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Spotlight Report

Controversy has barely touched Law's titular parish in Rome

By Jason Horowitz, Globe Correspondent, 5/9/2002

ROME - Surrounded by Renaissance frescoes, the parishioners at Santa Susanna Church listened Sunday as an American priest talked about the troubles that have shaken the Catholic Church back home.

''Given the state of the church today, what's the reason for your hope?'' said the Rev. Larry Rice, a visiting priest from Washington who gave the homily at Mass.

Nearly all of the 250 families in Santa Susanna's congregation are expatriate Americans. This is also Cardinal Bernard F. Law's parish in Rome. Law is the 77th cardinal priest of Santa Susanna, a largely symbolic distinction for cardinals who for centuries have been assigned parishes near the Vatican in addition to their dioceses.

Churchgoers at Santa Susanna, however, have a different perspective of the crisis than their American counterparts.

''The message that this community sent to me was that we're really tired of the way in which this issue has been greatly inflated,'' said the church's rector, the Rev. Paul Robichaud, who wears a pin of American and Vatican flags on his lapel.

Others at the parish agreed with Robichaud. ''Journalists exaggerate,'' said Idilia Falconi, a Chicago native who sits on the Finance Committee of the parish.

''If something comes out that Cardinal Law made a mistake, there's already enough people asking for an explanation,'' Falconi said.

The relationship between Law and Santa Susanna, which is designated the American parish in Rome, is part of a Catholic tradition dating to AD 590, when cardinals were members of the local Roman clergy. Since then, cardinals have maintained a link to Rome by becoming the nominal pastor of a local parish.

In 1985, Cardinal Law became the third consecutive cardinal from the Boston Archdiocese to be assigned by the pope to Santa Susanna. His photo appears in the church's guidebook, and his name is printed in bold print in the weekly newsletter.

''In reality, it's a symbolic tie now,'' said John Allen Jr., Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, an independent Catholic weekly in the United States.

But the connection, however thin, drew American reporters and other foreign press to Santa Susanna during the Vatican's extraordinary meeting of American cardinals late last month.

The overwhelming response among parishioners here is that they come to Santa Susanna for the sense of an American Catholic community, with its English-language Masses, to sing along with the choir, and to enjoy the coffee and coronetti after the service.

''Many of us have lived here for 20 or 30 years, and we feel as Italian as we do American,'' said Larry Gray, a professor of European politics who has lived in Rome for 30 years. ''But there is a feeling of togetherness here, so people come from all over the city to the service, to see friends.''

These American expatriates are more concerned about issues facing them in their adopted country than Cardinal Law's next court deposition in Boston.

''The feelings are less intense than they are in America,'' said Robichaud, a Boston native. ''It's not as big an issue for Americans in Rome as it is for Americans in Boston. It is still a concern, but there is distance here.''

But in some small ways, Law's troubles have affected the 1,700-year-old parish. There was an advantage to having a high-profile American cardinal connected to the parish. When the roof caved in during the 1980s, Cardinal Law and the archdiocese offered some aid. When Santa Susanna improved the lighting for its frescoes six years ago, the archdiocese again contributed money.

Since the crisis, new appeals for aid have not been made, partly because of recognition that Law and the Boston Archdiocese have been in financial straits.

This story ran on page A36 of the Boston Globe on 5/9/2002.
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