My mother and father were married for 40 years at the start of January. By way of celebration I organised a trip to Rome which seemed a good idea at the time. Although I’m nearly afraid to mention I was in Italy last week because all I heard was, ‘you weren’t away again’!.
A group of 16 headed to Rome last Sunday morning. It comprised what has been termed the Sunday Club; they are a group of friends who meet every Sunday afternoon for a few drinks. During the course of their get-together they catch up on life and offering opinions on various topics from football, politics, religion and every other conceivable concern until the world’s problems are sorted for another day.
My parents are members of the Sunday club along with their peers although it’s very segregated with the women sitting around one table and the men sitting round another table usually watching the football.
They have been meeting together as a group of friends for over 20 years so when the trip to Rome was organised they went on tour. The majority of the travelling party were over 60, never mind 50, with a few exceptions, you could say we had our own version of a Saga or Sun Alliance holiday. Every morning there was a roll call to make sure they were all still with us. The younger members of the tour party had to act as a guide which wasn’t the easiest experience. Two of the erstwhile guides were teachers accustomed to being on trips with children. After one day the pair confessed they would rather be looking after two busloads of weans than 12 older adults.
The first day wasn’t too taxing apart from trying to divert the women away from shops as they compared the prices of rosary beads, statues, and various other historical and religious souvenirs without which a trip abroad wouldn’t be complete. The shoppers would do anything to save a euro or 50 cents.
The next morning we gathered from our two hotels to meet at Termini Railway Station. This wasn’t even straightforward as one couple left behind their camera so eventually we decided we would risk the metro ,so we lined them up in pairs and bought them one all day metro ticket each. We proceeded to brief them on how to use the ticket and at which station we would be getting out to begin our tour. Eventually we bought a Vatican flag to use as a focal point for the group although I wasn’t impressed when I was told there was no point in me holding it aloft because it would have been lost in the crowd.
By the end of the three days some of the tour party were churched out, to the extent they were seeing the interior of churches in their sleep. We hadn’t even visited St Peter’s, St John Lateran or the Sistine Chapel at this stage. Thankfully counselling was on offer in the evening as we gathered for dinner. Unfortunately my father waited until we were in Rome to mention he didn’t like pizza, pasta or cheese.
On one occasion we had a left another very beautiful church dedicated to St Ignatius to visit another Church at the Pantheon which is one of the most historic and fascinating buildings in the world never mind Rome. We only had to walk 200 yards but some of the group, most notably the older women, were more anxious to buy plastic replicas of the Coliseum, although some of the less historically minded thought the models were ashtrays. You can make at least some sort excuse for this mistake but how one of them managed to buy a Leaning Tower of Pisa thinking it was a recession hit Coliseum I’ll never know.
Thankfully we arrived back to Derry in one piece, even survived Valentine’s night in the company of my parents and six other couples. It was a brilliant celebration of the power of family and friends, the importance of having a sense of belonging in the world. Without these experiences we feel isolated and alone, having no sense of who we are or where we have come from?
According to the Canadian priest Ron Rolheiser, ‘Hell is the absence of life, of love, of forgiveness, of community. We can end up there, outside of love and community, but that’s a choice we make during our lifetime. Among other things, scripture speaks of hell as missing out on the banquet, as being outside the kingdom, as living inside a bitter and warped heart. Hell is the pain and bitterness, the fire, we experience when we deliberately put ourselves outside of the community of life.’
According to Rolheiser, when Jesus speaks of God, he does so in terms of light and life. ‘Death has its origins elsewhere, as do bitterness and hardness of heart. God neither creates hell nor sends anyone to it. We do both. God sent his Son that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, the light has come into the world, and the people loved darkness rather than light....’