Referring to the earthquake that devastated the Italian town of L'Aquila in the Abruzzi region six days earlier, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori marked Easter Day here by asking whether men and women can always recognize the risen Christ.
"The Easter question for us is always, do we recognize what we're seeing? Can we see newly risen life in L'Aquila? â¦ Can we see Jesus in unexpected joy?" she said in a sermon delivered at St. James Church, the so-called "American church" in Florence celebrating the end of its centennial year. (The full text of the Presiding Bishop's sermon is available here.)
Referring to the day's Gospel reading from the book of John, Jefferts Schori noted that the first two disciples to discover that Christ's body was gone from the tomb returned home and did not understand what they had witnessed. Mary Magdalene, who stayed by the sepulcher to grieve, saw the resurrected Christ, but at first did not recognize him. When she did, she then went to tell the disciples.
"In Easter, God has reworked the nature of creation. Death is no longer the end of things. We live in the assurance that the deaths in Abruzzi are being turned for life, even though we may not see or recognize it for a long time. That hope is sustained in communities like this one -- where the resurrected one keeps that hope lively in some so that it may inflame and infect others' despair," she said.
The death toll from the 6.3-magnitude earthquake on April 6 has risen to 293, with 40,000 homeless. On Good Friday, flags in Italy flew at half-staff to mark a day of mourning as a mass outdoor funeral service took place in L'Aquila. Pope Benedict XVI, at the traditional outdoor Easter mass in St. Peter's Square, said, "May the risen Christ â¦ inspire in all the necessary wisdom and courage to proceed united in the building of a future open to hope."
After the St. James service, Jefferts Schori noted in an interview that Episcopal Relief and Development, the church's disaster-relief and economic development agency, is accepting donations for earthquake victims and intends to funnel them through the Italian Red Cross.
She referred to ministries at St. James, asking, "Can we find the presence of the risen one in those who come here to St. James to be fed? â¦ The Italian families who are served here at St. James each week are finding a glimpse of new life as they wait for the kind of dignity that will let them feed their families in an ongoing and reliable way. The students who come here for dinner on Wednesday are eager for community that will tell them they matter, even as strangers in a strange land." St. James runs a food bank and serves about 100 families. It also hosts a weekly low-price dinner for young people in Florence on study programs.
The Easter service took place amid the historic pageantry of Florence. One block from St. James, the traditional "scoppio del carro" (explosion of the cart) parade began. With roots dating back 1,000 years, the parade features an ornately decorated, 30-foot-tall cart pulled by four huge white oxen through the streets of the Renaissance city to the Piazza del Duomo, the cathedral. There, fireworks wired to the cart are ignited and the cart "explodes" with sparks.
In her sermon, Jefferts Schori referred to other Episcopal church ministries she encountered on her five-day visit to Florence and to Rome. "We all spend at least part of our lives waiting, more or less expectantly, for that newly risen life, for that unexpected joy. The Afghani refugees I met at St. Paul's refugee center in Rome are waiting for justice, for the state of Italy to recognize them as human beings deserving of real dignity â the dignity that looks like viable employment and assistance to rebuild their lives. The Ecuadoran immigrant women I heard about are also waiting for real dignity, for recognition as human beings deserving of equal protection under the law, and the help of the community to raise their children in a vision of more abundant life."
Sixteen children participated in the St. James service, placing flowers on a cross at the beginning of the liturgy to represent new life. Jefferts Schori asked the children what Easter means. After one very young child piped, "I don't know," a boy of about six responded, "Jesus comes to us." Later, the children's group sang an Italian song about St. Francis called "Dolce sentire" (Sweet feeling).
Interim rector the Rev. Barbara Crafton, who is based in New Jersey, thanked Jefferts Schori for her visit. Crafton said the job of presiding bishop is a difficult one and asked the congregation to express support and "thanks for the sacrifice she is making during her term." Applause followed her remarks.
Episcopal churches in Europe are members of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe, the equivalent of a U.S.-based diocese. St. Paul's Within the Walls in Rome operates a refugee assistance center where immigrants, often from war-torn nations such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Congo, are helped with food, supplies, language lessons and services such as haircutting.
At St. James, the opening procession at the service took place in a church with many reflections of American culture. The great stained-glass rose window above the entrance shows Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey, greeted with cheers and palms. Around the edge of the picture are the words "In memory of my beloved husband, Hon. George Washington Holland, died in New York, Aug. 5, 1908. First founder, YMCA." In addition to his work establishing the YMCA, Holland was a founder of St. James. The procession passed plaques honoring such former vestry members as Joseph Candy Wheeler and Robert Charles Frost Gordon, both also consul generals of the U.S. in Italy.
American Episcopalians first began meeting in Florence in 1846 in private homes and at the British embassy. In 1867, the congregation called St. James was officially organized and in 1908, the cornerstone of the church was laid. Damaged in the huge 1966 flood of the River Arno, the church this year is celebrating the purchase of a new pipe organ.