Year for Priests: A diary from Rome

By Paulist Father Tom Holahan
One in a series

ROME — I’d like to take “spiritual perfection” as my theme for my time on the “Year for Priests” blog. You may find me musing on the food of Italy or an incident during the handing out of tickets to the weekly papal audience (if you are in Rome, just about every Tuesday from 5 p.m. is “ticket distribution” day; drop in), but I like to think that reflections on both the sublime and ridiculous can contribute to our perfection of spirit.

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Diary entry — Sept. 1: I find the chapel of St. Monica just to the left of Sant’Agostino’s high altar. Her remains have been moved to an ornate silver coffin just beneath the chapel’s altar, on the left is her marble sarcophagus, a large side panel is from the original burial. The oil painting above includes the Latin phrase “Ubi tu ibi et ille,” a reference to Monica’s dream about her son recorded in Augustine’s Confessions:

(Book III, Chapter 11)…she saw herself standing on a certain wooden rule, (8) and a bright youth advancing towards her,  joyous and smiling upon her, whilst she was grieving and bowed down with sorrow. But he having inquired of her the cause of her sorrow and daily weeping … and she answering that it was my perdition she was lamenting, he bade her rest contented, and told her to behold and see “that where she was, there was I also.” And when she looked, she saw me standing near her on the same rule. (20) … and I tried to put this construction on it, “That she rather should not despair of being some day what I was,” she immediately, without hesitation, replied, “No; for it was not told me that where he is, there shalt thou be,” but “where thou art, there shall he be.” I confess to Thee, O Lord … Thy answer through my watchful mother … even then moved me more than the dream itself …”

Another painting has, in large letters, “Monica Ora Pro Nobis.” In Monica’s case, an especially appropriate sentiment since her entire adult life was spent in prayer for the conversion of her husband and son. Though she lived in ancient times, she is patron of quite relevant issues: abuse victims, alcoholics, difficult marriages and, of course, “disappointing children.” It’s so good to have her in a church named after her son.

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On my first trip back to Marymount International School since my return to Rome, I encountered the caper. I had passed clumps of these pink flowers hanging from the stone wall adjacent to the entrance. A teacher pointed out the famous buds which, pickled or salted, are a common ingredient in Mediterranean cuisine. Yet another harvestable “weed” that contributes to unbeatable Italian food. I am not completely over the shock of finding so much of what is on my dinner table growing in patches and corners of yards — from lemons to this caper to “family” olive trees and grapevines.

Sometimes you hear about the pillaging that took place in Rome after the Roman Empire went into decline. Those who took the statues and put them on their own monuments we think should not have done it, they should have kept them where they historically were. But here is something sad and true that I had not considered: the reason so much pillage was going on during the early Middle Ages was that no one could make anything as good; every appropriation was also an admission that the past was so much better than the present. I realize that I have never lived in a time when that was true, but that I might — soon. It’s not that I have given up on the world; it’s that I have begun to question a world that believes it can stand on its own, with no higher reference point. Here, in a city steeped in the Renaissance and High Baroque, I can see what might have been. Now the case for religion has to be fresh, to each succeeding generation.

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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