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America on the Tiber

Institutions are islands of America in 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.

Although their Sunday collections pay the bills, few American Catholics have ever been inside one of the signature American institutions in Rome: the Villa Stritch, home to American diocesan priests, 26 of them at the moment, who work in the Vatican.

The residence, the only one of its kind in Rome, takes its name from the first American cardinal ever appointed to head a congregation of the curia, Cardinal Samuel Stritch of Chicago. It is, if truth be told, hardly a propitious memorial. Stritch was named to run the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in March 1958, set out for Rome on a boat, developed a blood clot, and died on May 25, 1958, without ever taking up his post.

The other national institutions include Santa Susanna, the American parish; the North American College, a home for seminarians; and the Casa Santa Maria, a residence for priests doing graduate study. The Casa Santa Maria also hosts a welcome center for American visitors.

These institutions exist, officially speaking, to serve Americans. But they also informally hold up a mirror on the American church, reflecting its values and traits to the rest of the world. For many Catholics here, especially decision-makers in the clerical ranks, much of what they know about American Catholicism is based on friendships with seminarians from the North American College or priests from the Villa Stritch, or from attending Santa Susanna.

In late February, NCR was given a tour of the Villa Stritch by Msgr. Michael Banach, a priest of Worcester, Mass., who works in the Secretariat of State and is the villa’s director; and Msgr. Salvatore Cordileone, of the San Diego diocese, who works in a church court called the Apostolic Signatura and who is the vice-director.

The original plan was that the villa, which opened in the spring of 1968, would offer both living quarters as well as guest space for visiting dignitaries. As the number of Americans in the curia grew, however, that second purpose was largely discarded.

“It’s a big rectory, minus the parish office,” is how Cordileone jokingly described the place.

The facility is composed of two buildings, identical except that the main building has a dining room, TV room and office on the ground floor, plus a chapel on the top floor.

Four Polish nuns from the Warsaw province of the Felician order use the first floor of the second building as a convent. The nuns perform household chores and help supervise local employees. In exchange, the U.S. bishops’ conference funds a Felician mission in Kenya.

By reputation, the Villa Stritch is a place where future bishops go to incubate. Some of the highest-profile members of the American hierarchy are former residents: Archbishop William Levada of San Francisco, who worked in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Archbishop Justin Rigali of St. Louis, who served variously in the Congregation for Bishops, the Secretariat of State and the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy; and Cardinal Edward Egan of New York, who was a judge on the Roman Rota.

When asked how many residents had become bishops, Cordileone paused, then said: “Less than half.” He obviously meant to play down the career track aspect, but “less than half” is still a higher percentage of men who go on to wear a bishop’s miter than most American rectories can claim.

Yet Banach said he doesn’t think about such things. “I always remember the line from Isaiah, ‘My ways are not your ways, says the Lord.’ Who knows what’s going to happen?”

Santa Susanna is separated from the Villa Stritch by only a few minutes on a Roman bus, but they move in different worlds. While talk around the lunch table at the villa is of the Vatican, the Paulist priests at Santa Susanna, Fr. Paul Robichaud and Fr. Greg Apparcel, handle the mundane pastoral tasks familiar to any American parish.

They have to work out Mass schedules, arrange weddings and baptisms, keep a religious education program running, and deal with the thorny problems of building maintenance and remodeling (always complicated by the Italian approach, which is eternally last-minute). The parish serves 190 families.

Santa Susanna also faces a host of uniquely Roman challenges. For one thing, there is a never-ending stream of American couples that want to get married in Rome, and guiding them through the ecclesiastical bureaucracy can be tricky.

Example: St. Peter’s Basilica has an unwritten rule that only people who have never before been married may celebrate a wedding there. Hence even Catholics who have completed the lengthy process of having a marriage annulled, and who are therefore considered to have never been married, may find themselves rebuffed.

Robichaud said that lay involvement in parish ministries, plus the warm and welcoming environment at Sunday liturgies, are the chief identifiers of the American approach at his parish. (Case in point: Santa Susanna, like many American parishes but atypically for Rome, invites worshipers to stop for coffee and rolls after the 10:30 a.m. Sunday Mass).

Meanwhile at the North American College, around 200 seminarians, drawn from some 85 dioceses, live together while studying at one of the various pontifical universities. The current rector is Msgr. Kevin McCoy, who told NCR in an interview at the time of his appointment in 2001 that he wants the North American College to be a “typical American seminary,” preparing men to go back into parish work.

He discourages talk of the North American College, as it is known, as a “bishop factory” or the “West Point of the American church.”

“If a guy can’t be happy going back and working as a parish priest the rest of his life, he shouldn’t be here,” McCoy said.

The Casa Santa Maria, the original location of the North American College and now in use as a residence for American priests doing graduate work, is two blocks away from the Trevi Fountain on the Via dell’Umiltà. Some 140 priests from 50-plus dioceses live there.

As with the Villa Stritch, a group of Polish religious women, in this case the Sister Servants of Mary Immaculate, assist with housekeeping, cooking and administration.

Msgr. Roger Roensch is the director of the Bishops’ Office for U.S. Visitors to the Vatican, which has its offices at the Casa Santa Maria. On Tuesdays Roensch offers tours, featuring both a stunning Baroque chapel and a slightly disorienting, massive oil portrait of Pius IX in the refectory.

(Pius IX welcomed the first class of Americans to Rome in 1859. He encouraged the erection of national colleges as a way of anchoring future leaders more firmly to Rome).

Robichaud said he believes Americans in Rome play an “evangelizing” role, offering their experience and achievements to the universal church.

“We think American Catholicism is lively, beautiful and dynamic,” Robichaud said. “We want people in the Vatican to see what we do.”

John Paul II often urges seminarians and clerics to “learn Rome,” internalizing its values and psychology. But perhaps, at Robichaud’s invitation, some Romans (whether by birth or by conviction) will also begin to “learn America.”

Who knows what sparks might fly?

This is the last of a series. John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, April 5, 2002