Two Cities, One Zip Code

Reflections on a week in Rome.

Pope Francis celebrates the canonization Mass for five new saints in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Oct. 13, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

As I indicated in a recent CWR essay, I have lived under the guidance of John Henry Cardinal Newman from my boyhood. Obviously, then, his canonization on October 13 was a much-anticipated event.

For many, many years, I was a regular visitor to the Eternal City – often several times a year due to various obligations. For the past six years, I had not darkened the gates of the City with my presence. Only Cardinal Newman could cause me to break that streak. The first part of this present effort of mine will offer some reflections on how the City formed the backdrop for the grand occasion, for which so many of us longed and prayed. The second part will deal with the bigger context within which “the grand occasion” occurred. In point of fact, we are dealing with two very different cities – although sharing a common postal code.

I departed from Newark Airport on Wednesday, October 9 (by a happy coincidence, the liturgical memorial of Newman). The first person I encountered was a former philosophy professor of mine, Monsignor Richard Liddy, also an inveterate “Newmanian.” Next came a priest whose First Mass I attended, followed by a priest who had participated in our first seminar on the role of the priest in today’s Catholic schools. Another priest was visible, but unknown to me. At any rate, these chance encounters proved true a favorite adage of mine, “There’s nothing so small as a universal Church.” It was no small consolation to several passengers that there were five priests on the flight. One remarked, “Well, Father, at least we know the plane won’t go down.” Not one to allow for “cheap grace,” I replied: “Perhaps God just wants to give you the opportunity to go to confession before the plane goes down.” “Oh,” came the disappointed response.

The flight was excellent – on-time departure; early arrival. This could have been yet another miracle attributed to our soon-to-be saint. The weather was delightful throughout my visit, except for a major rainstorm the last night.

City One

The majority of Newman-related activities had been planned (exquisitely) by the UK Oratorians, the Cardinal’s spiritual sons. The first such event was held on Saturday afternoon, October 12, a celebratory symposium (four and a half hours’ worth!), “Newman the Prophet: A Saint for Our Times,” fittingly held at the “Angelicum” (more properly, the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas) in the aula named for John Paul II, an alumnus of the Angelicum. The first presentation by George Weigel provided an overview of the life of the saint. Next came a discourse by Archbishop Bernard Longley of Birmingham (England): “Thoughtful Belief in a Secular Age,” a summary of Newman’s Grammar of Assent, to which a superb response was given by Sister Catherine Joseph Droste of the wonderful Nashville Dominicans; she is the dean of the school of theology (yes, a female Religious a dean!) of the Angelicum.

The second session was devoted to “The Idea of a University: Catholics in Modern Education” by Tracey Rowland of the University of Notre Dame in Australia; she is also a member of the International Theological Commission. Her insightful lecture was responded to by Father Guy Nicholls of the Birmingham Oratory, who made further applications to Catholic schools at the lower levels. Professor Rowland commented at one point that no one had done more for Catholic education in Australia than Cardinal George Pell, which remark provoked sustained appreciative applause.

The third session offered a scintillating presentation on “Conscience, Relativism and Truth: The Witness of Newman” by Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, Australia (by a happy coincidence, also a Dominican), followed by Thomas Farr (president of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington) with a response that was enlightening and faith-filled in equal measure.

All the speakers repeatedly quoted Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Several Anglican clerics were in evidence at the outset (including a few priestesses); they seemed to evaporate as time went on, I suppose, since the topics handled could not have been appealing or reinforcing of the present modus vivendi of the Anglican Communion.

At the conclusion of the afternoon everyone hastened to the prayer vigil at the Basilica of St. Mary Major, the first church in the West dedicated to the Mother of God; this was also fitting since Newman’s devotion to Our Lady was fiercely theological, biblical and patristic but also tender. The service began with one of Newman’s more famous hymns, “Praise to the Holiest in the Height,” found in his magnum opus, “The Dream of Gerontius,” a several-hundred line fanciful (but theologically astute) poem devoted to a consideration of a soul’s passage from this world to judgment, Purgatory and Heaven – subsequently composed as an oratorio by none other than Edward Elgar.

The congregation was welcomed by Cardinal Stanislaus Rylko, Archpriest of the Basilica. The service consisted of a reading of perhaps Newman’s most famous meditation, “God has created me to do Him some definite service,” followed by a Latin motet of Charles Villiers Stanford, performed by the boy choir of the Oratory School of London. Ten petitions ensued, offered by various individuals connected to the life and legacy of the Cardinal, including Melissa Villalobos – the Chicago wife and mother, whose cure through the intercession of Newman was the miracle which made possible his canonization. Very movingly, each petition concluded: Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis; Beate Ioannes Henrice, ora pro nobis, as he would be invoked as a “Blessed” for the last time. The service was brought to a conclusion with Tomas Luis de Victoria’s “Ave Maria,” beautifully rendered by the boy choir, the recitation of Newman’s lovely evening prayer, and his “Lead, Kindly Light.” As if that were not enough, the Schola Cantorum of the Oratory School treated all to a delightful concert of Renaissance polyphony.

The canonization Mass took place on the sagrato in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, with hundreds of bishops and priests as concelebrants and thousands of lay faithful in attendance. Along with Newman, three female Religious and one lay woman were inscribed in the canon of saints. Attracting particular attention were clergy of the Syro-Malabar Rite with their very colorful vestments (one of the new saints was a member of that ritual church).

The Eucharistic Sacrifice was offered in Latin, except for the readings and homily. The rite of canonization proper began, most appropriately, by calling upon the Holy Spirit with the ancient “Veni, Creator Spiritus”; the petition by the Cardinal Prefect of the Causes of Saints, Giovanni Angelo Becciu; and the Litany of the Saints, after which Pope Francis proclaimed the traditional formula of canonization:

For the honor of the Blessed Trinity, the exaltation of the Catholic Faith and the increase of the Christian life, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and our own, after due deliberation and frequent prayer for divine assistance, and having sought the counsel of many of our brother Bishops, we declare and define:

Blessed John Henry Newman, Giuseppina Vannini, Mariam Thresia Chiramel Mankidiyan, Dulce Lopes Pontes and Marguerite Bays to be Saints and we enroll them among the Saints, decreeing that they are to be venerated as such by the whole Church. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

From that point forward, Mass proceeded as usual. As is customary for major papal Masses, the Gospel was chanted both in Latin and Greek, highlighting the universality of the Church. The Third Eucharistic Prayer was used, thus allowing for the insertion of the names of the new saints for the first time. Hundreds of priests fanned out in St. Peter’s Square to distribute Holy Communion. It should be noted that, before Mass in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, Communion priests are strictly enjoined not to place the Sacred Host in anyone’s hands. When some priests ignore that injunction, they are promptly corrected by the ushers. One of the Communion hymns was a charming Italian version of “Lead, Kindly Light.” One of the “downsides” of the outdoor Masses is that a more robust recessional does not take place, however, with the canonization of five saints, the crowd certainly could not have been contained within the Basilica itself.

After the Mass, some New York friends and I hailed down a taxi to take us to a festive pranzo at the Ristorante Cecilia Metella on the Via Appia Antica; en route, one passes the catacombs of St. Sebastian and St. Callistus, as well as the Church of Quo Vadis (the site pious tradition holds to be the place where Our Lord confronted St. Peter as he was beating a path out of Rome to avoid martyrdom). After a wonderful dining experience al fresco, we returned to the City where, upon arrival in my hotel room, I discovered that I had lost my phone, which the taxi company asserted had not been left in the cab (although tracking revealed that the phone was traveling around Rome for the next four days!). Being “phoneless” makes one ask how we survived before the advent of these little appurtenances.

Sunday evening featured a musical oratory at Santa Maria in Vallicella, more popularly known as the Chiesa Nuova (you know you’re dealing with a Church that thinks in centuries when a five-century old edifice is considered new); it is the home of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri. Newman named his first Catholic home “Maryvale” to connect it precisely to “Santa Maria in Vallicella.” This time, we heard readings from the new Saint’s reflections on various aspects of the life and ministry of St. Philip, punctuated by motets performed once again by the boys of the Oratory School schola. The evening drew to a close with an address by Father Ignatius Harrison, provost of the Birmingham Oratory and postulator of Newman’s cause. The evening ended with the Church’s triumphant and rousing hymn of praise, the “Te Deum.”

Monday morning found the Newman pilgrims gathered for the Pontifical Mass of Thanksgiving at the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral of Rome and historically known as the Mater et Caput Omnium Ecclesiarum (mother and head of all the churches). The principal celebrant was Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster. Not to be disappointed, we were able to hear and sing wonderful liturgical music (with generous doses of Latin chant and polyphony). The homilist was the Oratorian Bishop Robert Byrne of Hexham and Newcastle. His reflections were spot-on; in one of his anecdotes, he informed us that when Newman was once told that he was a saint, he demurred and said he would be content merely to polish the shoes of St. Philip; the homilist ending by suggesting that perhaps Newman had already begun to polish the shoes of his beloved Philip Neri.

Thus, the “Newmanian” events had taken place at three of the four papal basilicas. St. Paul Outside the Walls missed out on the celebrations – so often the “orphan” Basilica due to its distance from the center of the City.1

All of these glorious events occurred as within a “city set apart” from the larger city, to which we should now turn our attention.

City Two

When one moves from the exhilarating atmosphere of the Newman Triduum, one finds the Rome of the Vatican to be a very bleak and depressing scene (even prescinding from the lunacy of the Amazon Synod). From 1979 to 2012, I visited the Eternal City at least annually, sometimes more often for professional reasons. Not ever having lived in Rome for a prolonged period of time, I nonetheless came to love it, glorying in the sense of unity and peace which John Paul II had brought to the scene, beginning on October 16, 1978, and which Benedict solidified. To be sure, while it is true that Rome and her Church are more than any individual Pope, the whole theology of the papacy is rooted in the understanding that the Pope is and must be the visible center and source of ecclesial unity. That has not been the case for the past six years as Francis, regrettably, has become the very source of disunity, a lightening rod for the revival of viewpoints and approaches we thought had been safely consigned to the Vatican dustbins thirty years ago.

Many Vatican workers – clergy, Religious and laity – speak of a climate of tension, suspicion, fear and intimidation as cameras and bugging devices proliferate, so as to surface those who are “disloyal” to the Bergoglian vision of Catholic life. Clearly, every pope has an agenda (in the best sense of that word) and surely John Paul did; however, those who inhabited the left flank of the Church during his pontificate never feared loss of employment (and there were plenty of those who were not onboard with the Woytylan agenda).

Interestingly, observers suggest that the present Pope does not extend loyalty to those who are loyal to him; one such evidence of that is the figure of Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, who has sought to dismantle the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family. There is no doubt that his campaign completely corresponded to the desires of Francis But his very clumsy handling of the process has brought rebuke from the world of academia and embarrassment to the Pope. Some speculate that this is the reason that Paglia did not find himself in the line-up for a red hat during the most recent consistory.

Speaking of red hats, it is well known that just as there are many minutanti among the workers of the Vatican who exercise passive resistance to the Pope’s leftward drive, so too there are many within the College of Cardinals. It is significant that after Papa Bergoglio’s first consistory, he has not brought together the College prior to any other consistory to seek their advice (electing a pope is not the only function of the College; it has an ongoing function of assisting the Sovereign Pontiff in the governance of the Church Universal). It seems quite clear that the Pope knows that he does not have the enthusiastic support of many cardinals and, in fact, has the strong disapproval of many; therefore, in spite of his repeated assertions of appreciation for alternate points of view, he has frozen out what should be his primary source of counsel.

His refusal to convene the College, except for ceremonial purposes, also endangers a healthy conclave to choose his successor since most of these men do not know one another. All of which leads one to ask why the cardinals don’t convene themselves to discuss the abysmal state of the Church (with all major Catholic indicators in the cellar over the past six years; a clear sign of this was that ten minutes before the canonization Mass, the ushers removed hundreds of seats for bishops and priests who never materialized). Heaven knows that there are hundreds of hotels where such a meeting could occur, allowing them to engage in the parrhesia, collegiality and synodality which this Pope has touted for so long. The pressing conclusion is that, as a group, the College of Cardinals lacks the necessary courage.

The Italians have a knack for providing people with telling nick-names, some cruelly accurate. One thinks of their dubbing Paul VI “Amleto” (“Hamlet,” for his vacillation). Similarly, those who surround Francis and protect him from reality are referred to as his “magic circle.” No pope has been totally immune from bad collaborators, but this man appears to be a magnet for those who are compromised financially or sexually or both – let alone in terms of their unhinged ideology. Hardly a week goes by that a new scandal does not emerge from the Vatican; the talk of the town during my week-long visit was the “resignation” of the commandant of the Vatican police force, Domenico Giani. As I write this column, Gianluigi Nuzzi is coming out with yet another of his blockbusters documenting this scandal-ridden pontificate.

Pope Francis has consistently spoken of the need for kindness and mercy to be hallmarks of the Christian, and rightly so. However, I have never known a pope (having lived through seven pontificates) more given to sarcasm and vitriol directed toward those he perceives as his enemies. Apparently, during his visit with Jesuits in Madagascar, he opined that young priests and seminarians who sport the cassock and saturno (the wide-brimmed Roman hat) probably suffer from some sort of psycho-sexual disorder. That scathing assessment, however, has brought about a rather amusing development. In all my visits to the Eternal City, I have never seen more young clerics – you guessed it – wearing a saturno! The orthodox seminarians of my generation, spiritually abused by the majority of our formators, engaged in what we called “reaction formation,” that is, if these people were saying something is bad, it must be good.

A concluding thought

For all the reasons listed in “City Two,” as I mentioned at the outset, I hesitated mightily about going to Rome for Cardinal Newman’s canonization (in fact, sadly we couldn’t put together a pilgrimage group for those reasons). Having been so educated in the “School of Newman,” I had to go, also knowing, deep down, that the Church is bigger than any individual pope – a realization to which Newman himself had come in the waning years of the reign of Pius IX, whom he did not fear to call a tyrant.

Not a few pilgrims last week suggested that God must have a tremendous sense of humor or an even mightier plan of Providence that Newman should be canonized under the present circumstances. After all, in his Apologia pro Vita Sua, Newman informs us that by the age of fifteen he had fallen “under the influence of a definite creed”; further, in his famous “Biglietto Speech,” upon receiving the red hat, he reminded one and all that he had fought “liberalism in religion” his whole life long. Our faith compels us to believe that it is the City of Newman that will prevail.

St. John Henry, inspire us with the faith and courage you exhibited and pray for this beleaguered Church of ours, the Church you so loved and served so well.


1The Thursday before and the Monday after the canonization, one could view an exhibit at the Venerable English College: “John Henry Newman: A Saint in Rome,” with memorabilia connected to his three stays in Rome. A reception at the Pontifical Urban College (where Newman lived for a year in preparation for his ordination as a Catholic priest, although not now at the same location) followed the canonization Mass. Prince Charles delivered a rather stirring encomium to Newman – although I think he was a bit too sanguine on Newman’s ability to countenance theological differences. The Oratory boys’ schola also gave a private performance for Pope Benedict, a man of great culture and taste.

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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 258 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas founded The Catholic Answer in 1987 and The Catholic Response in 2004, as well as the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a clerical association of the faithful, committed to Catholic education, liturgical renewal and the new evangelization. Father Stravinskas is also the President of the Catholic Education Foundation, an organization, which serves as a resource for heightening the Catholic identity of Catholic schools.


  1. “However, I have never known a pope (having lived through seven pontificates) more given to sarcasm and vitriol directed toward those he perceives as his enemies.”- He is an abusive father.

    • Ken, SO accurate!! In the very large majority of cases, “professional”, determined, willful, self-righteous abusive fathers came from children abused by their own fathers and who CHOSE not to ever forgive and also chose to have a lifetime rejection of the healing that Jesus offers through His Church (and other Providential means), including Clergy deeply immersed in the Church (like a rock in a river but that never gets wet inside), just like Pope Francis.

      Let’s pray for his INNER healing, not as in the New Age lingo, but as in True Christian, Holy Spirit-led healing, the one that eliminates all entitlements to abuse, corruption and rape against the Church, just because you suffered those very same things in any way, shape or form (the very dark essence and hateful core of all anti-Catholic activists). All the leaders and influencers in Satan’s Army are made of the Undead-Unhealed-Unforgiving zombies. Yes!! He and all those like him need a lot of our prayers!! We are all sinners and also in need of healing and of total renunciation to all the evil entitlements coming from sin, corruption, cowardice, flabby compromise and unforgiveness!!

  2. Father Stravinskas, thank you for this article. It’s good to have someone upholding truth and not wrapping it in fuzzy wishful thinking.

    “the whole theology of the papacy is rooted in the understanding that the Pope is and must be the visible center and source of ecclesial unity. That has not been the case for the past six years as Francis, regrettably, has become the very source of disunity, a lightening rod for the revival of viewpoints and approaches we thought had been safely consigned to the Vatican dustbins thirty years ago.”

    That is what is so horrible. It’s as if one had a hideous disease and had been cured, only to be deliberately reinfected.

    “Clearly, every pope has an agenda (in the best sense of that word) and surely John Paul did; however, those who inhabited the left flank of the Church during his pontificate never feared loss of employment (and there were plenty of those who were not onboard with the Woytylan agenda).”

    It makes one wish that those who inhabited the left flank of the Church during John Paul’s pontificate *had* lost their employment.

    “No pope has been totally immune from bad collaborators, but this man appears to be a magnet for those who are compromised financially or sexually or both – let alone in terms of their unhinged ideology.”

    It would be nice if someone were able to call him on that, publicly if privately didn’t work.

    “Pope Francis has consistently spoken of the need for kindness and mercy to be hallmarks of the Christian, and rightly so.”

    Pope Francis might ponder that kindness and mercy towards the innocent involves withholding from the guilty the sort of “kindness” and “mercy” that allow them to continue to harm the innocent.

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