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America on the Tiber

Round tables in Rome’s religious life

What the Vatican and the rest of the Catholic world know of America is often forged by contact with Americans in Rome. Americans in the curia, in religious life, in pontifical universities, in the diplomatic corps, and in institutions such as the North American College serve as a bridge between two worlds. They bring the fruits of American culture to the universal church, while their Roman experience gives them a new perspective back home.

In this series, a kind of introduction to America on the Tiber, NCR offers a look at Americans who matter in Rome, what they do and what difference they make.


There was a time when the mention of “American” and “nun” in the same sentence was, all by itself, enough to raise blood pressures in many a Vatican office.

American religious, especially women, were on the cutting edge of reforms called for by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The council fathers asked religious to go back to their roots, and for many that meant sweeping aside centuries of tradition to get to the core of what it means to surrender one’s life to Christ.

For traditionalists, who worried the baby was being tossed out with the bathwater, the freewheeling, collaborative American style that took shape over the 1970s and 1980s set their teeth on edge. Religious women and men who lived through bruising battles to have their post-conciliar statutes approved by the Vatican, for example, still carry the scars of that experience.

Today, with the benefit of some distance, observers in Rome said much of the distinctively American approach has prevailed.

Sacred Heart Sr. Clare Pratt, who hails from Chevy Chase, Md., and is the first American superior in the 200-year history of her community, said she can identify at least one clear sign in Rome of that American influence: round tables.

Once upon a time, when religious would gather for meetings in Rome, they would do so in typical European style, with a raised dais for speakers and seats in rows for everyone else to listen passively. Now, the International Union of Superiors General, the main umbrella group for women religious, gathers around circular tables, where discussion is more open, informal and participative.

It’s a symbol, but one that Pratt said speaks volumes.

“Anyone who’s been in a leadership position in the United States and who finds herself over here has been influenced by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious,” Pratt said, referring to the main association of women religious in the United States.

“Our way of operating is inclusive and it has caught on.”

Pratt is one of an estimated total of 450 American religious in Rome (roughly 300 men and 150 women), spread over a wide variety of functions. Some teach in a Roman university, some work in the Vatican, a few carry out pastoral functions and some hold leadership positions in their congregations.

Two key American women religious in Rome are Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Sharon Holland, in the Vatican congregation for religious, and Holy Family Sr. Miriam Mikol, secretary general of the International Union of Superiors General. In addition to Pratt, other women superiors include Holy Union Sr. Carol Regan, Precious Blood Sr. Nancy Iampietro and Daughters of Wisdom Sr. Barbara O’Dea.

On the men’s side, superiors include Marianist Fr. David Fleming, Redemptorist Fr. Joseph Tobin, Viatorian Fr. Mark Francis, Lazarist Fr. Robert Maloney, [Brothers of the] Sacred Heart [Br.] Bernard Couvillion, Holy Cross Fr. Hugh Cleary, Scheut Fr. Jozef Lapauw and Assumptionist Fr. Richard Lamourenx.

In larger men’s communities, key American Jesuits include Fr. Frank Case, the official responsible for American Jesuit affairs, and Fr. Robert Geisinger, the chief canon lawyer for the society (which gives him the informal moniker of the Jesuit “attorney general”). Dominican Fr. Robert Christian is prior of the Dominican house at the Angelicum, while Franciscan Fr. Antonio Franjic is the secretary general of the Order of Friars Minor.

It’s hard to pinpoint the precise influence carried by these Americans, in part because they spend precious little time in Rome itself. As superiors, most of them spend at least half their lives on the road visiting operations in their communities, which can be found in every angle of the world. Rome is thus little more than a place to get mail.

Despite this, several echoed Pratt’s point about the influence of the American style in the way religious work today.

“Our sisters say the American presence is more open,” said Iampietro, who comes from Bethlehem, Pa. Her community of 945 sisters, once predominantly German, is today largely African.

“They tell me that Americans bring a freshness in looking at prayer, at structures, at our vision of religious life,” Iampietro said.

Francis said the same pattern holds true in men’s communities.

“Our style of governance is more dialogical. We try to listen and form opinions later. We don’t come in and dictate,” he said.

This collaborative approach has even been proposed as a model for the hierarchy. Fleming, the Marianist superior, floated the idea at last fall’s Synod of Bishops, where he was a participant. “Since Vatican II, most religious institutes have tried to implement a participative style of leadership that … accentuates listening, dialogue, subsidiarity and accountability,” Fleming told more than 200 bishops from all over the world. “This is a way of exercising genuine authority, but in a collegial mode.”

“Perhaps,” Fleming suggested, “our experience with such meetings could be helpful in rethinking the style of episcopal conferences and synods in the life of the church.”

Fleming is in a position where he can push such ideas along. He and fellow American Joseph Tobin, the Redemptorist superior, sit on the Council of 16, a group of men and women religious who meet with the Vatican’s Congregation for Religious to discuss issues of mutual concern. (It is, among other things, the body that has been discussing the problem of sexual abuse of religious women by priests.)

The old wounds may have healed, but memories remain. One man who saw it all happen, on both sides, is Conventual Franciscan Fr. Basil Heiser, by most accounts the elder statesman among American religious in Rome. Heiser, a remarkably robust 93 years old, did his first stint in Rome as a student from 1928 to 1932, during the pontificate of Pius XI. He has been living in Rome full-time since 1960.

His experience, Heiser said, has given him an appreciation for the strengths of American religious, but has also made him wary of their flaws.

“We’re too open sometimes,” he said in an interview at the Conventual residence in Rome’s Piazza of the Holy Apostles.

Heiser worked in the Vatican’s Congregation for Religious from 1972 to 1984, and he said that over the years American independence sometimes became disobedience, a defiance of authority he doesn’t understand.

“I’m happy to bow my judgment to the pope because he has a special grace,” Heiser said. “If whatever he says is subject to change, in due time the Holy Spirit will bring that out. Meantime we ought to go along with it.”

Still, Heiser and other observers agree that the days of pitched battles between American congregations and Rome are largely over.

Regan of the Holy Union sisters said the American can-do spirit is seen as a positive thing, but care must be taken so that confidence doesn’t shade off into arrogance.

“We always have to watch ourselves, as men and women of the dominant culture in the world,” she said. “We have to keep our eyes and ears open to other ways of doing things.”

It’s a point that religious from other cultures underscore.

“There’s a stereotype that the Americans believe whatever is good for them is automatically good for the society or good for the church,” said Jesuit Fr. Jose de Vera, a Spaniard who serves as the press spokesperson for the Jesuit master general.

“I don’t think that’s 100 percent correct, but there’s some truth to it,” de Vera said.

So much for what American religious bring to Rome. What do they take away?

First, a personal sensitivity for the staggering diversity in the Catholic world.

Francis, originally from Chicago, said this lesson was driven home for him just days after he took office as superior of the 800-strong Viatorian congregation. By tradition, an official photograph of the new superior had to go out to all Viatorian residences.

Hence the choice: Roman collar or tie?

“For some of our members, especially in France and Spain, wearing the collar put me immediately in the integralist camp,” Francis said, referring to the far-right Catholics in Europe. “Whereas for others, clerical dress is what you’re expected to wear in a formal setting.”

The Viatorians have members in such diverse locales as French Canada, Ivory Coast, Japan and Belize, in addition to Europe.

Francis’ Solomonic solution was to have two portraits taken, one in a tie and one in a Roman collar, and let individual houses choose which to put in the place of honor. It was a crash course in how even the smallest decision gets complicated when you have to worry about how it plays all over the world.

Regan said Americans in Rome tend to learn a bit of patience.

“Being here puts things in perspective,” she said. “What is of the moment in a country with a short history can take on overwhelming proportions.

“In Rome,” Regan said, “you learn to take a long view.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, March 1, 2002 [corrected 03/08/2002]