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A touch of home to Americans in Rome.

Priest tends souls and keys at parish

ROME -- American Paulist Father Sean Foley has the key to Rome's Santa Susanna Church, a key the Cistercian Sisters in the monastery next door badly want. The Vatican says they cannot have it. The sisters, in turn, have asked a city of Rome tribunal to rule on it.

Meanwhile, Foley reopened Santa Susanna, which has been the U.S. national parish in Rome since 1922, with a Mass in January, exactly 71 years after the Paulists' first Mass there. National parishes are linked to their own national bishops' conference.

The 16th-century church was closed for eight years as the Italian Ministry of the Interior Department responsible for protected buildings slowly made repairs that are still under way.

However, while Santa Susanna was being repaired, the Cistercian Sisters quietly had a cast-bronze plaque bolted above the main doors proclaiming in Italian, "The Church of Santa Susanna: Cistercian Monastery."

The Cistercian convent, down to 12 sisters now, from 150 at its peak, lays title to most of the prime commercial land in the immediate area. The Rome tribunal is being asked by the nuns to legally draw Cistercian property boundaries -- which they claim will also show that the church is on it.

Just as Foley has astutely kept hold of the key, Paulist Father Thomas Lantry O'Neill, the church's first American rector, was not afraid to enlist, in 1921, a U.S. president's aid to obtain the church for Americans and the Paulists.

That year, after receiving a letter from O'Neill, President Warren G. Harding called in the apostolic delegate, asked that a church be designated in Rome for Americans living and visiting there and said the Paulist fathers were available to staff it and that Santa Susanna had been particularly mentioned.

Cistercian claims aside, Santa Susanna persists in its identity as an American church: hot coffee at the rear, apple pies among the baked goods on sale and, next door, the parish English-language lending library.

Modern metropolitan Rome has about 34,000 Americans, possibly 10,000 of them Catholic, living in the city at any one time. About 1,000 of them usually register at Santa Susanna. Perhaps 200-250 have been attending Sunday Mass.

The parish has been fractured during the years the church was closed. American Catholics in Rome attached to the parish have been worshiping in Sant' Agnese on the Piazza Navona, one of the few private churches in Rome. It belongs to the Doria Pamphili family.

"Our ministry here is defined by a moving population," said Foley, who has headed Santa Susanna for four years. "Possibly 25-35 percent of the parish move each year. We've very few seniors; these are people in their 30s and 40s, usually with families to raise."

Newcomers to Santa Susanna are often rediscovering church life, Foley explained.

"Some, when they arrive here -- like at home -- may have drifted away from the church a bit," he said. "They come here with businesses, with the embassy (to which Foley is Catholic chaplain), and are confronted by all this religious presence: religious art, papal ceremonies. It provokes them to ask, 'What's all this about? Should I take another look?'"

Santa Susanna's parishioners, well-educated, usually with experience of living in other parts of the world, are a challenging group, said Foley.

What they want to know, said the rector, "is, 'Does religion have something to say to me? To my life's journey? To my life's troubles? To my family? Where we're going and what we're about?'"

The somewhat slower pace in Rome, said Foley, sometimes encourages this type of questioning. "These people are off the racetrack, they've time to think -- and these are the questions Rome can provoke."

On top of it all, Foley and his staff -- associate pastor Paulist Father Ron Roberson and Basilian Father in residence Maurice Restivo -- must cope with many down-to-earth problems as well.

In winter, Santa Susanna has ice-cold marble floors, a brave choir wearing overcoats and scarfs, and makeshift electric heaters vainly attempting to defrost the 400-year-old building. "If you think it's cold in the church," said the Dublin-born, New York City-raised Foley, "you should try changing in the sacristy."

There will be a new heating and lighting system, said Foley, but not until he has raised $75,000 to pay for it. And when the heat and lights do go up, there is every likelihood the Cistercian Sisters' plaque will come back down.
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Title Annotation:Santa Susanna Church reopens
Author:Jones, Arthur
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Feb 5, 1993
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