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Rookie Priest: Rookie priest at home in Rome

Tenth in a series

Sunday, April 29, 2001

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

ROME -- The Rev. Jim Farnan's journey to the AIDS hospice began before dawn as he zigzagged through the deserted streets of Rome in his Bedford Rascal, a van resembling a shoe box.

The Rev. Jim Farnan says Mass to nuns at an AIDS hospice in Rome. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette photo)


Next: Two Italian burial sites offer lessons in sacrifice for the Rev. Jim Farnan

Before entering the priesthood, he had racked up speeding tickets as a traveling salesman. His driving habits served him well in Rome, where he quickly acquired a native disregard for one-way street signs and lane markers.

Now 36, the former McMurray resident was ordained in June for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is following his early ministry. While finishing a degree in Rome, he also celebrates Mass at an AIDS hospice, a homeless shelter and for American college students.

Mass is at 5:30 a.m. Wednesdays for the Missionaries of Charity at their hospice in a farmhouse outside Rome. As he parked in the walled garden, a sister wearing a blue-trimmed white sari greeted him at the kitchen door.

One morning Farnan confided that he hadn't slept, having studied all night. She nodded sympathetically and told him of how tired she had been one morning. She prayed to go to sleep on the chapel floor. But when she opened her Bible, the first words she read were, "It is not yet time to rest."

As Farnan entered for Mass, the sisters sang of bringing good news to the poor. He preached on Jesus' parable about a rich man who told his servants to invest his money.

"The economy of God is not the economy of this world," he said. "In this world, for so many, you have what you take. In God's economy, you have what you give."

Birds began to sing as the Mass ended, heralding the sunrise. The sisters offered him a breakfast of pastry, fruit and strong coffee.

The 15 female hospice residents are normally asleep during Mass. Most acquired AIDS through drug use or prostitution, often after being lured to Italy from Africa or the Balkans with false promises of good jobs. Many are near death.

"We take them from the hospital to prepare their hearts for God," Sister Matilda said.

Sometimes, if the residents feel better, they return to the streets. But they soon return in medical or financial crises. The sisters welcome them back as prodigal daughters, she said.

Joy radiating from sisters

The sister stood by a sign found in every Missionaries of Charity sacristy: "Priest of God, pray this Mass as if it were your first Mass, your last Mass, your only Mass." Farnan has made it his motto.

One morning, Sister Matilda asked him to offer the final sacraments to their oldest resident, Rosa, 35, a widow whose husband had given her AIDS 15 years earlier. Farnan climbed the stairs to the small, clean room.

Rosa's breath came in short gasps. As he prayed over her, he saw no sign that she heard him. Rosa would die two days later.

But Farnan marveled at the joy radiating from the sisters, despite their immersion in suffering. He also offers weekly Mass for another 40 Missionaries of Charity sisters at a large homeless shelter, soup kitchen and old-age home in Rome, where their chapel is a converted chicken coop. They inspire him far more than he does them, he said.

"Preaching to them is a challenge," he said. "How do you talk about Lenten mortification to women who only own two pieces of clothes and a bucket?"

Another kind of inspiration comes from Masses he offers in St. Peter's Basilica for family and friends who visit Rome. It is not only an architectural treasure but the burial site of the Apostle Peter and other early martyrs. Farnan was ordained a deacon there in 1999.

For a priest, he conceded, it's "like playing Carnegie Hall."

Just after dawn on a dull December morning, Farnan met three friends of his younger brother's in an all-but-deserted St. Peter's Square.

In a few hours, thousands of pilgrims would wait there to pass through the bronze Holy Door of the basilica for special blessings associated with 2000. Farnan felt privileged to be in Rome during the Great Jubilee, as Pope John Paul II led celebrations for more than 25 million pilgrims.

Almost every week, John Paul celebrated the gifts of some profession to society. The favorite of Farnan and other students at the North American College was the Jubilee of the Pizza Makers, when 50,000 slices of pizza were given away near the Vatican.

But the plaza was deserted as Farnan led Robert Firth of South Bend, Ind., and his two grown daughters toward the Holy Door. Just ahead of them, a long-haired, haggard middle-aged man fell to his knees beneath the door frame to cross himself. He then prostrated himself on the marble floor before the Pieta, Michelangelo's statue of Mary holding her crucified son.

'Who, me?'

Farnan vested in the sacristy. He emerged facing a mosaic of Ananias and Sapphira, who the New Testament says were struck dead after they kept part of a gift they had promised to the church.

"It's there to remind priests not to hold anything back," Farnan said.

A red-robed altar boy led them in search of an open altar among the 44 in St. Peter's. It took 10 minutes to find one where Mass was not being celebrated in the language of some pilgrim group.

Farnan preached on Jesus' declaration that he would give Peter and the apostles the keys to the kingdom.

If St. Peter's Square and basilica are viewed from above, Farnan said, "You will find that it is shaped like a keyhole. The faith that our Lord gave the apostles was the key they needed to insert into the world to open the doors to heaven."

St. Peter's is special, but Rome is filled with inspiration.

On his way to class, Farnan stopped in the Church of San Luigi di Francesco. He dropped a coin into a box to illuminate Michelangelo Caravaggio's painting of the Call of St. Matthew.

In the painting, Matthew, the tax collector, is seated at a table with several other men. A celestial light streams onto Matthew's face as Christ stands at the back of the room beckoning to him. The others appear oblivious to Jesus' presence. But Matthew stares back with an expression that asks, "Who, me?"

"It's a favorite painting of a lot of the guys in the seminary, because it's about the call to priesthood," Farnan said.

One night a week, Farnan says Mass for students from St. Mary's College in Indiana. The live in downtown Rome and have Mass in the tiny Church of SS. Benedict and Scholastica. About 15 students and chaperones gathered for 8:30 p.m. Mass in the church, which seats about 40.

In his homily, Farnan told a story about a tightrope walker working without a net above Niagara Falls. He performed increasingly difficult feats while the crowd shouted that they believed he could do it. Finally, after pushing a wheelbarrow across, he asked which of his fans would let him push them across inside it.

"That is where the confession of our lips challenges us to do what is necessary for salvation," he said.

"We profess that Jesus is our Lord and Savior every time we walk up to receive communion. But, in our lives, do we walk away from temptation, from sin and shortcomings? Do we follow our Lord to a new and unending life? Do we climb into the wheelbarrow with Jesus?"

'Slice of Italian culture'

He stayed after Mass to speak with the students. He has taken them all out for gelato, Italian ice cream. That made him an instant hit, and helped them feel he was someone with whom they could relax and be open.

Colleen Miles, a sophomore from Bridgeville, was impressed with the depth of Farnan's preaching.

"The homily tonight really made me think about how we say that Jesus is Lord, but the act of receiving communion reaffirms that," she said.

With a semester change, some of his most faithful students returned to the United States. The new group was more of a party crowd. Even students who had stayed for a second semester began to skip Mass for bar-hopping .

One night, Farnan celebrated Mass with only the sacristan, who was present only because it was her work-study job. She cheerfully bubbled about how happy she was that the assignment would soon end.

"She had no idea, I don't think, exactly what she was saying to me," Farnan said.

Just before Easter, Mass was canceled because the students would fly home the next day. One hour before the usual time, a college staff member called to say several students had asked for a Mass. Could Farnan come?

He found the chapel filled with students who wanted a Mass and a blessing before they traveled. Farnan thought of the Missionaries of Charity, welcoming back the wayward residents of their hospice.

"People go away and do what they want sometimes, but they always find their way back when they are facing something challenging, difficult or frightening," he said.

On his way home from the college Mass, Farnan can detour to the Piazza Navona for a performance of the Finger Dancer.

This street artist has perfected the art known to Americans as "let your fingers do the walking." While his middle and index fingers function as legs, he has devised elaborate finger gloves that provide them with costumes, heads and arms. And he has carefully choreographed their routines to music from his small boom box.

As a crowd gathered in the square, the Finger Dancer distributed flashlights to illuminate his performance. He opened with a dramatic tango between his right and left hands. He posed, swayed and gestured with great intensity and panache as his digits danced on the small table he used as a stage. After a change of gloves, his right hand became Charlie Chaplin and his left hand a young lady as they courted on a doll's park bench.

He concluded with a solo performance by his right hand, moonwalking in a glitzy glove to the music of Michael Jackson.

There are jugglers and other performers in the Piazza Navona, but it is the Finger Dancer whom most American priests and seminarians return to watch, and bring their guests to see.

"He's an artist, he takes himself very seriously and he loves all those people watching him," Farnan said.

"It's good, clean, fun, and a good slice of Italian culture, in a way. I mean, you can only take so many marble statues."

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