros Pesman and Cynthia Troup (Monash University Publishing: Clayton, Melbourne. 2010). For more information about this book, or to purchase print copies, please go to http://www.publishing.monash.edu/books/ai.html.