Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Mary of Rome or The Canadian Duck: The Finale

[This is the third and final installment about my friend Mary, Part I is here, Part II is here.]

roman girl: this is the scene directly around the corner
from her apartment. on the left is a chapter of The Sisters of Charity,
on the right is St. Peter's Square

After Mary had finished helping Ante settle into his home, the fall had already arrived, but she was eager to begin her undergraduate studies. Several wise people had recommended, knowing Mary's love and aptitude for deeper study, that she might find great success pursuing an education at one of Rome's Pontifical Universities, which begin their school years in October, thus giving Mary more time than finding a school in America. Not speaking Italian, or having an extensive background in Latin, The Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, or as it is more generally known, the Angelicum, was a logical choice, as it offers its courses in English. Maybe, Dear Web Log, you are not familiar with this school, but I bet you would know the names of some of its former students, even without their titles, like Fulton Sheen, Timothy Dolan, or one of the most humble and beautifully brilliant men in modern history, Karol Wojtyla.

She applied, was accepted, and off she went.

On this last trip I asked her what that was like for her, arriving in Rome still a very young girl, on her own (there is no student housing so she lived in an apartment with roommates, quite a different scenario than living in a dorm.) I thought that she would respond with her usual vigor and excitement over a past undertaking, thought that this time must have been such an exhilaration for a courageous and high spirited individual. 

random scenes from her apartment. yes, she knits and plays the mandolin.
and piano.
and mouth trumpet (don't ask)

Instead, she responded with honesty that she experienced great loneliness for the loss of Ante, homesickness for America and the friends and family there she had spent so little time with in all those past years. It wasn't all cappuccinos and cathedrals.

But at the same time, her studies came alive for her in a way she had never anticipated. All the giants of Literature, Theology, Philosophy were introduced to her by professors who in their own rights are brilliant and famous. When Mary spoke of this period of academic awakening, she did indeed light up, was overcome thinking about the past and those first exciting moments of being lit on fire with a true thirst for Understanding. 

Her excitement translated evidently to her work. She excelled in her classes, and was a favorite among professors. Over the course of the next few years, she would earn her Baccalaureate (Bachelor's), Licenteate (Master's), and stands now as a candidate for her Doctorate, providing only the completion of her thesis, the subject of which is so high-falutin' my mere mortal typing skills and public education couldn't do justice. But I believe it has something to do with Aquinas, Bonaventure, matter and form verses potency and act. Yikes.

parking outside Mary's office

And of course in this time she has made a life for herself. Countless friends from countless walks of life: the homeless men in the doorways know her by name, and by her kindness; the shopkeepers who know her favorite meals; seemingly every priest or religious we bumped into had a "Mary story" they were dying to share with me. And of course the other students at the University who came from all over the world. Her history with the city seems so much deeper than the nine odd years she has lived there. She dated both a Swiss Guard and a screen writer for Italian Soap Opera, waitressed in a wine bar, conducted guided tours, witnessed the election of two Popes.

exterior and interior shots of the intimate wine bar
where Mary worked

Most importantly, in her earlier days as a student, she was led to a job at L'Osservatore Romano, Engligh Edition, the paper owned and published by the Holy See. At first Mary translated and was a general office worker at the paper. But her competency must have been noticed, because year by year her hours and responsibilities increased, until just before the retirement of Pope Benedict, Mary was offered tenure, and given the position of acting editor. 

As well as I feel like I know her, it was such a trip to see Mary in her environment, the little girl who teased to get attention, and couldn't ever, ever sit still. The teenage girl who left home to work in a refugee camp and orphanage. Made me feel a certain kind of oldness to see her navigating this amazing life so fluidly, instructing her employees at the paper, managing her desk to the point she wanted to hide the lip gloss when I asked to snap a picture of her at work, cooking a dinner for me and a group of friends in her city-girl apartment, literally steps from Vatican City. 

Finally, The Canadian Duck Part

A certain kind of oldness, but at the same time, this feeling that there is a constancy of goodness that stays with us, essential to each of us at our core, which time cannot alter, so long as we guard and nurture those God-given gifts of ourselves. 

I realized this the first full morning I spent with Mary in Rome. She had arranged for me to meet a longtime and dear friend of hers, Father Wojciech Giertych, one of her former professors at the Angelicum. It just so happens that Father Giertych now holds the position of Theologian of the Pontifical Household. Yes, he is the Pope's theologian, the one the Pope himself consults for accuracy in theological matters. He lives in the Apostolic Palace accessible after countless check-points and interrogations of Swiss Guard. Mary brought me there for coffee and cookies, prepared and served by the Most Reverend himself, on his own little stove and kitchen table. 

Of him I will say that of course his brilliancy and generous nature are obvious, but so is his love for Mary, and his eagerness to spend time with those she loves. I was overjoyed to listen to this gregarious, people-loving priest joke with Mary about old common friends, or explain to us youngsters the two thousand year history of the evolution of perception of grudges and revenge amongst various cultures. 

So you know that I am shy, and like listening, but his is such a nature that I felt welcomed enough to speak, and I asked him of the history of his friendship with Mary, specifically asking what it was that drew the two of them together. 

And he began in the same manner he had approached the other topics of conversation, with a detailed back story. He asked if I had ever observed the way the Canadian Ducks conduct their long migration to the South each winter. (I do believe he meant geese, but I am sure you wouldn't have corrected him either.)  He said that as the ducks settle at the end of their daily flight, they come to a place of rest and of course sleep through the night. But always there is one awake. Always one watching through the night, observing the world, on the lookout for predators or other disaster, and in this way, the rest of the flock rests easy.

He said that after one of the first classes he had taught Mary, she confronted him afterwards with an indignant expression and immediately reproached the arguments he had put forth in class as being in error. She didn't want him leading the class astray in their thinking, and couldn't leave without letting him know her thoughts. 

Now the two of them laughed about the story now, but neither of them divulged who won that argument. But it was then that Father Giertych recognized Mary as being that Canadian Duck, the one who watches diligently, with open ears and eyes, ready to alert the others of danger, recognizing that protection of the flock is protection of the individual. From that moment on, when he taught the class, he taught to Mary, the ever alert, and it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

And that is the part that endures no matter how much we experience or age, that good eternal part, essential to our individuality. The alert and discerning Mary I met when she was just a little thing with thick glasses and a bowlcut, waiting impatiently for the next story to be told. Although I didn't know the right words, even then I loved her for being that Canadian Duck. 




  1. Though Mary is truly an amazing soul, I maintain that even more brilliant and shining is the soul that was able to document her thus.

    I used the word "thus" in a combox. I don't care.

  2. This was so beautifully written and eloquent. Mary sounds like an amazing woman and I am sure she seeks the same qualities in her friends as they find in her. Therefore, I am in awe of you both!

  3. So beautifully written....and Mary sounds just amazing.

  4. How nice to find a truly gifted writer on the internet.

    Thanks so much for recording this story and sharing your gift!

  5. I love your pictures. AND the story of course. do take amazing pics.

  6. I have recently been having a conversation with #3 son about direction after graduation, trying to help him 'see' all the opportunities out there for him. I am printing off this installment to share Mary's story of life directions (because wow) to show him that if he chose to he could grasp more than he could ever imagine. It is so hard to help kids see beyond their backyard of possibilities for life work. I have so loved learning about Mary, thank you for sharing this.


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