Tag Archives: Italy

St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226)

francis assisi

October 4th is the Feast of Francis of Assisi.  A large statue of St. Francis  with arms outstretched stands facing the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. Facing the basilica from behind the statue, you might think the saint was holding up the church in his arms. And that’s what he did: Francis raised up a church that was falling down

We need to see saints in the light of their times as they met the needs of their day. Chesterton called saints “God’s antidotes for the poison of their world”.

What was poisoning Francis’ world? Twelfth century Italy’s economy was booming when Francis was born. His family was among its new rich merchant class. As a young man he had everything money could buy, but then, as now, money could be a poison.

Italy’s cities, often at war, fiercely competed with one another, fighting for power.. It was the time of the crusades and everything was settled through force of arms.

It was a time too when the church had become weak and in need of reform. Before Francis, saints like Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) and popes like Gregory VII (1015-1085) and Innocent III (1160-1216) sought renewal and change. The church was looking for a saint.

And so when Francis of Assisi came with twelve disciples to see the pope in Rome about reforming the church in the summer of 1220, he came at the right time. They say that the pope had a dream the night before that St. John Lateran, the mother church of Christendom, was falling down and a young man resembling the 28 year old Francis came to hold its walls up.

The pope asked Francis what would he do and Francis replied with three verses of scripture. The first was from the gospel of Matthew in which Jesus says to the young man ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’(19,21)  The second from Luke’s gospel in which Jesus sends his disciples out saying “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic.”( 9,3) The third from Matthew: Jesus says, “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross.” (16,24)

The pope was a good judge of people and, sensing the grace of God in Francis,  told him to live those gospel teachings, sending  him on his way. Francis and his companions started a movement that spread like fire throughout Europe.

Francis made Jesus’ teachings his own. He embraced poverty, not just renouncing the rich lifestyle that he was born into, but  renouncing any way that led to power. For example, he never became a priest or a bishop or a pope, because they were positions of power fought for and sometimes paid for in his day.

He did not want a monastery or a religious order as a base of power. Saints like St. Bernard and St Norbert before him thought monasticism was the way to bring about church reform, but Francis wanted a life style where you had nothing, “no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic.” He distanced himself and his movement from the religious institutions of his day, because he feared them becoming places of power.

He took the gospel teachings literally and lived them literally. His renunciation of power became an antidote to the poisonous attraction to power that crippled his world and his church. He imitated the “Son of Man” a poor man who said to his followers the “foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”

Like the Son of Man, who suffered and died on a cross and rose again, Francis experienced the mystery of the cross and was blessed by it.

Remembering him, we might pray: God send us saints to deal with the poison of our time.

“Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future.”      photo

T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”

St. Vincent Strambi

St. Vincent Strambi, CP

We know the saints best when we see them as part of their time. Saints don’t withdraw from the time they live in. They engage it. The world we live in is the path we take when we’re born and our companion through our lifespan. It’s the cross we carry, the calvary on which we find ourselves. Our blood, mingled with the blood of Christ, must fall on it to redeem it.

I’m thinking of St. Vincent Strambi, a Passionist who lived in Italy as the 18th century gave way to the 19th century. His cross was a world convulsed by Napoleon’s dreams of world conquest and a society increasingly influenced by the Enlightenment.

Strambi had a great devotion to the Precious Blood of Jesus, which was inspired by the sufferings he saw in the world around him.Some say over 4 million people were killed in the Napoleonic wars, military and civilians. So much innocent blood was shed then.

Strambi was part of that world; his blood was being shed too, not literally, but in the crucifying events of war, confusion, famine, sickness and change that affected his church, his community, his diocese, his country and the people he served. His devotion to the Precious Blood of Jesus came mainly from his experience of his time, I think.

Father Fabiano Giorgini, a fine historian, wrote a short biography of Strambi which we’re going to translate into English. Someday I hope it will be an ebook.

Room of St. Vincent Strambi, Saints John and Paul, Rome

Morning Thoughts: Who is Paul of the Cross?

st-paul-castellazzo


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Who is Paul of the Cross?

He’s a saint, canonized by Pope Pius IX in 1867.

He’s the founder of the Passionists , a religious community of priests, brothers, sisters, and laypeople.

He lived in northern and central Italy during most of the 18th century and was originally called Paul Francesco Danei.

There are books written about him. His letters have been collected and printed in large, thick volumes. And time on the internet will easily identify many short biographical sketches, prayers, and sayings. There is also much available about the Passionists, and their life after the death of Saint Paul of the Cross—their growth, history, struggles, saints, and their current configuration, focus, and works.

There are also the many individual members of the Congregation of the Passion of Jesus Christ, living today and based all around the world, and they each have their own story to tell.

But there is also the man named Paul.

And somehow this kind, gentle, humble, and beautifully-flawed human being seems to get lost in all this.

His weaknesses greatly interest me.

Christ’s courage and strength in and through him inspire me.

If we prayerfully put aside the constitutions, the history, the legacy, and even his incredibly personal and guidance-filled letters (that he never intended anyone other than the recipients to read) we just may find a stripped-down saint whose essence and example we badly need in times such as these.

We just may find what we find in each and every great man and woman of God throughout Christian history—that same occurrence that appears again and again through the lives of our brothers and sisters who have truly renounced all their possessions in order to become true disciples of Christ.

———

In Saint Paul of the Cross we just may find…

…a cold, naked infant in a cradle, desperate for his mother’s breast…

…a frightened and insecure child running to keep pace with the visions of his father…

…a tired, distraught, beaten-down young man offering his life for the benefit of his brothers…

We just may find ourselves.

Or we may find someone that we used to know.

Or we may find someone that we should get to know.

But what really matters is that we find the Word made flesh.

And that is the heart of the matter. The fleshy heart that matters.

For while hearts of stone are hard to wound, they are not really hearts at all. They are the hearts of the walking dead, of those whom Jesus Himself says, “let the dead bury their dead.”

Jesus wants our hearts, our entire hearts. He wants undivided, tenderized hearts. Soft and fleshy hearts.

Yes, that type of heart is easily pierced, but in being wounded they are transformed, in being merciful they begin to bleed, and in forgiving they become His. They become sacred. Our hearts become His Most Sacred Heart.

———

The saints show us Jesus. They show us ourselves. They show us where we come from, where we currently need to stand, and where it is that we should go.

And the answer is always the same: With God.

Born of a virgin. Dying on a cross. Raised from the dead. Ascending into Heaven.

———

I am no expert on Saint Paul of the Cross. But I am his friend, and he has been very good to me. And I hope that you get to know him too.

As far as me telling you more about Paul Danei, you probably fall into one of three categories: you already know the details, you have never even heard of him, or you are about to meet a man with a striking resemblance.

For you see, the best thing I can say about Paul is that he is a lot like Jesus—a man in history but not met through it, a man who wore a robe but not defined by it, a man who submitted himself to the law but didn’t let that stop him from transcending it.

A man who at the end of the day, knows that it is all about love.


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—Howard Hain

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Catherine of Siena, (1347-80)

St. Catherine if Siena is a doctor of the church and Italy’s patron saint along with St. Francis.

As the 24th child in a family of 25 children, Catherine of Siena was a saintly teacher and church reformer.  As a young girl, she clashed with her father, who worked dying wool, and her mother, a hardy determined housewife, after she told them she wasn’t going to get married, but was giving herself totally to God.

She cut her hair and began to fast and pray.  She joined a group of women who helped the poor in Siena, mostly widows associated with the Dominican order. They  were suspicious of the pious young girl who kept to herself and was at odds with her mother and father.

At 21 years old, Catherine was led to go beyond the mission of the women’s group and reach out further to the church and society.  Men and women, priests and laypeople, from Siena and its surroundings gathered around her. They cared for the poor– famine struck Siena in 1370 and a plague in 1374– but also they sought to reform the church and the society of their day.

At the time, Italian cities like Siena, Florence, Pisa and Padua were fighting among themselves as rival families clashed continuously over political power and economic advantages. In 1309 the popes fled the violence and factional riots in Rome for the safety of Avignon in France, where the papacy remained for almost 70 years. They call it “the Babylonian Captivity.”

Catherine and her companions pleaded with the feuding Italian cities for peace and urged the popes to return to Rome to exercise their mission as bishops of the city where Peter and Paul once led the Christian church. Catherine cajoled, warned and scolded the absent popes to do their duty as shepherds of their sheep and get back to where they belonged.

Without any formal education, Catherine learned to read and write only later in life, which made her an unlikely public figure. She was also a woman teaching and preaching– unusual for that day : “Being a woman, I need not tell you, puts many obstacles in my way. The world has no use for women in a work such as that and propriety forbids a woman to mix so freely with men.” (Letter) Despite those obstacles, Catherine traveled to the warring cities of Italy urging peace and to Avignon to plead with the pope.

Catherine had a deep experience of God in prayer, as the “Dialogue,” her mystical exchange with God, attests. God spoke with her and she shared those words, drawing others to respond and join her in her mission of peace-making and reform.

Jesus was her “Gentle Truth,” her guide and strength. “This is a sign that you trust in me and not in yourself: that you have no cowardly fear. Those who trust in themselves are afraid of their own shadow; they think heaven and earth are letting  them down. Fear and a twisted trust in their own small wisdom makes them pitifully concerned about getting and holding on to everything on earth and throwing away everything spiritual…The only ones afraid are those who think they are alone…They are afraid of every little thing because they are alone–without me.” (Dialogue)

As a lay-woman in the church, she was not afraid to speak to power, once correcting a bishop for “ordaining little boys instead of mature men… idiots who can scarcely read and say the prayers.  They consider it beneath them to visit the poor, they stand by and let people die of hunger.”

Tell the truth, God told her. Tell the truth because love impels you. “You must love others with the same love with which I love you. But you cannot repay my love. Love other people, loving them without being loved by them. Love them without concern for spiritual and material gain, but only for the glory of my name, because I love them.” ( Dialogue )  Loving God inevitably means loving others.

She died in Rome in 1378 and is buried there in the Dominican church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Her heart is in Siena.

Fourth Sunday of Easter: the Good Shepherd

audio homily here: 
I met the Italian film director Mimmo Mancini some years ago who was getting ready to film “Ameluk” a film about a Holy Week procession in an Italian town. It was released in Italy last year. As I remember the story the handsome Jesus selected to take part in the procession had an accident and was replaced by a Muslim from Palestine who, for reasons you might guess, didn’t fit the bill with the locals and a lot others. Part of it was he wasn’t handsome enough. We’re so sure that looks, appearances, image are everything.

“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says in today’s gospel. Now I don’t know too much about shepherds, what they look like, but from what I know I don’t believe they’re a particularly handsome group. They spend most of their time outside in the cold or heat; weather-beaten, scruffy looking, with few opportunities for grooming themselves, not much to look at. Tough job being a shepherd. Yet, it’s hard for us to imagine that Jesus didn’t look like a Hollywood movie star.

But the good shepherd cares for his sheep. That’s what Jesus does; he cares for his sheep. He cares for his sheep no matter what the weather, cold or hot. He makes the journey with them, no matter how hard it is. He doesn’t abandon his sheep, no matter what. He searches for those who are lost and he looks for others to enter his flock.

That’s the way Jesus, the Risen Jesus, describes himself in John’s gospel today:

“I am the good shepherd.
A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

He’s not doing it for pay, he’s not someone hired, putting in his time, caring little for his sheep, ready to run away when the wolf comes and the sheep are scattered.

“I am the good shepherd,
and I know mine and mine know me,”

He knows his sheep, Jesus says, not in an impersonal way. He speaks and they hear his voice. ‘Just as the Father knows me and I know the Father,” he says, and “I will lay down my life from them.”

St. Gabriel Possenti and Theodore Foley, CP

St. Gabriel PossentiToday is the feastday of St. Gabriel Possenti, the young Italian Passionist who died in 1862 and was canonized in 1920. I’m interested in his connection with Fr. Theodore Foley (1913-1974), an American Passionist whose cause for canonization was recently introduced in Rome. As a young boy of 14, Theodore read about  St. Gabriel and decided to become a Passionist;  other young men joined the community in the early 1920s and 30s also influenced by the young Italian saint.

What was St. Gabriel’s appeal ?

Born into a prominent family at Assisi in Italy in 1838, Gabriel Possenti was a lively, intelligent young man given all the advantages his father, an official in the papal government, could give him. Then, surprisingly, he left the bright, social world he loved so much to enter the Passionists at 18. He died in 1862 and was canonized in 1920. He was 24 years old.

Gabriel was first honored by people in the mountainous region of the Abruzzi in east central Italy and from there devotion to him spread through Italy and other parts of the world. His rise to sainthood as World War 1 ended, coincided with a decade in America known as  “The Roaring Twenties.”

The 1920s gave birth to a new consumer society, spawned by the country’s giant new industries and mass media, which chased after material goods of all kind. Young people especially, intoxicated by dreams of pleasure and success, rebelled against traditional institutions and morality. The 1920s was a “green light to an orgiastic future,” the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote. “America was going on the greatest, gaudiest spree in history.”

Catholic religious leaders in the 1920s, anxious about the young, saw Gabriel Possenti an answer to the rebellious ethos of the age.  He had flirted with a lifestyle like the “Roaring Twenties.” As a youth, glamorous parties, entertainments and dreams of success absorbed him. Then, hearing God’s call, he turned away and embraced a life without glamour or style.

In his preface to Saint Gabriel, Passionist, a popular biography by Fr. Camillus, CP published in 1926, the powerful archbishop of Boston ,William Cardinal O’Connell, denounced the “flood of putrid literature which, for the past ten years of more, has deluged the bookshelves and libraries of our great cities, fueling disappointment and emptiness in a false romanticism.” He urged young Catholics to reject this falseness and live in the real world, like St. Gabriel:

“To live a normal life dedicated to God’s glory, that is the lesson we need most in these days of spectacular posing and movie heroes. And that normal life, lived only for God, quite simply, quite undramatically, but very seriously, each little task done with a happy supernaturalism,-that such a life means sainthood, surely St. Gabriel teaches us; and it is a lesson well worth learning by all of us.”

Young Theodore Foley took Gabriel’s path. He followed the saint into the undramatic life of the Passionists.

Gabriel Possenti’s decision to enter the Passionists has always been something of a mystery, even to his biographers. Did he choose religious life because he got tired of the fast track of his day? And why didn’t he enter a religious community better known to him, like the Jesuits, who could use his considerable talents as a teacher or a scholar? Why the Passionists?

Gabriel–and Theodore Foley after him– was attracted to the Passionists because of  the mystery of the Passion of Christ. It was at the heart of God’s call.

The Passionists were founded in Italy a little more than a century before Gabriel’s death by St. Paul of the Cross, who was convinced that the world was “falling into a forgetfulness of the Passion of Jesus” and needed to be reminded of that mystery again. Paul chose the Tuscan Maremma, then the poorest part of Italy, as the place to preach this mystery, and there he established his first religious houses for those who followed him. He chose the Tuscan Maremma, not to turn his back on the world of his day, but because he found the mystery of the Passion more easily forgotten there.

When Gabriel became a Passionist, the community like others of the time, was recovering from the suppression of religious communities by Napoleon at the beginning of the century. In one sense, it had come back from the dead .  The congregation was now alive with new missionary enthusiasm. Not only were its preachers in demand in Italy, but it had begun new ventures in England (1842) and America (1852).

Paul of the Cross, the founder, was beatified in 1853. Ten years earlier, the cause of St. Vincent Strambi, a Passionist bishop, was introduced. Dominic Barbari, the founder of the congregation in England, would receive John Henry Newman into the church in 1865; the English nobleman, Ignatius Spencer, who became a Passionist in 1847, began a campaign through Europe in the cause of ecumenism. New communities of Passionist women were being formed.

Respected for their zeal and austerity, the Passionists were a growing Catholic community, and their growth in the western world continued up to the years when Theodore Foley became their superior general and then saw its sharp decline.

Success was not what drew Gabriel–and Theodore Foley after him–to the Passionists. Their charism–the mystery of the Passion of Christ– was at the heart of God’s call.

As a boy growing up, Gabriel Possenti understood this mystery, even as he danced away the evening with his school friends. Twice he fell seriously ill and, aware that he might die, promised in prayer to serve God as a religious and take life more seriously. Both times he got better and forgot his promises. Then, in the spring of 1856, the city of Spoleto where he lived at the time was hit by an epidemic of cholera, which took many lives in the city. Few families escaped the scourge. Gabriel’s oldest sister died in the plague.

Overwhelmed by the tragedy, the people of Spoleto gathered for a solemn procession through the city streets carrying the ancient image of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, who stood by the Cross. They prayed that she intercede for them and stop the plague, and they also prayed that she stand by them as they bore the heavy suffering.

It was a transforming experience for Gabriel. Mysteriously, the young man felt drawn into the presence of the Sorrowing Woman whose image was carried in procession. Passing the familiar mansions where he partied many nights and the theater and opera that entertained him so often, he realized they had no wisdom to offer now. He took his place at Mary’s side. At her urging, he resolved to enter the Passionists.

Can we speculate, then, how the life of the Italian St. Gabriel drew the young American Theodore Foley to the Passionists? What similarity was there between them? What grace led him on?

Brought up in a good family and a strong religious environment , Theodore Foley still felt  “dangers and temptations” around him. No, he didn’t experience the social life that tempted Gabriel Possenti a century before. But he did experience the new mass media then sweeping the country.  By 1922 movies, and to a lesser extent the radio, became powerful influences in people’s lives, and Hollywood’s heroes preached a new gospel of fun and success. Through the new media, the “Roaring Twenties” came to Springfield as it did to other prosperous parts of America when Theodore Foley was growing up. Did it bring the  “the dangers and temptations” he feared?

Theodore Foley must have sensed the selfishness, the carelessness about others, the failure to appreciate suffering and weakness and sin in this new gospel. It promised life without the mystery of the Cross, but that was not real life at all. Only 14, he entered the Passionists.

A Pilgrimage to Italy

Venice

A number of us are going on a pilgrimage to Italy, October 17-27. I spoke about the trip to some of my companions a few days ago.

“When you discover the world around you, you discover the world within you.”

We’ll be soon on our pilgrimage to northern Italy and Rome. If you have access to the internet, look up the places we’ll be visiting–Venice, Padua, Siena, Florence, Lucca, Rome, Pompei. There’s a wealth of free information available,

But let me recommend some resources.  We’ll begin our pilgrimage in Venice, the ancient maritime republic on the Adriatic Sea. Like other small powerful maritime states– England, Holland and Portugal– Venice, which is now part of Italy, was once an independent global power skilled in using the sea. Even today, the region around Venice is economically better off than other regions of Italy, largely because of Venetian economic acumen.

For centuries, the Venetian republic was linked to the Byzantine and Muslim worlds through the sea and many of its treasures, like the relics of St. Mark, come from those parts of the world. Its buildings and its art are also strongly influenced by the building and art of its trading partners.

An excellent new book on the history of Venice,  (City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas,  by Robert Crowley,  2012) offers a vivid description of the part Venice played in the Crusades and its relations to the Muslim and Byzantine empires. It’s a history that can throw light on our relationship with the Middle East today.

The best commentary on the art of Venice and Padua I’ve found is John Ruskin’s, The Stones of Venice and Giotto and his Works in Padua, both available free at Apple’s iTunes on the internet. Ruskin has a beautiful description of the art in St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, one of the great wonders of the world. We’ll celebrate Mass in the cathedral begun in 976 after fire destroyed an earlier building.

Padua, once the capital of Venice and also its rival, is still one of Italy’s intellectual centers.  The brilliant Italian scientist Galileo Galilei, a towering figure of the scientific world, was born in the 17th century in Pisa, in Tuscany, and studied, taught and lectured in Pisa and Padua as well as in Florence, where he and his family made their home. He’s called the father of experimental science; his work in astronomy drew criticism from the church of his time and made him a symbol of the conflict between faith and science.

However, he was a deeply religious man, Catholic to the core. Two of his daughters entered the convent outside Florence and one of them, Sister Maria Celeste, carried on a long, tender correspondence with her brilliant father.

Galileo believed that nature was a teacher along with the bible, and he wanted the church to accept scientific knowledge, otherwise it could be called an enemy of truth and human progress. Like others then and now, he believed that the bible taught you how to go to heaven and not how the heavens go.

His story is beautifully and carefully told in a recent book:

(Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love, Dava Sobel,  New York 1999). There’s a television version:  Galileo: Battle for the Heavens, that you can find on Nova’s internet site.

I admire the author’s even-handed description of the relations between the scientist and the churchmen who condemned him for what they considered heretical ideas. “A tragic mutual incomprehension has been interpreted as the reflection of a fundamental opposition between science and faith, “ Pope John Paul said with regret   in 1992.

Galileo was a believing scientist. I think believing scientists like Galileo and artists like Giotto (+1336) are going to be important figures in our church and our society in the future. Scientists and artists help us to know God through truth and beauty. Giotto revived people’s imagination by the treasures he left in Padua, Assisi, Florence and Rome.

Saints also strengthen our hope for the future, so we’ll keep our eyes open for the saints in the cities we’re visiting. Anthony of Padua, Catherine of Siena, Fra Angelico of Florence. We’ll celebrate Mass in their shrines in Padua and Siena.

At Lucca we’ll visit the shrine of St. Gemma. (1878-1903} Lucca is a lovely old Italian city near the Mediterranean Sea. Gemma is an “Unsuccessful Saint,” a beautiful young woman of the 19th century who in one way never achieved her dreams, yet God touched her in ways deeper than she could have ever imagined. Her life contradicts so many visions of success that our society holds. We’re going to look into her world and her life. She’s a sign that God still raises up “the lowly.”

A friend of mine offered me some wonderful notes on life and times in Lucca in Gemma’s day. Among other interesting facts, Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), the opera composer, was from Lucca. He composed “La Bohème” which premiered in 1896. “Although Puccini did not write an opera about Gemma, he was considered incomparable in delineating frail, simple heroines like her.”

Gemma seems so unlike Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), whose shrine we will visit in Siena. Named a “Doctor of the Church” in 1970, she’s the patron saint of Italy along with Francis of Assisi.  The “Black Death” claimed one third of the population of the cities of Italy during her lifetime, at the same time the church was sunk in scandals and corruption. Catherine wasn’t afraid to scold popes, bishops, priests and politicians, and by reconciling feuding Italian cities she sparked new life into the soul of Italy.

Saints have different missions and model God’s grace in different ways, and so both Catherine and Gemma exemplify how God’s grace works in us.

Here’s some material on Gemma. http://www.cptryon.org/compassion/75/gemma.html

On Catherine, there’s a fine interview with a Dominican writer at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EvlA9FBAk24

In Rome we’ll visit St. Peter’s, of course, and also Pompei, where modern archeology got its start in the 18th century. There’s a novel by Paul Harris called “Pompei” that’s worth reading; a story of that city’s last days that’s carefully researched. We’ll say hello to the pope at his Wednesday audience and celebrate Mass in St. Peter’s.

We’re going to visit  the motherhouse of my community, the Passionists, while in Rome. Saints John and Paul is located in one of Rome’s oldest areas, on the Coelian Hill, not far from the Colosseum.  Nero’s gardens were here; much of the present monastery is built over the ruins of the Temple of Claudius, another Roman emperor.  Under the Church of Saints John and Paul are the remnants of a house where Christians met around the 4th century. Early Christian saints are buried here. It’s a tight squeeze to get a large group into the underground ruins, but I’ll see if we can get there. We’ll also visit the chapel that holds the remains of the founder of my own community, St. Paul of the Cross.

You get an overview on the Coelian Hill of the history of Rome and the Catholic church. Cardinal Egan, the retired archbishop of New York, is the titular head of this old Roman church.

I wrote about this place here.

https://vhoagland.wordpress.com/2008/11/24/house-church-on-the-celian-hill/

http://www.cptryon.org/compassion/sum01/index.html