By Simon Billington
The Lay Centre resident community’s annual retreat used Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti,” as an anchor to reflect more deeply about the nature of relationships formed within the context of life, both with and without the COVID-19 restrictions. The Oct. 16-18 retreat was held in a separate wing of the Capuchin Friary in Frascati located in the hills south of Rome. This year our resident community members come from 10 different countries: China, Croatia, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Mozambique, Syria, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Life at The Lay Centre, like all communities around the world, has been affected by the impact of the current pandemic. So, as the community gathered at the start of the current academic year, the retreat offered time to pause and reflect on how to engage with those living alongside us and those we meet.
The opening address, by Father Jason Welle, OFM, director of studies at the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies, presented a series of questions and reflections about the nature of fraternity. The current pandemic has highlighted the necessity of universal fraternity, and Pope Francis communicates his concerns in “Fratelli Tutti” that this dynamic is slipping away. The scholars then dispersed to reflect on the questions, “What does the rhetoric of ‘brother and sister’ do for us? How do we react to it? What makes fraternity threatening?”
The first evening of our retreat, interjected with the culinary delights of traditional Roman dishes, was rounded off with a Compline service and the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. Time together in prayer and in the presence of Christ gave members of the community an opportunity to remember that in Christ, a fraternity centered on indiscriminate love is offered, a love that is always in motion, seeking to find both the baptized and the uninitiated.
Wonderful use was made of the gardens for the communal morning prayer. Saturday’s morning address by Father Welle focussed in on the art and act of encountering others, an art that is being dramatically shaped by the digital age of the 21st century. One particular question of reflection was whether, for us as individuals, technology is the cause or the facilitator of distraction from encountering those around us.
We were treated to an excellent examination of Philippians 1:27-2:18, by two members of the student community, Christopher Donnelly from Ireland and Monica Prandi from Italy. Both are students at the Pontifical Biblical Institute. Through exegesis and reflection, the scholars compared what Pope Francis discusses in his encyclical with the early Christian community in Phillippi, which was committed to living in Christo-centric fraternity. The day concluded with a joyous evening of games and laughter, courtesy of Lay Centre students Joe Tulloch from England and Elena Batani from Italy. It felt important that, while the students came together to pray, reflect and grow together, they also cemented their work on the interior life with this important aspect of fraternity.
On the drive back to Rome on Sunday, as I thought about the addresses, the prayer and friendship displayed by all who attended, I was struck by the joyous privilege it is for a community to have that fraternal bond; a privilege that impels us, as advocates of Christ, to joyfully step forth into the world to reveal the ties that unite us and pull us closer together, especially in the context in which the world finds itself.
Phototographs by Christopher Donnelly - Lay Centre Leadership Scholar
Simon Billington is an Ordinand, training for parochial ministry in the Anglican Communion and is in his last year of college training. He is spending 6 weeks in Rome, as part of The Lay Centre Community. He has spent most of the last three years undertaking theological study at St Stephen's House in Oxford, where he lives with his wife and two children. Before embarking on his formational training for ministry, he completed Undergraduate training for theatre and subsequently spent the best part of 10 years working in theatre as an actor. As is true for a lot of actors, they find themselves living in London, which is not only where he met his wife, was married and had both children, but where his faith, and later his vocation, began to shape his life in a way he did not think possible. Now he finds himself undertaking a rather unique placement, given the circumstances, learning and living alongside a wonderful community, which he believes will indelibly shape his ministry in the years to come.