Setting aside the belief of many Catholics (I know many who do not hold this view) that everyone who is not (Roman) Catholic is unfortunate, doomed to go a terrible place after they die and that it is the duty of good Catholics to save these unwitting fools among even their friends, one cannot disregard the great influence that Christianity and the Roman Catholic religion have wrought among people through the centuries. There are the many wonderful innovations that in the West we collectively call civilization that many of us today enjoy.
Traveling through Western Europe rewards the traveler who appreciates culture, history and art and much of what he or she sees and admires has some connection with Christianity. In the southern countries that I especially enjoy visiting, the predominant religion since the fourth century of the Common Era has been Roman Catholic, Christianity as determined by the Bishop of Rome (no matter where he lived, which was not always Rome).
I am continuing to work on the photos I took during my travels to Europe. I always thought that I would look over these pictures and put together not only the memories of my visits but also somehow to connect with the history and culture of these places. Yet, every time I come home, I stow away the suitcases and shelve the books and mementos of the trip and hardly look at them again. Someday, I would think to myself, I’ll have the luxury of time to look at this. Someday I’ll have the time to put all the ideas and insights together, read my books and let imagination and reason roam through my whole life. I didn’t take into account how memory fails!
The area of Lake Como in Northern Italy, just miles from its boundary with Austria, was scene of much fighting through the centuries. The Romans called the area Lacus Larius (hence, the name of our hotel, Hotel Laria). It was after the powerful archbishop of Milan, Ambrose, appointed Bishop Felix at Como that evangelization took root steadily. This is the same Ambrose who was a major influence on an African-born Manichaean, Augustine of Hippo (now Islamic Algeria), whom he succeeded in converting and baptizing at Easter Vigils in 387. The two are also two of the four original Doctors of the Church as declared in 1928. The others were St. Jerome who translated the Bible into Latin, the Vulgate, and Pope Gregory I better known as Gregory the Great (540-604).
This is the same Gregory who wrote the earliest biography of Benedict of Nursia, whose Rule became the foundation for many Roman Catholic orders today. (The Carmelites with whom I had much beneficial contact in the 1980s and 1990s followed a Rule formulated by St. Albert, patriarch of Jerusalem. The Carmelites started on Mt. Carmel in Northern Israel.) The Sixth Century in Western Europe were heady times. So much of what we take for granted today originated at this time.
I’ll end with a vignette about St. Ambrose. He was a politician and governor of the Roman province that included Milan. When that powerful city’s bishop died, he went to the church where succession was being debated among Catholics and Arians to prevent the breakout of violence. Instead the people there acclaimed him as the next bishop. At the time Ambrose was not even a priest! He dodged the crowd and hid at a friend’s house. When the emperor himself supported his election, he relented. He adopted an ascetic lifestyle, gave his money to the poor, donated his lands and asked his brother to take over the care of his family. Some like Paul (then called Saul) and Augustine of Hippo, come to conversion through mystical experiences; others through circumstances beyond their control, which I suppose can be the same thing.