Rome. The fast of the twenty women, which I had come to join and which was the primary reason for my visit to Rome during the final session of the [Second Vatican] Council, began on October 1, a Friday. That morning I checked out of my hotel and proceeded to the great square in front of St. Peter’s to wait for Barbara Wall and Eileen Egan at the end of the Colonnade. We were going to Mass together on that First Friday morning.
Without tickets we could not have got in, since all the Masses which preface the meetings of the Council are packed to the doors. The laity receive communion not at the main altar but at a side altar. All around there were confessionals, frequented, I was edified to see, by bishops and cardinals, their scarlet and purple robes billowing out behind them. They took as long, I noticed, as nuns, who I always thought were scrupulous indeed, judging by the length of their confessions.
But I was able to go to confession on that last visit I paid to St. Peter’s, and I felt with joy and love that warm sense of community, the family, which is the church. How the Council has broken down barriers between clergy and laity, and how close the bishops seem to us when they are together from all parts of the world, at home in Rome, and not set apart alone and distant on episcopal thrones and in episcopal palaces!
The Mass that morning was in the Syriac rite and was sung, so it was not until ten that I arrived at the Cenacle on Piazza Pricilla on the other side of Rome. There we gathered in the garden, twenty women, and a few of the male members of the Community of the Ark, including Lanza del Vasto, whose wife, Chanterelle, had initiated the fast. He led us in the prayers that we would say each morning as we gathered together after Mass: the our Father, the peace prayer of Saint Francis, and the Beatitudes. Afterward, the trained members of the community sang. Then we went to our rooms, which were on the third floor of the old convent, looking out on gardens and sky.
Each day we followed a schedule. There was Mass at seven-fifteen and then prayer together. From nine to twelve we kept to our rooms in silence, reading, writing, or praying. During the day and night there was always one of us keeping vigil. At noon we went to the garden and read together. Readings included a book by Martin Luther King and an account of the work of Father Paul Gauthier, who founded the Companions of Jesus the Carpenter, in Nazareth. Most of us had some sewing or knitting to do. The wicker chairs were comfortable, the garden smelled of pine trees and eucalyptus and sweet herbs, and every day the sun was warm. Other members of the Ark, who were running an exhibit on nonviolence, came and told us news of the visitors to the exhibit and of the Fathers of the Council they had talked to.
At four in the afternoon there were lectures by priests, and at six a French doctor came daily to see how everyone was getting along. Two of the women were ill during the fast and had to keep to their beds, so the lectures were held in Chanterelle’s room. Prayers again at seven or eight, and then silence and sleep – for those who could sleep.
As for me, I did not suffer at all from the hunger or headache or nausea which usually accompany the first few days of a fast, but I had offered my fast in part for the victims of famine all over the world, and it seemed to me that I had very special pains. They were certainly of a kind I have never had before, and they seemed to pierce to the very marrow of my bones when I lay down at night. Perhaps it was the hammock-shaped bed. Perhaps it was the cover, which seemed to weigh a ton, so that I could scarcely turn. At any rate, my nights were penitential enough to make up for the quiet peace of the days. Strangely enough, when the fast was over, all pains left me and I have not had them since. They were not like the arthritic pains which, aggravated by tension and fatigue, are part of my life now that I am sixty-eight. One accepts them as part of age and also part and parcel of the life of work, which is the lot of the poor. So often I see grandmothers in Puerto Rican families bearing the burden of children, the home, cooking, sewing, and contributing to the work of mother and father, who are trying so hard to make a better life for their children. I am glad to share this fatigue with them.
But these pains which went with the fast seemed to reach into my very bones, and I could feel that I had been given some little intimation of the hunger of the world. God help us, living as we do, in the richest country in the world and so far from approaching the voluntary poverty we esteem and reach toward.
On the night of the 10th of October, the fast, those ten days when nothing but water passed our lips, was finished. Hard though it was, it was but a token fast, considering the problems of the world we live in. It was a small offering of sacrifice, a widow’s mite, a few loaves and fishes. May we try harder to do more in the future.