Fr. Bernard Healy
I recently celebrated early-morning Mass for a group of American seminarians. They were heading to the airport so as to fly back to their home dioceses after spending the past semester living in the Pontifical Irish College and attending classes at Rome’s Angelicum University.
During the homily I reminded them of the college’s motto, a phrase taken from the writings of St Patrick: Ut Christiani ita et Romani sitis – As you are Christians, so may you also be Romans! That was St Patrick’s prayer for the little flock of Christians that he evangelised on the edge of the known world.
But what does it mean to be a Roman? People can have some strange ideas about the life of students in Rome. I’ve met more than one person who thought that we all live cheek by jowl with the Holy Father in the Vatican Palace or in some kind of monastery.
At the opposite extreme, other people see the city as the home of the worst kind of clerical venality, politicking and immorality. The sins and failings of some along with the inevitable faults of any bureaucracy make Romanitas into a dirty word.
As I explained to those young men, I hoped that they would look back on their time in Rome as strengthening their priesthood by helping them know the Church as both Catholic and Apostolic.
By Catholic, we mean universal. During their time in Rome they got to know priests, seminarians, religious and lay people from every continent, some here temporarily for studies or other duties, others here permanently helping the Holy Father with his mission.
From their new friends they learned that the work and mission of the Church is much more varied than the experience of their own diocese or country. (This is something we also learn from our returned missionaries in Ireland.)
If you have the ears to hear, in Rome you will soon appreciate that the strengths and weaknesses of the local Church look very different in the context of a worldwide communion, and that the Pope’s ministry of teaching and service is directed, not at this or that individual country or problem, but at upholding and supporting the preaching of the fullness of the faith throughout the whole world.
The Mexican Archbishop Jorge Patrón Wong who has a special responsibility for seminaries made the point during a recent visit to the Irish College that our time in Rome is perhaps the one opportunity we have of learning from our brother priests what challenges the Church faces worldwide and what we ourselves might learn from each other’s experiences.
It should be clear that we have much to learn from the joy and intensity of the Faith as practised in so many other parts of the world, and that we in Ireland can warn the Catholic world about the importance of vigilance in safeguarding and the need to be prepared for the questions posed by secularisation.
That experience of dialogue also makes it clear how complicated a mission the Holy Father has in trying to keep up with the situation of the worldwide Church and how what might seem obvious in Dublin makes no sense to the Christians of Dar-Es-Salaam. Rome always invites us to take a broader and deeper perspective.
Rome is also the place where one can learn what it means for the Church to be apostolic. The diversity of the Church’s ‘Catholic’ dimension, would be meaningless without the common faith and hope we receive from the teaching of the Apostles. In 117AD, St Ignatius the Bishop of Antioch was being brought to the city of Rome to be martyred. As he was taken through Turkey he wrote letters to the churches of various cities advising them on doctrine and discipline.
However, writing to Rome, he saw no need to teach, for he knew that they had already been fully instructed by St Peter and St Paul just a few decades previously.
Despite all the changes that come with time and circumstance, the history of Christian Rome, with her heroes and villains, her saints and her sinners, ultimately testifies to the strength of faith that is rooted in what the Apostles have passed on, and that learns from the experience of the whole Catholic world.
For all its flaws, Rome is a unique opportunity to see what it is for many nations to be called into a genuine communion.