11 August 2023, The Tablet

A holiday from heaven – lighting candles and praying in churches across Italy


A holiday from heaven – lighting candles and praying in churches across Italy

Lake Garda.
All photos by Benedict Rogers.

My summer holiday in Italy this year was remarkably blessed.

It began in Sicily, as I landed in Palermo just a few hours after the airport had reopened, having been closed that morning due to advancing wildfires. As the plane descended, I could see flames and smoke.

I was there to speak at the Catholic-led Calarossa Summer School, a tremendous gathering of about 40 students from around Italy and the United States, before beginning my summer break. In my three days in Sicily, the temperature dropped from the mid-40s to early 30s and I was unaffected by the fires.

My fortnight continued through northern Italy, just days after severe rainstorms hit the region. By the time I got there, the sun was shining again.

And it ended listening to Placido Domingo singing live in the Arena in Verona, and three days in a beautiful villa in the Italian countryside outside the city.

It took me on the trail of my patron saint, St Charles Borromeo, whose birthplace, Arona, and family islands on Lake Maggiore I visited last summer, and wrote about for The Tablet. This time I visited the Duomo in Milan, where he had served as archbishop for twenty years from 1564 to 1584, and Trento, where as a cardinal he had organised and led the third and last session of the Council of Trent.

In Milan’s Duomo, I tried to visit his tomb, where he is buried under the main altar, but it was closed for restoration. Across the piazza in the museum, I was able to see his cross, crozier, chalice and altar cloth, along with portraits and statues of the great saint.

The Duomo in Milan at night.

When I was baptised and received into the Catholic Church in St Mary’s Cathedral, Yangon, Myanmar (Burma) on Palm Sunday ten years ago, by Myanmar’s Cardinal Charles Bo, I was asked which saint I had chosen as my patron. To be honest, until that moment I had thought that my name Benedict meant that I was already blessed with a great saint and 16 Popes behind me, so I had not given the matter consideration. I chose St Charles Borromeo out of respect and appreciation for Cardinal Bo, whose patron saint he is. Cardinal Bo had inspired, encouraged and received me into the Church and continues to be my dear friend and spiritual mentor.

Having chosen St Charles Borromeo, over the past ten years I have learned more about him. He is, after all, the patron saint of learning and the arts, as well as of cardinals, bishops, catechists, seminarians and spiritual leaders, and stomach ailments and dieting.

As I am a voracious reader, a lover of music, theatre, film, literature and history and the brother of a violinist, the first seems appropriate – as it is for Cardinal Bo, a playwright and pioneer of theatre as evangelisation.

As someone who tries to pray and strengthen my spiritual life, enjoys silent retreats and receives regular Ignatian spiritual direction, the second is also fitting, despite being a layman – and it is even more relevant for Cardinal Bo.

Mercifully I suffered no stomach ailments in recent times. I must confess that dieting is the area of my saint’s patronage which I have explored least and could benefit from most. All in good time.

In the Duomo in Milan, I lit a candle and asked St Charles Borromeo to pray for me, Cardinal Bo and Myanmar, a country facing a dire human rights and humanitarian crisis, torn apart by renewed military dictatorship and civil war since a coup in February 2021 which overthrew the democratically elected civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

I lit candles and prayed in churches across northern Italy – in the Duomo in Trento and Verona, in Trento’s Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, and in a small church in Limone on the shores of Lake Garda.

I prayed not only for Myanmar, but for other places of repression and persecution which are held deeply in my heart: Hong Kong, Tibet, the Uyghurs of China’s Xinjiang region, China itself, the increasing threats to Taiwan, North Korea and Ukraine.

I lit candles for Hong Kong’s jailed pro-democracy activists, particularly my friends Jimmy Lai, a devout Catholic, and Joshua Wong, a committed Christian, and the city’s courageous 91-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen.

But my holiday was not spent solely in solemn prayer. From Milan, I went to Lake Como and enjoyed the beauty of a ferry ride across the lake that took me to the charming streets of Bellagio, the gardens of Villa Melzi d’Eril, the delightful seafront in Lenno and the wonderful Villa Balbianello, where scenes from Star Wars and the 007 Casino Royale were shot.

I went on to Riva del Garda – which I had last visited with my family when I was about 17. My sister, five years younger than me, had been touring northern Italy with her school choir, and my mother had travelled with them as their accompanying pianist, while my father and I drove across Europe – stopping in Strasbourg, Munich and Innsbruck – to join them in Riva del Garda. It was the first time I had a father-son expedition of that kind and it was a formative experience. In Munich, my father had taken me to my first ever beer garden. Now, over three decades later, I was able to enjoy Riva once again.

The bus ride from Rovereto, where my train had stopped, took in stunning views of the mountains and fields as we descended into Riva. In the charming old town, I found a restaurant – Il Gallo in Piazza San Rocco – which I then frequented for several consecutive evenings. After dinner I would sit in the main square listening to live music performed. One of the many things I love about Italy is that almost everywhere you go, there is live music.

In Milan’s Piazza del Duomo, there was a woman singing opera arias in one corner, a man strumming on his guitar in another and a rock band in yet another, and while in Riva there was not quite the same variety, nonetheless there were performances each night. A rendition of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” on my first night in the lakeside town seemed apposite.

From Riva I did a day trip across the lake to Limone – a delightful town in which absolutely everything lives up to its name. I drank home-made lemonade (which I watched being squeezed), ate lemon gelato (ice-cream), bought lemon soap, shampoo and marmalade for my mother and sister and limoncello for myself to take home. Without exception, every single street sign and house number has lemons on it. I walked among the lemon groves in the “castel” and prayed in the Church of San Rocco and the Church of San Benedetto.

In Riva, I wanted to take the cable-car up Monte Oro, but it was broken. So I walked a fraction of the way up the mountain to the 16th century Bastione, with fabulous views over the lake. A Birra Moretti called out to me as I reached the end of my climb, and I answered its call.

Except that wasn’t the end of my climb. Having enjoyed the view and the beer, I was going to do the sensible thing and walk back down to the town, when a sign to the Church of Santa Barbara caught my eye. I checked Google Maps and it seemed nearby, so I thought I would take a look. I began a treacherous climb along rocky paths which became ever-more precarious and seemingly endless. The church was most definitely not “nearby”.

The Church of Santa Barbara overlooking Lake Garda.

But as in my human rights advocacy work, so in life, I can be persistent and determined – and so I kept going. Steep gradients don’t agree with me at the best of times, and I had the worst possible footwear, but I pressed on. Experienced hikers with sticks and proper climbing shoes passed by, as I clambered along rocks in the beating sun. Several times I almost turned around, but somehow an inner voice kept saying: “You have come so far, you can’t give up now, it must be around the corner”. It wasn’t around the corner, but I refused to stop.

Finally, after well over an hour of sweaty climbing, I reached a flat ridge. From there, I could see the Church of Santa Barbara – a tiny chapel nestled in the mountains. At night, from Riva del Garda, you could see it lit up, but during the day you have to endure an arduous hike to see it close-up. The journey was a test of faith, perseverance and endurance – but it was worthwhile for the satisfaction of having done it, and the views that were before me.

The journey down was equally hazardous. I slipped twice, though mercifully suffered nothing more than a tiny cut on one hand – nothing to speak of at all. I made it to the bottom, thanked God that I was in one piece with nothing sprained or broken, and went for what I felt was an appropriate gelato and a swim in Lake Garda from Spaggia Sabbioni.

In Trento, I received two messages from Cardinal Bo. The first was a set of photographs of him in football kit, playing in a football match in northern Myanmar with one team of Catholic clergy against another. His team won 2-1. He cited Pope Francis, who has said: “We need normal seminarians, with their problems, who play soccer, and who don’t go to the neighbourhoods to dogmatise”. The second was to tell me that a few years ago, he had celebrated Mass in Trento wearing vestments and mitre, and carrying a crozier, from the 16th century Council of Trent. A somewhat surreal contrast.

Throughout my entire holiday, I had wonderful literary companions.

I read Ben Goldsmith’s haunting, poignant, tragic but ultimately inspiring memoir of grief, loss, nature and spiritual hunger, titled God Is An Octopus. I read Catherine Belton’s Putin’s People, which gave me a deeper understanding of the regime in Moscow and how we have ended up with the tragedy in Ukraine.

I read the brilliant Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists and The Gift of Rain, having already finished his latest, The House of Doors, earlier in the summer. His writing is beautiful, evocative and especially appealing to me with my decades-long love affair with Asia.

I read Claire Gilbert’s I Julian, a remarkable fictional “autobiography” of Julian of Norwich, full of spirituality and struggle, recommended by my spiritual director, Fr. Nicholas King.

And I read my first-ever Australian novel, Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet.

Eclectic. Of course I had John Peter Giussano’s The Life of St Charles Borromeo alongside me too, and Rowan Williams’ A Century of Poetry: 100 poems for searching the heart.

My last stop was the romantic city of Verona.

I walked through its streets after Mass in the Duomo; I stopped at the Church of St Anastasia; I enjoyed another gelato as I passed the crowds lining up to visit the house of Juliet in Romeo and Juliet – in the full knowledge that she is fictional – and I sat in the Arena on a Sunday evening to hear one of the world’s greatest opera singers, the last of the “Three Tenors” still singing, Placido Domingo.

I stayed in the utterly magical 16th-century Villa Giona 10 kilometres outside the city, with a swimming pool overlooking vineyards and with absolutely delightful, hilarious, kind staff and delicious cuisine.

I laughed as one of the hotel staff told me, when I requested another glass of wine, that the only thing I was not permitted to ask for was more water – and that the fountain was made of gin and tonic.

I raised a glass to my wonderful father, whose 99th birthday it would have been on 7 August and who departed this world just before the Covid-19 pandemic, in January 2020. I recalled that journey he and I did just over three decades ago across Europe to Riva del Garda, and I knew that he was smiling down approvingly as I retread some of those footsteps.

And I thanked God for so many blessings.

I had dodged Sicily’s extreme heat and fires, missed northern Italy’s rainstorms and floods, survived a mountain climb with foolish footwear, swam, read and learned much, enjoyed great music, laughter, wine and food, lit candles and prayed for the causes and people dear to me, listened to one of the world’s greatest tenors in one of the world’s most ancient amphitheatres, and learned more about my patron saint.

What more could one want in a holi(y)-day?

Candles lit in the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Trento.

 

Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is the co-founder and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Watch, Senior Analyst at CSW, author of three books on Myanmar, a personal memoir – “From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church” (Gracewing, 2015) – and a new book, The China Nexus: Thirty Years In and Around the Chinese Communist Party’s Tyranny” (Optimum Publishing International, 2022).




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