A Saintly Party; Rome’s Irish Archives

Celebrating as the Angelic Doctor Would

By Catherine Smibert

ROME, FEB. 1, 2007 (Zenit.org).- What better way to celebrate the feast of a saint than to party as he would?

This is exactly what the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, the Angelicum, did for its namesake’s feast Jan. 28. It marked the day with a Mass, music and a good meal — with stimulating and intellectual conversation on the side, of course.

Paul Encinias, the president of the university’s student association, said that this year’s celebration stood out for one other reason: the presence of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state.

“His attendance was a beautiful gesture on behalf of the cardinal in recognition of our patron, and this patron of all academic institutions” that promote the synthesis of faith and reason, Encinias told me.

This was the cardinal’s first visit to the university campus as the Vatican secretary of state. He had also visited in 1993 when he accompanied Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was at the time prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

He concelebrated a Mass at the university’s 16th-century Church of San Domenico e Sisto, famous for its possession of the Baroque statuary scene of Christ and Mary Magdalene, the work of an anonymous member of the Bernini school.

It was an intimate and solemn affair as current students and alumni gathered with standing room only.

Cardinal Bertone focused attention most clearly on saint of the day, recounting how the teachings of St. Thomas have been adopted by the cardinal’s own Salesian community. The prelate noted though that much of the saint’s theological greatness and learning came more from his time in prayer than in study.

Father Joseph Agius, rector of the Angelicum, thanked the top Vatican official and commented on the cardinal’s heart for academic environments, as “he too had been rector of the Pontifical Salesian University, known as the Salesianum.”

Afterward, the vice president of the institution, Father Bruno Esposito, told me how much of a living presence the saint is on many campuses which teach the ecclesiastical sciences. He said: “In our methodology, we professors can recall the importance of St. Thomas’ way of allowing his daily familiarity with God to be at the heart of his academic illumination.”

Father Esposito added: “As one of our alumni — Pope John Paul II — said, the Church wants us to recognize such figures as St. Thomas so we may be inspired by their holiness, may share in their road to holiness and experience their intercessions.”

The Mass was followed by a traditional talent show, a short series of performances by students and friends of the university.

This year’s show opened up with a reading from the introduction of commentary of St. Thomas on Boethius’ “De Hebdomads,” in Latin.

The performance was a fitting introduction to the show, for the passage compares the contemplation of wisdom and the nature of “play,” or “ludus.”

Other acts included a performance of the Angelicum choir; Dominican Sisters Mary Angelica and Gabriela who played Bach’s “Ave Maria” on the violin and piano; a reading of the poem “Works in Progress” by Saverio Barra; and the voice of opera singer Lydia O’Kane.

Famed singer/songwriter Maeve Heaney presented two of her pieces in the saint’s honor — a psalm to mark his contemplation to scripture and a Marian composition entitled “Woman of God.”

According to Father Agius, the rector, “all performed with amazing grace,” but it was yet to be beaten by an amusing slide show that paid tribute to the history and present life of the institution which proudly bears the name of this great doctor of the Church.

Then, following a feast of pasta, porchetta (roasted pig), and a lecture, the students and Dominican brothers of the university took turns to swing a stick at a large piñata, in the form of the Summa Theologica.

The sight of the religious and lay students that evening in their playful and intellectual interaction showed clearly the character of the Angelicum — an institution living St Thomas’ continued tradition of teaching Christ’s truth, out of his love.

Walking out of the grand structure after the evening was complete we all encountered the larger than life statue of the saint, certain he had enjoyed the evening too, and sure he was smiling down on us.

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Digging Through History

Unknown to many of those familiar with the lovely Pontifical Irish College here in Rome, a new wealth of knowledge is now readily available in the main archives.

In a lecture in Rome this month the college’s archivist, Vera Orschel, revealed to the world the hidden treasures to be found in the institution’s archives.

She explained that through her cataloguing work she has stumbled upon new information that not only pertains to Ireland’s relationship with the Holy See, but also matters concerning the chronicles of the nation, and all of Europe during certain phases of history.

“It’s certainly taught me a lot, and now that the … correspondence is being catalogued, we’re making access by researchers, students, historians, and the public even easier,” said Orschel.

Stories can be derived from the large collections of correspondence and manuscripts kept on record spanning nearly 400 years of institutional history, and even more, if you count the recently rediscovered medieval documents.

The college’s own material dates back to when the school’s founders — Father Luke Wadding and Cardinal Ludivico Ludovisi — instituted the college in 1628 due to the fact that penal laws in Ireland actually forbade the education of priests.

Subsequently, despite numerous upheavals, including the French occupation of Rome and its refoundation in 1826, the college survived with its archives intact, allowing it to play host to numerous Irish priests and bishops over many generations. In the 17th century such personalities as Eugene Callanan, the martyr St. Oliver Plunkett and James Brennan visited the college.

Letters and other documents from this era have since been preserved and catalogued and transcribed — “a painstaking job that requires a lot of patience,” Orschel adds, “especially when the works are undated.”

Among the most important of these collections is a manuscript history of the college written in 1678 by Father James O’Reilly, as well as the entire collection of letters written by Cardinal Paul Cullen, who was the institution’s rector from 1832 to 1849.

Other historical personages whose correspondence can be found in the archives include Eamon De Valera and Monsignor John Hagan, as well as Irish personalities who are lesser known outside Ireland such as Sean O Ceallaigh and Maude Gonne McBride.

Orschel explains that while many of the archival letters contain simple salutations and details of agency matters (such as the arrangement of errands at the Roman Curia or the purchasing of tickets), the contents remain interesting more for the casual remarks often made outside the main subject matters.

“Such remarks include descriptions of current times and of personal situations,” she said.

Some of the correspondence written in the 1920s, for example, refers to the great political struggles in Ireland and to issues which informed both sides of the civil war.

Other works, particularly those by rectors who represented Irish interests at the Vatican, provide great insight into how propaganda and diplomacy worked at the time, not only in Ireland, but also in Rome and Paris.

Taken together, these writings offer many historical facts and observations from those Irish and international figures who lived during these key periods.

Located just down the road from the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the Irish College archives is open five days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. More information on visiting the archives can be found at www.irishcollege.org.

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Catherine Smibert can be reached at [email protected].

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