Orbotello wasn't supposed to be one of my stopping points, however, on this warm Saturday evening, hello from Orbotello on the Italian Mediteranean coastline. On Monday I was scheduled to visit the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity for nothing more than a quick hello before heading off towards France. What I had failed to take into account though was that the men & women I would be meeting with that morning don't simply work in a place that deals with the issues of unity, they live it. The unity of christians is their passion & their mission. Ergo, I was offered a very warm welcome & what I thought would be a 30min wave hello & goodbye turned into nearly a full day. I was greeted at the door by the secretary I had been in contact with prior to my arrival & was quicly introduced to Monsignor Bollen who is in charge of the Catholic/Anglican dialouge. After a considerable chat I was asked to sign copy of the International Week of Prayer for Christian Unity booklet & then introduced over time with the priests in charge of dialouge with the Greek Orthodox, Lutherans, Jews & the World Coucil of Churches, respectively. I then had the oppurtunity to meet with both Bishop Brian Farrell (secretary) & Walter Cardinal Kasper, who leads the 'team'. That meeting was very quick as the Cardinal had asked to say hello in between two meetings but we did quickly pose for a photo together. I blinked. Sorry. There were a number of points to come from all the meetings & conversation though. Firstly, that Christ's prayer (John 17) & St Paul's exhortations call for a 'visible' unity & that the lack of it is in direct conflict with our calling to live as christians. And secondly, what really struck me, was their incredible joy & love of what they did, or more to the point, of what God does are they are privileged to be a part of. The place was litterally bursting with smiles & gentle humour. I asked one of the priests what he did at the council but before he could answer, a Tanzanian priest in charge of dialouge with the WCC called out from down the hallway, "As little as possible!" There where a few laughs before he finally had the oppurtunity to answer the question, but the mood was the same the whole day. There were people bouncing around everywhere. They all enjoyed what they did & had such incredible admiration for all the denominations they each worked alongside. The young Dominican in charge of the Greek Orthodox dialouge spoke about the Greek Orthodox Church with greater affection than I've heard any Greek Orthodox speak about it! The Monsignor called me aside at one point & apologised because he had organised some interviews for me for that day & so I was then off across the street to Vatican Radio before dashing up to CNS (Catholic News Service), then across town to the Franciscan run Centre For Unity & then a rest over night before meeting with Zenit TV for an interview the next morning. The young Dominican priest, Fr Vladimir, invited me to stay in their spare appartment just outside the Vatican walls. Not long after arriving there, Fr Oliver (Catholic/Lutheran dialouge) showed up with a gift from Bishop Brian Farrell; a tour of the excavations of the tombs of the first christian matyrs underneath St Peter's Basilica. Now that's a gift! And so after sharing a meal with 4 Dominicans I was off to bed in readiness for the tour of the crypt & the final interview the next morning. As it would be though, there was confusion the next day at the Vatican gates & the guards directed me to the wrong place & to cut a complicated & frustrating 2hr story short, I didn't make it under St Peter's. I have to be honest, I was bitterly disappointed for about half an hour but eventually managed to refocus & set my mind on what really mattered as Zenit TV showed up for their interview. Eventually hitting the road again after lunch on Tuesday was a breath of fresh air. I felt a lot more comfortable just walking & praying. I've fallen one day behind schedule over the last 2days due a variety of factors but I'll try to catch that day later in the week. I've been taunted for the last few days by 2 old problems that have flaired up badly. I have been walking with a corn on the bottom of my right foot since Mexico & with severe muscle soarness in my right shoulder-blade since Poland. Niether has been too unbearable until this week & I really had to consentrate on not letting out grunts & groans while people were walking past me. My foot feels like it's on fire & my back feels like it has a knife shoved up between the shoulder-blade & ribs. I've had two shoulder reconstructions ('96 & '03) and so that shoulder is a lot tighter than normal & requires particular attention. Obviously more than I've been giving it! I'm pleased to report though that my split heal has healed. Next! Hmmm, you know, I actually thought that by the time I made it to this part of the world I'd be cruising. Oh the ignorence! My reception in many towns hasn't changed a great deal. I arrived in a particular seaside town earlier in the week but hadn't seen any signs showing the name of the place & so I went to ask a lady walking past me what the name of the town was. I only managed, "Excuse me" in Italian before she tucked her handbag under her arm & ran like blazes all the way up the street. Wow, am I that ugly?? While still contemplating the dashing women, a young man exited his front gate right beside me. He looked up at me, I smiled & said hello, he continued to stare for a while & then returned the greeting before heading back inside through a second gate. I walked on into the town & passed an elderly lady sitting outside a cafe. She was fixated on me. She did not break her stare for a second. It was very unnerving & I felt a tad uncomfortable so I simply nodded & said good afternoon to her but she didn't waver. No return of greeting, no break in the stare. Walk on. Unfortunatky it is pretty common in town after town & it's had me very needlessly contemplating what's wrong with my appearence. Perhaps it's my height (196cm), perhaps it's because I'm carrying a backpack & two walking poles. I don't know. Maybe I just look like Shrek :-) While being interviewed by Vatican Radio on Monday, the interviewer looked at my itineary & pointed out that I was passing by her mother's place where I could stay if I wanted to. I took up the offer & so last night stayed with 81 year old Josette in her country home. It was a stay with a difference. Josette lives by herself & fends for herself pretty well in spight of suffering from short-term memory loss. The thing is, I didn't know this(that information hadn't been passed on) so the first few minutes of our conversation was oh-so painful! Eventually I figured out what was going on & I was quiet happy to have the same conversation 4 times over. I had to stop myself from laughing at one point though. Josette was talking on & on about her cats before she stopped suddenly & asked of me, "Do you murder cats?" I laughed inside but kept a straight face as replied, "No, no not at all." "Good" she said, and the conversation went elsewhere. Do I murder cats? What did concern me though was that at one stage she began to talk about her daughter who works with the Vatican Radio & after I'd pointed out that I met her on Monday she began to laugh at how small the world is that I'd meet 'her' daughter in Rome. She couldn't believe that I'd run into her daughter, but it left me thinking, "Well, how does she think I ended up here?" What was concerning me was what was going to happen the next morning when I walked down the stairs into the kitchen? Would she remember me or think I was a robber? Firstly though we had to get through dinner but because there were 3 options available for dinner, the 3rd was too far away from the 1st & so we'd recycle through this endless cycle of options. Three options was quickly turning into 22options & counting. I eventually stopped the endless cycle of options by offering to cook for her & so sat her down at the table & set to work. It wasn't the best meal I've ever prepared but it did us fine & we eventually tapped into a topic on which her memory was not faulting - the war. She talked for 3hours straight without drawing breath & though she repeated some topics, it was always with a little extra information or from a slightly different perspective. It was a brilliant dinner conversation. This morning I waited anxiously for Josette to make an appearence, wondering if she'd recognise me. When she did walk out, there was a look of complete confusion on her face for a few seconds before she finally relaxed & commented, "So you're off then! Where to today?" Argh, thank the Lord, she remembers me. She sat me down & offered me the last few pieces of bread & some home made marmelade. As I finished the last piece of bread she walked over towards the table & announced, "Now! I have a couple of pieces of bread here. You can have it if you like." She flicked over the tea towel that had been covering the bread but of course it was now empty. "Now where the Dickens has that bread gone!" Oh dear, her we go again... It took a long time to say goodbye but it was a fabulous stay. Her memory has faded badly but her hospitality was as good as gold. Please continue to pray for the unity of christians & hopefully, I'll be leaning slightly to the north of Pisa next week as I touch base again. Until then, bye for now and God bless, Sam.
"Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ send greetings." Rom16:16