Rome: the spiritual center of Catholicism. It’s a city visited by millions each year, particularly pilgrims in search of a connection with the roots of their faith, a city where so many spent and sacrificed their lives for the Gospel.
Any visitor or resident will tell you that the remains of a saint can be found at every corner. From the tomb of St. Monica, mother of St. Augustine of Hippo, located a few steps from Rome’s famed Piazza Navona, to St. Peter’s Basilica, where the remains of the Apostle Peter, St. John Paul II, and other popes can be venerated.
But how can one make sense of the sheer quantity of important churches, shrines, basilicas, and chapels in the Eternal City? How does one take advantage of praying in front of the remains of a saint or martyr on their feast day? These are just some of the questions that Deacon Dan Thelen hopes to address in his book, Saints in Rome.
A Wisconsin native, Deacon Thelen has lived in Rome for the past four years, studying at the Pontifical North American College. The 34-year-old American will be ordained a priest this summer for the Diocese of La Crosse.
The book started as a simple document that he shared with the seminarians at the college, but then Deacon Thelen’s idea of cataloguing the myriads of saints in the Eternal City expanded into a Web site and is now published in E-book format and hardcover.
The deacon spoke with ZENIT on the origins of this labor of love and how connecting with the saints helps him, and hopefully others, to discover a new way of understanding Christ and the Church.
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ZENIT: What brought about the idea of this book?
Deacon Thelen: Well, the book was never a vision at first, it was just to get to know the saints here in Rome. Coming from America, we don’t have the closeness with the saints. So being in Rome I wanted to find the saints. There are plenty of documents and books out there that help one to get to know all the saints but they’re not organized by the liturgical calendar and I really wanted to pray with the Church, going to the saints and their shrines where they had prayed themselves, on their feast days. So it was my idea to organize this resource.
First of all, I created a PDF document that I emailed to my seminary community to share with them. Then I realized that, although I didn’t know how to create webpages, I knew how to make a blog into a quasi-webpage, and so I uploaded the information onto the blog.
It has received about 30 visitors every day for the last two years. And after 2-3 years of working on this, people began to ask for a hard copy. So I eventually started to finalize things and completed it before I finished my studies in Rome. So I self-published through a company called Lulu. It is now being sold on Amazon and other places.
Initially, I didn’t really understand the value of relics. I accepted the veneration of relics but it wasn’t a part of my spirituality. But I had a special encounter with a relic in Minnesota on a retreat. And after that I realized that God works through the remains of a saint, just as he does, using other materials in the world to communicate His grace. He uses the grain of wheat to communicate Himself through the Eucharist or the wine to communicate His Blood.
So, He uses his creation to communicate His grace to this world. And through that experience and understanding, I began to understand the value of relics. But I really think my focus is on getting to know the saint, and walking in their steps, to see what they saw, and trying to take on their spirituality by being in the same location they were in.
ZENIT: Is there any specific saint here that you’ve visited that helped you personally in strengthening your vocation to the priesthood?
Thelen: Saint Lawrence is a big one. My middle name is Lawrence. He was martyred here in Rome and there are many churches dedicated to him. Last year, I did a little church walk with my seminary floor and we walked around to the different shrines for Saint Lawrence. Also to be ordained a deacon in the city he was martyred in, where he was a deacon himself, has been an exceptional grace. My thanksgiving Mass after diaconate, with Bishop William Callahan, was at the Church where St. Lawrence was martyred. He was martyred down in the crypt and above they built a church. So it was really special to be here for this Mass!
ZENIT: What do you hope people will get out of this book?
Thelen: The saints lead us to Christ! And every saint is a unique part of the Body of Christ and they have a unique charism that they have to offer.
I think this resource allows one to find the saint that they love and to encounter them in a more profound way, especially in the liturgy. Thus by finding the saints on their feast days and praying with them in the liturgy one can come to a greater understanding of Christ, the Trinity and the Faith. So, ultimately, the goal is to make people know Christ through this book and through the website at http://www.saintsinrome.com.
It’s a great medium for evangelization because there are many people who can simply search on the site in their pajamas, and they can do a virtual tour. So it doesn’t have to be used for a physical pilgrimage, but can even be used as a virtual pilgrimage.