At a time when much of today’s Church is deeply afflicted by disputed visions of what it means to be Catholic, an annual summer symposium in northern Italy may serve to help heal those divisions.
Set in the picturesque Gardone Riviera on the shores of Lake Garda, the ten-day Roman Forum seeks to explore the historical development and character of Christian civilization, giving an holistic view of the faith by incorporating art, music, literature, philosophy and theology in a “truly Catholic atmosphere.”
Founded in 1968 by Catholic philosophy Professor Dietrich von Hildebrand, the Roman Forum was initially aimed at defending Bl. Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae vitae before expanding to offer a broader defense of Catholic doctrine and culture.
The Gardone Summer Symposia, which began in 1993, further developed the project, seeking to enrich Catholics and deepen their “knowledge of the whole of [Catholic] tradition,” according to Professor John Rao, the Roman Forum’s director since 1991.
The theme for this year’s gathering — its 25th symposium — was “Setting Right a World Turned Upside Down: Transformation in Christ Versus a Sickness Unto Death.” Previous topics have included “Forbidden Topics: A Free and Rational Catholic Challenge to the Frightened Modern Mind”, “A Tale of Two Enlightenments: Modern Image Versus Catholic Truth,” and “Christendom in the Carolingian Period, 751-896.”
In an interview in Gardone July 9 (see accompanying video), Rao explains that the Roman Forum aims to help overcome a tendency to reductionism — focusing on one aspect of the faith or tradition and ignoring the rest — and instead equip Catholics with the “fullness of the faith.”
Even with the best of wills, Rao says Catholics can be “very good at times liturgically, but awful in terms of understanding of the social teachings of the Church. Or vice-versa: you can have people who are keen on the social tradition of the Church but have no understanding of its basic philosophy, theology and liturgy.”
An associate professor of history at St. John’s University in New York City, Rao says the project’s holistic emphasis makes it a “learning experience for me as well as everyone else.”
“Since I’m a sociable person, I wanted to drag as many people into this learning project as possible,” he jokes.
He chose to bring the program to Italy primarily because it is a kind of “museum of Catholic culture” and in order to “take people out of the American context and put them into contact with Europeans who were traditionally minded and were eager for a program of this sort as well.”
Rao also gained inspiration from the 11th century monks of Cluny who helped people overcome their narrow activities by effectively putting them on a pilgrimage and placing them in a context that was “out of the ordinary” (see Benedict XVI's 2009 general audience on the monks of Cluny here).
It was about creating an appreciation of the “historical environment, the beauty of the place, the food of the place, the traditional music, which would all work on people and their piety,” he explains. The summer symposia, which Rao says is centered around the traditional liturgy “because we were all dedicated to it,” seeks to emulate the monks’ vision.
The lectures are balanced with plenty of time for leisure activities, including hiking, sightseeing tours, swimming and playing tennis. In the evenings, everyone sits down for lively conversation over dinner — a chance, Rao says, for “eating, drinking and being joyful with one another.”
The Roman Forum continues to be inspired by Von Hildebrand who Rao esteems as a “great Catholic cultural figure who understood that everything had to be transformed in Christ.” He therefore had a place for “music, art, history, philosophy, theology, for conviviality, for the working of the Catholic community on the individual, with the community not being simply a collection of pious individuals but the Church.”
Over the past 25 years, the summer symposia has grown in popularity and is “profiting from flourishing traditional ideas and desires among younger people,” says Rao. This year it had participants from every continent.
He says the only limit to the program is financial, and invites anyone interested in participating to send him a short statement on why they would like to take part (details can be found on their website http://www.romanforum.org).
Consistent with the program’s broad-minded approach, Rao says one of his few conditions is that participants be similarly open to learning.
“We can’t have people who think they know it all,” he says, as “it’s impossible to know everything the mystical body of Christ has taught and presented to us without diving into it fully.”
The Gardone symposia, he stresses, is part of a “learning project.”