Editor’s note: This column first ran on Dec. 7, 2018.
It was 1992 and the Friday after Thanksgiving. My first Thanksgiving in Rome, Italy, had been a big feast and great fun with my new friends at the North American College.
Because that great American day, set aside to give thanks to God, with turkey and all the trimmings isn’t celebrated in Europe, only the seminarians at the college celebrated the big day. It is just another day of study for seminarians from other countries.
My class had arrived in Rome on Sept. 1. Since most of us couldn’t afford a car we walked, took taxis, rode a bus or bought a bike to get around. The traffic in Rome was always hectic and made a young man from a small city feel a little lost.
My first year of study in Rome was filled with new experiences, and the joy of Thanksgiving the previous day was a familiar experience. However, the next day there was no Black Friday, and the beginning of the Christmas rush in the USA was not part of Italy‘s culture. That Friday my classmates and I left the college to walk through the city for 40 minutes to the University of St. Thomas Aquinas for our theology classes.
Virtually nothing in Rome had changed to indicate that Christmas was a few weeks away. Windows in the stores seemed dreary without a single Christmas decoration. Even the small business shops along the main streets were devoid of a hint that Christmas was on the way.
The Italian culture took some getting used to, and I felt extremely empty during that holiday season. Rome can be bone chilling due to humidity, despite the fact that it rarely snows. But the cold was the only indication the season was upon us.
The absence of Christmas lights in windows and traditional Christmas tree displays left me miserable and desolate. Homesickness had struck me hard by the first Sunday of Advent.
From that day on every time I ventured into the city, I’d think of what my friends and family must be doing back home in Colorado Springs. Since seminarians have no money, unless someone graciously sends it to them, the problem of writing a list of gifts to buy for others was removed, but that year it deprived me of the joy of giving.
My dorm mate, who was in his third year of studies, took pity on me and generously took the time to show me the ropes. A few days before Christmas Eve he told me to be sure to sign up for a ticket to the Midnight Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, where Pope John Paul II would be celebrating Holy Mass. Getting tickets was similar to winning the lottery, but with his wisdom and advance notice, I managed to get one.
On Christmas Eve, we seminarians planned to walk to Holy Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica together. Afterwards, we would come back to the college and have a glass of champagne to toast the Nativity of Christ before we turned in for the night.
At around 11:30 p.m. Christmas Eve, when we walked down the hill for Holy Mass, and as we turned the street corner where St. Peter’s comes into full view, the grace of God hit me like a ton of heavenly bricks.
The whole square in front of the basilica was aflame with glorious lights. In the center of the square, a life-sized Nativity scene took the focal point. Christmas songs in many different languages filled the air. At last Christmas!
The Holy Mass was elegantly beautiful. It made me realize what “Christ’s Mass” really means. After Holy Mass we came out of the Basilica and it was like someone had plugged in the city of Rome. Christmas lights were everywhere. People were filled with happiness and joy.
We went back to the college, had our toast and some Christmas cheer. Finally, when I turned in for the night, I fell into a deep relaxed sleep, like the baby Jesus. Christmas had come, and it was the best Christmas I had ever experienced.
From that day until now I have cherished that celebration. A quotation from “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” comes to mind: “It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. Maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas means a little bit more.”
The Rev. Jim Williams is pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Salida.