Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Lifting High the Cross

One summer my sister and I decided to tour Washington National Cathedral in D.C., a stupendous Episcopal church and, as it happens, dedicated to the honor of Sts. Peter and Paul. We drove around, looking for a parking space. Finally spying one, I offered to stand guard over it while she inched up alongside the car in front, preparing to parallel park.

Good move. As I planted myself possessively over our precious find, a mini-van halted directly behind her and in front of me. The passenger window slid open, and the driver called out, “That’s our space; we got here first!” “I’m sorry,” I pointed out, “we are in front of you.” “But we had our blinker on,” she barked.” We did too. I shook my head and stood my ground. She sputtered, “And you call yourself a Christian!” That was low. I snapped back, “‘Christian’ does not equal ‘doormat’!” She left.

Jesus did not allow himself to be bested when the integrity of his message was at stake. A Temple, moneychangers, and a whip come to mind. There came a time, though, when losing himself out of love was his message. He had already “emptied himself” by becoming human; then he “humbled himself, becoming obedient to death” (Phil. 2:6-7). His faithfulness to the truth of his identity and his mission led him to choose death, on a cross no less, and by doing so, save the world.

I’m afraid to be vulnerable. It leaves me open to possible abuse and exploitation. Even with an infinitely good God, it makes me feel powerless. That’s why I need the cross of Christ. I need a reminder of where vulnerability will surely take me and of the fact that it was a God, my God, who went there before me…and lives to tell the tale. This is where the Good News becomes Great News. He didn’t stop being vulnerable when he rose from the dead (think Eucharist), but his openness became undying life.

As for Christ, so for Christians. If the Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in us, that Spirit will give life to our mortal bodies, also (See Rom. 8:11). As we celebrated the Exaltation of the Cross a few days ago, we were reminded that the cross is triumphant because of the Resurrection, and it triumphs in those who believe: “This is the victory that has overcome the world: your faith” (1Jn. 5:4).

Elizabeth Scalia ("The Anchoress") reports that one day she made a decision to pray the Apostles’ Creed “mindfully” every day. “A remarkable thing happened,” she wrote. “I could feel my connection to Christ Jesus and His church strengthening. With my every assent I realized I was connecting with, and conforming to, God’s giant and ongoing “YES,” which formed and sustains all of creation.” This kind of "yes" gave wings also to journalist James Foley. Commenting on his Libyan captivity in Tripoli, he wrote in the Marquette Magazine: “If nothing else, prayer was the glue that enabled my freedom, an inner freedom first and later the miracle of being released….”

“No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily” (Jn. 10:18). This is said in a unique way about the God-Man, but also in an ordinary sort of way about each of us. Could my sister and I have relinquished that coveted parking spot? Of course. Did the other driver need to hear what Christianity is and is not? Yes. It was unjust for her to demand—and in the name of Christ—what we had a right to. Likewise, for us to give it up out of coercion, even in the name of Christ, would have been dysfunctional. Only freedom makes love possible. Paul wrote that Christ was his law (See 1Cor. 9:21). So, love leads me to imitate Jesus Christ, not just conform to a law. My course of action may be the same. My decision will be made, however, not out of indignation, but in love.

M. Thecla once encouraged the Daughters of St. Paul at the Queen of Apostles Clinic, saying:

M. Thecla with Fr. Alberione & FSP, Albano, 1959
“To love God is to do his will, and to do the will of God and love God is sanctity. In these days, at the end of the Divine Office, this antiphon is always sung: ‘The Lord Jesus was obedient unto death and to death on a cross’ (cf. Phil. 2:8). And for this obedience ‘God…gave him the name which is above all other names… (Phil. 2:9). Behold the obedience of Jesus! Let us follow Jesus!
“May we have this holy ambition of ascending high in heaven, right there where we hope they’ve written our names. We have sought only the Lord. And we continue to seek him, even if we sometimes deviate a little. Let’s go straight ahead, seeking the Lord, his will, sanctity and the love of God” (April 1, 1961).
How do you feel drawn to exalt the cross of Christ in your “ordinary sort of way”?
Margaret J. Obrovac, FSP, originally from San Francisco, has been a Pauline evangelizer since 1973 and has worked in various phases of the mission of the Daughters of St. Paul. Since attending the nine-month Charism Course in Rome in 2012-2013, she is now based in Boston, where she serves on the provincial Cooperator Team in the area of ongoing formation.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Setting Off Fireworks

This article was first published earlier today on the Association of Pauline Cooperators blog (http://PaulineLaity.blogspot.com).

In Redwood City the Daughters were really avant-garde. We had to be. After all, this was California! In 2007 our media techie, Sr. Domenica, scraped together some funds to buy a screen for our Pauline Books & Media Center, so we could show promo videos we made locally about our titles. They weren’t spit and polish, but they were attention grabbing. And people responded. 

So, when Michael Waldstein completed a new translation of the Wednesday General Audiences that Pope John Paul had delivered on his Theology of the Body, on-screen promotion was a given. Author George Weigel had once called the Pope’s series a “theological time bomb.” We knew we had published a monumental work in Man and Woman He Created Them, and we wanted to set off fireworks.

Perched atop a stool next to an instore display of the book, I told the camera that this was a must-have—challenging, but well worth the effort. Spontaneously, enthusiastically, to the camera’s utter delight, I described the features and read a passage or two. This was John Paul’s masterpiece: his Christian approach to anthropology, with unique insights into relationships and human sexuality, especially in connection with marriage. Since the presentation was unscripted, I hesitated at times, looking for the words that could do it justice. It didn’t take long, though, for me to hit my stride, and the finished product was presentable, if not professional. The camera, of course, agreed.

Soon after, our provincial superior and another sister were visiting from Boston. As they looked around the new PBM Center, they became engrossed in shelving, layout, and lighting. Sr. Margaret’s papal eloquence was soon ignored as white noise.

“And, if you’re like me and you’re not married, don’t despair!” Startled by my intensity, our two visitors spun around to face the screen. What on earth is Margaret saying now? Is she starting a dating service?

“It’s not that this doesn’t have anything to do with us,” I continued. “It does. There are at least fifty pages on what John Paul II calls ‘Continence for the Kingdom of Heaven.’” If you know what I mean.

If you don’t, allow me: It means that not even celibates miss out on the Theology of the Body. To live a healthy, integrated, and holy life, we’d better not! True, Man and Woman He Created Them is mostly about sexuality in marriage. One of its benefits, though, is its invitation also to those of us vowed to celibate chastity to understand the physical, psychological, and spiritual dimensions of our sexuality in the light of God’s Word. As we do, we can esteem even more how it weaves into our relationships with God, our communities, our families and friends, and the people we serve…here and hereafter. This consecrated chastity then becomes the gift that not only God gives us, but that we give back to him and to the world in which we live. It’s a world that, even without realizing it, is waiting for just such a message.

This past July 9-11, seven hundred laity, clergy, and religious turned out to share that message at the annual Theology of the Body Congress in Philadelphia. Go to www.tobcongress.com for photos and news. Ascension Press is now selling CDs of the talks online. Paulines also lent a hand at the Congress, especially through the publications that first helped detonate such a “theological time bomb” over three decades ago.

Though a great event in its own right, the gathering served as a kind of dry run for the Eighth World Meeting of Families, to be held in Philadelphia in September 2015. Archbishop Chaput has invited Pope Francis. We’re keeping our fingers crossed.

Whether you’re a Pauline Cooperator or a consecrated member of the Pauline Family, John Paul’s Theology of the Body can spark something new in the way you see yourself and your relationships. Set off a Roman candle of your own from Pauline Books & Media

OK, here it is—the nine-minute video now on YouTube. What ideas do you think John Paul might have for you or someone you know? 


Margaret J. Obrovac, FSP, originally from San Francisco, has been a Pauline evangelizer since 1973 and has worked in various phases of the mission of the Daughters of St. Paul. Since attending the nine-month Charism Course in Rome in 2012-2013, she is now based in Boston, where she serves on the provincial Cooperator Team in the area of ongoing formation. 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Stuffing Our Jars

An “inventory” of sorts has recently been re-shared over 6,700 times on Facebook: “Fill an empty jar with notes about good things that happen. Then on New Year’s Eve…see what awesome stuff happened this year.” One of our sisters said that her cousin and husband did that in 2013 and accumulated a box worth.

As we begin 2014, we want to tell you that you’re in our box! Any particular reason? Well, for starters, in the past three months we held two fundraising campaigns: a Webathon in October for several development projects of our publishing house that had been on hold because of a lack of funds, plus a drive to support the outreach by our sisters in the Philippines in the wake of last month’s typhoon. The Webathon brought in $28,487.10, and the collection for the Philippines, $16,065. Neither would have succeeded without your generosity and commitment to the Church’s mission of evangelization that you and we all share. To you, hearing that you and your families are in our prayers may seem unnecessary, but to us, saying it is like emptying that jar (or box) in wonder.

Sr. Noemi Vinoya, FSP provincial superior of the Philippines, says that not even that suffices “to express the gratitude we feel in our hearts.” Sr. Carmel Galula is especially inspired by the young people “repacking the relief goods for Tacloban! The youth are our hope, and working with them makes the ‘Bayanihan’ spirit – the spirit of volunteerism that Filipinos exhibit…even in non-emergency situations that call for a sense of community – very much alive.”

Several of the sisters involved in the relief effort described the experience as a life-changer. “God has visited us through the strong winds and surge of water,” writes Sr. Rosalinda. “He allowed me to suffer with him in the midst of chaos and pain” that others were suffering. “It was indeed an experience of purification and conversion.” Sr. Antonietta agrees and adds: “I have realized that God is our Father, for he never abandons us in the midst of sufferings.”

Sr. Pinky (Purificación) Barrientos works in the media office of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines and has been one of my principal contacts for accurate and timely information. Sunday she wrote to me:

    “We are truly grateful for the show of support that you and the sisters and the generous donors have given to our sisters in Tacloban and to the people who have been greatly affected by the typhoon. Indeed the show of solidarity from everyone all over the world is absolutely overwhelming, that it makes me choke with emotion. Every time I read anything that has to do with people affected by Yolanda and people who are helping them, emotions well up in me and tears just roll.

    “But the survivors’ strong spirit and determination to overcome is also a source of inspiration for all of us, especially when some petty difficulties sometimes tend to make us lose our bearings, and we grumble about life.

    “May we continue to pray for one another as we also remember all those whom the Lord has entrusted to us through our common Pauline vocation.”
As “luck” would have it, one of the Tacloban sisters was in Manila when the typhoon struck. She was able to funnel donations she received for Tacloban through the archdiocesan office of Palo, which is near the city. A few weeks ago, three other sisters began to clean and salvage what they could in the media center and convent, readying it for the replacement of the roof. Funds permitting, they plan to completely rebuild at a later date. They realize that renovating now would be insensitive to those who still don’t even have a roof over their heads. Since four Daughters of St. Paul and the Cooperators are the only Pauline presence in the Easter Visayas, they have every intention of regrouping and continuing their mission there.

Even though we closed the fundraising project Sunday, if you’d still like to donate, click here. Your donation will be dropped directly into a fund that our superior general has set up in Rome for the Filipino sisters to draw from for the people, the Cooperators, and, when possible, themselves. As you launch a new year, may your sacrifice pack your jar to overflowing, as Jesus promised.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Filipino Comeback

How many nuns does it take to change a baby?
One month after the largest typhoon on record hit the Philippines, most of the world has moved on to other emergencies, public and private. For that country, though, “normal” has forever been relativized. About 80% of the city of Tacloban, capital of the province of Leyte, was destroyed by wind and six-foot tall waves. As of last week (Nov. 30), 5,632 people have died, 1,759 remain missing, over 26,000 sustain injuries, and 4 million nationwide are displaced. How does a country, in which four percent of its population was directly hit, go back to “normalcy”? That’s comparable to the U.S. “moving on” while the entire states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama are devastated and displaced: in other words, Katrina, only worse.

If nothing else, the nation is resilient, and I think I know its secret. As Japan stood as a witness of dignity and decency before the world in the aftermath of its earthquake and tsunami, so now the Philippines offers an enviable example of collaboration and community:

· Thousands of “orphans of Yolanda”  are being abused and exploited in a country that scores as one of the highest incidences of human trafficking in the world. However, since the need for vigilance will last for several months, skilled social workers from the Preda Foundation and other religious and humanitarian organizations supplement government initiatives on site to protect these children.

· On Nov. 30, three hundred religious, clergy, and laity attended a daylong lecture in Manila on “Psychological First Aid, Debriefing, Counseling and Coaching.” The event was a joint project of the National Secretariat for Social Action (NASSA) and Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines (AMRSP). It was designed as part of a program of training religious volunteers in post-disaster intervention. Many had initially been coached to begin serving the first waves of evacuees mostly from the province of Leyte and its capital, Tacloban.

· Communities and organizations are using their resources and areas of expertise in the service of the needy: Salesians, the Order of Malta, Guanellians, Jesuits, Caritas, Catholic Relief Services, and hundreds of women religious, including—I’m proud to say—Daughters of St. Paul.

· Foreign NGOs that already collaborate with local ones, such as Manos Unidas from Spain and BCDI from the Bicol region of the Philippines, mobilized as first responders. Others joined forces with Filipino organizations both under, or independently from, Catholic auspices. The Catholic Church in the U.S. has dropped $20 million into the collection basket, no doubt with more to follow.
FSPs join in training for emergency counseling.
I could go on. Much of the efficiency in this collaboration and sense of community stems from a grassroots spirit of initiative. As one Filipino bishop cautioned in addressing criticism of government inaction due to corruption, this is not the time for pointing fingers, but for helping each other. The government could be dealt with later.

To paraphrase St. Paul the Apostle: Where evil has abounded, good news is abounding even more (cf. Rom. 5:20).

All this makes even more ludicrous the statement of a Filipina media professional, who spoke at a conference I attended a few years ago. Her message: The Church has to relinquish control of the Filipino people. To progress, they must get out from under the thumb of the Catholic Church.


She mentioned two areas of concern: population control and influencing the media. It would not surprise me if she was one of those, who in these weeks has exploited the typhoon to buttress this agenda. Some activists have taken authorities’ comments  about supplying people with food out of context, to advance the notion that if the Philippines had fewer people, fewer would have died! Why stop at limiting births, then? Why not extend that population control to those with disabilities, since such people suffered double the mortality rate of the rest of the population?

While a coalition of Churches, media, and educational institutions might do more to carve out a place for natural family planning in the culture, it won’t go anywhere if it’s trumpeted as a safeguard against the aftereffects of natural disaster. In addition, as an interesting blog post by the Population Research Institute points out, access to contraception, promoted by the government’s Reproductive Health Bill, is not the panacea to either overpopulation or maternal mortality. “The Philippines has a contraceptive prevalence rate of 51% and a maternal mortality rate of 209 deaths for every 100,000 births. Japan, a developed country, has an almost identical contraceptive prevalence rate, at 54%.  But Japan has one of the lowest maternal mortality rates in the world, suffering only 5 maternal deaths per every 100,000 births. To repeat, Filipinos are not dying from a lack of so-called ‘modern contraception.’ They are dying from a lack of real health care.”

In one of the most densely populated nations on the planet, collaboration is key to survival, communion is the secret to life. In a place where “family” extends beyond those dwelling under the same roof, there is always room for one more person. As long as it treasures life, the Philippines will always bounce back from every challenge.
                                                                                                                                   This Advent we might pray in solidarity with the Philippines in the light of the season's

Marian celebrations. The Immaculate Conception, deferred this year to Dec. 9, and Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12 are feasts of an expectant Mother. Hope, new life, salvation, contemplative, yet active waiting, and the faith-filled cry for justice and compassion bring her figure into sharp relief for every believer who seeks to live the gift of faith in a world with more questions than answers, in sure hope of the day when we “will have no more questions to ask” (Jn. 16:23).

Our sisters in the Philippines offer their grateful prayers of thanks for all of you who have

donated to their relief efforts, either by mail or online at pauline.org/givehope. To date, you have given $7,562 to a fundraising campaign that will last until Epiphany, Jan. 5. Your donations have already been sent to our generalate in Rome, where our superior general has set up a fund for our sisters in the Philippines to draw from directly. Their priorities are the families of our collaborators, co-workers, Pauline Cooperators, and sisters, who have lost everything. The sisters intend to return to Tacloban once the roof at least has been replaced. This will give them a sufficiently stable living and working space until they can rebuild. The Daughters and the Cooperators are the only Pauline presence in the Eastern Visayas, a group of islands in east-central Philippines. Meanwhile, the Daughters of St. Paul in Manila are reaching out especially to evacuees, participating in local programs and connecting them also to the Pauline mission, with reading, material support, and their faith-filled presence. If you would like to donate, click here. Your contribution will enable the sisters to continue bringing hope in God to all those they minister to.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Standing With Syria

Paul, the fearless Apostle, would weep. The world’s superpower is poised to bomb the home of his beloved Damascus and Antioch, where he first encountered the risen Christ and first learned to evangelize. Unless I’m projecting, though, what would wrench his heart is the youth. Two weeks ago, UN Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, reported that one million children now constitute half of all the refugees from Syria. Add to that two million displaced children within the country and you have what he calls the “enormous risk” of a “lost generation”: “We see the trauma, we see many that are unable to speak, that have a broken sleep, that have strange forms of behaviour. At the same time when we look at adolescence [sic] we see anger. This anger is not only bad for themselves, it’s a danger for the future of the society. For the future of the region.” Both UNHCR and UNICEF pleaded with all “parties to the conflict [to] stop targeting civilians and cease recruitment of children” (UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency, http://bit.ly/15IS1Xn, Aug. 23, 2013).

What will happen to the defenseless if the U.S. begins air strikes on targets that the Syrian government is now embedding within civilian populations? What will happen to the young we say we want to protect?

Myla's memorial plaque,
FSP burial chapel, Boston
Twenty-four year old Army Sgt. Myla Maravillosa was our friend and even before signing on with the military had begun her pre-entrance process with the Daughters of St. Paul. She planned to join our community once her tour of duty in Iraq was over. On Dec. 3, 2005, she wrote from Iraq to our vocation director, “The Daughters of St. Paul is my life and I’m forever grateful that God has given me that kind of gift.” Weeks later, on Christmas Eve, she was killed in action after her Humvee came under attack by rocket-propelled grenades. She was her mother’s only child.

Now we’re moving in that violent direction again.

Pending President Obama’s decision next Monday to either initiate or forego military action in Syria, Pope Francis has called all Catholics to make Sept. 7 a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria. He will open St. Peter’s Square for a vigil from 7:00 P.M. to midnight and has invited us to join him. He urged the Church and the world “forcefully” to “dialogue and negotiation, for the good of the entire Syrian people” and to “lay down their weapons and be let themselves be led by the desire for peace.” (http://bit.ly/1dYyWdT).

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said today, “As our nation’s leaders contemplate military action, it is particularly appropriate and urgent that we in the United States embrace the Holy Father’s call to pray and fast on September 7 for a peaceful end to the conflict in Syria and to violent conflicts everywhere” (http://usccb.org/news/2013/13-157.cfm).

The Pope invited “each person, including our fellow Christians, followers of other religions and all men of good will, to participate, in whatever way they can, in this initiative….Humanity needs to see these gestures of peace and to hear words of hope and peace! I ask all the local churches, in addition to fasting, that they gather to pray for this intention.”

In a letter to Pope Francis, the Grand Mufti of Syria, Ahmad Badreddin Hassou, spiritual leader of Sunni Isalm, expressed “profound gratitude for his spiritual attention” together with the desire to “be with the Pope the moment when the prayer will be raised to God Almighty…We will be together on September 7, to raise our plea to God.” In addition, he proposed that the Holy See “organize a spiritual summit with religious leaders in Damascus or in the Vatican: so maybe we can stop the fire of those who want to destroy the land of Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad.” (Fides Agency, http://bit.ly/14v3smk).
It is easy to pave the way for air strikes on Syria, but it is difficult to end the war and the consequences of these attacks throughout the Middle East….Everywhere, in Syria and outside Syria, the faithful are praying to ward off an attack by foreign countries against Syria and in order to build peace in the whole region. We all pray that our Lord Jesus Christ enlightens the minds of the people in power, so that they act according to justice and peace, for the sake of human beings (Eustathius Matta Roham, Syro-Orthodox Metropolitan Archbishop, quoted by Fides Agency, http://bit.ly/14v3Fpx).
In this same article, a Syrian Catholic bishop commented ruefully, “The most dramatic thing has been the absence of any form of dialogue in the last three years, while anguish and despair inhabit these people.”

Down what path will our elected officials lead us? With our consent? We take pride in being a “peaceful people.” We need to look in the mirror. Does that self-perception match reality? With violence in our streets, violence in our schools, violence in our video games, TV screens and movie theaters, violence in our homes, violence in our clinics and skilled nursing facilities; with bullying in offices and on playgrounds, with verbal abuse and machismo, is it any wonder we feel tempted to ride into countries around the world with guns blazing and attempt to force them to resolve their problems on our terms and to our benefit?

And to our benefit it is—or at least of some among us. The groups that stand to profit the most from another war are industrialists and investors. Although government can ill afford the military’s price tag, a struggling economy would get a boost from vehicle, aircraft, and munitions manufacturing and computer systems development, as well as a host of supplemental “services.” It is these, not diplomacy, that finance political campaigns. 

Iraq had a thriving Christian community and culture 2,000 years old. Yes,  intervention toppled a dictator, but it left a vacuum in which those less tolerant of Christianity made believers’ lives so difficult, that now, less than ten years later, families have been displaced, the Christian voice has been effectively silenced, and that culture has been all but obliterated—as Blessed John Paul II had predicted. The Catholic hierarchy in Asian and North African countries have recently come under fire from the international community for opposing military intervention that would supposedly make their nations “safe for democracy.” When we see the Iraqi scenario repeated, we can hardly blame them. 

There are more than just two options—military strikes and “doing nothing.” Diplomacy could be considered an option, given the significant defections by the Syrian military and international outrage over the actions of Syrian leaders. A government without the support of the military will implode. Moreover, success following unilateral action by the U.S. is illusory, the fantasy of cinema and unworthy of the world’s superpower.

What can I do?
1. Fast and pray, especially on Saturday, Sept. 7, either alone, or if possible, at whatever vigils are offered on a local level in concert with the vigil in St. Peter’s Square that night.
2. Fast also from entertainment for the day to get informed. The major TV networks and their Web sites are only one source of information. Listen to the voices that are less heard and less considered by the world’s power brokers (and in spite of prevailing cultural “wisdom,” those voices include the Vatican’s); they reflect other facets of the truth. Search beyond those whose ideas naturally mesh with yours. The Web pages cited in this article are a good place to start.
3. In view of what you learn and in the light of the Gospel, re-examine your own attitude toward violence as a solution to conflict.
4. Write to elected officials to stand down. You can find your U.S. Representative and Senators at
5. If you know of a Syrian immigrant or family, even if you don’t know them well, knock on their door or leave them a note to express your prayerful solidarity, regardless of their religious affiliation. (Remember how touched the Grand Mufti was by the outreach of Pope Francis.)
6. Review your investment portfolio. Which stock or bond sources deal in armaments? Move your investments today into health care or other equally profitable funding sources.

7. Share this blog article with others.

Any other ideas? Share them with me in a comment below.
Let us ask Mary to help us to respond to violence, to conflict and to war, with the power of dialogue, reconciliation and love. She is our mother: may she help us to find peace; all of us are her children! Help us, Mary, to overcome this most difficult moment and to dedicate ourselves each day to building in every situation an authentic culture of encounter and peace. Mary, Queen of Peace, pray for us! (Pope Francis)

This is my last article in Pauline Faithways, our mission advancement (development) blog. Since I have now been assigned to working in the ongoing formation of the Pauline Cooperators—besides completing a number of writing projects and a translation—you’ll be able to find me at http://paulinelaity.blogspot.com, the blog of the North American branch of the Association of Pauline Cooperators. I’ll write every six weeks, while others will write more often. I can continue to keep you on my e-mail list, unless, as always, you prefer to access the post yourself. Thank you for your attention, your comments (posted publicly or sent to me privately), and your financial response over the past four years. It’s been grand!

Saturday, March 2, 2013

In Benedict’s Classroom

When Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope eight years ago, I told people who asked for my impressions that I looked forward to being surprised. I never imagined it would be this! Even if I had, I never would have thought I would be right in the middle of it. Yet here it is, and here I am.
I had a bird's eye view Sunday at the Angelus
I also told you in my last article that I wouldn’t be blogging regularly unless “something happens that might interest you.” You’ve had your pick of blogs and broadcasts, tweets and timelines surrounding the conclusion of the first papacy of the social media era. I wondered what I could offer you that hasn’t been put out there ten thousand times already.

Whenever I’ve gone out of the house in these last couple of weeks, people have wanted to talk. That’s normally not a problem, except that now it’s usually in Italian, so with my limited vocabulary, communicating is more of a toussle. Still, we’ve managed:
• The Carabiniera (Italy’s version of Homeland Security) who worries that the pope might be abandoning his vocation, the Church, and by association, her;
• A pharmacist in the neighborhood, who smells something foul in the air;
• The chiropractor, who perceives a new path for Church ministry, but wonders about the precedent it sets and how it affects our sense of fidelity to promises made;
• The theologian-friend, who anguishes over the questions it raises and who, as he continues to foster his deep relationship with God in prayer, will see himself in the questions he asks—if he hasn’t already.

Through these encounters I’ve stepped into the Pope’s classroom. The theme of his magisterium, or teaching role in the Church, is being repeated by one person after another.

A charism course presenter, Fr. Roberto Roveran, SSP, for instance, began class the day after the Pope’s announcement by inviting us to learn from what we’re picking up all around us. He sees in Benedict’s renunciation of the Petrine ministry, “not a retreat, but an openness to modernity. In this, too, he’s exercising a true magisterium. John Paul II showed the world his humanity by carrying the cross to the end. So is Benedict.”

When George Rutler writes that the ministry of the pope is not “indelible,” (see the end of this article) or as my theologian-friend says, “It’s not a vocation”—certainly not in the same way that states in life are—they’re reminding us that setting down the crosier is always a possibility. At the same time, Benedict remains a bishop, which means that, following his vocation, he will continue to teach the world.

One of our sisters in the U. S. e-mailed me:
“I totally think it [the renunciation] is keeping with his creative streak. What I mean is that first of all he is a theologian, and that is the job description of a theologian: find different ways to present truth and at times dig out truth from long forgotten corners, brush it off and present it to a contemporary people.
     “His role as a theologian has developed a mindset in him to openly analyze the truth in relation to the past and the present. A theologian is given to creative insight that most of us just don’t discover. I think that is partly why he was willing to make the decision. Reaching back to the past, he developed an unprecedented solution, at least in terms of the last few centuries. He remained faithful to being original, flexible, honest, and therefore, creative.”
Sr. Bernadette and me with don Rocca
History bears this out, too. In my estimation, the centerpiece of this blog article is in following written interview I had with Pauline historian Fr. Giancarlo Rocca, whom I introduced you to in my last article. The insights into our own community’s story that he integrates with recent events give us a way to live these moments in our Church with both trust and a personal sense of responsibility:

PF: One Catholic news source said that throughout the Church’s history so far, four popes have resigned. The most recent took place in the fifteenth century. Besides the modern context, what makes this one different?

“Judging from the numerous cases—many more than four* —in which pontiffs have resigned or were forced to resign from their ministry, I think that that the issues are varied and can be grouped into three broad categories: politics, personal motivations, and problems linked to issues within the Church.

“Those in the political category are the most easily identified. Until around the year 1000, there were several cases of forced resignation, when emperors decided to depose and exile popes, who at times named a successor. This was the case with Clement I, martyr and saint, Pontian, Silverius, and Benedict IX, not to mention the “anti-popes” elected, again for political reasons, like Felix (who replaced the legitimate Pope Liberius) and then later on, with Sylvester III and Gregory VI.

“The case of Celestine V (1209?-1296) is different. He is the pope certainly best known for his resignation, after holding the office of Peter for less than four months. His case was not political, but personal, religious. Celestine V was a hermit, loved solitude, realized that the culture of the Roman Curia was not for him, wanted to return to his cell, and so, chose to abdicate.

“Different still are the many cases of “anti-popes” during the so-called Avignon Papacy. These were deposed by the various councils of the time (Pisa and Constance in the 15th century), as in the case of Gregory XII vs. John XXIII.** Though they involved the civil powers of the time, these cases were due to strife within the Church.

“Despite the health factor, Pope Benedict XVI’s renunciation of the Petrine ministry is certainly closer to that of Celestine V. It almost seems that Benedict XVI has confirmed what he had said on the occasion of the famous Via Crucis, before being elected pope: the Church is stained and needs to be purified. I have tried to do what I could, according to my possibilities and my strength. Now that my powers have diminished, it is up to you. The Church is you too.”

PF: Some, like John Paul II’s former secretary, Cardinal Stanislaus Dziwisz, have suggested that, by renouncing his office, Pope Benedict is “coming down from the cross”—whether that cross is the burden of office, of accountability before the world, or of old age. What is your reading of the event?

“Cardinal Dziwisz has made it clear he did not at all intend to criticize the position taken by Pope Benedict XVI. When it comes to key issues in our lives, our decisions weigh heavy on us, too, as does the inevitable loneliness connected with them. We have to make these decisions for ourselves, knowing that others may or may not understand. That risk remains, as does the potential for second thoughts. In other words, the cross weighs heavy, perhaps even heavier.

“Personally, I think that the decision of Pope Benedict XVI brings us face-to-face with our responsibilities. In this sense, it doesn’t pay to discuss why Pope Benedict XVI decided to resign. Indeed, regardless of his motivations, the question for us is: What does this resignation mean for us? What I mean by that is, the wisdom of the ages is still valid: We can benefit from everything that happens to us. Like the Greek god Hermes, we wield  a magic wand that can profitably turn whatever happens to us—health, disease, friendships, disappointments, anything—into gold.”

PF: Has a papal resignation ever solved any problems of the Church in the world? Will Benedict’s renunciation help to iron out any difficulties that believers face today? Is there a hopeful sign in what he has decided to do?

“Voluntary or involuntary, the resignation of popes throughout history has not changed the character of the Church in which, Jesus said, the wheat and the weeds grow together until harvest. Good and evil are always mixed. An intervention helps to diminish evil in its excesses, not to eradicate it completely. Evil exists because there is good. If evil were to triumph, evil would destroy everything, including itself, and there would be nothing. Life goes on, and the Church goes on, just because goodness is still in the majority.

“There are times, however, when evil is too much and a strong jolt is needed. It’s a little like our personal lives, when things get as low as they can go; then from the bottom of the well, life surges, and downfall is transformed into renewal.”

Fr. Alberione with John XXIII
PF: Fr. Alberione’s attachment to the pope was notable, even, some might say, extreme in its expression, at least to modern ears. For example, in a 1955 sermon to the Daughters of St. Paul, he urged the sisters (and all Paulines) to “have a papal mentality.” How are we to interpret this today?

“I would say that Fr. Alberione did not hesitate to accept the decisions of the pope, even when some of his requests were not agreed to. For example, between 1921 and 1927, he constantly proposed, as a characteristic of his men and women religious, the vow of fidelity to the pope (like the Jesuits), but the then-Sacred Congregation for Religious objected that such a vow was unnecessary, since it was included in the vow of obedience. Alberione acquiesced; his adherence to the pontiff and that of his institutes was unquestioned.

“He was able, however, to distinguish between the pontiff’s direct intervention and the workings of the Curia, or better, of the different Roman Congregations with which he dealt. Lover of history that he was, he knew that they could modify their opinion with a change in circumstances and persons. When he had the opportunity, Fr. Alberione worked to again clarify his ideas even to the ecclesiastical authorities. This is how the vow of fidelity to the pope was reintroduced into the Pauline Constitutions.

“The same thing happened regarding the apostolate of the press, which in the 1920’s the Sacred Congregation for Religious considered inappropriate for a religious congregation. It’s still this way for other issues, but then again, this is how it is for many other founders and saints.”

PF: Pure speculation here, but would you hazard a guess anyway: How do you think Fr. Alberione would have reacted, responded, in our day to the news of Benedict’s resignation? How do you think he would have engaged us in the mission to “confirm the faith” of the Church?

“I think that a certain event in the life of Fr. Alberione can offer us a way of responding to the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. It happened that the Holy See intervened very forcefully in the life of one of his institutes. This is how Alberione reacted, and he recommended that his religious do the same: 1) The Holy See has intervened, as we all know. The fact is undeniable. 2) It is useless to talk about why and how the Holy See has decided to intervene in our lives, losing much time and energy with inevitable gossip and discussion. 3) Rather, let us see what this intervention, which makes us suffer, can teach us, seeing if we did what we could.

“It seems to me that Alberione’s reaction can tell us how he would have reacted to the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI: 1) We all know that he resigned and wanted to resign. 2) It’s useless to talk about why and how he decided to do this. 3) Let us see if we have done what we could and if his resignation does not require us to examine our conscience.”

I’ve started to make that particular examen of conscience, just processing the thoughts and feelings of these days, listening for the Spirit’s message that will make me more like Jesus. Unlike some of the superficial reactions I’ve run across, truth takes center stage here, if I allow God’s presence—now comforting, now disconcerting—to reveal itself through those events and through my response. This is magisterium at its most personal level.

Yesterday evening I heard on Radio Vaticana that Pope Benedict would post his last tweet (see right sidebar) and close his Twitter account at 5:00, just before climbing into the helicopter that would take him to the papal residence at Castel Gandolfo for the duration of the Church’s transition. So a few minutes after 5, I ventured out onto the terrace of our generalate in the southwest section of Rome and waited with rosary in hand. Soon enough, I spotted the helicopter rise above the horizon over Vatican City. It flew toward us, then circled slowly over the city before heading southeast to the Alban Hills. I hoped he knew I was praying for him; I knew he was praying for me—after a long day in the classroom.

I’ve found several online and print resources on Pope Benedict XVI at www.news.va, at the U.S. bishops’ Web site and at the “Legacy” page of the Daughters of St. Paul site. John Allen’s blog, All Things Catholic, is a perennially reliable commentary, sizzling with the immediacy of a journalist in Rome. Brother Aloysius Milella, SSP, (Br. Al) sent me the link to an article by George Rutler, “Benedict’s Decision in the Light of Eternity,” which he considers one of the better articles out there. I agree.
* A list of pontiffs who left office can be found in the Annuario Pontificio, or Pontifical Yearbook. In addition, a wealth of information is contained in the various encyclopedias on the history of the papacy.
** Obviously this is not the John XXIII of the Second Vatican Council. This one was deposed 600 years earlier. His rival, the legitimate Pope Gregory XII, resigned for the unity of the Church, paving the way for the election of Martin V, who actually restored unity.
St. Peter's Square; don Rocca: Margaret J. Obrovac, FSP
Jesus before Pilate: Courtesy of www.StainedGlassInc.com.
Fr. Alberione with John XXIII: www.alberione.org/operaomnia  

Friday, February 1, 2013

Paper Mates

It’s crunch time at the Charism Course here in Rome. After an eight-day retreat last week, we rounded the bend and began the second half of the course, which will take us to the end of May. Besides class each weekday, homework, three hours of prayer, and community commitments, there hovers over us The Thesis.

Sr. Germana & Sr. Bernadette
Depending on your perspective, it’s actually either a mini-thesis or a glorified paper. It’s supposed to consist of a minimum of 25 pages, single-spaced. In fact, we can look forward to a class on the formatting requirements. Sr. Bernadette Mary Reis, an American FSP who is serving now in our International Multimedia Center near the Vatican, e-mailed me her 111-page behemoth from six years ago. This way, provided the requirements are the same, I just have to type over hers, after I make a copy for bedtime reading once I go Stateside.

It just so happens that I picked the same adviser she had—Pauline historian Don Giancarlo Rocca. A prolific writer for the past fifty years, he was co-author and director of the ten-volume Dictionary of the Institutes of Perfection back in the 70’s and director of the magazine, Madre di Dio, for six years. His rigorous scholarship and no-nonsense approach to work are legendary. Thank God he has a great sense of humor…and he reads English. We also had him for thirty hours of classes on the history of the Pauline Family. So I know something of what I’m getting into—I think.

Sr. M. Grazia
I’m telling you right now, there’s no way I’m going to churn out 111 pages! Maybe 110, but no more. This afternoon Bernadette coached me on taking research notes using an Excel worksheet. I’ll be forever grateful. Still, I teased that she’ll be a tough act to follow; Rocca has not forgotten her. Her research covered the thought behind Bl. James Alberione’s book, Woman Associated With Priestly Zeal, seen within the context of the feminist movement in Italy. Mine is much less daunting: “The Donor as Pauline Cooperator: History, Charism, Future.” According to Sr. Maria Grazia Gabelli, who works in the Daughters’ International Secretariat for Spirituality, no one here has ever written anything on the topic, and both she and Don Rocca see a need for it. They’ll be my ticket to the archives of the FSP and the SSP. Through contacts and friends, I’ve already been able to get access to some resources in English and Italian at various places, including the Gregorian University Library. We’ll see what really emerges.

What I know will happen is already happening. Besides learning, I’m growing in a real reverence for those who’ve preceded me in the Pauline Family. I sense within myself a deeper appreciation for the complexity of our history and our current reality. Above all, I’m constantly amazed at how Jesus Master has stuck with us, guided, forgiven, and encouraged us, just as he promised to the first Paulines in a dream-vision to Fr. Alberione: “Do not be afraid; I am with you. From here (from the Eucharist) I want to enlighten. Live with a penitent heart.”

What all this means, “Gentle Reader,” is that given the demands, I won’t be able to continue regularly with Pauline Faithways until the end of June. If I manage to get a moment here and there and if something happens that might interest you, based on your survey answers last year, I’ll post it and notify the people on my e-mail list. If you’d like me to add you to that list, send me a note at pearlmjo@gmail.com. Many thanks for the comments you’ve already sent, either here on the blog or in my e-mail box. Thank you for your suggestions, encouragement, and prayers. And, especially next Tuesday, Feb. 5, when the Pauline Family gathers to remember co-foundress Venerable Thecla Merlo 49 years after her death: my prayers for you as you evangelize, passing along some part of the Good News to family and friends.

Friday, January 18, 2013

St. Paul's Housewarming

One day during Christmas break, I was wandering the roads less traveled in Rome’s historic district until I finally ended up on the congested via del Corso. I came across the church, Santa Maria in via Lata, which was open, since it was later in the afternoon. So I decided to stop in for a short visit. It had been twelve years since I had been there, and it already carried a special memory for me. Little did I know that I was about to make another memory that would dwarf just about every other spiritual or sentimental connection I had with the place.

I already knew that it was built over the rooms that according to tradition, served as St. Paul’s living quarters while he was under house arrest, awaiting trial before Caesar. (See Acts 28:16-31.) I remember twelve years ago peering down a very dark stairway that was filled with rubble and so, was inaccessible to the public. This time I had barely stepped into the vestibule of the church when I was greeted by a man at a table, who beckoned to me to visit the recently restored site! Giuseppe wouldn’t even charge me the two Euros it cost to get in. When he learned that I was one of the Prisoner’s Daughters and was in the process of writing the text for a PBM app on the places connected with Peter and Paul in Rome, he got on his cell phone and called the rector, Fr. Amatori, who appeared in (almost) a New York second to give me a personal tour.

Recently discovered frescoes in the crypt
We headed down those stairs, now trafficked and well-lit. My guide explained that three other locations in the city claim to have housed Paul as prisoner. The least likely is the Mamertine Prison in the Roman Forum, the Empire’s hub of public life. Another possibility is a place on the Aventine Hill, which I haven’t seen yet. Lastly, we have what is  probably the strongest contender: the sanctuary in the church of San Paolo alla Regola, which is built in place of the house in the Jewish Quarter or “Ghetto,” a word that in Italian does not carry the same negative connotation it does in current English. Since the Acts of the Apostles states that, once established, Paul summoned the leaders of the synagogue to explain himself, he may well have lodged in the vicinity. That’s not conclusive proof for Regola, however, since at Paul’s time there were eleven synagogues in Rome, and Acts doesn’t say which one received his invitation to pranzo.

When I had visited Fr. Fernando Cornet in Sardinia over Christmas break, I learned a little something about Roman penal practice. He’s a scholar on the Fathers of the Church and a friend of our American FSP Choir. He said that, unlike our modern European and American systems of justice, prisons were not designed to punish people for crimes they committed. They were nothing more than holding pens for those awaiting trial or execution. Since Roman executors of justice were in no hurry to hear your case, that holding pattern could circle for years. If you were not suspected of a capital crime and posed no immediate danger to society, you could rent lodgings and hire a guard. Hence, Paul’s need to work for a living in the meantime.

The crypt that Fr. Amatori was now showing me dates back to the first or second century A.D. Paul would have been there in the 60’s. About a 15-minute walk from the Roman Forum, the apartment was part of what may have been a warehouse complex that certainly extended the length of almost two-and-a-half football fields, between Piazza Colonna and Piazza Venezia. A kind of post office was located across the street.

In each room two travertine rock brackets on opposite walls from each other would have been used to support a slab that served as a ceiling for the lower room (Paul’s shop?) and a floor for the upper one (his apartment?). Excavations also revealed a garden fountain and a well. Now, I don’t know the first thing about tent-making or leather-working, but I’m told that a water source is essential. In fact, the proximity of the Jewish Ghetto to the River Tiber lends support to the Regola location. At any rate, archaeologists fished out of this well a number of Roman-era objects, including, of all things, a length of rusty chain. While we don’t want to get too romantic over this—it could have been tossed there by anyone anytime—a period column clearly shows a chain’s rust marks, and a Latin inscription on it reads, “The word of God is not chained,” from 2Tm. 2:9. No doubt, an act of devotion, but it does send a tingle down the spine. At the very least, it testifies to the influence that the Apostle has had for centuries on the faith of millions.

Three layers of frescoes
That influence prompted pilgrimages to the site early on. By the end of the sixth century—so, only five hundred years later—a monastic community from either Greece or Cappadocia had moved in and built a chapel in one of the rooms. They stayed for a few centuries until a women’s community took up residence in the same rooms. They carved out their own chapel, and the eleventh-century church followed. In fact, excavators have discovered three layers of frescoes from three different periods.

Sr. Filippa Castronovo, FSP, whom I introduced you to in October (10/16/2012), just yesterday finished her series of presentations to us in the Charism Course on “Paul and Alberione.” One thing she said back then has stayed with me: “Spiritual writers and scholars tend to speak more about interpreting Paul than imitating him.”

That matches my experience: I audited a course at the Gregorian University last semester, in which the professor, an official at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, referred to how Paul “interpreted” Christ. It takes more than just doing what Jesus or Paul would do. It means understanding them, fostering a friendship with them, learning from them, and above all, applying what we pick up from them in study and prayer to our own life-situations, some of which no one before us has encountered. Fr. Alberione used that word, too, when he held Paul up as the model of our apostolic spirituality—I ran across the passage today. When it came to using various media for evangelization, for instance, how many times the founder said that our pioneer Paulines were being asked to blaze trails where none existed. We still do. So do many others. And Paul is a wonderful companion.

A tradition holds that Peter was also a guest at the site of Paul’s house arrest. In fact, a marble bas-relief depicts St. Luke taking notes while Peter and Paul “discuss the organization of the Church.” As Fr. Amatori stated with a little smile, that’s pure fantasy. In the 60’s the Church of Rome consisted of perhaps 125 believers. This in a city that, within about fifty years, would boast a population of one million. Humanly speaking, the Church  was so small and insignificant, that “organization” was the last thing on anyone’s mind.

In addition, he pointed out, the Church everywhere in those early days was not a homogenous group of believers. There had already arisen different traditions, which eventually gave birth to the four versions of the Gospel, and in the extreme, different factions. We only have to read Paul’s epistles to get a whiff of that. In addition, Peter and Paul were not always on the same page, theologically. Fr. Amatori wasn’t referring to the basics of the Christian message; he was talking more about perspective and priorities. While both men no doubt respected each other and certainly wielded major influence in the Christian community in Rome, to the extent that even now people here seldom speak of one without mentioning the other, in life they were not on the best of terms and they attracted people with different viewpoints.

Had we lived like that almost five hundred years ago, we might never have had to endure Martin Luther’s break with the Catholic Church, with all the heartache and wars that followed. Both Catholics and Lutherans are gradually coming to terms over issues that could have been resolved if everyone had taken conversion to heart and seen through some of the language to what was really being said. But unlike Peter and Paul, the people at the eye of that storm were too heavily invested in matters other than ongoing conversion. In this Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, that ends on the feast of St. Paul’s Conversion (Jan. 25), let’s pray for that for each other. The Pauline Family will gather tomorrow evening for Mass at the tomb of St. Paul in the Basilica that bears his name, precisely to pray for this. I’ll be sure to take you with me.
Photos used with permission from Santa Maria in via Lata (

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Making (Radio) Waves

I was checking my LinkedIn account a couple of months ago, and saw that I had a request to connect from Seàn-Patrick Lovett, the director of English language programming at Vatican Radio (www.radiovaticana.va). I knew him only by name, but immediately answered that I hoped our paths might cross someday while I was still in Rome. He graciously wrote back and suggested that we meet. After we were finally able to find a convenient date in early December, I made my way to his simple, unadorned office around the corner from via della Conciliazione, the broad street that runs into St. Peter’s.

He leaves his door open to visitors and co-workers alike and, as I discovered, to unexpected emergencies. With its staff from fifty-nine nations, Vatican Radio, always at the service of the Holy See, reaches radio stations worldwide in over forty languages. So, there are bound to be surprises in the course of a day.

Of course, there’s its indirect reach, too. For instance, Columbian-born Sr. Maria Ruth Reyes, one of our U.S. Daughters, incorporates into her weekly program, Jesús en mi vida diaria, a recording of the voice of Pope Benedict speaking in Spanish that she receives from Vatican Radio. Besides their Web presence, our U.S. radio programs, now in their 21st year, are sent gratis to over 100 stations around the world. Actually, as one of the beneficiaries of this service, Vatican Radio itself edits our program for its own purposes before broadcasting it in turn.

This is a far cry from Pope Pius XI’s first broadcast—in Latin—82 years ago. At the pope’s request, inventor Guglielmo Marconi had recently built the station to make the thought of the pope better known. It was during the Second World War and later during the Communist era, though, that the station distinguished itself as a source of free information and outreach, in its service to POWs, other military personnel, and displaced civilians, connecting them with their families. Broadcasts of the Second Vatican Council in 30 languages and, since then, technological advances in its service to press agencies and news media, plus coverage of the popes’ travels, launched Vatican Radio into the information, then the digital, age.

It’s those papal travels and his own teaching trips that color Seàn’s career/mission with the radio, a journey of more miles than he can count. He hales from Cape Town, South Africa, describing himself as “African by birth, Irish in origin, and Italian by adoption.” Seàn arrived in Rome 35 years ago, married, and settled here. He and his Italian wife have two grown sons, one who is as passionate about communication as his father, and a younger one who is going into law on behalf of the disadvantaged.

Irio Fantini. The prophecy of Balaam. Vatican Radio.
This belongs to a series of paintings envisioned by the
artist, to depict communication in the Bible. For the
 story of Balaam going where the Lord sent him and
saying what the Lord wanted, cf. Numbers 22.
When he arrived in Rome, Seàn didn’t know that a future with Vatican Radio was in the stars. In fact, he had been working as a war correspondent in the Middle East and in Ireland for Catholic News Service. He was praying one day before the Eucharist in St. Peter’s, not at all certain in which direction he should go, or even if he should stay with the media. In a moment of desperate prayer, he felt he heard the assurance: You are where I want you to be. You’re doing what I want you to do.

It was his call, and he believes it continues to shape every other call he has, including his total following of Christ, as he says, to love the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength (cf. Mk 12:30).

His studies in communication (he attended the Gregorian University, “The Greg,” here in Rome) as well as his 35 years of experience at Vatican Radio equip him to offer training and formation courses in communication to religious orders wherever there’s a need. This commitment has taken him to places like South Africa, Zambia, the Ukraine, and India. At the invitation of the former vicar general of the Sister Disciples of the Divine Master, he will head out to the Philippines later this year. There, both the new professed sisters and the community’s leadership will participate in his course, so that both levels will receive the same message. This contributes to a certain continuity in their project of formation in communication. He used to direct both Italian and English programming at Vatican Radio, but the demands of that role kept him from doing the teaching he loved. So he dropped the Italian part and is now better able to fit the Greg in on the side.

I don’t know if you knew this, but I didn’t; I must have missed class that day: The Vatican Telephone Exchange is staffed by the Sister Disciples of the Divine Master, as part of their mission to the clergy. (This Pauline congregation was founded by Fr. Alberione with a liturgical/Eucharistic focus. If you go to St. Peter’s, you’ll see them taking turns for adoration in the Blessed Sacrament chapel.) A few Pauline brothers assist them. In the passage from analog to digital technology, Seàn trained the sisters, who range in age from twenty-something to seventy and who speak a variety of languages. Call the Vatican, and you’ll get a PDDM on the other end of the line. They receive thousands of calls daily. As Seàn puts it, topics range from “How much does it cost to get into the Vatican Museums?” to “My child just died, and I want to kill myself.” His sessions continue to update them even on technique and public relations. Their love for the Gospel and the People of God meshes well with his ministry to them. 

I. Fantini. Fresco in the Sala Marconi of all the popes
who have addressed the world through Vatican Radio.
In Seàn’s second year at Vatican Radio, Paul VI died, John Paul I was elected, and died 34 days later. Then John Paul II was elected. Seàn talked about what he learned about communication from each one. “John Paul I was eclipsed by John Paul II,” but “he taught me that [Revelation] is not just dogma. It’s communication, and communication is feminine. John Paul took a risk and spoke about God also as our Mother, * who loves us unconditionally. A person may be a murderer, a rapist, or any other criminal, but his mother will never stop loving him. The Church is our mother, and that doesn’t mean she just cleans up our messes.” 

Irio Fantini. The Tower of Babel and Pentecost.
Vatican Radio
As he spoke I was reminded of the great Church document on communication, Communio et progressio. The whole first part describes the great moments of Revelation in terms of communication. In fact, it basically states that this is what Revelation is: God communicating with humanity. If the Church has been entrusted with that Revelation, this means that she is not only its communicator, but is herself part of that communication with the world. American Fr. Bob Bonnot goes so far as to say that only when theology (which is based on Revelation) is understood as communication, will the Church fully and universally embrace media and acknowledge its role in evangelization.

Seàn connected divine and human communication this way: “Communication has to have meaning; otherwise, it’s chaos. The challenge of the human experience is to search for that meaning and to never stop questioning. We need to use our sensory experience to search for that meaning whenever we can.”

He then reminisced about Pope Wojtyla:
“Working with John Paul II for 26 years, I learned transparency. He spoke about the Church as a glass house. It’s a most exquisite image under two aspects. One, it speaks about two-way transparency. There has to be good will on both sides, and two, it can break easily. There’s vulnerability. In the moment I communicate, I open myself to being hurt.”
Here Seàn stopped to reflect aloud on confrontations he’s witnessed time and again between representatives of the Church and of the media culture:
“We need to be aware of oversimplification. I hear exponents of the Catholic Church blasting the media, and those outside saying that the Catholic Church has it all wrong…plus variations on the theme. I want to say: Both of you, stop throwing stones! With your stereotypes and your inability to hear each other, you’re creating havoc and destroying it all.”
He’s right. Those who speak for the Church need to speak in language the culture can understand. We can do it! After all, we have a great track record here. If the Church’s missionary activity has succeeded at all, it’s because we’ve made ourselves understood within cultures in ways that are often new to our evangelizers. On the other hand, the media culture has to recognize that the Church has something valid to say even if it doesn’t fit into a sound bite or within the limited categories the culture has constructed. Of course, only when this culture breaks free of the consumerism that dictates what’s important will this even be possible.

Irio Fantini. St. Paul the Apostle evangelizes the
Athenians. Vatican Radio
Seàn continued:
“It takes intelligence, humility, and courage. Listening to others requires both left and right brain. Recognize what you don’t know. Not everyone will agree with you or like what you’re doing. Persecution is the litmus test that what you’re doing has value. We’re called to go against the flow; that’s what make our faith so exciting. The early saints did this; that’s why we’re still talking about them. Define the culture and work from within to transform the context. The prophet sees the context, steps out of it, and brings others to realize what’s not working and to ask what can.”

Just as Fr. Alberione did. Then he took it one step further: He acted on what could work. In fact, this aspect of his labor and his legacy is what made him a pioneer in media evangelization. At a time when many in the Church limited their views on media to  denouncing what was evil—I’m thinking especially of the 1920’s and 30’s—he, with men and women Paulines, made a positive contribution, even in the face of misunderstanding and criticism. Production and distribution of print and recorded materials, of films and radio transmissions became key elements in this contribution.

Chapel of the Annunciation,
Vatican Radio
The Pauline project differed in an important way from those who worked exclusively in the business sector, even when they offered religious materials: the intention. The Christmas season points to this essential aspect of Pauline dedication, whether it’s done by lay or religious members. “Jesus, Divine Master,” Alberione taught us to pray, “we adore you with the angels who sang the reasons for your incarnation: ‘Glory to God and peace to all people.’ We thank you for having called us to share in your own mission. Set us on fire with zeal for God and for souls….”

It’s no accident that the single laymen and single laywomen in Pauline institutes are called Gabrielites and Annunciationists. Nor is it an accident that the room at Vatican Radio where Liturgy and devotions are celebrated with the world is called the Chapel of the Annunciation. Living for the glory of God and the peace of his people makes all the difference.

“Laudetur Iesus Christus,” “Praised be Jesus Christ,” is not only Vatican Radio’s motto. It’s a way of life.

* For further reflection on this, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church
, n. 239, and the works of other spiritual writers, most notably, Julian of Norwich.