Under the Tuscan Sun

I’m proud to report that Emily and I have made it to the near end of our travels!

In the beginning of the trip, it was an ongoing joke that our excursions through Italy for two weeks (with preparation and delivery of a conference paper) would either make us or break us. So – we made it. In fact, we are closer now than ever, and we thank the grace of the saints for guiding us in our patience, wisdom, generosity, fortitude, and exuberance.

We didn’t mention this in our original posts, but we have had the privilege of residing quietly in Tuscany at an old Medieval Monastery for the passed 3 days. The servite monastery, now a place for pilgrims to rest on their travels, is a cross between the gardens of Eden and the dungeons of Hogwarts. During the day, the grounds are a stunning lush green, overlooking a piazza which resembles a cloister; the song of the birds beckons you to take a walk in the sun. In stark contrast at nighttime, the lights in the dark, echoey hallways are on a timer, and so one must scurry quickly from one switch to the next to avoid total blackness. This is where we have rested our heads for the last two (going on three) nights!

During the days, we were whisked away by Lucinda Vardey, author of Traveling with the Saints in Italy: Contemporary Pilgrimages on Ancient Paths and taken away to her home near San Supolcro. She and her husband John, faithful parishioners and invaluable ministers at St Basil’s, live in a former retreat home called “Milgiara”, which translates to “1000 steps to the altar”. There is a certain holy presence here that can only be experienced. Emily and I had the chance to rest and recharge here for one afternoon – much needed after the travels we’ve had, moving from city to city every couple of days.

San Supolcro, much smaller and humbler than Assisi and Siena, was a place for further pilgrimage (sites, relics, churches), more exploration (walking the cobblestone streets and getting lost… again), and great relaxation (sitting in the garden, making animal friends, and you guessed it – wine and gelato).

Emily especially enjoyed a visit to St. Veronica Giuliani’s convent and Piazza Incontro, both in Citta di Castello. Emily was captivated by St. Veronica’s biography – her mysticism and penitential lifestyle – given that she is known as a “true daughter” of Emily’s beloved personal patron, St. Clare. Emily said that she liked the simplicity of the convent’s exterior and that it was still a working community of cloistered Franciscan sisters. Piazza Incontro, which means “the square of the meeting,” was also an interesting experience because we could actually stand in the small city square (right behind the Cathedral of St. Florido), in which it is claimed that St. Anthony of Padua and St. Francis of Assisi met for the first time. Along with St. Florido, St. Anthony, St. Veronica, and Blessed Margaret, you can probably guess that this small Tuscan city created a lot of “hometown saints”, many of whom are officially recognized by the Church. Maybe something’s in the drinking water…

For me, the hi light was the grounds and interior of Monte Casale. While inside, I got to step into St. Bonaventure and St. Anthony’s cells in the Monastery, and had the chance to lie in St. Francis of Assisi’s “bed” (a stone plank atop a rickety loft). As I climbed up, it was hard to ignore the piles of letters, prayer intentions, gifts and rosaries left behind to ask for St Francis’ intercession. This put me into a deeply humbling and contemplative mood, which carried me through the rest of the afternoon. As we stepped outside, into the gardens and down the stairs, a loud, threatening bark erupted beside us. There were dogs on the property? (Should have known, with those Franciscan Monks…) Two guard dogs greeted us with gritted teeth, unafraid to let us know we had to have the password before they let us off the hook. Emily and I had a moment of striking fear, but Lucinda, in her calm spirited way, whispered “Pace e Bene” (peace and goodness), over and over. Within moments, the dogs were lulled into a calm state. Unbelievable. And hilarious!

Tomorrow, we have a 6:00am wake up call so as to be ready to take the bus to Rome again. One final night in the ‘Roma Marriott’ – a drastic change of accommodations for us – before flying out to Canada the next morning.

We will be landing in Toronto late afternoon on Sunday.

Please pray for our safe flight and final destination: home!



Magdala’s Moment

Buona sera!

Apologies for not writing yesterday! We realize we left you hanging just after requesting prayers for our presentation. We would like to take this opportunity to thank you all for your prayers and petitions: April 29th was the longest day yet, but St Catherine’s resilient spirit was with us in everything.

We write to you from the stunningly beautiful Assisi!

I hear you asking, how did you get there, and why? 
We’ll get to that. But first – Day II of the seminar: (it’s a bit longer than normal, so pour yourself a glass of vino and have a seat!)


It all started on St Catherine’s feast day evening. We were all hungry, so we grabbed fresh fruit, Moretti (one of FC’s favourite Italian beers), and “pizza porto via” (pizza to go). We set up a delightful picnic on the balcony of our room in the convent and ate peacefully with Lucinda before bed. As it gradually grew dark and the sun set, we all rested in the silence that was the side streets of Rome, conserving our energy for the next day.

After we ate,  we made some last minute edits to the presentation, and practiced our slow, articulate speech for the translators. What do you get when you put two giggling, jet lagged girls in one room, still loopy from lack of sleep, a carb-only diet, and two bad hair days? A very late night.


Leanna awoke first, a providential 5min before her alarm. She took a deep breath and prayed with gratitude in anticipation for the day- presentation day at last! Following breakfast with some of the participants, we walked to Urbaniana Univeristy, arrived at CIAM at 8:45 and headed straight into presentations at 9:00.


We were whisked away for a interview with Deborah Lubov of Zenit for a Catholic media documentary segment. Exciting stuff! It took us a while to set up and get started because of a few mishaps:

  • as it was the only sunny day that week, the lighting was moody and unpredictable. We could hear the camera men arguing in Italian over the angle and position of the lenses.
  • Emily kept tripping over wires. What else is new?
  • as microphones were being clipped and wired, one of the guys realized that Leanna had no pockets. NONE. The mic ends up going behind her blazer and into her underwear. Problem solved, (just a little awkward)…
  • Our introductions got mixed up. We suddenly realized that Emily had became the “intern of the Holy See Mission to the United Nations in NYC” and Leanna was a “secretary for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops during ecumenical dialogues.” Quite impressive backgrounds we didn’t know we had! We re-started 3 times.

We finally completed the interview with flying colours (if we do say so ourselves). How can you go wrong with a stunning view, overlooking St Peter’s Basilica?!


To expand upon yesterday’s theme of listening, the first presentation of the day, by Sr. Catherine Aubin, O.P., examined the theology of receptivity and silence in response to God’s call. For Sr. Catherine, relationship with God is a dialogue and our human sense of hearing represents a person’s innermost identity. When the Word of God speaks to us, how do we listen to the voice? According to St. Catherine of Siena, a heart open to Christ’s love will know something of God’s infinite mercy- something too complex for the human mind but more readily apparent to the faith-filled heart. Next, Sr. Mary Madeline Todd, O.P. explained that mercy is the key to understanding the healing grace that is best appreciated in light of the history of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. At the core of the heart is a longing for the absolute good and the key to our self-hood. Sr. Mary Madeline focused on the prayer experiences of St. Catherine of Siena, Margaret Mary Alacoque, and Faustina Kowalska as distinct expressions of a revelation of the Sacred Heart made to women and their attentiveness to God’s outpouring of love and compassion.

Following that presentation, French theologian and winner of the 2014 Ratzinger Prize for Theology, Anne-Marie Pelletier, discussed the Blessed Virgin Mary and how what little about her we know from the Gospels suggests a great deal to us about the interiority of the heart – which reveals an ability to accompany the inner workings of God through the outpouring of love in the Incarnation, Christ’s passion and death, and most significantly, the resurrection. German theologian, Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz then presented on Edith Stein and her interpretation of the heart (which is both intellectual and affective) as a metaphor for the soul- the inexhaustible centre of the human being.

Next, our parish’s own Lucinda Vardey spoke on mystical love through flowers as one expression of the feminine genius. Lucinda expanded upon Aquinas’ theology that beauty is God’s own nature and that flowers serve as an invitation to contemplate our spiritual heart with great vulnerability before God.


Next up, Emily and Leanna (that’s us!) presented their long awaited case study “Awakening the Feminine in Parish Life.” What felt like six months in the making had now finally come to fruition and we were excited to represent our parish (that’s you!) with grace and charm.

Our talk focused on Magdala: a conciliary of women and men of different educational and professional backgrounds who have a connection to our parish as students at USMC, parishioners, volunteers, or invited guests. This gathering was designed to share our theologically informed thoughts and feelings on the feminine and the creation of a theology of women. We meet monthly and each meeting has a different theme. Over the course of our six-month exploration into the feminine genius as a conciliary thus far, we had discussed the challenge of determining shared language, maternal imagery in Scripture, the masculine/feminine Jesus, Logos, Order and Harmony, embodiment, and Sophia (Wisdom).

Our presentation chronicled the origins of Magdala and its challenges in finding language in which to even discuss what we meant by ‘the feminine genius’ and how this genius was lived out by women and men in our parish community. However, the beauty of the challenges we experienced is what gave us the understanding that the feminine is perhaps best understood as a narrative theology. Essentially, the ability to share stories. Whether it be a biblical one or a narrative born from our own life experience, stories are a central aspect of learning to be in relationship with God and one another.

We highlighted a quote from Sandra Sheneiders’ Woman and the Word, in our presentation that served as a real consensus and turning point in our conversation. Sheneiders states that to tap into the feminine in both men and women, the Christian imagination must be healed. She explains it in this way:

“I would like to suggest that just as the self and world images can be healed, so can the God-image. It cannot be healed, however, by rational intervention alone. Repeating the theological truth that God is Spirit may correct our ideas but a healthy spirituality requires a healing of the imagination which will allow us not only to think differently about God but to experience God differently. The imagination is accessible not primarily to abstract ideas but to language, images, interpersonal experience, symbolism, art – all the integrated approaches with appeal simultaneously to intellect, wit and feeling. What must be undertaken is a therapy of the religious imagination…” (Schneiders, 19)

So, the first conclusion Magdala considered was that the feminine genius can be understood and felt through imaginative prayer drawn from the heart (the affective) rather than pure intellect alone. We were delighted to find out that this tension between the heart and the mind was a consistent theme among many presentations.

This discovery had a distinct pastoral application and most certainly impacted our parish’s prayer life. We ended our talk by explaining how and suggesting that since the feminine genius is not about a definition, but a narrative – we must begin with prayer, speaking first to the heart. This is the core of who we are as Catholics, and inspires who we yearn to become in the eyes of God. Only once we are comfortable with the language of the feminine can a renewal be born in the Church. This is when the feminine will be recognized and acted upon rather than stifled.


Following the presentations, we taxi’d over to Santa Maria sopra Minerva for 6:00pm Mass for St Catherine’s feast day celebration. The driver took a few roundabout side streets – and we almost got into a few accidents…again – but as divine providence would have it, we ended up at the doors by 6:00 on the dot.

As you can imagine, it was packed. About halfway through the 1.5 hour liturgy, three young gentlemen gave up their seats so we could sit and pray. How generous Italians can be! As if the crowds at Mass weren’t enough, afterwards the tomb of St Catherine was opened and made available for visiting. Everyone “lined up” (in Emily’s words, “created a malfunctioning, fire hazardous clump”) to see Catherine. Although Emily had a few helpful suggestions for more effective ways to manage hoards of people forming no semblance of a line, we agreed that it was more than worth it to visit her body again, this time, with all your heartfelt prayer intentions in our hearts.

Off we went to dinner at a nearby restaurant! Leanna silenced her craving for Tortellini with cream sauce, and Emily got her filling of Penne Carbonara. Who needs unclogged arteries, anyway?

Ali, a friend of ours, arrived at 9 to meet us and take us on a walking tour of Rome. Little did we know our night was just beginning.

After 3 hours of speed-walking, dessert-eating, and site-gazing, we only just barely made it back for 12 midnight curfew. The Paliottine Sisters who hosted us at Casa per Ferie stayed up an extra 10min to let us in. Lucky for Ali, he speaks fluent Italian and could explain why we were late… (we were getting gelato).

A very, very tired Emily and Leanna crawled into bed, barely able to keep their eyes open.

The next day (today, for us here in Italy) was much the same in pace. Straight after the final morning sessions, we hopped on the train to Assisi. And here we are now (so VERY ready for bed).

And that (along with faulty internet last night in the convent), is why we are late in writing to you. We apologize, but we know you understand. Until tomorrow…

Buona notte,


“Siamo arrivati!”

It is 10:30pm Rome time, 4:30pm Toronto time. Jet lag is real. I am wide awake as Emily falls peacefully asleep in the bed next to me. We laughed as we entered our small shared room – “two beds” in Italian apparently translates to “one bed with a small slice down the middle, barely leaving any room for the Holy Spirit”. We have gotten real close real fast!

The plane ride – almost 9 hours – was as good as it could get, (thank you for your prayers for a smooth journey!) We thought we were on solid ground until we grabbed a cab and nearby died in what could have been 5 or 6 potential car accidents. One of which included a gypsy and a public transit bus. Did you know that pedestrians share the cobblestone streets with cars and mopeds? The movies don’t do these scenes justice.

After a nap and a bit of freshening up, Lucinda, Emily and I made our way onto the main streets in search of some local food. All we can say is: best gnocchi and ravioli we’ve tasted! Naturally, cappuccino and gelato followed. “When in Rome”, right?

Notable stops included: the Basilica de Santa Maria, Chiesa del Gesù, and the Pantheon. We carried each of your prayer intentions with us in our hearts as we sat beside each candle, knelt at each altar, and visited each tomb. My personal favourite was seeing St Catherine of Siena’s body. I can’t wait to see her head in Siena!

I’ll keep this short, not only because the last two days have felt like one continuous day, but also we have an early start tomorrow. Our time will be spent preparing for the seminar: collecting flowers, emailing speakers, translating messages, coordinating hotel bookings and making dinner reservations for the group.

Get excited, as you’ll hear from Emily next as the seminar kicks off on April 28th!

Until next time,


In My Shoes

4 more sleeps to go!

You could say I’m on my tippy-toes, getting anxious for departure on Monday.

I know Emily mentioned that you’d next hear from us after we had arrived, but I just couldn’t wait to share my anticipation with all of you.

For the international seminar itself, I’m just really excited to meet these women I’ve been hearing about from Lucinda all year. Among my favourites on the list are Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz’s, “Intellect of the Heart: Edith Stein, from Agnosticism to Faith”, which holds great promise for stirring my soul. “The Propulsive Centre of Discernment: The Heart in Mary Oliver’s Poetry” with Elena Buia Rutt is brimming with potential, as I am interested in hearing from a fellow young poet in her element.

As far as traveling goes, I am used to being the one who likes to take a back seat and be led to all the cool things. I recently posted a status on Facebook, asking my friends about the essentials to experience in Italy while in Rome, Assisi and Siena. I figure, if I can plan this way for a year in New York, I can do it for two weeks in Italy! My friend Leslie commented beneath that status, “Don’t ask for recommendations. What you do is stand at a crossroads, spin around in a circle and when you fall over, you head in the direction you’re facing. You know, St. Francis style.”

“That’s usually how I plan all my trips actually,” I replied. I’m only sort-of kidding here.

I am prone to aimless wandering, and my preferred mode of transportation is walking. I’ve convinced myself (and Emily) that this will come in handy when we walk from site to site each day. My friend Sarah, who spent a year in Rome studying inter religious dialogue, gave me a whole word document brimming with ideas. I feel I am safe in the hands of all my friends and family who will be my guiding stars when I get overwhelmed at all the wonderful things to do. Sarah also reassured me that I didn’t need to brush up on my Italian, because if I spoke two words to a local, they’d respond in full-blown Italian and expect an intelligent response. That should be a fun game.

As most of you may have guessed from my last name, “Cappiello”: I am Italian by heritage. I am Canadian by birth, but Italy is in my blood. My grandparents moved from Italy to either seek a better life for their family or start a life of their own. The Italy I hear about is made up of small villages and outdoor clothes lines and friendly corner stores and afternoon siestas. This image of post-war Italy is frozen in time and forever planted in my imagination. That is, until I step onto modern Italian soil (probably more like concrete) and have my own experience in my “motherland”.

Many of my friends who have been to their “place of origin” say it has helped them “get in touch with their roots”, their inner self, their very bones, because they could finally connect with a deeper piece of them. I am dreaming not of sites or sounds or places to visit, (though these will be AWESOME and an absolutely joyful surprise… I really want to visit the relics and see the Churches and walk the streets and put a coin in the Trevi fountain. I can now officially sip at – and appreciate – good espresso without sugar or cream, and I am foodie enough to enjoy everything on my photographable plate).

Really, I am simply anticipating the experience of encountering a piece of myself I have never met.

I want to walk a local on the streets that once held whisperings of my family’s lineage. I want to relish the potential that this place has to infuse my life when I return to Canada. I want to walk in the hypothetical footsteps of my ancestors as they walked, day and night, living a life in a place they only knew as home. This in itself will have me imploding with happiness.

And all through the way will be my trusty pair of Traveling Toms; the only shoes that don’t litter my feet with blisters. Let’s see how beat up, bruised and faded they get on pilgrimage!


In Search of the Feminine Genius

Well, hello world!

This is Leanna Cappiello and Emily VanBerkum, writing to you from Toronto, Ontario.

We are both employed full time as lay ministers at St Basil’s Catholic Parish at the University of St Michael’s College: me as the Social & Community Coordinator, and my colleague, Emily, as the Sacramental & Liturgical Coordinator. Your proverbial Mary and Martha of the modern day.

For all you readers out there who are hearing about Magdala for the first time, let us explain what it is and how it all came about – the short version.

It all began with prayer.

Lucinda Mary Vardey, in her daily meditations, felt a longing to respond to Pope Francis’ invitation to develop “a profound theology of women, to interpret and understand the feminine dimension of the Church, and to advance participation of women in all levels of Church and society.” This invitation planted a seed in her heart. The image of her patron, St. Anne, appeared to her in thought, and she was energized in forming a group that would discuss this three-fold invitation at a grassroots, parish level.

And so, such a group was made a reality.

The vision of Magdala was a conciliary model: a place to gather and listen to God’s word from the lips of God’s people. Since October 1st, 2015, (the Feast of our beloved St. Therese of Lisieux) we gathered monthly with men and women of diverse personal and professional backgrounds in linguistics, business, ethics, science, arts and theology, each invited by personal invitation.

Magdala’s mission is to foster, promote, and share feminine sanctity and wisdom through the love of Jesus Christ. Magdala includes a place for discussion, education, relationship and community. Meeting once a month, subjects and themes we discussed included awareness and knowledge of feminine principles, influences from scripture and culture, and the process of defining ‘feminine genius.’ An exploration of feminine virtues and the wisdom and work of female saints along with participant’s individual life and faith experiences undergirded every gathering. Ultimately, Magdala strives to offer a place for women in the Church to recognize and embrace who they are in relationship to God and others.

As co-facilitators, along with the support of our Pastor, Emily and I aimed at guiding our conciliary in finding shared vocabulary about God and Church, about feminine exemplars, and seeking expression for narrative theology of the heart. If Magdala was to truly be about relationship and the discussion of the feminine genius at work in our parish, then our purpose was not to be derived from what we produced, but rather how we make the Gospel message known to our community through a renewed understanding of the feminine narrative: that God is not a problem to be solved, but a relationship to be experienced.

Now, on April 29th, 2016 (the Feast of our inspiration, St. Catherine of Siena), Emily and I will co-present our exploration and findings from Magdala to lay and religious women during an international seminar hosted at the Pontifical University of Urbaniana in Rome. We are proud to attend a gathering that has come to fruition in the form of the theme Heart, “Cuore” and hear other women share their research, findings, experience, and reflections.

We couldn’t be more excited! As Emily would say, “15 more sleeps until our flight!”

Soon we will be reporting live from Rome, and later in our travels, Assisi and Siena. For us, this trip will be one-third seminar, one-third pilgrimage, and one-third travel adventure. We plan on recording most of it for you all to see and journey with us.

We hope you’ll join us!