March 15: First Impressions of Rome

By Katherine Theofanous

March 15, evening—

Rome welcomes Pope Frances to the Vatican. David Palacio / Religio.

Rome welcomes Pope Frances to the Vatican. David Palacio / Religio.

My heart skipped a beat the very first time I laid eyes on the Vatican, just steps away from our hotel on Via delle Fornaci in Rome. As I viewed the famous balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square where popes from generations past greeted the faithful, there was a deep sense of excitement that we, too, were witnessing history. My classmates and I walked through the piazzas and narrow streets feeling incredibly fortunate to be in Rome during the installation of a new pope, but also mindful of Italy’s current economic and political crisis which was not evident on the surface by the looks of all the full cafes and restaurants lining the streets.

Our first day in Rome was a whirlwind of events coupled with extreme jet lag. After an eight-hour flight, we arrived in Rome, checked into our hotel, briefly freshened up and made our way to Piazza Navona, bustling with tourists and locals, chatting away and drinking cappuccino’s while admiring Bernini fountains.  After a brief visit to the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross and group picture on its magnificent rooftop overlooking Rome, we sat down to our much-anticipated “welcome to Rome” lunch.

“This is my first time here, and Rome by itself is an amazing city but to have something so historic happening at the same time is overwhelming,” said Kimberly Brooks. “I am grateful.”

A woman prays and begs for alms near the Vatican. Marie Telling / Religio.

A woman prays and begs for alms near the Vatican. Marie Telling / Religio.

After lunch, we made our way through Campo de Fiore, a fresh produce and flower market full of Italian specialties like pastas and olive oil, and then, as the evening sun was setting, we entered Rome’s great synagogue, Tempio Maggiore di Roma, in the historic Jewish Ghetto for the Friday evening Shabbat service. The Rabbi’s chanting echoed through the towering arches and ceilings. Men swayed back and forth as he sang the prayers, some of the men had their heads bowed while others faced forward.   Women sat in separate sections, as prescribed by orthodox synagogues. While I was not used to being separated in this way, I did not feel belittled or undermined. I graciously accepted this tradition out of respect and, in many ways, this separation provided me with the opportunity to observe the synagogue from a unique vantage point.  One such observation was a ritual of men covering their faces with their hands during the Sh’ma prayer. When I asked a young woman sitting behind me what this meant, she explained to me that this ritual is a reaction to the scripture reading that says God’s name three times in row. God is so holy, she explained, that we have to cover our eyes because His Holiness is too bright for us to witness.

Following the Shabbat service, we made our way to a restaurant located in the old Jewish Ghetto for dinner.  A feast of pasta, fried artichokes and fish awaited us as we all sat together while Professor Goldman invited the group to partake in a Shabbat blessing and prayer.  We welcomed the Sabbath with him before setting off to our hotel for some much needed sleep.