Week Two of Paul Wilkes' on-scene reports:

The Latest From Rome: Dispatches 12& up
Dispatch 7: One Mass Among Many
Dispatch 8: Cardinal Law's Mass
Dispatch 9: What the Cardinals Want
Dispatch 10: Pope Ratzinger?
Dispatch 11: Which Catholic Church?
Week 1: Dispatches 1-6

One Catholic Church...or Two, or Three?

There we stood on the Piazza Della Pilotta as bright-faced young men and women spilled through the columns and down the steps of the imposing Gregorian University. They were dressed in an array of proper clerical garb not much seen--if ever seen--by many Catholics in the United States. All seemed well with the church. Such vigor, such diversity. These were some of the 10,000 priests, seminarians, and nuns--from Asia, Africa, South America as well as Europe and America--who attend classes together here in Rome.

So what of all this talk about two churches--a church of the North, a church of the South? A church of the developed world, the church of developing world, each with widely divergent needs. And what shortage of clergy? Certainly not here. The Catholic world seemed a peaceable kingdom indeed.

I was standing there with Father Keith Pecklers, a Jesuit who teaches liturgy here at Greg, as it is known, who took my question of two churches and, as Jesuits are wont to do, quickly expanded it to three. And he wasn't talking about dividing the globe geographically or economically.

"There is the official church at one end, and the popular church at the other," he said. "The official church or the ideal church is the church of unquestioning doctrine and dogma and with unstinting love for the Holy Father. The popular church will still have that great love, and a deep devotional life but is puzzled and sometime overwhelmed with such questions as: how do we stop the spread of AIDS, how do I feed my family, how do I protect them from the war going on around me?

"The third church is in between, and although not all of them have the crushing problems of those living in poverty, they are people who are trying to reconcile the ideal with the practical."

In the Catholic Church today--as the 115 cardinals sit in their conferences and soon enter into the Casa Santa Maria residence and then file into the Sistine Chapel on Monday for the conclave--the "two church" debate rages. It will certainly be one of the bases on which the new pope will be chosen. Can this man reach into both worlds, which have such different issues?

I decided to call someone for whom "two worlds-two churches" is not a theoretical construct, but an everyday reality in his life. Monsignor Arturo Banuelas, who earned his graduate degree in Rome, is the pastor of Pope Pius X parish in El Paso. His are largely middle class Hispanic parishioners, yet little more than a 10-minute car ride away lies the Mexican border.

"Why does it have to be one or the other?" Msgr. Banuelas asked. "As if we are talking about this whining, selfish, materialistic American church with no values and no major problems versus the compliant, patient, suffering rest of the world. The issue is to be a prophetic church throughout the entire world, meeting the needs of each culture and place head on.

"We hear that we need more priests to make this happen. To me the answer is not to ordain more priests that have a perfect orthodoxy, but to allow all Catholics to be prophetic in addressing whatever it is in their particular circumstances that the gospel can transform. Bishops too.

"The Catholic ideal is not lockstep rigidity, but openness to what is going on today, in the unique surroundings each person finds herself or himself. Archbishop Bishop Oscar Romero is a perfect example of an ordinary churchman who read the signs of the times, read the gospels, and was compelled to have the gospel speak to the moment. He was killed because of it. But he was a prophet, he cried out against injustice.

"Where are those prophetic voices today?" Msgr. Banuelas asked. "I am listening, but I do not hear them. Forget about north and south, we as a Church have a big credibility gap: we have to present a God that people not only have to believe in but want to believe in. A God as symbolized not by dogma or doctrine--we have enough dogma and doctrine and it is good; I studied it, I know it--but by making our faith come alive in the lives of people. That is a big job--but for those of us who live on the border, straddling two cultures, that is at the top of the list for the next pope to address."

Msgr. Banuelas sees incredibly vitality in his world. "The church is most alive when it feeds on the uniqueness of peoples. When it feeds on the Eucharist. Ah," he hesitated, "the Eucharist. Without that we starve, and many are starving in this way right now. How can we say we are a Eucharistic people in any part of the globe, when people are denied the Eucharist because of our shortage of ordained celibate men, the only ones currently worthy of serving as priests?"

While vocations to the priesthood are up in some places like Africa, no one in the Church denies there is a critical worldwide shortage of priests. Ordain women or married men? Pope John Paul II closed debate on these issues, maintaining that Catholic tradition was so clear that only unmarried males--in the image of Jesus Christ--should be ordained. But this is an issue that will not go away in the next papacy.

Ironically, some progressives in Rome don't see the dearth of priests as a problem. "I think it's actually a blessing," said one of my priest sources, who, for obvious reasons, did not want to be identified. "The church never moves unless it is forced to. The church never shares responsibility unless it has to. Because of the shortage, we have the potential for a widening of ministerial scope that could shape a church that, in my humble opinion, Jesus Christ wanted us to be. Everywhere, around the globe. Even here in Rome."

My conversation with Msgr. Banuelas spurred me to seek another perspective. So I had lunch with Father John Navone, who teaches spirituality at the Gregorian. He cuts the "two worlds-two churches" divide yet another way.

"Although a poverty of spirit in America is not the same as an empty stomach in Africa, each is a poverty," he said. "So I would agree not with an arbitrary line between a North and South church, but rather one that, for example, Episcopalians and Jews have. The Episcopalians have a 'high church,' a 'broad church,' and then a 'low church.' The Jews are Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. In Catholicism, on one extreme are those who say 'Orders are orders and I will follow them,' and on the other, 'No, not me, I'm a thinking person and nobody is going to tell me what to do.' In the middle are those who say, 'Look, if this makes sense for my life--and believe me, I need to make sense of my life--you can sign me up. If not, if it doesn't help in my life, sorry, I just won't do it.'"

After his explanation, Father Navone turned less ecclesial and more mystical. "The mystery of God raises questions in all of us. Although we would love to have one, there is no uniform, formulaic answer for this. God is where He wants to be in each person's life and each person is trying to find that place where they can meet. Catholics have no corner on this market."

So once again, I start off with these neat categories, these focused questions. This time, about a church of the North and a church of the South. But reality isn't quite that neat, certainly in the Catholic Church. And I'm sure those cardinals now meeting behind closed doors know this better than I do as they ponder who they hope--and, I'm sure, pray--their next leader will be.

Cardinal Ratzinger: Misunderstood?

Go figure. In the Italian newspapers and the hallways of the Vatican's pontifical universities-the Harvards of world Catholicism, employing the best and the brightest professors and most knowledgeable Vatican insiders-the name mentioned most often for pope is the cardinal some consider the Darth Vader of the Vatican bureaucracy, Joseph Ratzinger of Germany.

Seems a bit amazing, since this is the same Cardinal Ratzinger who has been relentless in demanding total orthodoxy around the globe, who has cracked down heavily on actual or perceived deviations from church teachings.

Why is he a front-runner? His age, his membership in the Curia (the Vatican's network of administrative departments), and the shadow side of a powerful, shadowy man are some of the major factors.

His age-78-is in his favor. The last thing the cardinals want-at least according to the buzz going around Rome-is another young, vigorous pope, with his bags packed, ready to travel. Pope John Paul II's peripatetic style has worn everyone out, and the feeling is that the Vatican wants to take a deep breath, regain its footing, and focus on crucial issues, rather than have a pope in office for a long time, following the 26-year reign of John Paul II.

How does Ratzinger's Curia membership come into play? Because of John Paul II's travels, each department (or "congregation") of the Vatican became pretty much its own fiefdom-generally following the lines the pope drew over the years, but because of his hands-off policy, worlds unto themselves. No one knows this better than Ratzinger, who for years headed arguably the Vatican's most influential department, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. And no one is more aware of the need to give the Curia a stiff dose of discipline so they can function as a team, not individual players.

At the time of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, Ratzinger was considered a progressive member of the hierarchy and a forward-thinking theologian. But some say he has taken on the mantle of doctrine disciplinarian because, quite frankly, that's what the boss wanted. The thinking here goes that JPII powerfully "readjusted" individual personalities, but that, with his death, the person's original nature, thoughts, and vision of the church can now re-emerge.

Ratzinger seemed to signal this change with his homily at John Paul's funeral. It not only extolled the virtues of the man but pointed to the gospel as containing the marching orders for the Church.

Sources who know Ratzinger well describe him as affable, intelligent, loyal, but open--far more open than John Paul II. While the pope shut down discussion on such issues as ordination of other than celibate males, birth control, and various bioethical issues, "Ratzinger is a man who will at least hear your argument," said one professor with whom I spoke. "He may come out with the same conclusion he came in with, but at least you have had your say."

As John Paul II was the Cold War pope, Ratzinger is being talked about as the "postmodern" pope. Not that he is billed especially as a postmodern thinker, but he represents a Europe that has seen numbers of those attending Mass and being married or baptized in the church drop precipitously.

With the conclave now four days away, the Italian daily Corriere della Sera is reporting that Ratzinger already has 40 votes lined up. Where this information comes from, who knows, since the cardinals are not speaking to the media and the Holy Spirit doesn't do polling.

But if I might weigh in on the Ratzinger papacy-I don't think he will be the choice. Too much baggage from being the Grim Reaper. He may also fall victim to the conflict that pushed aside both front-runners in the first papal election of 1978--then progressive Vatican II forces versus Vatican conservatives, today a group dominated by conservatives--who may eventually conclude that a Curia man does not fill the bill for the Church's current, wider needs.

If not Ratzinger, then who? Will issues drive the selection, or will the power of a personality, or the qualities of a specific cardinal prevail?

"If you are talking issues, it is pretty straightforward who are the dominant contenders," says Rev. Keith Pecklers, a professor at the Gregorian University and a commentator on ABC News. "Some feel Vatican II went much too far and the balance must be restored, as John Paul II felt. These would be Meisner of Cologne and Medina of Chile. A bigger group wants to recover the collegiality of Pope Paul VI-Danneels of Belgium, Kasper of Germany, Murphy-O'Connor of Great Britain. They see not only the rift in the Church, but within the Church, between a centrist administration and the bishops and cardinals in the field."

Father Pecklers' list is one of the more informed in Rome. There are other, overlapping, lists, the front-runner depending on what issue the writer deems important before assembling the names.

In Il Sole-24 Ore, another Italian paper, there are lists of those who would thrust the church further into civil society, like Maradiaga of Honduras, Tumi of Cameroon, Hummes of Brazil. Then there are cardinals of the pro-Curia "business as usual" group like Somalo, Sodano, Hoyes and Re, who hold high Vatican positions.

So many names, so many issues. If you find your head spinning trying to keep them straight, join the club. It is no different here in Rome, where we theoretically should have a front-row seat on the whole adventure of electing a new pope. We are all guessing.

"I think the cardinals will be looking for man with two ears."

Sitting across the table from me at the Ristorante Abruzzi and slicing through a very tender piece of bistecca is Father John Navone, a senior professor at the Gregorian University. He's been in Rome for 43 years and has witnessed the election of the past four popes. Yes, his impish smile seems to say, this election is multo importante, but so is lunch--and also maintaining a certain sense of humor and distance.

"The history of the papacy tells us cardinals typically don't look for a carbon copy, they look to provide what was missing, what is needed in today's church," he says.

"I think the cardinals want their multiplicity of voices to at least be heard. And I think that as they are talking to one another right now, perhaps more important than what is being said, is the body language, signals like, `Is this person only a talker, not a listener?'"

The oft-mentioned need for an ecumenical approach resonates with Father Pecklers, but in an interesting way. "Yes, we as a church, the new pope as our leader, must be in dialogue with other faiths, and Islam is getting most attention now. But what we may need first is a common voice with other Christians, not getting lost in our differences. We need to find out exactly what is this term we toss around so liberally: `The body of Christ.' Are we? Are we acting that way? I think the cardinals realize this profoundly as they know that the Catholic Church is no longer this secure, unassailable doctrinal island."

Another professor in another of the pontifical universities agreed - "When we look at how enormously complicated the Church is, we realize a one-size-fits-all approach simply won't work. By force of John Paul II's personality, there was a passion for the integrity of the faith, but there was also bullying quality, an `I am right, I am the Holy Father and who are you to contest that?' that does not appeal to many of the cardinals, who, after all are thinking men themselves."

Dialogue. This is the buzzword I hear over and over again in my interviews. John Paul II was not regarded as a great listener; he felt he had such a clear vision and mandate that there was no need to discuss issues that are so crucial in the American and European Church.

"Some of us had the experience of being around during Vatican II when you could read or even sit at table with such theological giants as Rahner or Congar or DeLubac and see a vision of the Church that was terribly exciting," one veteran pontifical university hand told me. "There was almost an anti-intellectualism about this papacy. Where in the civilized world can you tell thinking people that they can't even bring up an issue? The cardinals didn't get where they are by being dummies-toadies sometimes, but not dummies-and this pope has simply gone over their heads, as he did with religious orders, and gone right to the people. Now, there is something to be said for that kind of directness, but many of us in Rome feel that the support for the pope was a mile wide and an inch deep."

Issues will certainly steer the course of the voting that begins in the Sistine Chapel on Monday. But personality will also matter. No, the cardinals will not be seeking another JPII, who, some say, became the world's best-known person. They will look for a strong leader, a listener, someone who at once shares their sense of tradition and orthodoxy (after all, they passed JPII's litmus test in order to be appointed) and yet is not linear or closed-minded in his thinking.

That's why, from an `in country' vantage point, Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi of Venice still appears to be the compromise candidate to beat. He is not flashy but personable, cut in the roly-poly image of the beloved Pope John XXIII. He is traditional enough to please the Curia, yet not one of them. He is not the strongest candidate in any of the issue categories, but is conversant with them. He is also old enough, just turned 71, to promise the kind of shorter papacy many think is needed.

And to his advantage, some oddly say, he does not speak English.

Advantage? Yes, Tettamanzi would not be able to communicate directly with the huge, wealthy, and divided English-speaking church. "The local bishops and cardinals would again be the teachers," one source told me. "And they are eager, so eager, to begin to function in that way again."

What the Cardinals Want

Now that the funeral of Pope John Paul II is behind us and the cardinals have taken a vow of (media) silence, it's time for a bit of a breather so we can take stock of the key issues facing the Catholic Church, and then attempt to point where the Church might be heading. You may be interested in speculating about who will be the next pope. Join the millions worldwide, and know that few of us have much credible information. Only those cardinals now meeting behind closed doors, eating together, talking in the hallways, and making calls to their own advisors have some sense of the direction of this conclave. And if past history (see below) is any guide, even they are in the dark. Journalists here in Rome are hounding old and new sources to try to read the tea leaves of Vatican intrigue and deal-making (if, indeed, there is either-there usually is) so in a certain way, anybody's guess is as good as anybody else's. One day it appears a South American, Claudio Hummes of Brazil, or a Central American, Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, is a front-runner because of the huge numbers of Catholics in that part of the world. Then, surprisingly, the talk in the cafes surrounding the Vatican and the many pontifical colleges more recently turned to favor Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a German, who appeared unbending as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, but who is regarded as an intellectual perhaps more open to inquiry than his previous superior allowed him to manifest. Will the cardinals choose an Italian who could be a caretaker for a short reign-to allow the papacy to regain its footing after a long, dynamic and extremely public reign of John Paul II? Are the cardinals ready to engage Islam?
Not even a syllable is muttered about an American pope. Not only does America not have a strong candidate, the feeling within Vatican circles is that the world's superpower already has enough weight to throw around. So what will the cardinals be looking for? In the days ahead, I'll be writing about some of the key factors that will shape their choice of the next pope. 1. Issues versus charisma: Will issues drive the conclave-and will the person deemed most likely to address those specific issues be chosen? Or will the broader power of a certain kind of personality (pastoral, spiritual, diplomatic, traditionalist, charismatic?) win out? 2. Authority versus power in the Church: There is a heated debate within the church concerning the Vatican Curia, the bureaucracy that runs the church on a day-to-day basis. Has it been allowed to spin out of control during the long reign of a pope who preferred evangelical trips to minding the business at home? Is a good dose of decentralization needed? Equally, what about the state of Catholic theologians, who are charged with creatively exploring both the roots and development of faith and tradition, but who have been restricted in their inquiry (some would say silenced) during John Paul's long papacy? And what of "the voice of the people"-should there be a more significant role for non-clerical, non-hierarchical input? 3. North versus South: Are there actually two Catholic churches - one in the developed world, the other in the developing world? Issues that are crucial in, for instance, the American church (women's ordination, sex abuse, contraception, lay roles) are not even on the screen for much of the rest of the Catholic world. American Catholics wonder if the Vatican "gets it" about the issues that divide them. How can each part of the Church be heard and healed? And what of those nations where the dialogue with Islam is a major concern?
4. Collegiality: Or better put, cooperation. A key thrust of Vatican II was to reach out to the wisdom of the universal church-hierarchy, priests, and laity-and not have Rome make all the decisions. John Paul II was a strong and uncompromising leader who did not always encourage dialogue within the church. Bishops and cardinals, especially, have felt marginalized as more and more power was vested in Rome. Some have even called the bishops 'branch managers' and not primary teachers and discerners in their own part of the world. What will they do to assure they have a strong voice in the next papacy? In the coming days, I'll talk to experts here in Rome and in America in order to shed light on each of these areas.
And now, a quick look back to the last papal election-actually two of them-in 1978, to see if the past can inform the present. (I am drawing on a variety of sources including two authoritative books, "The Making of the Popes, 1978," by Father Andrew Greeley "Year of Three Popes," by Peter Hebblethwaite. ) Pope Paul VI, who was elected the successor to the enormously popular John XXIII in 1963, lived his last years a tragic Lear-like figure. He often appeared so glum that his assistants actually urged him to smile for his public appearances. John XXIII had convened Vatican II, but it fell to Paul VI to bring it to conclusion. While the spirit of "aggiornamento" or "openness" was exhilarating (the Mass was now being said in the vernacular, Catholicism was in dialogue with other faiths, and the "priesthood of all believers" gave a new role to the laity), some thought the Church was tumbling dangerously out of control. Paul VI attempted to implement change and, at the same time, keep the traditionalist Vatican forces at bay.
The pressure was so enormous for this quiet, considered man that he eventually panicked and shut down, becoming so indecisive the Church seemed to be frozen. But what proved to be his true cross to bear was his release of the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, which confirmed the Church's prohibition on any form of artificial birth control, even though the commission he appointed had overwhelmingly recommended the Church relax its stand. Catholics either largely ignored the mandate or simply left the Church. Although Paul VI had seen to it that Vatican II-style, pastoral bishops were appointed, and the sweeping changes of the enormously innovative council were effected, the sad coda to his reign was a document to which much of the Catholic world said "no." By the time Paul VI lay in state in August 1978, there was but a thin line of mourners waiting to view the body. For his funeral, St. Peter's Square was half empty. So unlike what we have just witnessed for Pope John Paul II, who was then Karol Wojtyla, archbishop of Krakow, and who is reputed to have helped to craft the controversial Humanae Vitae. As the cardinals prepared for the 1978 conclave to elect the next pope, there was none of the cell-phone and satellite-dish type of instant communication and continuous coverage. But there was still much of the speculation that we see afoot today. Because the popes had been Italian for four and half centuries, it appeared in late summer 1978 not to be a case of whether an Italian would be elected, but which Italian would be the next pope.
The powerful curial cardinals could not swing sufficient votes for one of their own, and gradually the votes accumulated for a little-known cardinal from Venice, one Albino Luciani. He seemed a most unlikely choice, an intelligent man with simple tastes. He also-uncharacteristically--smiled, and smiled a lot. So much so that, when elected, he was immediately branded the "smiling pope." He took the name John Paul. He had a pastoral touch and solid academic credentials, and was considered a traditional, but not traditionalistic churchman. Little did his electors know that while his heart was there for all to see, it also was a heart about to give out. On the morning of his thirty-third day in office, he failed to come out of his bedroom and was discovered to have died. As no autopsy was performed, it was assumed he died of a stroke. "What is God saying to us?" one cardinal asked. Amid the shock, there were other voices that celebrated the tone and texture of his truncated papacy. John Paul saw that the Curia was far too much a power unto itself, and he was beginning to loosen its grasp. His gentleness and warmth were enormously appealing. He presented a human face after the wraithlike Paul VI. Stunned cardinals streamed back to Rome for his funeral and to elect his successor. But this time they had an advantage few conclaves have. They actually knew each other. (Today in Rome, there are stories of cardinals pointing to another of their rank and whispering, "Who's that?") The October 1978 cardinals knew each other and were determined that the next pope would be strong and vigorous, among other qualities. The popular wisdom was that still another Italian would take John Paul's place. Karol Wojtyla was not considered a serious candidate. Soft-spoken, a poet, but an accomplished outdoorsman, he was considered mildly progressive on church matters, staunchly anti-communist in his native Poland, and actually was the first bishop appointed by John XXIII. According to some reports, he garnered only five votes on the first round of voting. But as warring Italian factions fought each other votes gradually accumulated for the man who would be the first non-Italian pope in nearly five centuries. Eventually he received some ninety votes, far more than the seventy-five needed. To honor the memory of his predecessor, when asked what his name would be, he replied: John Paul II.
Cardinal Law's Mass

He stood there regally before the altar of St. Peter's, bedecked in blazing red vestments, hands folded in prayer, Swiss guards in place, choir in fine voice, the basilica filled to capacity. By virtue of being pastor of one of Rome's nine basilicas, Cardinal Bernard Law was this afternoon's celebrant at one of the nine public Masses offered during the official mourning period to honor the passing of Pope John Paul II. Hundreds of priests were present, as were dozens of bishops and many other cardinals. Because most of the worshippers were Italians, few in the crowd may have known that this was the same Cardinal Law who routinely reassigned pedophile priests, was evasive during the ensuing police investigations, and was finally banished from Boston for his role in the scandals. Some would say he should be facing other kinds of guards. Cardinal Law

Law's role at the Mass offered mute testimony to what Father Keith Pecklers, a liturgy professor here at the Gregorian University, says is the Vatican's inability to "get it." A good portion of American Catholics are incensed about the sexual abuse crisis, this cardinal's poor leadership, and his untimely reward. Forced out of Boston, Law was given a comfortable sinecure in Rome, a salary, personal secretary and household staff. He continues to wield influence as the Church prepares to elect a new pope. "It shows an insensitivity that a lot of people just can't figure out," Father Pecklers added.
Two representatives from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests had flown to Rome to protest Cardinal Law's high-profile role. But when I attended the Mass this afternoon, they were not to be seen. They were preparing to pass out leaflets in St. Peter's Square but were quickly escorted by the police to stand behind the barriers that ring the piazza. Father Walter Cuenin, one of the fifty-eight Boston priests who helped draft and then signed a letter that led to Pope John Paul II's reluctant removal of Law, added his assessment when I called him from Rome: "This continues to be simply unbelievable. Where are the American bishops on this matter? Why can't they explain to Vatican officials how difficult this is in the United States? At the bishops' meeting two years ago in Dallas, it was ruled that one strike and you were out: any offending priest had to leave the ministry. But none of the bishops who so badly mismanaged the situation took any responsibility." I couldn't help but sense a certain irony as the familiar Latin words of the Mass floated over the worshippers: "Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa." "Through My Fault, Through My Fault, Through My Most Grievous Fault." It is a cry to heaven that Cardinal Law repeats during each Mass he says here. According to Fathers Pecklers and Cuenin, American Catholics are questioning if he has taken it to heart.

One Mass Among Many

In these days of mourning for Pope John Paul II, scores of Masses are being offered throughout the world. Here in Rome, many will be grand, public affairs, most notably the nine Masses offered in the nine principal basilicas of Rome. They will accompanied by organ music, suffused with incense, and presided over by at least one cardinal, with many bishops and priests concelebrating. Fine chalices of gold, some embedded with precious stones, will rest upon great altars.

What follows is the story of one of the smallest and least notable of these Masses. It took place at Number 83 Via Sardegna, a rather nondescript salmon-colored building in the fashionable Via Veneto section of Rome. At Number 83, if you open the door and walk to the end of the first floor hallway, you will find a small chapel.

It was not always a chapel, but once a sitting room of the family of Ottorini Respighi, the twentieth-century composer perhaps best known for his The Pines of Rome. Since 1930, number 83 has been owned by the Maryknoll Society, an American missionary group whose men and women have spread the gospel to China, Africa, Mexico, South and Central America. Maryknoll may not be immediately identifiable to you, nor the names of two Maryknollers, Ita Ford and Maura Clarke. But, your memory jogged, you may remember their fate and then something of this religious order.

Sisters Ita and Maura were among the four American women who were raped and murdered by U.S.-backed government troops during the war in El Salvador some twenty-five years ago. The documentary "Roses in December" told their story. Those deaths are now looked back upon as a turning point in the resolution of that brutal civil war.

Sisters Ita and Maura are among the 16 Maryknoll martyrs who have died in the order's 94-year history, spreading a faith so precious to them they could and would not keep it to themselves. As Pope John Paul II spread the gospel with his trips and teachings, Maryknollers stay on the ground, through whatever fate the people they had come to serve are enduring. And so they have a richly deserved reputation within the Church, and are considered to be, in some ways, the Special Forces of Catholicism: they are willing to go anywhere, face any hardships, to spread the gospel.

As the Respighis were great hosts in their day, this house on Via Sardegna, just a few blocks from the sprawling U.S. embassy, has also offered hospitality to so many of the famous--famous in religious circles, that is. For example, the Ghanaian cardinal, Peter Turkson, who is mentioned as possibly electable as pope, usually stays here. As have members of the ultraconservative group Opus Dei. But hewing to the Maryknoll ethos, the unknown, the lowly are equally welcome.

Father Edward Dougherty, just now walking into the chapel with a red stole in his hand, is the house's overseer and Maryknoll's Procurator General--in other words, the order's liaison in Rome. He is a no-nonsense, plain-spoken, 55-year old Philadelphian who has spent 25 years as a Maryknoll priest, eleven of them in rural Tanzania and the urban slums of Kenya. He has lived with malaria, snakes, scorpions, and grinding poverty, and even the allure of Rome's clericalism hasn't fazed him.

Father Ed and Maryknoll quietly help to support Third World seminarians and priests studying in Rome. Right now, two Indian priests are staying here, priests of the Syro-Malankara tradition, a small Eastern rite church beneath Catholicism's expansive, sprawling tent. Also, this week an Arab Catholic priest from Galilee who had come for the funeral with no more than an overnight bag (and no lodging) was gathered up and housed at the Maryknoll house.

Back in the chapel, Father Ed kisses the stole according to the proper ritual, then slips it over the collar of his striped shirt. Just the basics, unadorned. Perhaps he might be looked upon as somewhat the archetype of a certain kind of Vatican II priest--worldly wise and sometimes world-weary, a man who has seen so much and knows that pat answers often don't work, either in life or in spreading the faith. A priest who needs not wear certain clothing to show what is deep within his heart and soul.

"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The Lord be with you," he begins. "And also with you," the lone congregant (myself) replies and Mass begins.

Around the altar on three sides are wooden pews, empty. But such incidentals melt away; the focus is the simple, square wooden altar, covered with a thin slab of marble no more elegant than one you might have in your kitchen. The focus is this timeless, universal act, interspersed with the Scripture readings designated for the day. These will be read uniformly throughout Rome this day, read throughout the entire worldwide Church.

Today's first reading is from the Acts of the Apostles where it is told that the early apostles shared everything in common and no one went wanting. Father Ed nods silently in the reflection period after the readings. He then looks up. "That one always gets me," he says. "The church as it should be. The world as it should be." He shrugs. "We've got a lot of work to do."

And this unadorned Mass continues on, causing Father Ed and the congregant to contemplate not on the grandeur of passing events of these days in Rome, but the simple message of the Gospel for each of their lives. In this time in Rome, there is so much talk about "the church" and "tradition," some would say not as much about following "the Christ." But for this moment on Via Sardegna, there is little concern about what deals might be in motion, who the next pope will be, where the power will reside, or what path Catholicism will take in the years ahead.

At the communion, the consecrated host is broken in two. And all is quiet. Just two Catholics among the billion who profess this faith, trying to reconnect to the mystery, the power of their eternal and unchanging leader.

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