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The Roman Forum Summer Symposium: A Glimpse of Old Christendom by Sebastian Morello

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The Roman Forum Summer Symposium:
A Glimpse of Old Christendom

A few days ago, I returned from the town of Gardone Riviera, on Lake Garda, north Italy, where I have been participating in the annual Symposium of the Roman Forum. The Roman Forum was founded in 1968 by the great philosopher and student of Edmund Husserl, Professor Dietrich von Hildebrand, whom Pope Pius XII called “the 20th century Doctor of the Church.” Von Hildebrand initially started the organisation for the purpose of defending Humanae Vitae (Pope Paul VI’s letter that reasserted the Catholic Church’s prohibition on contraception).

Born and raised in Florence, the son of the famous sculptor Adolf von Hildebrand, Dietrich began his career at the University of Munich. Nazi persecution drove him to Austria and the University of Vienna. Eventually he was forced to flee again, and finally settled in the United States, where he took up a position at Fordham University in New York City. Von Hildebrand was a truly polymathic and humane figure, who dedicated his life to the union of philosophy with all the other arts and sciences under the consecrating power of the Catholic Faith. The form of his entire life, from the moment of his conversion in early adulthood, was the Catholic Faith—of which he became known as a celebrated defender from its modernist enemies within, following the Second Vatican Council.

Today, the Roman Forum flourishes under von Hildebrand’s successor as director, John C. Rao, Professor Emeritus of History at St. John’s University, New York City. The purpose of the Roman Forum greatly developed under von Hildebrand from the mission of supporting the Church’s teaching on sexual morality to a much broader project of defending and promoting the traditional Catholic worldview and its reception in the temporal arena—that is, Christendom. This mission has continued with the utmost fidelity under the leadership of Dr. Rao, whose scholarly work on the history of counter-revolution and the lay apostolate is unmatched. 

In the rise of the Nouvelle Theologiae, before and in the years after the Second Vatican Council—over which this theological movement had so much influence—a false dichotomy arose in the minds of many between nature and supernature. The thinkers of this movement rightly identified how nature and grace had been increasingly separated and opposed in the seminary manuals and theology textbooks of the preceding century, but their solution was disastrous, namely that of rejecting altogether—or at best, deliberately distorting—the nature-supernature distinction. Hence, the Church is now a community of secularists who nonetheless believe themselves to be wholly Christian because they turn up to Mass a couple of times a year to enjoy an unworthy communion, whilst those outside the Church are nevertheless deemed fully Christian, just ‘anonymously’ so (to use the terminology of one theologian, Karl Rahner). The Roman Forum has always rejected such an account, holding nature to come forth from the creative power of God, and whilst it is undeniably fallen, grace has entered it from without in order to redeem it. The result of the Roman Forum’s account is a movement of joyful Christian disciples who offer a remarkable defence of culture, which is fully embodied and celebrated in their annual two-week Symposium.

The broader, history- and culture-focused programme was inaugurated on February 23rd, 1992, the Solemnity of the Chair of Saint Peter in Antioch (now the Forum’s patronal feast), with a Solemn Pontifical Traditional Mass offered by His Eminence, Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler, former Prefect of the Vatican Library. The Roman Forum now involves several projects. The New York City Church History Lecture Series offers in-depth discussions of the key periods of Christendom, delivered each year from September through May. The Summer Symposia in north Italy carry on that study in a full Catholic spiritual, intellectual, historical, and social environment in June and July. Annual tours take participants to various European sites of Catholic interest, giving flesh to the themes discussed in New York and Gardone Riviera.

Lake Garda is an astonishing place, and as one travels from the airport one has the impression of having stumbled upon paradise as the lake emerges through an opening in the surrounding mountains. Gardone Riviera is a beautiful, winding medieval town, full of nooks and crannies that lead to little piazzas and age-old fountains (there is much more to it than the antics of the decadent poet and nationalist Gabriele D’Annunzio). Over the town towers a magnificent baroque church, ornately decorated, around which are dotted restaurants and terracotta-tiled villas. This settlement is only a little way from the wonderful Lugana appellation where the ancient Turbiana grapes are grown (always believed to be a subspecies of the Trebbiano grape variety until a recent DNA test was done on the vines, only to reveal that the grapes of Lugana are completely unique and found only in this area). Set in a much-loved part of the old Holy Roman Empire, Gardone Riviera is the perfect place for a full induction into what it is to be a beneficiary of the great Christian project of Western civilisation.

I first attended the Summer Symposium nearly a decade ago. I keenly participated in the discussions following the lectures and over the meals. Dr. Rao kindly invited me to return the following year, this time to deliver a lecture. I have been a member of the Roman Forum faculty ever since—of which there are few things that I am prouder. Due to an unfortunate interlude caused by COVID travel restrictions, the Symposium did not take place at Gardone for two years, but this year it relaunched—and was better than ever.

Over the fortnight, each day there are lectures on various topics delivered by highly regarded academics who fly in from all around the world. I was only able to attend one week of the Symposium this year, but in that short time alone I attended lectures on the technical meaning of certain Greek New Testament terminology for understanding eschatology, the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, the ideological assumptions of Francis’s papacy, the political structure of late-stage liberalism, the relationship between western culture and sacred music, religious freedom laws in Scandinavia, newly emerging economic models of post-modernity, the legal consequences of the ‘Great Reset,’ an examination of the 1965 ‘Pact of the Catacombs,’ and I delivered my own lecture on competing philosophical anthropologies entailed by a technocratic model of government. As one might presume from the topics covered, this was not a lightweight affair.

What is also interesting about the Symposium is that, whilst there is a core group of scholars, whose role it is to provide the intellectual formation, the event attracts many non-academic attendees—members of the wider educated public—who simply want to study the important topics for the sake of knowing. In turn, what one finds here is a wonderful group of people from many walks of life, gathered together in friendship and comradery, to learn together, pray together, eat together, and rediscover what it is to be an heir of the great Christian civilisation that the modern West is now dedicated to repudiating.

Every day of the two-week Symposium, the group on Lake Garda meet for a morning lecture, this is followed by a glorious Sung Mass in the magnificent baroque church of Divo Nicolao—the divine Nicholas. After Mass, the group scatters among the restaurants for some delicious traditional Italian cuisine, which is then worked off over a swim in the lake, a walk around the surrounding countryside, or just a little paddling in one of the hotel pools. Come late afternoon, the group recongregates for another lecture before meeting on a large balcony overlooking the lake, at which prosecco is sipped before the banquet begins. Then, magnificent course after magnificent course is enjoyed with fine local wine as theological controversies and philosophical distinctions are fiercely debated. In short, the entire event is an exercise in brain washing—that is, one comes away with the sense of having had one’s cognitive faculties well and truly cleansed from all the anti-cultural garbage with which we are daily besieged in the modern West.

What is this event for? It is for the redemption of the whole person, and the culture which is the proper condition of his flourishing. Every aspect of this Symposium is a window into what human nature looks like when it has undergone organic transformation in the reception of infusing and permeating grace. The entire event allows one to see what fidelity to the Church’s tradition could bring about, if only Her hierarchy weren’t hellbent on disavowing that tradition. In short, the Roman Forum Summer Symposium is an induction programme into the culture of Christendom. If you, dear reader, ever have the opportunity to attend this gathering of disciples, do not be so foolish as to pass it up—having attended, you will not return unchanged.

Sebastian Morello is a lecturer, public speaker, and columnist. Trained by Sir Roger Scruton, he has published books on philosophy, history, and education. He lives in Bedfordshire, England, with his wife and children. He is essays editor of The European Conservative.