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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