Year for Priests: Keeping the focus on Jesus’ compassion

By Paulist Father Tom Holahan
One in a series

ROME — Last night I was shocked when, discussing the recently restored version of “Godfather III,” no one agreed that the church was treated unfairly. While the story touches on the Vatican bank scandal of the 1980s, my ire went up when the Godfather, Michael Corleone, received a papal knighthood from the archbishop of New York. Soon it was clear where this was going, the “favor” would be repaid by getting the Godfather to (unknowingly) assist in the bank fraud. The cynical conclusion is that the church may even be more corrupt than the crime syndicate Michael Corleone was trying to step away from.

It makes the news and it makes for good stories. But the truth is far different. At this point in history, it is the church that stands against many of the “acceptable” behaviors of modern times. Notwithstanding the hopes and vision of Vatican II, the work of the church is engaging the people of God is the paradoxical rightness of the Beatitudes. It has taken a financial meltdown to convince nations that nurturing struggling economies is to the benefit of all and the right to life is still a question mark for some, if a personal sacrifice is involved.

Here in Italy we had a national moment of silence for six Italian paratroopers who were killed in a terrorist bombing in Afghanistan. Some non-Italians wondered out loud why this was necessary when “so many Americans have died.” Excuse me, but is not every life worthy of mourning, especially in a country that was reluctant to become involved in the conflict, but did so out of duty to its agreements with NATO?

It seems to me that the work of the priest is to constantly, with patience and understanding, lift the sights of those who have become weary or confused about the key role of compassion in human life. Jesus dramatically told the story of the “non-believer” (the Samaritan) who showed compassion and so became an excellent example of virtue. Making the effort to “cross the road” and experience what another is going through is still the hallmark of a vibrant faith and religion.

My efforts to do this on a small scale were thwarted this past week when I attempted to visit one of our library volunteers who was recovering from a stroke. The clinic she was in was not easy for me to find and it took 90 minutes to get there by bus and then a rather dangerous walk on the heavily trafficked Via Appia Nuova. I managed to get there during visiting hours, but that was why she was off in a side courtyard with visitors and not in her room. After calling her name and walking most of the grounds with two nurses, we gave up our search and I returned home. Was it a waste of time? I think not. Word got to her that I went through the “trouble” of the visit and we had a good phone conversation the next day. It’s simple: Just “showing up” is worth something, even when the stated goal has been missed. Relationships can be built on such “unproductive” times.

Rome Diary

Sept. 25 – There is a symbiotic relationship between weddings at the Vatican and the crowds of tourists. Most brides cannot get everyone they would like to come over to Europe for the wedding. The tourists act as replacements, gathering excitedly around the designated “wedding chapel,” applauding as the bride emerges, even taking picture of … who? For a moment the strangers become a big, happy family celebrating a major step in life.

Sept. 27 – Two small discoveries ruffle the day: I notice that the smooth white stones in some old terracotta flowerpots are pure Carrara marble, extravagant. Then, in a search for lemon juice, I am told, “We don’t have this thing. We like our fruits and vegetables very fresh.” What about your tomato paste in tubes? I think, but do not say.

Sept. 28 – I am beginning to notice the prevalence of angels here. Not just cherubs, but “serious” ones like the large bronze on top of Castle St. Angelo and the ever-popular image, by Guido Reni (left) of St. Michael the Archangel vanquishing the devil. At the same time I notice people citing miraculous coincidences. A teacher links the finding of a spring on school grounds with future enrollment growth; a seminarian believes the death of the Pope John Paul II occurred on the eve of the Sunday after Easter “because he loved that Sunday.” I am reminded of a nice person I met in Berkeley years ago who said, “You never know so I believe in everything.”

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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