Year for Priests: Rome as evangelization machine

By Paulist Father Tom Holahan
One in a series

ROME — The recent announcement that the Vatican will allow Anglicans to continue their “traditional spiritual practices” in the Catholic Church has started people thinking: Catholicism now has a formal way to accommodate a married priesthood for a very specific group of people. What more might unfold? Whatever the long-term outcome, this announcement is a milestone in the Year for Priests.

It’s no coincidence that next year’s beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, Gordon Brown’s invitation to the pope to visit Britain and easing the journey to Rome for interested Anglicans have all come about together. Work in many departments of the Vatican has converged, setting the stage for a spectacular new era in ecumenism.

On the far horizon is the speculation that Cardinal Newman could be named a doctor of the church, underscoring his contributions to “development of doctrine” and conscience. Whether Europe is ready or not, plans for its re-evangelization are on track.

Rome, in its way, is a 500-year-old evangelization machine. The buildings and art created as a response to the Protestant critique still call to people who are searching and create a mood of reflection. Just before I arrived in Rome, I met an industrial psychologist who was a Christian but now follows a Native American practice. He told me that, when he went to the Vatican, sunbeams from the dome of the church hit Michelangelo’s Pieta and brought tears to his eyes.

A week ago I heard from two nuns, dressed in habits, who were stopped on the street by a Japanese tourist. She wanted to know, could they possibly spare a few moments to explain Christianity to her? Yesterday a Syrian found his way to our English-speaking church (he knew no Italian) asking the same question. He told me he had no particular faith, but he had been impressed with the Syrian Orthodox while in his own country and now, before he had to leave the country because of a document problem, he wanted to find out more. He asked his questions urgently, “And, so, Jesus was the Son of God?” “He promised eternal life?” Searching Americans approach the faith issue differently. One recently told me he “gave up on God” when the Supreme Being did not cure his depression and taking a little pill did. I said there may come a time when something can’t be fixed, then what?

Rome Diary

Oct 3 – A wedding in a secret chapel of the Pantheon brings me within range of the seventh-century icon that is preserved there. The dark, rough plank has the serene Mary holding, with both hands, a child who looks out upon the world with wonder and apprehension. Later icon painters would have to follow strict rules on portrayal but here the artist was free to express exactly what came from his heart. The image has survived so much danger and destruction — what better image to have before two people ready to put their lives in each others’ care? When emperor Phocas agreed to give the church ownership of the Pantheon (609) it was a way both of saving the most complete remnant of the Roman Empire and also a dramatic statement of Christian triumph – the building formerly dedicated to the gods would now be dedicated to Mary and the Christian martyrs. As I leave, the sacristan reminds me it is the 1,400th anniversary of the Pantheon as a church and the pope has offered a plenary indulgence to all who attend Mass here during the month of October. The building is so old and well-loved, this seems the perfect anniversary gift – complete forgiveness of punishment for past sins.

Oct. 3 – Today at school the second grade is learning about the Eucharist. Some of them are, that is. The Muslim children are out of the room at another activity, except for one boy who carefully explains to me that he does not have to answer any of my questions because he is Muslim. My lesson is based on a picture of the sanctuary. I point to something and ask the class what it is. I go through one or two things and on my third question the Muslim boy can stand it no longer. “That’s the tabernacle!” he declares. And he is right.

Fresco (detail) of Santa Susanna

Fresco (detail) of Santa Susanna

Oct 8 — It’s been almost a year since a group of pilgrims from Sardinia visited the Church of Santa Susanna. This devotion goes back to the time when slaves of Susanna’s household fled to Sardinia to find a new life as workers in the island’s silver and salt mines. Today a group arrives from Torre Santa Susanna (near modern Brindisi), the town where the freedmen and guards of the same household took refuge 1,700 years ago. Sometimes, young Susanna seems an insignificant saint among the city’s so many other accomplished luminaries. These pilgrims bring me back to the fervor of unwavering devotion as I recall that our Sardinian visitors had even sung a hymn to Santa Susanna handed down to them over the centuries.

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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Remembering the murder of a Polish priest

A section of McCarren Park in Brooklyn, N.Y.,  is named for the late Father Jerzy Popieluszko, a popular priest who was outspoken in his support for the Solidarity movement in Poland and who was abducted and murdered by government agents in 1984. To commemorate the 25th anniversary of his death, a special ceremony was held at the park Oct. 19 and attended by, among others, members of the Polish American Congress.

Photo courtesy of Polish American Congress

Photo courtesy of Polish American Congress

The ceremony followed Mass celebrated at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn by Father Marek Sobczak, pastor, who also led a prayer service at Father Popieluszko Square in the park. Each year there is a service to remember the death of the priest, who is memorialized in a bust in the park.

The Polish American Congress had a major role in getting the city of New York to agree to name a section of the park for the priest. It was dedicated by then-Mayor Edward Koch in 1986.

During the years the Solidarity movement rose to fight communism in Poland, Pope John Paul II told his countrymen, “Do not be afraid.” And as the Polish American Congress noted, “Father Popieluszko conveyed the pope’s words of guidance and encouragement to his Polish parishioners every month” during his popular “Masses for the homeland.”

In 1990 the Warsaw Archdiocese approved an official prayer for the late priest’s canonization and raised his church, also named St. Stanislaus Kostka, to the status of a national shrine. Father Popieluszko is buried there.

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