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America on the Tiber

U.S. Catholics of all walks make imprints on Rome


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.

Pilgrims on one of those Bataan-death-march-style summer tours of Rome often steal a moment’s peace in a church, cooled by centuries-old stone. There the weary can slip into a pew, spread their arms, relax their spine and spend a few moments in a blessed slouch.

When they do so, few realize they have American Catholics to thank.

More precisely, the presence of pews in Roman churches is, at least in part, a legacy of the Paulist Fathers, the most distinctively American of men’s religious communities. (The founder of the Paulists, a Methodist convert by the name of Isaac Hecker, was blamed for launching what Pope Leo XIII condemned in 1899 as “Americanism.” Though most historians say the pope overreacted, it is true that Hecker and the Paulists took a positive view of American democracy and religious tolerance).

In 1922, amid property disputes that have never really ended, Paulist Fr. Thomas Lantry O’Neill, formerly a chaplain at the University of California in Berkeley, received the keys to the Roman church of Santa Susanna, which became the American national parish. One of O’Neill’s first moves was to find a carpenter to build and install pews, a touch that reflected the American “congregationalist” style.

In the Rome of the day, pews were still rare. Most churches stored a few wicker chairs that would be rented out by a sacristan for a coin or two on Sunday mornings. Otherwise, people stood. After the Americans broke the ice, pews caught on, and today most Roman churches, aside from the major basilicas, have them.

Another example of an American imprint?

Yankee passion for technology

Consider the Yankee passion for technology. It is surely no accident that the first two Vatican offices to enter the computer age did so under American prefects. The first was the Vatican Bank, known as the Institute for the Works of Religion, under Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, and the second the Pontifical Council for Social Communications under Archbishop John Foley.

The Vatican Internet address, www.vat ican.va, was Foley’s doing. He told NCR that when he went to the international body that controls Internet addresses, that body proposed either “vatican.org” or “vatican.it” for the Holy See. Foley rejected both, arguing that the Vatican is a sovereign state and deserved to be inscribed as such in cyber-space.

He won, and “.va” is thus the virtual insignia of the Vatican’s quasi-virtual statehood.

Foley’s office was the first inside the Vatican, by the way, to have a fax machine.

A further American touch?

One of the few Roman churches to be illuminated by crystal chandeliers is the Church of Ss. John and Paul, one of the ancient parish churches of the city and today the titular church of the cardinal of New York. The 35 chandeliers that hang majestically from the ceiling got there through Cardinal Francis Spellman, who talked the Big Apple’s old Waldorf Astoria Hotel into donating them.

Yet another?

There are few public playgrounds for children in Rome, but six of them are gifts of the American Catholic group, Knights of Columbus. The playgrounds are owned and operated by the knights.

The foregoing examples are of a “Trivial Pursuit” sort. Of course, U.S. Catholics have contributed more to Rome, and the universal church, than church decoration and Internet domains.

Some of the most profound theological advances in recent Catholic history have been driven forward under American influence.

Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum launched the modern Catholic social doctrine, taking a guardedly positive view of the fight for labor rights. Leo’s attitude had been informed by conversations with American church leaders, since the United States had a major labor movement, the Knights of Labor, linked to the Catholic church. Leo refused to censure the knights as some Catholic conservatives had suggested. (One American who had Leo’s ear was based in Rome -- Denis O’Connell, rector of the North American College, and later bishop of Richmond, Va.).

Italian historian Alberto Melloni argues that the reconciliation between the Catholic church and the modern democratic state at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) would have been impossible without the U.S. Catholic experience of living in a society without a state church. Theological reflection on that experience offered by thinkers such as Jesuit Fr. John Courtney Murray was critical to the council’s work.

John XXIII’s fascination

Recent research, Melloni told NCR, shows that as a young priest, Angelo Roncalli, who as Pope John XXIII called Vatican II, was fascinated by the writings of Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, Minn., and Bishop John Lancaster Spalding of Peoria, Ill. Both were passionate defenders of the American experiment in tolerance, and the opportunities a religiously neutral state created for Roman Catholics.

Thus in ways large and small, American Catholicism has made its presence felt in Rome.

As early as the 1850s, Vatican officials could see that the rising behemoth in North America was destined to be important. Pius IX invited, and, when they dallied, ordered the Americans to open a national college in Rome, in part to anchor their leaders more closely to the papacy.

(The first class at the North American College entered in 1859. Legend has it that the college got the name “North American” rather than “United States” or simply “American” because in 1859 it was not clear the Union would survive, and the Vatican wanted Southern students to feel at home if the Confederacy triumphed).

As America’s global importance grew, so has Vatican interest. In 1953, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, the top theological official of his day in the Roman curia, gave a speech in the United States in which he asserted that America had taken the place of the Roman Empire as the chief political point of reference for the Catholic church.

American Catholicism’s importance is reflected, among other things, by the number of Americans in Vatican service. Foley said that when he arrived almost 18 years ago, there were a scant 13 priests living at the Villa Stritch, a residence for Americans working in the Roman curia. Today there are 27 in residence, plus several others who work at the Vatican but have other quarters.

Bridge to the universal church

In the six pontifical universities scattered across town (the Gregorian, the Lateran, the Urbaniana, the Angelicum, the Salesiana, and Holy Cross), as well as in the numerous pontifical institutes, Americans number among the most important theologians, canonists and Biblical scholars.

There are scores of Americans who serve as leaders of men and women’s religious communities, who move in diplomatic circles, and who staff the various American institutions, such as the North American College, Santa Susanna and the Casa Santa Maria for priests doing graduate study.

Together, these Americans in Rome serve as a bridge, offering the fruits of American Catholic experience to the universal church, while bringing a more global perspective to the American situation.

Because of their Roman experience and connections, some of these Americans can be quite powerful. When the Vatican needs to make a decision that affects the United States, one or more of them often gets a call.

Oddly enough, Rome is also a terrific place to get to know the American church. Have lunch at the North American College on any given Sunday, and odds are you will find at least two or three bishops visiting from different parts of the country. Hang out around the Dunkin’ Donuts near the Trevi Fountain, or at the Pasquino Cinema in Trastevere, where they show movies in English, and you’ll rub shoulders with American Catholics from all walks of life.

For all these reasons, to understand American Catholicism, one must be acquainted with America on the Tiber.

Over the next few weeks, NCR will explore five zones of ecclesiastical life in Rome: the academic world, religious communities, the Vatican, the diplomatic corps and national institutions. In each, we’ll identify who the Americans are, the work they do and the influence they exercise. The aim is to present a comprehensive look at the American Catholic presence in the Eternal City.

Next week: The scholars.

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

National Catholic Reporter, February 15, 2002