Saturday, May 26, 2007

May 26 - Theme Groups and 2nd Sondage

This morning the reporting from the two remaining theme groups (Community Life, and Association) were scheduled, along with the 2nd sounding for the Superior General. The prayer that I used was a video from Scott Gibbs, which I introduced with a short description of what the video represented and the fact that it was entirely his impression that combined two months of travel, 50,000 miles, seven countries, and 56 hours of video down to less than five minutes. (For those who know the videos, I used the "Inspiration" video.) Afterwards, the text that I used (translators need advance copies) was this: "Scott Gibbs, the videographer, died three weeks ago in California of leukemia. He became a great friend and spokesman for the Brothers and included many Brothers, including myself, as one of his friends. This video, along with the others that he made for us, are used today in many parts of the world and reflect the prayers that our Partners share with us every day." Throughout the day, Brothers asked me if they could get a copy of the video, and we're planning to make it part of the summary DVD that all Capitulants will receive at the end of the Chapter. I think that Scott would have been tickled pink to know that it was shown at the Chapter.

The first report from Community Life ended just before the break, and so we were set up for the second "sondage" after the break. This time, we had a nice-looking voting box to drop the votes into, and the process was similar to yesterday's, except that today everyone wrote down only one name. The Scrutineers took the box out and spent a good hour making their tabulation. ALso during the break, I followed the group of "young Brothers" to the roof where Roch took pictures of them as a group. I also took some shots with the cameras that they laid at my feet, and with my own. They are a quite diverse group of Brothers who have already had a few meetings of their own and seem to be getting along quite well.

During the late morning session, the Association theme group report was presented and discussed. I wasn't there for the whole discussion, but there were many questions and concerns that were brought up. These dealt with assumptions, theological interpretations, definitions, and other very basic elements that - especially on this topic - are as varied as the Brothers themselves. This is one topic about which each one appears to have a certain kind of experience, interpretation, conviction, and concern. Generally, the interest is quite positive; but the direction is less clear. In the end, there was no clear consensus and the theme group will assimilate the comments and suggestions for another consideration next week.

When the discussion ended, the results of the sondage were not announced - they were simply displayed on the screen. About 30 seconds of silence followed, and then we had some announcements and dismissed for lunch. Again, I can't divulge the results, of course, but this process of having a "sondage" does provide some clear indicators for people to consider prior to the definitive voting on Monday.

During the afternoon, besides working on the steps involved in Monday's election, procession to the Chapel, etc. (I spoke with Br. Superior privately to learn what past experience had been), Roch and the volunteers and I went to the "Metro" store, which is a kind of warehouse store similar to Costco in the U.S. There we each wandered around various aisles, seeing an abundance of things compared to the small shops that I'm used to seeing here in Italy. I even found some transparent labels for the candles; something I thought I'd never find here. Roch bought supplies for a planned big dinner sometime next week.

Instead of going into town - the afternoon was "free" except for those groups that were still doing some minor editing on their reports - I spent some time in my room finishing a book by Karen Armstrong that I had picked up in the English language social room. In my room you could clearly hear the louder-than-normal screaming of the kids from the school next door. When I investigated, I found that today was some sort of game day, with parents and kids everywhere playing all sorts of games. It looked like a lot of fun, and the regular punctuation of shouts of glee from hundreds of kids seemed to confirm it.

Tonight we had a rather long Central Commission meeting, both to go over the detailed process envisioned for Monday and Tuesday, and to address some other issues regarding the theme groups reports. The time crunch is beginning to be evident, and I'm sure that it will get more pronounced as this last week proceeds. So I'm glad that tomorrow I'm joining a group of Brothers going to Orvieto by train for the Pentecost celebration - something having to do with pigeons or doves and strings and things.
More pictures from today may be seen at

Friday, May 25, 2007

May 25 - Theme Group Reports and Sondage

All the work that the Chapter delegates have been doing came to its planned conclusion today, at least for four of the groups. Today was the day that their second drafts, which included all of the recommendations and reconsiderations that had been offered the first time around, came to the floor for consideration by the entire body.

For the prayer today, two Brothers from Madagascar offered to do a sung prayer in their own language. They provided a translation in French and then sang it to the accompaniment of the guitar, played by one of the Brothers. Although I couldn't hope to understand the words, the sentiments were clearly expressed, and it was a good way to begin the day. We also found little Koala Bears at our places, a gift from the folks Down Under.

First up was the "Government" report, the one that was potentially the most controversial one. Aspects of its contents needed to be approved so that we could move ahead with any new way of looking at the role of Councillors and Secretariats and the like. The conversation went on for pretty much all of the planned 90 minutes. Then we appeared ready for a vote, and the thing pretty much sailed through. It was the first solid vote on something substantial taken, and after the vote results were displayed, the Brothers broke out in applause - a natural reaction.

After the break it was time for the first "sondage" for the position of Superior General. This is a sort of sounding vote that's taken to give people a notion of where the thinking in the group lay. Each Brother could put down up to three names, in no particular order (this was not a weighted vote), which would then be put together by the "Scrutineers" of the Chapter - the four youngest Brothers. All of this was taken very seriously, of course, as it should be. Ballots were at people's desks when they returned from break, and by the time the session started it was very quiet in the room as Brothers pondered and wrote on their ballots. Then they came up by rows to place their ballots in the box provided up front, after which the box was taken out to another room by the Scrutineers to be counted. The results would be reported at the end of the session.

Then it was on to the report from the committee on "Interior Life" which was very different in both style and content. It appears that each committee came up with its own way of utilizing the "Challenges, Horizons, Lines of Action" schema that had been established. I suppose that that's the prerogative of the Chapter delegates. But if it had been to me, I would have asked for something that was simple, straight-forward, direct, and short. Giving the Brothers lots of words has never, in my experience, been advantageous, no matter how eloquent the sentiments. This may be surprising, given that in a way our "business" is words. But that may also be the reason why internally we'd rather be economic about our use of them. However, you can't expect folks such as have gathered here from all around the world to walk away with their results on a single sheet of paper. It would give the impression that we really hadn't been working at all. Time will tell how all of this comes across with the "mud monks" - as some call the Brothers working in the schools.

At the end of the session, Br. Carlos Gomez, who is the one overseeing the Chapter, announced the results of the sondage. At the beginning of the process, it was rightly pointed out that respect for the integrity of the process and those involved (nominated, etc.) required that this process remain internal. And so results of the sondage votes should not be shared with anyone outside of the Chapter hall. Sorry folks, I'm sticking to that policy.

In the afternoon there were the two reports from Pastoral Ministry / Vocations and Service of the Poor. I wasn't there for those sessions because I had other work to do. I walked to some nearby stationery stores to get supplies for upcoming events and also visited a couple of other stores. One thing I've had to do is to get some short-sleeved shirts. The weather here is getting positively hot. Of course the Brothers from Asia and the southern hemisphere think it's merely nicely warm. But me with my long-sleeved shirts, vest and sweaters... I think that I packed wrong. But "Oviesse" was nearby, and they had some short-sleeved shirts at a reasonable price. Along the way, I was bemused to find a parking area along the street where all the street cleaning machines were parked. Not only do they seem to be underused, but when you see that even the street-cleaning machines have graffitti on them, something strange is going on. The point is for these folks to clean things up, not to contribute to the problem. Perhaps they simply see it as an impossible job and simply park to have a smoke or two, throwing their butts in the gutter, of course.

This evening, instead of the never-to-be-missed Central Commission meeting, there was a presentation by three Brothers and a Sister on the situation in the Sudan and efforts that are underway to raise funds for helping the church there by establishing schools, a teaching hospital and a college for teachers. The statistics are staggering, of course. Three million dead in 20 years of war. Less than 5 % of the kids even have a chance for education. Teachers have none or little training. The people there feel forgotten by the rest of the world, except for the NGO's that one Brother on the podium characterized as "vultures" looking for opportunities to exploit the people anew. An example was given that in the major city, if you went there, there are no hotel rooms available, but the hotel will give you a tent to stay in on the lawn - for $125. The UN and the NGO's are there by the hundreds and pay whatever the going rate is at the hotels, thereby exacerbating the problem instead of solving it. People outside cannot afford to buy food and here the "helpers" are spending it largely on their own comforts. I can see how outsiders could have little credibility in a situation such as this. Hence the efforts of a consortium of religious orders to establish some large, permanent ventures there in the areas of education and healthcare.

One of the Brothers who had been there and in similar places for many years was asked about personal fear. He said that fear is largely a physical response (adrenaline rush when you get robbed, etc.) and that you get beyond it when you decide that something really needs to be done. By the end of the presentation, I think I would have given him a vote as Superior General, given his calm demeanor, determination, clear integrity, and passion for the Lasallian educational mission. Thankfully, there are others here with the same dispositions.

Lastly, I know that today was the day for the Baccalaureate Mass and for the Graduation Ceremony at Christian Brothers High School in Sacramento. At several points during the day I thought about those events and about the kids whom I know who will be graduating. I was really bummed out not be able to be there, especially since I'd been there at each of the last eight years. But things move on and my prayers for them will have to suffice.
More pictures at

Thursday, May 24, 2007

May 24 - Group Work and a Break

Today the theme groups completed their work on the second draft of their documents. During the morning meetings, I went around to get some more pictures of the groups working together. Each group appeared to have it own style of working - some worked on documents that were projected on a screen, others did not; some had translators in booths, others used members of the group to translate; some were rather talkative; others were more quiet. I don't know if that had to do with the topic or the people. It's likely that it was a matter of both.

This morning, we had our Mass as scheduled with Fr. Dennis McManus. Dennis is a classmate of mine from the Juniorate, Novitiate, Scholasticate and some 20 years in the Brothers. He was in Rome for meetings at the Holy See related to various commissions on which he serves. He's currently at Conception Abbey in Missouri and will be moving back to Georgetown University to teach there and work in the Bishops Conference. He was ordained about a year and a half ago here in Rome, an occasion on which both Brs. Stanislaus Campbell, Roch Dufresne, and myself were able to attend. During the Mass, there were reflections on the readings from three of the Brothers and so he didn't give a homily, but we had a great visit during the breakfast that followed and he met with some of the other Brothers from the SF District who knew him, along with Br. Alvaro and others. It was good to have him with us and I hope that there will be more occasions in the future to have him involved with us in some capacity or other.

While the theme group meetings were happening I worked on upcoming liturgical events. I had a visit from a couple of members of the Central Commission during that time. They would like to have another evening of prayer (Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament) on Sunday. The following day will be the election of the Superior General and it would be good to have such a vigil on the night before. And so Freddy and I will plan to do so. The other thing that I'm pursuing is a notion of what is expected once the Superior General is elected. There's a procession to the chapel, apparently, along with the singing of the Te Deum. For details, I was told to speak with Br. Alain Houry, which I did. He will provide some details and resources, I hope, tomorrow so that I can begin the preparations.

This afternoon I joined Brs. Lawrence, Paulo, Marcos, and Bob in a walk into town. We took the 46 bus to the Vatican and did some busines at the post office. In exploring the area around the Vatican, we found several very impressive churches (mostly from the inside) and ran into some sort of hotel run by the Knight Order of the Holy Sepulcher (remember them from Siena?). They seem to be everywhere. It was impressive to see the Jerusalem Cross displayed so prominently on the gates and on the flag in the courtyard. In the various churches, I'm beginning to pay special attention to any frescoes or painting of St. Joseph. Some of the ones that I've seen are pretty good and evocative. Since St. Joseph is a special saint to the Brothers, being an example of how we should treat our students (the earliest seal of the Institute shows St. Joseph and the child Jesus), I'm collecting whatever images have been made of that relationship.

Then we walked to the river and proceeded towards the piazza with some nice cafes where we stopped for refreshments. There is a statue there of a Giacomo Bruno, a heretic of some sort from centuries back, looking quite dour and forbidding in the middle of the piazza. We saw several Italian young people taking pictures in front of the statue, holding up their arms toward the camera. When we asked them they said that there was a Roman tradition that if you looked into the face of Bruno, as students, you would not finish your university studies. And so they were taking pictures in front of the statue as they blocked out their views of him. All quite humerous.

We walked to the Piazza Nuvone, stopping by at the magnificent St. Andrew's church on Via Corso. The place is very plain-looking on the outside, with the normal graffitti one expects by now. But inside it was magnificent. They had generously placed a long mirror near the front of the church so that you could admire the ceiling's artwork without falling over from a head rush or getting a crick in your neck, and we spent some time seeing all of the detail in that artwork. We read that the church was consecrated in 1650, a year before the birth of John Baptist de La Salle. This no doubt meant that Gabriel Drolin would have visited it and that De La Salle would have seen it if he had ever made it to Rome. It makes you think about the turn of the centuries.

After our visit to the Piazza Nuvone, where we watched some very talent drawing artists make professional sketches of people, we stopped to have some gelato and then made to walk to Trastevere for some dinner. But I knew that I needed to get back by 8:15 PM Central Commission meeting that had been called (no break for us) and so I hopped on a 46 bus that happened by and made my way back. The traffic on Via Aurelia became so congested, however, that I got off and walked back, beating the bust by a couple of minutes to our regular bus stop by the Motherhouse. On the way back, I marveled at how all of these motor scooters and motor bikes would pass all of the backed-up cars, using the "wrong" side of the road with abandon. After all, there are no cars there, so why not use it? I'm still amazed that there aren't more accidents.

The gelato was enough dinner for me (probably not healthy, but oh well) and so I rested for about 20 minutes before going to the meeting. The issues tonight had to do with the process for considering the revised reports and the process for the election of the Superior General. The first "sondage" or sounding will be tomorrow. Emphasis will be placed on the confidentiality of the process, candidates, and so on, out of respect for those nominated and for the process. Lots of small details emerged, and so it was good that we'd had this meeting.

Then a short time at the US/Toronto Region evening social and on to the blog and to bed. More action happening tomorrow.
More pictures may be found at

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

May 23 - Finishing the Reports

Today we finished the consideration of the first draft of the report from the Government thematic group. There were a great amount of questions about the details of various parts of their report, some of them dealing with a restructuring of the system of having Councillors in Rome vs. having regional directors. The group will take all of the suggestions back to their discussion for the second draft. We finished at the end of the morning, and the afternoon would be spent in the thematic groups addressing all of the comments and questions, both oral and written. It's a daunting task for the groups, and I foresee that some of them will be working well into the evening and perhaps also tomorrow afternoon. The Central Committee has requested that the second drafts be ready by noon tomorrow if they want them to be translated, or later if the translations are being done by members of the committee. On Friday, the consideration of these drafts will begin. There was one interesting suggestion to the Government committee to consider having the Superior General serve only one term, because of the rapid change in society, etc., but I don't know if that will have any "legs" given the fact that such a change would require the approval of the Vatican before it could be applied.

This is all part of the "meat" of the General Chapter. The process is made somewhat more complicated because of the translation challenges, not to mention the challenges involved with different cultures and modes of thought. But most folks seem to be progressing pretty well. I've heard about one group having a "melt down" but I'm guessing that they will get their act together before long. It's amazing what a deadline will do to people.

My solution, by the way, to the shower problem (it happened again this morning - no hot water; not even a drop) was to follow the emailed advice of an experienced guest of the house - take your shower in the afternoon. So when everyone was in their theme groups, I followed that advice to more or less positive results. I still think, however, that if I were a member of the Chapter, I'd vote for Superior General that Brother who promised to get the pipes fixed (sort of like with the mayor of Chicago; no matter what else, he or she has got to make sure that the snow gets cleared from the streets during winter).

There was another schedule change today, and now we will have Mass in language groups in the morning tomorrow. That means that the person whom I had invited to say Mass on that day, but who couldn't make the evening Mass, could now be invited back in the morning. More about that tomorrow. After I contacted him by email, I'm glad that he said yes.

One interesting thing about the food here... The Brothers have a well-developed sense of when certain food items are brought out. It's as if they have trained their peripheral vision to note when the servers bring out particularly appealing items. The pasta is usually plentiful and already on the table when the tower strikes 1 Pm or 7:30 PM and the Brothers flow into the open doors. It's only later that the cheese comes out. When those platters appear, the cheese disappears within about 45 seconds. It's all very polite and orderly, of course. But if you're not paying attention, it will all be gone before you know it. As it is, most of the food items on the tables are exhausted within the first 15 minutes of dinner. You learn very quickly to go get some salad near the beginning of the meal. Nobody goes hungry, of course. But you better get what you need when it's out there.

The reports in the Central Committee meeting this evening were all fairly positive. We're beginning our consideration for the process of the election of the Superior General, and I'm beginning to think about what kind of ceremony to have once the election has been held. It was suggested that I speak with Br. Alain Houry about past practices, and that's what I will do tomorrow. The photographs from seven years ago, regarding this part of the General Chapter, are quite striking and impressive. I'd want the chapel ceremony to have a similar dignity and impact.

After the meeting finished around 9:15 PM, we sat around in the English Language social room talking about various things and just relaxing from a very long, intense day. Br. Gerard Rummery told some wonderful stories about his years at CIL and about other experiences that he'd had. He's one of the best story tellers that I know. It's relaxing just to listen to him.

The Brothers really lived up to their expectations today and I'm looking forward to some substantial reports starting on Friday.
More pictures of today at

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

May 22 - Reports of Theme Groups

Today was one of those all-work days at the Chapter. From 9 AM until 6:15 PM the group met in the Aula Magna to listen to the reports from the Theme Groups and to respond with questions of clarification or to provide comments, insights, questions, and objections so that the groups could work on their second drafts. It could have been deadly for anyone who wasn't interested in the topics. Speaker after speaker made an intervention or a comment or asked a question. I brought in my laptop and did some multi-tasking, working on some documents for the district while the discussion was going on. I found that I could turn my ear phones down to minimal and concentrate on both the conversation and the other things that I was trying to do. If some interesting topic came up, I would just pause for a bit and concentrate on the discussion. Otherwise, I got a good amount of work done.

This morning, when I came into the communications office, I found Sr. Margaret and Br. Lorenzo doing their morning devotions in front of the secretariat copier. (Actually, they were changing the toner cartridge, but it was a great picture anyway.) Many is the day when I've similarly knelt at the gods of technology to fix some computer or copier problem. It's rather striking how dependent we've become on these innovations which, as helpful as they are, do demand the occasional sacrifice of time and energy just for themselves.

At lunch we celebrate the birthday of Br. Jose Bialon Gallego from South America. His middle name sounds as if it should come from Middle Earth and Lord of the Rings. We sang Happy Birthday in English and had cake and champagne. I must say that the cake here is very good - very light, with some sort of pudding filling. (By the way, I'm still working on the four cookies that Roch bought at a bakery in Assisi, stretching them out over the various coffee breaks. They were quite pricey, but to me they're worth every Euro.)

The afternoon sessions went on as planned. I arrived a bit late because the siesta I took went about 20 minutes longer than planned (Siestas are increasingly becoming good things). But I plugged right into the conversation. The "Government" theme group was presenting, and their report was very organized, clear, and straight-forward. There were questions, of course, but Br. Jacque D'Huiteau did an excellent job of answering the questions and presenting the group's conclusions. No big surprises but some significant considerations for the future government at the Motherhouse level.

Today, we had a morning prayer and Mass in the evening. This was in response to a request from Br. Alvaro that we have a couple of days when we could have prayer in the morning and Mass in the evening. It was okay to make the change, but of course there were a couple of folks who didn't agree with it. Change is always difficult...

After dinner we had our Central Commission meeting, but it was kept relatively short. It looks as if we will have to work into tomorrow afternoon. However, the option is there for groups to take a break on Thurday afternoon, if they have finished their work.

Translations continue to be a bit of an obstacle. People in various languages pick up nuances from the translations that are either inaccurate, unacceptable, or problematic. Lots of clarification questions address these nuances. I hadn't realized before what differences in interpretation are introduced with changes in translations. There's no easy answer to this; just vigilance.

After the meeting, I spent a little while with the English language group evening social and then came to the office to do the blog and turn in.
More picture from today at

Monday, May 21, 2007

May 21 - Reports from the Theme Groups

Today was the day when the Theme Groups made their first reports to the whole Chapter assembly. They completed their work on Saturday, and those groups that had not been able to put together the three language versions of their work themselves submitted their document(s) to the General Secretary who had them translated on Sunday, run off, and put out for general distribution. The idea was for the Brothers to read the reports prior to today's presentations and then to have questions or comments ready to go.

The day began a little later for me. With my rather later return from the trip up North, I sort of slept in. By the time I got up, the English language Mass was well on its way. So I took the chance to visit and take some pictures at the French language group Mass in the Main Chapel and at the Spanish language group Mass in the JPII Chapel. From those brief visits it was clear that each language group had its own style, ambience, and music. Each was quite nice in their own way.

The session at 9 AM in the Aula Magna began with a short prayer / reading. I'd asked one of the Spanish-speaking Brothers to read a section from one of Archbishop Romero's sermons - the one about being prophets of a future not our own. It seemed to be appropriate for the time and appeared to hit the spot. Then the reports began.

Each group had been given 15 minutes for their presentation, but the Central Commission realized that consideration of each group's reports would take much longer, and so 1.5 hours had been allocated. By the break at 10:30 AM, we were halfway through the first group's report. This may become a problem. There were questions of clarification first on each of the sections of the report followed by comments, suggestions, etc. on the substance of the report. The interventions were all very sincere, although I would say that only some of them were really helpful. Capitulants were asked to submit comments and suggestions in writing and drop them into the boxes provided in front of the Aula Magna. It's amazing how some folks can make a point in 10 seconds that others need 5 minutes to make.

And so it went up until lunch, with only the occasional stretch break for the Brothers. Afterwards, I went to the office to process the pictures for the trip to Siena and Assisi and to make THAT blog entry. By 3 PM it was time to go back for the third session of the day. This one was on vocation ministry, so I paid close attention. At 3:40 PM, however, I snuck out to get my haircut.

Rodolfo is an elderly man who has been coming here to cut the hair for the Brothers forever, it seems. He was working on Adriano, one of the volunteers, when I showed up at the barber shop. It would still take a while and so I sat and enjoyed the quiet of the place. The window was open and sounds of the birds in the garden mixed with the distant shouts of the kids from the school. Neither Rodolfo nor Adriano said much for the 20 minutes that followed. It reminded me of a scene in "Into Great Silence" which showed the monks at the Grande Chartreuse cutting one another's hair - quiet and filled at the same time.

Then it was my turn. Rodolfo and I communicated enough to let him know what kind of haircut I wanted - although with my head there's really not much choice now is there? Then he went to work. First the electric clippers for a while, and then the scissors came out. He did most of the cutting with the scissors, opening and closing them with his fingers whether he was cutting the hair or not. The sounds became a sort of rhythm in the background. Neither of us said much throughout the haircut, but the experience reminded me how up-close-and-personal a haircut really is. Then he wet down a brush, wet down the neck area and took out a straightedge razor. Uh-oh, I thought. What's going to happen now? Despite his age and somewhat shaky motions, he wielded that razor like a pro, and I left with a cheerful Arriverderci echoing behind me.

I returned to the Aula Magna for the rest of the session and picked up the conversation, deliberations, questions, suggestions, and commentary. Sometimes it seems as if folks are spending a lot of time on parts of documents that don't require it. But when you get a bunch of teachers and administrators together, they seize on a document like the pigeons on a crust of pizza in Siena (I meant that to be more flattering than it sounds). We managed to finish the reports for three of the six theme groups. That means, of course, that tomorrow we would handle the other three. We're a bit behind in our schedule, but we'll have to do the best we can.

After dinner, at 8:15 PM, the Central Commission met with the Theme Group leaders to address any concerns that came up and to talk about how to proceed most efficiently in the next few days. It's clear that we'll have to do something to insure that there's a consistency of language when it comes to these Challenges, Horizons, and Lines of Actions. And the number of "Lines of Actions" would be way more than the Brothers might reasonably tolerate, if all the groups went ahead as currently planned. But we're just in the first few stages of the process, and everyone is getting used to this "alternative process" so there's time to adapt and adjust. Generally, it appears that people are content and moving forward.
Additional pictures from today at

Sunday, May 20, 2007

May 20 - A Day for Travel and Relaxation (sort of)

Just returned from the daylong trip up North. It's late, I'm tired, I'm waiting until tomorrow - which is also full day in the Chapter - to upload today's experience. Prudence prevails.


Okay, now I'm ready to talk about yesterday. But be warned, this is likely to be a long(er) entry. We've just finished the morning session (May 21st) for the Chapter, so there's a good break (lunch and siesta) until folks reassemble.

The travel day yesterday began early at 5:45 AM, since Roch wanted to get the vehicle fueled up before leaving. But we found out that the stations were closed so we would have to wait until later in the morning. Around 7 AM, I was outside the CIL building hanging around the car that I thought we were using. During that time I made some calls to the States to follow up with some Contacts about summer plans (it's evening in the U.S. of course). After the calls, when none of the Brothers had showed up, I walked to the front of the Motherhouse and found the whole group standing there waiting for me. The car we would use was parked elsewhere. Oops.

Roch and I got the car and brought it over. It's called a "Pullman" here and is actually a Ford van-type car with stick-shift and nine comfortable seats - three in front, in the middle and in the back. The group loaded up and we took off. The stick-shift bit took a bit of getting used to, but soon my old bus-driver experience kicked in and I felt comfortable with the vehicle. However, it certainly is a different thing to drive here in Italy. These drivers are crazy! Some go very slowly, even on the highways (although that may have to do with the age of their small, older model cars) so that unless you really pay attention you could plow right into them, and other race by like you're standing still, and my speed was 120 kmh (is that legal?). You have to really check your mirrors before moving over to the fast lane or the slow lane, or anywhere for that matter(this is for those who actually pay attention to those little stripey things on the road). Once a car passes you, it moves immediately over in front of your car - no signal, and nothing more than three inches between your front bumper and their back bumper. And each moment you can expect everything to change - immediately. Within the first 5 miles of the three-lane GRA highway turned into a number of unexpected detours around construction sites - and of course no "Detour coming up" in sight. One minute you're going 110 kmp and a few seconds later you're swirving through cones and broken asphalt like an Mario Andretti, trying frantically to shift down to second gear while watching the crazy drivers around you who nonchalantly are on their cell phones, smoking, and trying to pass you at the same time.

Once we'd reached the A1 going North and used our "Telepass" to go through a toll booth, one of the Brothers felt an urgent call to nature. The problem was that we had passed a sign indicating that next gas station was 54 kilometers away. Things couldn't wait that long, and so we pulled over on a sidestrip of the highway, near some bushes and trees. Enough said. While waiting for things to come to their natural completion, a small car pulled in about 100 meters up ahead and then maneuvered backwards toward us. Roch said, "I hope that that's not the police." It was a dark car, with several serious faces looking at us out the back window. Once they came closer, however, we saw that it was Br. Leonardo with a group of Brothers who were going in the same direction and thought that we had car trouble. Gestures of smiles, thumbs up, and motions into the bushes conveyed the situation, and they smiled, waved and went on their way.

Of course, within 5 kilometers, there indeed was a gas station (lesson learned: don't trust the signs you read in Italy - confirmed several times during this trip) where we pullel in for fuel and also caught up with the car of Brothers. They were on their way to Assisi for the day. It made me think of perhaps doing that next week; today would be Siena.

On the road again for quite a while. The one nice thing that I found about the roads here is that if you miss a major turn, a little while later there are signs saying that there's an turnaround overpass just for you coming up. And indeed it is. You get off the main road and the single lane goes over the highway and descends on the other side going in the other direction. Perhaps it is in order to drum up business for these overpasses that the road signs seem to be geared to make you miss your turn. Before coming up to a major turn, there are lots of signs - big ones. But then when the turn happens, there's a tiny sign saying, in effect, "This is it." But it's either buried in a tree of different signs (6 stacked on top of each other, in different colors and fonts to boot), or it's so hidden that you only know about it unconsciously, through what you've picked up via peripheral vision as you zoom by; the brain give you that niggling thought, "I think missed something important back there." It happened to us a number of times. I ended up consciously slowing down when signs came up, with all three of us in the front seat glancing through the information like graduates of an Evelyn Wood speed-reading course, hoping to get enough information to process after we'd passed the sign. "Was that the one? Should we turn around, becauseI'm good at that now? What are we looking for again?"

Arriving in Siena we hunted around for the old city ("It's up there, where those towers are.") and when we reached the gates I followed Br. Anton's advice and took an immediate right, looking for a place to park along the streets. We managed to do so - I only bumped the other car a little bit during the parallel parking maneuver - and we headed for the big old buildings in the distance, with church bells pealing all around us. As we moved through the streets, alleys gave way to steps in tiny corridors and then to small, ancient-looking alleys where we took some photos before finding our way to the larger streets and eventually to the great "Piazze del Campo" where they have that annual horse race, complete with medieval pageantry, flags, crowds, and lots of great food for sale amidst all the horsiness.

The obligatory photographs out of the way, we decided to meet back together at 1:30 PM for lunch and 5:00 PM for end-of-day decisions. Three of us (myself, Br. Michael Avila, and Br. Solomon from Ethiopia) decided to climb the huge tower dominating the piazza - all 400 steps worth (7 Euro each please) - for the views from the top. That little trip took a while, as you may imagine (I've got to exercise more), but the views were quite worth it. Inside the tower, I paid attention to some of the details of the tower's construction, also running into the clock mechanism, and even though the marble steps are well-worn from all of tourists who climb up and down daily, it's all in remarkably good shape. Once on top, you can look out over the city and the surrounding countryside for miles around. It's one of the nicest views from the top of a building that I've yet seen. There's are several bells located up there, but they seem to be museum pieces now. Then the bells from churches in the area began to ring at 11 AM - a beautiful sound echoing in from the many churches that are located within the old city or just beyond. Then suddenly, the big bell that's only 5 feet away starts going at it. Yikes! That thing was loud! Sometimes a little distance is a good thing.

Eventually, I went down the 400 steps (easier than going up) and made my way to the huge cathedral where I was just in time to catch the noon Mass, in Italian of course. It's funny that on Sundays the tour guides let people in for Mass only, and we can bypass the ticket booth, but as soon as Mass is over they shoo everyone out and you have to pay your 3 Euro to see anything inside. The congregation was fairly small, and it made me reflect on the fact that in it's heyday this Mass at this cathedral (the Feast of the Ascension in Siena) would be the main event for the city for that day, whereas today it was seen more as a necessary interruption to the normal routine of having groups of tourists walk around, plastic souvenier bags in hand and dressed in "casual tourist," looking around slack-jawed at all the artwork that surrounds them. However, the organ sounded magnificent and I did get a nice nap during that 25-minute Italian homily. After communion, a small elderly nun in a white habit, the top of whose head could barely be seen above the lectern, made a long appeal of some sort in a shrilly sort of voice. Then we were free to go, and before the priest was even able to leave the altar, 90% of the congregation was out of the pews and milling towards different parts of the church, falling right into their tourist mode.

Back for the 1:30 PM rendezvous in the piazza, I found everyone there. We walked around the streets a bit, looking for a place to eat, and ended up at a very nice walk-in pizzeria (big slice of pizza and Coke; 5 Euro please). Nearby were some steps where most of us sat and had a satisfying lunch. Turns out that it was the steps to a building belonging to the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre. I'm guessing that it must have been there for centuries - or not. But it was kind of cool to run into it, and I looked around for secret signs or patterns or hidden doors, ala Da Vinci Code, but no such luck.

Lunch time copnversation brought up the idea of going to Assisi today also. Pretty soon it was a full-fledged plan, since most folks had seen the major parts of Siena by now. So we agreed to leave in about a half-hour, and a couple of us went to at least see the sites associated with St. Catherine of Siena. A short walk brought us to her birth place and another short walk brought up to the large church where we saw her finger-under-glass and her head-in-the-middle-of-lots-of-bric-a-brac. She was purported to be quite beautiful, but you couldn't tell that from what you saw of her head. I guess that a couple of centuries of exposure can do that.

Back to the car, off we went to Assisi, knowing only the general direction and using the little map that was part of Ambrose's guidebook. But the way was fairly straightforward and I only missed three exits and turned the car around five or six times for various reasons. Once in lower Assisi, we visited the Portiuncula, located inside of a huge church, (filled with people meditating - here where Francis had often prayed), and then went down to the crypt of Francis. That was an impressive place - simple but dignified, carrying a very peaceful atmosphere, with people praying or quietly walking by. It looks as if the monks opened up one side of the cement crypt into which Francis was buried, and it's that open crypt area that you see above the small altar located below it on the floor, with the exposed side walls of the crypt going up to the roof and the upper church. I made an offering for a Mass to be said there, prayed for a while (and surreptiously took a couple of non-flash photos; lots of "no cameras or videos" signs in the upper church, but I didn't see them here, although I wasn't taking any chances of being slugged by the nearest Franciscan - and they were wandering around everywhere), and just thought about the fact of being this close to the actual earthly remains of Saint Francis of Assisi. Then the German and the Rumanian and the Dutch and the French bus groups came through, and it was time to move on.

The groups split up to explore different parts of the place, agreeing to meet back at 7 PM for dinner (it was now 5:45 PM). I pressed Roch into joining me for a walk around the town, and I took several side streets, always going up through alleys with steps. We finally rounded a corner and ended up on a nice brick overlook with a great view of the cathedral and the valley. There were a bunch of local Italian ladies, all elderly, arguing up a storm, with at least four of them talking at once at any one time. They sort of simmered down when we arrived but were soon back at it. After taking a few pictures, Roch asked one of them to recommend a local restaurant - not a touristy kind of place (although that's probably impossible). She was very nice, insisting on walking us to a restaurant about 200 yards away (over lots of steps and through small alleys - those ladies have got to have calves like the elderly Italian ladies I've seen walking up the steep sidewalks in San Francisco), which was probably her son's or at least a cousin's. It was quite reasonable and very nice so we booked it for later. Then we wandered through the streets for a good 45 minutes. I must say that there are some very impressive "tourist" places there; high quality goods for visitors and others interested in church goods. There are, of course, the inexpensive places. But this is the first time that I've seen this many shops that carry quality merchandise.

We met up with our group in front of a now-empty church plaza and then made our way to the restaurant for a fine, Italian meal. Soon after starting, a group of six other men came in and sat at the table next to ours. They were clearly mostly American. After a short while, one of them introduced himself to us. They were Conventual Franciscans, here for their General Chapter with 120 of their compatriots, and were just starting their process. They'd already elected their Superior General, who was there with them, and would be around until June 25th or thereabouts. It must be General Chapter season.

Ending dinner, we wandered down the streets towards our parking place, pausing at the cathedral's plaza to appreciate the really fine weather, ambience, and views. A Franciscan wandered by in his habit and, upon starting a conversation, we found out that he was the provincial for the California province who was there for the Chapter. Soon, looking around, we saw lots of Franciscan monks in their habits walking in the dying light of the day in groups of two or three. Without the tourists with their cameras, or the kids playing with their Assisi toys, or the bus groups herded from place to place, this was the time I found most captivating. At some future time, I'd like to come back for an overnight stay in order to be able to enjoy similar experience a bit longer. But we had to hit the road in order to get back before dawn.

Off we went in the Pullman. Leaving around 9 or 9:30 PM, we made it back to the Motherhouse by 11:45 PM. Traffic was blocked for a while at a construction site on the way, but generally the traffic was fairly smooth. I was kept wide awake by the regular crazy drivers swaying all over the road or surprising me with a car maneuver that I had thought was illegal, if not downright dangerous. The only bad turn we made was once we reached Rome and we turned onto Via Aurelia going in the wrong direction - for about 10 kilometers before realizing the mistake.

So we had lunch in Siena and dinner in Assisi, with a great amount of travel and wandering about in between. A full day, I would say, and one that I will appreciate for some time to come.
More pictures of the day may be seen at