Rome in May smells of roses, flowering vines and jasmine. Roof and balcony gardens overflow with greenery. Oranges shine through thick, dark leaves of trees.
Streets of this huge, ancient city resound with noise that dies gradually well past midnight and for two hours only. Rome of the 21st century is constantly on the go, very much like New York, Toronto or any other leading metropolis.
'God goes up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet.'
What differentiates it, however, from the secular, fast-paced world elsewhere is the visible and tangible presence of Christian faith. Even an atheist cannot avoid this experience. Faith is present in the tolling of 600 church bells every Sunday morning, the habits of nuns and brothers on streets, small shrines of Mary on walls of buildings.
A side street restaurant, into which you step to buy a slice of hot, wonderfully genuine pizza, will as a rule have a cross on the wall. Most children wear holy medallions or crosses. The safest way to cross a busy street is to follow a nun or a priest. Great respect is still shown here for people consecrated to God.
Old wonderful churches here, soaked with the prayer of dozens of past generations, filled with presence of holy relics embrace you with their soothing, cool presence. You dive into them, worn out from the street noise and heat, to get away from the crowds – and you find peace.
The flickering red light by the tabernacle reminds you that that Someone who is within had once said – "Come, all you who are weary and burdened" and "I am with you always, until the end of the age."
Suddenly, you realize you are not a lone speck of flesh, randomly moving through an indifferent universe. You are a child of God. You have identity and dignity – you are unique and beloved. You have a mission – "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations" and "be my witness . . . to the ends of the earth." If God said we should do it, that means we can do it.
As you sit in an old Roman church and look at a huge mediaeval cross pondering Christ's resurrection and ascension, it occurs to you that you yourself are immortal. This body which you have now will eventually fail and the mind, once so sharp, will wander and embarrass.
But there will be a resurrection of bodies; even for this old husk of a body there is hope.
You walk out of the church into the blinding sunshine and heat, greeted by wailing of a passing ambulance and cries of street peddlers.
A group of 50 kids is heading towards the Coliseum and you end up walking beside buses and cars on the street. Japanese tourists mistake you for a local and ask for directions.
Back to the Rome of 2014.
Rome is wise with the wisdom of ages. The city and its people know that you must walk firmly – on your human legs – towards whatever the future holds, but you must keep your head and heart in heaven, close to Jesus, to draw strength for every step.
We also need constant, physical reminders of even the greatest and the most wonderful truths. Cross worn daily, a holy picture on the wall at home, time spent in meditation by the Holy Sacrament in church, half an hour of catechism daily.
Ascension is not about the past, it is about the future. Our future.