By Bishop John Flack - Director of the Anglican Centre in Rome 2003 – 2008
In the summer of 2000 I had a telephone call from the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey. I was shelling peas at the time, so the call came as something of a shock. "Do you speak Italian?" he asked. "Well" I replied, "I can order a cappuchino in Pizza Express". "I’m sending you a cheque" he said "to go and get some Italian lessons". The line went dead and I was left standing puzzled in the kitchen of my house in the small medieval city of Ely, Cambridgeshire.
A few months later all became clear. The Archbishop wanted me to be his representative in Rome, and to become the Director of Rome’s Anglican Centre, situated in the impressive Palazzo Doria Pamphilj. I arrived in Rome early in 2003, still trying to sort out my "da’s" from my "della’s". My first day in Rome was a revelation as I visited the Roman Forum for the first time and revived cogs in my brain which had lain dormant since my university classical studies 40 years earlier. And my first evening – sitting outside on a street pavement eating supper - was simply amazing. A long way from Ely, shelling peas and Pizza Express.
I have had an unforgettable time in the last five years. My term of office has included being present at the Funeral of Pope John Paul II and the Inauguration of Pope Benedict XVI. Those were amazing events, forever enshrined in my memory. I have had the opportunity to engage with Popes and Cardinals and Archbishops, with ambassadors and senior politicians – and even more importantly with ordinary Roman people, at all levels. I have had the enormous privilege of being "centre-stage" in the ecumenical engagement of Anglicans with Roman Catholics.
Along with Monsignor Don Bolen, my opposite number in the Vatican, I have masterminded four visits to the Vatican by the present Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, the current head of the world-wide Anglican church. I have watched with hope as the friendship between Pope Benedict and Archbishop Rowan Williams has grown warmer with each visit. They speak personally and gently with one another in both German and English. It is a revelation. Reunion between Anglicans and Catholics may still be a long way off, but over the years we have made deep friendships with one another, even at the top of the pyramid. And deep friendships keep the ecumenical journey alive, and assure its continuance into the future.
The city of Rome has weaved its enchanting spell around me. I have visited and revisited the viewpoint on top of the Janiculum, with its fabulous view of the city. I have climbed to the top of the dome of St Peters, and descended into the depths of the Scavi. In the last five years I have visited the Vatican Museums about 20 times, and have still only seen a quarter of what there is to see. I have been on several breathtaking rooftops, including taking supper in the loggia of the Palazzo Pallavicini, where the British Ambassador to the Holy See currently resides. I have woken in the mornings to the soft siren sound of church bells ringing for early Mass, mingled with the screeching siren sound of Roman ambulances. I have even visited the Villa Doria Pamphilj in the hope of watching some cricket, to no avail (in earlier days I was a Yorkshire League cricketer for over 30 years).
One of the great delights for me has been learning to speak Italian. It is a beautiful language, with its stresses and rhythms and its sheer poetry. And Italians have the ability to make the most mundane conversation into a dramatic interlude, with the body doing much of the talking. Even a conversation on a mobile phone can be as dramatic as a Shakespeare speech, with hands, eyes and shaking of heads all being part of it. And the carefully enunciated word "Pronto" at the beginning of a call leaves you expecting a drama to follow. Listening to the radio, watching the news and sport on Italian television and finally trying to answer the telephone with understanding are all challenges I have had to face. And several interviews on Vatican Radio have tested my linguistic resources to the limit. The existing tensions in the Anglican Communion meant that I had to learn the phrases "ordinazione delle donne" and "sessualita umana" very quickly indeed.
I have received strong support from the two Anglican churches and parishes in Rome, All Saints Anglican in the Via del Babuino and St Pauls-within-the-walls Episcopal in the Via Napoli. I am grateful to them for their care and affection. And I have made wonderful friends in the Roman Catholic church and among all the English-speaking churches in Rome. Non-church friends and acquaintances have been important, and helped me to keep my feet on the ground.
What next for me? I am going home to my wife and family in the city of Peterborough. I shall become an assistant Bishop in the stunning medieval Cathedral there, one of the largest in Europe. I am also becoming the parish priest of four villages just outside the city. So I shall be returning to my first calling, that of an ordinary parish priest. That will be a most fulfilling task for me. But I shall take with me memories of Rome which will never fade.