Oberlin Blogs

St. Stephen and St. Peter

September 21, 2008

Sunday, September 21st, 6:40 pm (reposted May 26, 2009)
Fiumicino Airport, Rome, Italy

It has been a long day. I walked from my bed & breakfast near the Coliseum all the way to the Vatican for a 9:00 am mass and then walked back via the Spanish steps, the Trevi Fountain, and Trajan's Column. More on these later. First a few stories to demonstrate just how small the world has become. Yesterday I met up with Sidonia Dalby from Smith College in Northampton, MA. She and I will finish this trip together. Last evening we did our first joint presentation - at St. Stephen's School. While I was busy flying around Asia, Sid was able to round up an alumna from Bologna to present with us. I was a little bummed because I didn't have an alumnus to offer. So imagine my surprise when I got to St. Stephen's and learned that not one but two teachers at the school are Oberlin alumnae. But that isn't even my best small-world story for this trip. Last Monday when I was in Singapore I interviewed a young woman from Indonesia. As it happens I visited a remote city in Indonesia about 18 months ago as part of an Oberlin Shansi program (see previous blog about Shansi). As a result, I know about 5 people in Indonesia. Well, this young lady is the daughter of one of the five Indonesians that I know!

My best small-world story, though, took place about 2.5 years ago in Beijing. I arrived at the Beijing University Affiliated High School for an appointment, but the security guard knew just as much English as I knew Chinese (i.e. none). So he motioned for a student to come over and translate for me. I introduced myself as being Charles Grim for Oberlin College. His response? "Oh you just rejected me last week." But the story has a happy ending, I had my meeting and the young man in question is enrolled at Grinnell College in Iowa.

Ok, back to this trip. The weather was delightful, sunny with a few clouds, temperatures between 22 and 25 C. - pretty much ideal walking weather. Sid and I arrived at the Vatican just as the service started. It was impressive, dozens of bishops, maybe 500-600 parishioners. Speaking neither Latin nor Italian made it tough for me to follow, but I'm pretty sure that the service was conducted partially in Latin and partially in the vernacular. This, of course, got me to thinking about the Catholic Church in prior centuries, when the masses were conducted entirely in Latin. It seems odd to conduct a service in a language that the audience can't understand - especially now that they have been in local languages for most of my life (probably if you ask some of my former economics students, they will tell you that I often spoke in a language they didn't understand, but that is another story).

I guess that switching mass to local languages is a lot like some of the famous Oberlin firsts. Now, virtually all schools admit students regardless of race and gender and it seems odd to most of us that they didn't in the past. But somebody had to be first and that someone was Oberlin College, in the 1830s - a fact that I'm very proud of.

Well it is almost time for us to check in for our flight. I'll leave you with this puzzle. One thing particularly struck me today in St. Peter's. There was no crucifix behind the altar. I don't recall ever being in a Christian church without a crucifix. Does anyone know the story here? I also noticed that there were a lot of Latin words written around the top of the cathedral. However, as one faces the altar, behind it and just to the right was a single word in Greek. I wonder what and why?

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