Year for Priests: Improving the conversation, and diary from Rome

By Paulist Father Tom Holahan
One in a series

ROME — A parishioner sent me an e-mail asking for prayers for a priest in the U.S. who was rude and angry. I suppose there was a time when such behavior was chalked up to “Father having a bad day,” but now people wonder if “Father can handle the stress.”

Most priests do not consider what they do to be a job – it is a calling, a vocation. They may not impose any boundaries between what is work and what is play; they may refuse to distinguish between performing a role and living a life. But as demands increase, some limits have to be set. It’s fairly well-known that that ratio of priests to Catholics in the U.S. is good, compared to some other countries. And in those other places, laity, deacons and vowed religious have assumed leadership. Should we consider this model second-best or affirm it as the working of the Spirit? Such are my thoughts after reflecting on this e-mail for prayer.

For a long time, I have wanted to read the small book Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives by Theodore Zeldin. The title intrigued me since, for five years, I co-hosted a radio talk show with the theme of finding spirituality in leisure. Toward the end of the book Zeldin says he is looking for a new way to look at work. He envisions a world of “shopkeepers” who do not monitor their actions on efficiency but the quality of their conversations and personal relationships. I am not going to directly apply this model to the priesthood, but his suggestion does challenge me to raise the quality of my conversation. We only have to read the gospel of John to know how powerful it must have been to have a conversation with Jesus.

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Diary Entry

Today Mira, a 14 year-old Palestinian our parish group met in a town near Bethlehem, will be playing at a premier music venue, Rome’s Auditorium Parco della Musica. The occasion is the annual citywide series of concerts commemorating 9/11. A foundation has paid the travel expenses for this talented young pianist and her father to come here. When we have a chance to talk, she confides that Mozart is in her soul. She hears his music in her head all the time. “I will not marry. It is just my art,” she declares when touring the National Academy of St. Cecilia, where List played. She passes a picture of her idol, Mozart: “He’s too fat in that picture. He was never that way!” The girl clearly has the definitive swagger of an elite musician. With just a bit more work on technique she could be a star.

A peace dove painted by local Palestinians on the security wall. (Photo courtesy Father Tom Holahan)

A peace dove in a flak jacket painted by local Palestinians on the security wall. (Photo courtesy Father Tom Holahan)

And this is no small thing for the beleaguered Palestinians. Last year, under the auspices of a U.N. education agency, she visited northern Italy to speak with school children about her experience growing up stateless and now, encircled by a gray cement “anti-terror” wall, a veritable prisoner in her own town, unable to leave it without official permission.

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One of the best things about serving at “the American church in Rome” is being able to celebrate a wedding. This week the couple could not help gazing around at the colorful frescos as we have our planning meeting in the sanctuary. It took them over an hour to drive in from the ancient Etruscan city of Tarquinia, where they are staying. Living in the Italian countryside, if just for a few days, is part of this dream wedding. Immediately after the ceremony, the best man rushed out the door to view Bernini’s St. Theresa in Ecstasy, ensconced under a skylight in the church across the street.

Father Thomas J. Holahan, CSP, was ordained for the Paulist Fathers in 1977. Since 2006 he has served as vice-rector at the Church of Santa Susanna in Rome. This church was designated for Americans in Rome by the Vatican in 1922. He is also chaplain to Marymount International School. Previously, he has worked in campus ministry at the University of Colorado (Boulder), the University of California (Berkeley) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has also served as communications director for the dioceses of Austin, Texas, and Columbus, Ohio.

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