Heaven on Earth for Catholics

An Interview with Dr. John Rao

For the last 24 years, every July a group of ‘in the know’ Catholics has converged on one of the most beautiful places in Italy – the azure waters, stunning gardens and magnificent summer palaces of Lake Garda. They come for a unique program of renewal, a kind of intellectual, spiritual and physical ‘spa vacation’ for Catholics called the Roman Forum.  In this photo interview, New York City-based Dr. John Rao takes us on a virtual tour.

REGINA: Can you tell us about how the renowned Dietrich Von Hildebrand began the Roman Forum?

DR JOHN RAO: Von Hildebrand was a German philosopher, born in Italy, who represents an Augustinian and Platonic rather than a Thomistic and Aristotelian approach to Catholic truth. He was anti-Nazi and had to flee from Germany, then Austria, then Europe entirely. He taught at Fordham University in New York. The Roman Forum was formed in 1968 in order to defend Humanae Vitae against critics of the Encyclical. It very swiftly became a force for defending the Traditional Latin Mass.

REGINA: How did you get involved? 

DR JOHN RAO: I was brought to the Roman Forum lectures in New York in 1970 by a professor of mine at Drew University. I immediately was taken by the talks, became friendly with von Hildebrand and his colleague, Dr. William Marra. I took over the organization after Dr. Marra passed it on to me in 1991. I myself started out at Georgetown University in 1969 with legal and political interests. I quickly realized that I did not have a sufficient idea of what life was all about and went back home to New Jersey to think things through. A scholarship came available immediately at Drew University, where I began to study history. My professor there, James LoGerfo, was my entry into the Roman Forum and Catholic Traditionalism. Another guide to my Catholic training was the Methodist head of the Religion Department at Drew, Dr. James Pain.

REGINA: You were at Oxford, right? 

DR JOHN RAO:  Dr. James Pain organized a semester abroad at Oxford in 1972, which was my introduction to what became the love of my life academically. I applied to Oxford, went there in 1973, and through St. Edmund Hall obtained my doctorate in Modern European History in 1977.

REGINA: Oxford played a seminal role in developing your perspective, then? 

DR JOHN RAO:  I go back every year. Oxford was a refuge for people fleeing from the radicalization of universities in the 1960’s and ’70’s. The friendships I made there have lasted forever. I did my doctorate on a Jesuit journal called La Civiltà Cattolica and its influence on the development of Catholic Social Doctrine. Upon returning to the States, I worked for one year as Eastern Director of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and then got my present job at St. John’s University (1979) where I am now Associate Professor of History.

REGINA: You present a series of lectures in New York City — can you tell us about these? 

DR JOHN RAO:  These are lectures on small periods of Church History and Culture, 50 or so years at a stretch. They are designed to demonstrate to people the long-lasting character of the problems that we face today.

“I know that the lectures are needed; that was enough for me to do them. People are too focused on immediate issues without realizing what lies behind them. I have found the “market” shrinking every year as people retreat to blogs for their information about these matters.”

“I wanted to have this program precisely to take people out of their isolation to live a holistic Catholic experience together. I chose Gardone Riviera not only because of its beauty, but because it happened to provide a relatively inexpensive environment and an extremely friendly atmosphere in which these lectures could be offered.”

REGINA: What sort of people are interested in these amazing summer classes?

DR JOHN RAO: All sorts, including professional people like doctors and lawyers who have interests beyond their fields and don’t want to go on holiday simply to lie in the sun.

“We also have a lot of young people, as well as many priests, seminarians, and professors not giving lectures who feel that they are finally in an environment where they can talk freely.”

“The Italian Catholics in the area have rediscovered their own heritage because of our presence. The pastor could not be more welcoming to us. We have participants from all over the area who come for a day or two at a time.  “

“The response from the educational world at large has been in one sense immense—we have participants from colleges all over the western world. In another sense, it has been negligible because we are so counter-cultural.”

THE SCHOLA AT MIDDAY MASS: “I hate conferences that presume people can digest lectures like cherries. Two talks a day reflect human abilities. One needs exercise, both spiritual and physical, as well as intellectual guidance.”

“At Lake Garda, everything is organized to fit a holistic human experience. The discussions over the talks extend for hours at dinner and afterwards. Tours of historical sites are needed to give flesh to intellectual and spiritual truths.”

“The major reward for me personally has been the ability to spend so much time enriching my own knowledge of Catholic culture in order to extend it to the participants. But I have to say that it is always a major reward to see how much joy it brings not only to the participants but to the townspeople. The people of Gardone really feel part of what we are doing and would be heartbroken—and not just for “tourist” reasons—if it were ever to end.”

“Twenty-three years is a long time to remember. I think what is most memorable is the look of astonishment on the faces of people who for the first time encounter the beauty of Catholic civilization.”

“This is something that especially happens with people who see Venice for the first time; or a Traditional Latin Mass for the first time; or who hear the spontaneous singing of the participants. And we have had three marriages that have come from the program, too.”

“This year we had sixty participants. Over the years, I think I have only had one comment that could be construed as bemusedly negative, and that was from a person who really enjoyed the program and repeatedly told me so–she said that it was the first time she realized just how much men with the same world view could bond with one another as a ‘band of brothers’. Maybe we got a bit rowdy!”

“People are overwhelmed by the beauty of a Catholic civilization. That was part of the idea to begin with–to demonstrate that Catholicism encourages the appreciation of beauty, and that beauty makes people aware of the ultimate design of God, thereby encouraging Faith.

“One of our professors said some years ago that the modern world only reads the Inferno of Dante, because it only believes in Hell. Those who come here will read the Paradiso because they have seen its earthly equivalent and yearn for its completion in Heaven.”

REGINA: What are your next steps? How can people learn more about the Roman Forum?

DR JOHN RAO: Finding the money to run next year’s program; getting college credits for students attending; continuing our work for a summer long Summer School for high school students. People can learn more about us from our website, from The Remnant Newspaper, and, of course, from Regina Magazine!

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