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 ( 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.