My journey to “the Continent” last week was an experience that I will cherish and remember favorably during my time abroad.  Travelling to new places is always exciting, but I am especially grateful to have met so many new people, whether in Strasbourg or Belgium, whose hospitality I am thankful for and whose friendship I hope to maintain when I return to the States.  Our conversations provided interesting discussion points and it was great to see real-life examples of the intersection of faith in public life.

I always find traveling to Europe a different experience every time I visit, but I am usually left with the same impression of admiration.  The religious significance is perennial; the cultural milieu is fascinating; the history is captivating time and time again; and who can deny the richness of the cuisine?  Of course, the throng of uniquely dressed people around every street corner is a sight to behold in itself.  Who doesn’t enjoy seeing the typical pointy European shoe, which eerily seems ubiquitous on the Continent?  Apparently it’s not just the Elves in the North Pole who don such interesting footwear.  I must admit, I felt a little out of place in my Nikes and PC athletic sweatshirt. 

But perhaps what is most unique about these experiences is the fact that I always come as a visitor, with my own traditions and background, to a foreign land—something I often forget when I’m in “the moment” of the trip.  Surely, being a visitor brings with it unique challenges.  Trying to order a Quiche in French – a language completely alien to me – is easier said than done.  You only need to ask the poor woman at the bakery who had to deal with me to realize how ignorant I really am.  This woman must have been a saint, for after 10 minutes of agony,  she lead me to her back room, pointed to the oven with waving hands, and finally got an answer out of me as to whether or not I wanted the Quiche heated.  “No, no, si’l vous plait!” I murmured.    Luckily, I was able to offer a quick, innocent grin, say “pardon Madame, Je suis Americaine,” and received a genuine laugh.   She thanked me for coming to her bakery and wished me an enjoyable holiday in France.  I owe this gracious woman a large Merci, or thank you, because the quiche was delicious. 

Being a visitor to a foreign land also brings with it many benefits – and even a few enlightening “ah-has!” if one gives it enough thought.  For one, I often realize how small I am in this increasingly global world.  Living most of your life in the smallest state in the Union – which, ironically, has the longest name – often brings with it the false impression of thinking you’ve seen just about everything there is to see, since you can travel, in a span of 25 minutes tops, from one end of your state to the next.  The world, however, is far, far bigger than Lil’ Rhody, and it’s nice to see that sometimes. 

I have also realized how interconnected the world is, even traveling to many places abroad.  The connections of people living and working in Europe with ties to the U.S. is incredible, and it often helps me to understand the interconnectedness of humanity – that, in an global world, we are coming to terms with the cross-cultural ties that unite us.  And I don’t mean for this to appear overly cliché.  It really is true that there is something distinct about meeting people of an entirely different place and learning how much you have in common.  Who knows, perhaps we’re not as far away from each other as we think.  It is an awesome realization, one that will hopefully inspire more people to study abroad or travel on vacation.     

So far, I’ve been blessed to have travelled to 9 European countries and 19 European cities over my time at PC, whether through the Liberal Arts Honors Trips (Italy ’09; Austria, Slovakia, and Germany ’10; Greece and Turkey ’11) or during my most recent travels as part of the Fr. Smith Fellowship (England, France and Belgium ‘11).  It’s a whirlwind at times, and the opportunities for new adventures are endless.  I’m especially grateful to my parents and to the alumni of Providence College for helping me to finance these trips, because at the end of the day, it’s their generosity and support which gets me here in the first place, and sustains me throughout.  Indeed, the net-value of these experiences is priceless.

*** 

As the saying goes, there’s still no place like home.  And Oxford has been home for me over these past six weeks.  The community at Blackfriars is unique because of its small size, so it really makes life here at Oxford much more familial than most colleges and halls.  I’ve had the chance to meet some great people while I’ve studied here – Dominican Friars, other Oxford students, members of the Oxford Catholic Chaplaincy and the John Henry Newman Society, and members of the Hall.  I trust that we will remain friends well into the future. 

When I returned to Oxford, I met up with Michael and Emile, since it felt like ages since I saw them last.  Michael had the great opportunity of visiting the University of Fribourg in Switzerland and meeting up with Fr. Dominic Legge, OP, former professor at Providence College. 

[You can see the photos from Switzerland and read more about Michael’s experiences at Oxford on his blog:  http://www.myoxfordmovements.blogspot.com/]

Emile and I ended up having lunch right when I got back at the outdoor market near Glouchester Greene.  Emile and I tried to avoid the flood of pigeons as we ate our lunch outside.  Just a few days afterwards, we met Emile’s good friend from home, Gregoire, who finds the American love of peanut butter fascinating.  He caught me spreading peanut butter on a banana and was intrigued, wondering if all Americans are as crazy as I am.  I told him probably not, but many of us mix peanut butter and chocolate (which is a huge no-no in Switzerland).  Good thing Gregoire and Emile have yet to meet my brother Matthew, who is a peanut-butter fanatic.  Emile and Gregoire brought us some chocolate from Switzerland to taste; and, I must admit, it is heavenly.  Emile and I always joke about which chocolate is better (Belgian or Swiss), but I will give him props and side with Switzerland so long as I don’t have to support them in soccer.

Emile, Gregoire, Michael and I spent some time together the next few days touring around Oxford and going punting, which is the usual tradition here in Oxford.  It was great fun (see Evelyn Waugh’s classic novel, Brideshead Revisited, or the movie for the typical Oxford experience).   I also had my last tutorial on Friday with Kieran Flanagan.  It was a nice end to our conversations.  In his normal, abundantly generous fashion, Kieran took me out to dinner to celebrate the end of our tutorial.  Hopefully I’ll update a post some point soon about some of the final points we ended up discussing. 

Here are some pictures from our adventures back in Oxford.  You’ll notice there is a picture of an Anglican Chapel at Magdalen College following an Evensong service.  The choirs that chant at these services are incredible.  See this link to listen:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nhkbBEZcrKM

Trinity College, where Bl. John Henry Newman read as an undergraduate

Trip to the Ashmolean Museam. Here we are in the Renaissance Art room

After an Anglican Evensong Service at Magdalen College

Magdalen College, where C.S. Lewis studied

At Magdalen College

Relaxing on the river

Michael leading us onward through deep water

Only in England would one get four of a kind ... in Queens!

 ***

Also, happy Feast of St. Thomas More (patron of statesmen & lawyers) and St. John Fisher (bishop martyred for the Faith and refusal to take the Oath of Supremacy)

The King’s good servant, but God’s first.  — the last words of St. Thomas More, who shares today’s Feast Day with St. John Fisher, two English martyrs who lost their heads after refusing to take King Henry VIII’s famous Oath of Supremacy, separating the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church during the Reformation Period.  The separation, of course, remains to this day, which is why Oxford is no longer the Roman Catholic medieval instituion it was founded as in the 11th century.  Surely, the relationship between Anglicans and Catholics is stronger now than it ever was due to the ecumenical movement and recent strides by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict, but St. Thomas More’s message reverberates rather well within the timely debate of a so-called “secular modernity” — that is, between Church and State, God and men.  I think St. Thomas More’s message is a fitting way to end this evening’s post, which really echoes the theme of this entire blog.  The words of this “man for all seasons” remind us that faith and politics often meet at a crossroads, where difficult decisions face citizens and believers in both camps.  We must realize that the world will challenge people of religious faith to hold true to their values, or force them to abandon value-judgements altogether.  When grave issues affect the very structure of society, and indeed, the inviolable dignity of the human person, a decision is necessary.  And, at these times, we must choose.  Will it be the King?  Or will it be God?

St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher

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