My name is Mark Neuhengen and I am a junior at Loyola University Chicago majoring in History and Religious Studies and minoring in Islamic World Studies, Arabic Language and Culture, and Catholic Studies. In Rome, the city of a thousand churches, a lone mosque sits in the northern corner of the city. During my semester in Rome, I had the opportunity to visit the Grand Mosque of Rome for Friday prayers. My visit was one part in my year abroad. As a Ricci Scholar, I am studying in Rome and Beijing during my Junior year. One purpose of the Ricci Scholar program is to experience Italian and Chinese cultures in unexpected ways. My visit to the Mosque was an opportunity to view an often-overlooked side of Italian culture. The Mosque is a beautiful building constructed using local material and in a style reminiscent to the surrounding Roman architecture. I was told that this was done to demonstrate that mosques are as much as the European landscape as St. Peter’s is.
Just as the Architecture of the Mosque points towards the importance of Islam in European culture, the Muslims at the Jumma prayer showed the importance of each person in the greater community. Community was a constant theme throughout my entire visit. Two moments have stayed with me since my visit. After the prayer concluded Abdel, who was showing me the mosque, had to meet with the Imam. In the Imam’s office, Abdel and the Imam talked about Egypt, books, and other topics. What stood out to me was that the meeting ended with the Imam listening to my guide practice formal Arabic by reading from a book. I learned later that we did not have an appointment with the Imam. In a time where society is focused on reaching the next obstacle or event, it was beautiful to see the Imam take time out of his day to have a conversation with and to help someone. For the Imam, the well being of the community was more important than anything else.
The other event that has stayed with me was something that the Imam said. After learning that I was a Catholic American student from Loyola University Chicago, the Imam said something truly touching. While I unfortunately do not remember his exact words, he said something along the lines of “you are always welcome here, and it is necessary that you visit.” The community of the Grand Mosque of Rome did not end with the Muslims who prayed there, but extended to include curious visitors like me. In a world that is being torn apart by communities shutting themselves off from those who are different, the Grand Mosque of Rome was a beautiful community that embraced difference with open arms. As I begin my semester in China, I plan to continue to explore the different understandings of community across different cultures and religions. By searching for and understanding community in different contexts, I pray that I will be able to be a better builder of community in the world.