Lucia Silecchia: Sacred Places and the “History of Our Friendship with God”

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Lucia Silecchia: Sacred Places and the “History of Our Friendship with God”

Since June 18, Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato Si’, has captured much attention. Indeed, it garnered attention long before that — with commentators lauding or lamenting it before one syllable had been released! My fall will be busy studying this document and participating in academic discussions which will continue for years as Laudato Si’s place in the canon of Catholic social teaching and its impact on environmental law and policy both become clearer.

Lucia Silecchia

Lucia Silecchia

When I first read Laudato Si’, a line that caught my attention was one unlikely to be much noted because it expresses an idea so universal, yet so simple.  Pope Francis wrote:

“The history of our friendship with God is always linked to particular places which take on an intensely personal meaning; we all remember places, and revisiting those memories does us much good. … [G]oing back to those places is a chance to recover something of [our] true selves.”

This line touched my heart for a deeply personal reason. Laudato Si’ was released the same morning as my Dad’s funeral. I first read it when I returned home from that sacred farewell, and I knew exactly what Pope Francis meant by linking “ [t]he history of our friendship with God” to particular places.

To be with my family, I spent most of this past year in New York. While there, I prayed at the parish church that generations of my family called home — and that my heart still calls home too. My parents married there, I was baptized there, and it has been the scene of my life’s most joyous and sorrowful moments.  It is where I still see my first grade teacher, where people have told me until fairly recently that I have gotten taller (?!), and where neighbors who knew my grandparents come to worship. Within this past year alone, the Pascal candle burned to celebrate our family’s joy at my baby nephew’s baptism, and it burned again to call us to joyful hope of a different kind at my Dad’s funeral. It was at that church that my “history of friendship with God” was born, nourished, and celebrated.

I lived much of this year in the house I grew up in — discussing life and death, knowing joy and sorrow, and saying my last farewell to Dad in the same place I lost my first tooth, built grammar school science fair projects, celebrated dozens of birthdays, typed articles for a high school newspaper (on a real typewriter!), poured over college catalogs, studied for the bar exam, graded students’ papers, and lived the decades of friendships and adventures that make up life. It was in that home that my “history of friendship with God” was lived.

I spent time in other important places back home too, those “particular places which take on an intensely personal meaning” every time they are revisited.

How, you may ask, does this relate to our preparations for a papal Mass here on our campus? In the “history of friendship with God,” special places have always played important roles. While faith tells us that our true home is not of this world, God’s presence is often seen and known in particular places. The Garden of Eden, Mount Sinai, Nazareth, Bethlehem, Galilee, Cana,  the Jordan River, Mount Tabor, Gethsemane, Calvary, Golgotha, and the road to Emmaus — to name but a few — all call to mind important moments in the “history of friendship with God.” For centuries, pilgrims to Jerusalem, Rome, Assisi, Lourdes, Fatima, and Czestochowa have sought out sacred places inextricably intertwined with that history and that friendship.

I hope that for many, this campus is a special place in their “history of friendship with God.” Whether through our sacramental life, academic life, or community life, I hope that for all of us there is a moment — or many — that took place here and that is a landmark in the history of that friendship. On Sept. 23, in the heart of our campus, the successor of St. Peter will be among us. The successor of the fisherman from Galilee who marveled at Mount Tabor, slept at Gethsemane, ran from Calvary, and died a martyr’s death in Rome will celebrate Mass and the very first canonization in America right here in our home. Many wait a lifetime to journey to Rome or plan a pilgrimage hoping to travel to a celebration like the one that we will be privileged to witness. Many never dream of it.

Years from now, when the papal Mass is long over, I hope it will remain for many an important moment in our “history of friendship with God.” I also hope that it is a moment that will be forever linked to this place.

—   Lucia Silecchia is a professor of law at The Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law. She also is director of the International Human Rights Summer Law Program in Rome.


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