Part of a series on the Vatican Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment, this is the second of Griffin Oleynick’s dispatches from Rome. Catch up on his first piece here. Check back soon for the next installment.
When people say all roads lead to Rome, they don’t necessarily mean that those roads will be easy. I learned this about fifteen minutes after I left home in New York for the airport, when the subway conductor told passengers that because of a “prior incident downtown” we’d have to get off the train and walk the whole way down to the next stop. “Just like a canoe portage,” I thought as I dragged my heavy suitcase up the stairs and back onto the street. But the detour was instructive, drawing my attention to beauty I otherwise would have missed: joyful gospel music flowing from inside a theater, young families strolling by quiet shops and restaurants. God, it seemed, was telling me something important as I made my way to the Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment—here at the start I’d need to let go of my propensity to plan and instead just let God lead.
So maybe it wasn’t surprising how easy everything was once I arrived. Rome is a sprawling metropolis, surrounded by fields and suburbs that radiate outwards for miles, but the historic center is compact and walkable. In October the crowds are thinner than in the summer, and the cool, mild weather invites you to spend time outside, strolling in a leisurely passeggiata. I found my hotel, a bed and breakfast just beneath the shadow of the massive cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica. The Holy See Press Office, situated in a sleek, marble-paneled building nearby, was equally welcoming: in under thirty minutes (a small bureaucratic miracle, by Italian standards), I had picked up my press badge and was ready to begin reporting. The Synod, though, would not begin for another thirty-six hours. With free time on my hands, I set out to explore.
I’d been thinking about Pope Francis on the plane. Especially these days, when his popularity among U.S. Catholics is diminishing, I found it refreshing and nourishing to read his words. In an interview he gave to a young Italian journalist, the pope explained that young people, often trapped in the darkness of narcissism and alienation, need to open themselves up to the light of relationships, finding in the dynamic process of loving others a concrete way of living a meaningful, generative, and sustainable life. I had this idea in mind as I wound my way past the sculpted fountains of Piazza Navona, along the narrow Via della Scrofa, and into the small church of San Luigi dei Francesi.
Built in the late 16th century, the church houses three famous religious paintings by Caravaggio, completed in 1600. In the pope’s first major interview, a few months after his election in 2013, he mentioned that as a young Jesuit in Rome he used to spend a lot of time here contemplating Caravaggio’s “Calling of St. Matthew.” It’s easy to see why: set under a lunette window in a small side chapel to the left of the main altar, the crisp chiaroscuro imagery compresses into a single decisive moment the whole drama of a life’s vocation.
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