Year for Priests: A Roman testament to political action

By Paulist Father Tom Holahan
One in a series

ROME — The noise about the proper place for the church in debate on public issues seems ironic in Europe. If only people could get as “fired up” as the United States seems to be! Granted, most of the heat is about public funding of abortion, but the willingness of Catholic bishops to take on immigration issues and the war in Iraq is heartening.

I was struck by a similar testament to political action while walking down the quiet Via di Monserrato. One of its Renaissance palaces is home to the Venerable English College. Originally the site of a rosary-selling business, the property was bought by an English guild in 1326 to become a hospice for pilgrims. But that was just the beginning. During the Elizabethan Age, it would earn the title “Venerable” by schooling seminarians who were sent back secretly to England to re-convert the populace to Roman Catholicism. In the course of a single, tumultuous century, many were executed, including 44 who were officially recognized as martyrs by the Catholic Church.

I stood in front of the seminary chapel, built in 1866 on the site of the old hospice. The medieval street retains its practical curve, honing to the meanderings of the Tiber, but little else suggests the struggles that went on here. Across the street lies Philip Neri’s church, San Girolamo della Carità. Each morning, this engaging evangelist would greet the English seminarians with a cheery, “Salvete flores martyrum” (Hail, flowers of the martyrs).

In 1580, just before the execution of the first priest sent back to England from here, Durante Alberti painted the “Martyr’s Picture” for the high altar of the church (right). In dramatic, Counter-Reformation style, it depicts God the Father holding his martyred Son out to St. Thomas Beckett (martyred by Henry II) and Blessed Edmund of East Anglia (martyred by King Ivar of the Danes); above them, a cherub holds aloft the seminary’s motto: Ignem veni mittere in terram – “I have come to bring fire on the earth.”

Frescoes of some of the martyrs and their associates were painted on the seminary walls for the edification of the priests-in-training. Their clandestine efforts to bring England back to Roman Catholicism were not extinguished until the death of the last public claimant to the throne, Henry Benedict Stuart, Cardinal-Duke of York in 1807. As in so many countries, finally, the civil wars of England had to give way to plain civility. But in Rome, glorious memories are valued and savored for centuries. Who knows where such fire will blaze next time.

Rome Diary

Nov 4 — A group of 8th graders from Copenhagen come for Sunday Mass. The school is only about 20 percent Catholic and yet it is seen as a good way to evangelize a “mission country” like Denmark, where few attend church anymore. The school’s chaplain is a priest from Kerala, India, who is “learning Danish on the side.” Last year, when I visited St. Cecilia’s Convent in Trastevare, I met two novices – one from Brooklyn, the other from Africa. As long as Europe’s vocation crisis lasts, outsourcing seems the thing to do.

Nov. 12 — The police have confiscated the property of a German-American we have been helping for many years. He has income but, because of his mental illness, wishes to stay outdoors all year. It has been almost a year since he has started using the park bench in Piazza dei Risorgimento as home. Last week he told me he had purchased some plastic tubing to make a tent over his things to keep the rain off. Maybe that was it, but today, as I walk past the park, I see a big “X” taped on the empty bench. Obviously, it is a message from the authorities that he should not return to that spot. This is the gentle way officials sometimes have when handling situations no one wants to touch.

Nov. 17 — I respond to a call from Rubicon TV (Norway). A crew is visiting Rome and needs someone to comment about what our church does in Rome. During the half-hour interview, with cameras rolling, the reporter asks such questions as, “Can the pope work more than 371 days a year?” “Italy is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean; can you tell me how the pope can protect this ocean?” “There is a place that has lions in Rome, the Coliseum; can you tell me how to get tickets to it?” I found myself making slight suggestions: “The pope can’t work that long!” “What happened to the Mediterranean?” and “If only you had been here about 2,000 years ago!” As they pack up, the crew reveals that they are working on a children’s news show that features odd, humorous questions from the reporter to keep the kids watching. Yes, I was used, but for a good cause.

Nov. 21 — Today, in the school dining room, I sit next to a 10-year-old boy who, I notice, has a plate of capellini carbonara. Since kids love to talk about food, I open the conversation with, “I see you have bacon in your pasta, do you like bacon?” “Yes,” says the boy, “we have pigs on my father’s farm.” “Where is your father’s farm?” I ask. “Tanzania,” he responds. This stumps me until I find out it is a coffee farm and that the little boy, who spent his first years there, has experienced a bridge collapse, an elephant charging, and a black mamba threat. Rome must seem unbelievably dull to him!

Nov. 21 — At a small wedding dinner in a family restaurant near Piazza Barberini I ask the middle-aged couple how they came to have their first marriage now. The groom, who was born in Baghdad, holds up his gold wedding ring. “See this ring? It has a story. I was the youngest in my family. My father could see there were no opportunities for us in Iraq. My brothers and sisters all went out of the country when they could and I stayed to take care of my parents. In 1991, just after the Gulf War, there was a window of a few weeks when visas were issued. I escaped then, but I had to be careful. I bought a gold wedding band. I figured if I needed money, I could sell it. When the border police asked me about returning to the country, I held up my ring and said, ‘Of course I’m returning, I’m getting married as soon as I get back.’” He would be 10 years in Canada before he met his wife, but the ring, it had already done the most important part of its job — keeping the groom safe and sound.

Nov. 22 — Last night I spent two hours trying to write a homily for six-year-olds. I put as much work in describing the Bible story of the “Ten Lepers” as I would for a university congregation … only in reverse. That is, I try to simplify all the complicated ideas like leprosy, shunning, and gratitude to God. I am not sure I have done a good job at all. Fortunately, my services were not required. The kids talked about turkeys and Indians instead!

Nov. 25 — Thanksgiving is getting harder to describe happily. The more we learn about the Pilgrims, the harder it is to simply have a great feast. Unwarranted executions by Myles Standish (the Pilgrims’ military adviser), the stealing of food supplies, rivalries with other expeditions … that brief moment of tranquility and celebration gets briefer. Today at school the elementary students dress in their multicolored Zambia polo shirts, showing they are in solidarity with a fundraising project for an adopted Zambian school. In their own way, they’ve made the ideals of Thanksgiving global. After all, it is more than just a good meal.

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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Send an Advent message to Burundi

During Advent, Development and Peace, the official aid agency of the Canadian bishops’ conference, has started an interactive campaign for people to communicate with its partner agencies in Burundi.

Staffer at Kamenge Youth Center

The campaign focuses on the Kamenge Youth Center in Bujumbura and the Iteka League, which defends human rights and supports social movements. Site visitors can watch French-language videos, with English subtitles (click on the image to the left for a sample), in which partners give testimony about their work, then send a message of support to those member agencies.

Damaging report on abuse in Dublin

After months of delay, the independent government commission set up to investigate child abuse in Ireland’s Dublin Archdiocese has released its report detailing abuse and church officials’ knowledge of such abuse. Catholic News Service is closed for the Thanksgiving holiday, but we will have a followup story Monday. Meanwhile, you can read about the report here.

The report on Dublin was released about five months after an independent report said a climate of fear created by pervasive, excessive and arbitrary punishment permeated most of Ireland’s residential care institutions for children and all those run for boys from 1940 through the 1970s. Eighteen religious orders orders have agreed to an independent audit of their assets, so they can pay more compensation than the 128 million euros ($194 million) they committed to in 2002.

Year for Priests: Ministry without politics

By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series

When I was first approached by Catholic News Service to contribute to this blog, I asked a lot of questions about their hopes for this initiative.  Among several ideas that I remember, I was told that is good to present what makes priesthood so amazing (as I understand it) and what makes it so challenging.  So after many entries of the amazing, I figured it is time to share one of my difficulties.

Good priests are also good politicians . . . and I wish it wasn’t the case.

I began to learn this lesson early in formation as I was frequently courted by priests who represent particular ministries and spiritualities.  Whether they were connected to the high schools, parishes, universities, social outreach organizations, liberal or more conservative theologies, the discussions and incentives were and are frequent and often aggressive.  In the seminary, you are under everyone’s microscope as they hope to find evidence of what you believe and in which direction you might lean.

What I did not understand is how much I was protected from these advancements when I was in formation.  Now that I am ordained, the protection is all but gone and I find myself at the mercy of those who try to influence my ministry through both blatant and covert actions.  In my prayers, I frequently reflect on the wisdom of Jesus to spend those first years of ministry away from the powers that could distract him from his purpose.  In my prayers, I long to spend all of my energy thinking about and being present to the people I wish to serve rather than drafting letters of concern and defense.  And in the quiet moments in my car, I am all too aware of the number of young priests who have left the priesthood shortly after ordination because they were unprepared for the challenges of a political priesthood (and for other reasons).

Though I was never naïve enough to believe an organization the size of the Catholic Church would be absent of political agendas, I never believed they would demand so much of my energy. At the same time, I recognize the challenges of religious and diocesan leadership as they struggle to maintain harmony between the energy of the young and the loyalty of the aged.  In the end, the challenges of the priesthood often translate into choices between tradition and innovation.  In what I truly believe is a new “springtime” of the church, I am all too aware of the painful pruning process that is required for new growth to bear fruit, and for that reason, am in awe of the task that lies before the church leaders of today.

Despite these struggles, I also believe that the church is still the best means by which God’s grace is transmitted to the world; thus, I remain firmly in love with her — for all her gifts and her faults.  Nevertheless, I think the Scriptures frequently remind us that we are much better off when we focus on the big picture.  Disharmony, impatience, frustration, maneuvering and infighting all occur when we are overly focused on how things are done, but it seems to me that Jesus was always more concerned on what and why things are done.

One of those who guided me in formation said that we should always judge by the fruits of one’s work, relationships and ideas; and while I believe he is correct, I pray for a day when this sort of judgment is not necessary at all.  May I (and all of us) have the wisdom to understand the balance.

Father Chris Valka, CSB, was ordained a priest for the Congregation of St. Basil in May and is teaching at Detroit Catholic Central High School in Michigan.

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Four arrested in protests at Army school

It’s been 19 years since the first call came from a fledgling campaign to close a training school for Latin American soldiers at the U.S. Army’s massive Fort Benning complex in Columbus, Ga.

The campaign, organized by School of the Americas Watch, continued Nov. 20-22 with an annual vigil at the base’s gates and the arrest of four people who entered Fort Benning property in an act of civil disobedience.

The annual event commemorates the Nov. 16, 1989, killing of six Jesuit priests at the Jesuit-run Central American University in El Salvador. Their housekeeper and her daughter also were murdered. SOA Watch has said more than a dozen Salvadoran soldiers involved in the murders were graduates of the school.

Those gathered for the vigil and march want the Army school — formerly the School of the Americas and since reorganized as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation — closed. The school’s critics say the school’s graduates use what they’ve learned to violate human rights.

The Army has consistently disputed that claim, calling it “a ludicrous accusation” and challenging the school’s critics to show a direct link between actions of former students and the courses taught, which cover due process, the rule of law, human rights and the role of military in society, among other areas.

Elsie Jackson, public affairs specialist at Fort Benning, said this year’s demonstration seemed more subdued than previous years, but said the cool weather may have thinned the crowd.

“The protest was very peaceful, as they usually are,” she said. “My compliments to the organizers.” She otherwise declined to comment on the event.

The four who were arrested are no strangers to the art of public protest. Nancy Gwin, 63, of Syracuse, N.Y.; Ken Hayes, 60, of Austin, Texas; Franciscan Father Louis Vitale, 77, of Oakland, Calif.; and Michael Walli, 61, of Washington, all entered not guilty pleas in court Nov. 23. Their trials are set for late January.

Columbus police estimated this year’s crowd at about 4,800. SOA Watch spokesman Hendrik Voss disputed the number, placing the gathering at between 10,000 and 15,000 people.

Youths came from ‘urban centers and rolling prairies’

Check out The Catholic Key blog and postings by editor Jack Smith on the 2009 National Catholic Youth Conference held Nov. 19-21 in Kansas City, Mo. The Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph and the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kan., co-hosted the conference.

In one of Smith’s entries, you’ll find a photo of a virtual sea of teens processing down a city street led by Bishop Robert W. Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., as they walked from the Sprint Center to the Kansas City Convention Center — two of the venues for the conference. Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., led the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament at the Sprint Center. The archdiocesan site also has coverage.

More than 21,000 teenagers and their chaperones from Rochester, N.Y., to Los Angeles — “from urban centers and rolling prairies,” as the diocesan Web site put it — converged on Kansas City, Mo., to learn about their Catholic faith and praise God. The city even issued a proclamation commending the religious, civic and corporate organizers of the conference, which had as its theme “Christ Reigns.”

Cardinal Daniel N. Dinardo of Galveston-Houston delivered a keynote speech. For a full look at the various speakers, workshops, singing groups and more look at the Web site of the conference  and the site of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry.

Pope meets artists in the Sistine Chapel

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI met this morning in the Sistine Chapel with more than 250 artists from around the world.

Sitting in front of Michelangelo’s fresco of the Last Judgment, he reflected on the beauty of God and on the connection between beauty and hope.

(CNS/Nancy Wiechec)

Pope Benedict told the artists:

You are the custodians of beauty: thanks to your talent, you have the opportunity to speak to the heart of humanity, to touch individual and collective sensibilities, to call forth dreams and hopes, to broaden the horizons of knowledge and of human engagement. Be grateful, then, for the gifts you have received and be fully conscious of your great responsibility to communicate beauty, to communicate in and through beauty!

Through your art, you yourselves are to be heralds and witnesses of hope for humanity! And do not be afraid to approach the first and last source of beauty, to enter into dialogue with believers, with those who, like yourselves, consider that they are pilgrims in this world and in history towards infinite Beauty! Faith takes nothing away from your genius or your art: on the contrary, it exalts them and nourishes them, it encourages them to cross the threshold and to contemplate with fascination and emotion the ultimate and definitive goal, the sun that does not set, the sun that illumines this present moment and makes it beautiful.