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Bella Italia

Saturday, October 12, 2019

By Br Joseph Bailham, O.P. | From the summer of 2018 to the summer of 2019, Br Joseph Bailham, O.P., spent one year away from Oxford studying and living in the Italian city of Bologna, home to the relics of our Holy Father, St Dominic. He reflects on what turned out to be a year full of blessings.

One very hot morning in Bologna, whilst I was there visiting for a few days with my provincial and prior, I received a knock at my door and some information. Unfortunately the plan to send me to Rome, where I would study in English, had fallen through, and the only option now was to return to Oxford and abandon my long awaited year abroad, or to go to Bologna, where not only was the language of the convent all Italian, but my studies would be too. I remember how in that split moment of receiving that news, suddenly the surroundings in which I found myself took on a different significance: once simply another convent which I might consider visiting again for a day trip or weekend from Rome suddenly morphed into a place in which would become home for one year. I didn’t speak Italian or know the language in any significant way apart from the bare basics, and so eventually choosing to accept the offer, and putting myself in what could have been a very isolating experience, was not easy at all. None the less, after some prayer and some serious thinking, I decided to give it a go.

Before heading to Bologna in September 2018, I spent a month in Milan at a language school whilst living at the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, where one will find (now no longer in the convent itself but in a cordoned off area which is now a museum) Da Vinci’s Last Supper painting. I enjoyed the classes but with still a very limited ability to speak the language, the conventual life felt very lonely, despite the very great kindness of the brethren there. When you can’t speak or understand, you do feel cut off from the life around you in a very poignant way.

Still not satisfied with my language abilities by the end of that month, and after a period of reconsidering whether it would be worthwhile going to Bologna, I decided I would give it my best and see how it would work out.

The student brothers of the Province of St Dominic in Northen Italy

The first three months were utterly exhausting, for the same reasons given above: all language related. But what made the whole experience more than bearable was the genuine warmth and love of the community in that convent. The life, on the whole, was much more formal than one might be used to in Oxford, but for me this was very welcome, and I enjoyed the experience very much. The setting was huge compared to tiny Oxford. As a studentate body, we were over twenty in total. The choral Office, sung in magnificent choir stalls (at least in the slightly warmer months) of the basilica, never ceased to move me, and I don’t recall a time when I didn’t want to drag myself out of bed for it. The gentleness of the singing and the vastness of the space meant the Office had a much more monastic feel than I have been accustomed to in the Order, and much more reminiscent of the experiences I had whilst discerning Benedictine life. So not only did I feel very much loved and at home with the brethren in Bologna, I also felt spiritually nourished by the liturgy, which helped carry me through my year long Italian sojourn. Obviously having the relics of St Dominic in the basilica, and to whose tomb we would process every day singing the O Lumen chant, after the Salve procession immediately after Vespers, was of immeasurable consolation and privilege.

Of course, I cannot ignore one other aspect of my experience in Bologna, namely, the food! Bologna may well have been a spiritual experience, but it was certainly also a gastronomic one! I got to know many different types of pasta and how certain types should go with certain dishes etc., along with dishes that come from different regions of Italy. Bologna, and the wider Emilia-Romagna region, is well known for its hard cheese, cured meats, and ragù. Needless to say, by the time Lent came, some serious fasting was needed to shed the numerous kilos accumulated through my Italian culinary immersion.

Now that I am back in England, in what seems like a flash, I am incredibly grateful and thankful to God for his care for and presence with me during what could have been (and in fairness, was at times) a painfully lonely and isolating experience. But what I have taken away from my year in Bologna is a tremendous amount of love and life-long friendships for which I am indebted to God, St Dominic, and to the prior of Bologna, the student master, students and priests of that convent for a truly unforgettable experience.

Choir stalls of the Basilica di San Domenico in Bologna

View of Bologna

Br Joseph Bailham O.P.

Br Joseph Bailham O.P.

Br Joseph Bailham is a deacon working in the parish of Our Lady of the Rosary and Saint Dominic, London | joseph.bailham@english.op.org



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