A mosaic depitcting St. Patrick using a shamrock to explain the Trinity graces the wall behind the altar at Rome’s St. Patrick’s Church. It is Cardinal Collins’ titular parish in Rome. Photo by Jim O’Leary

Cardinal Collins’ Irish roots come in handy for his titular parish in Rome

By 
  • February 22, 2012

ROME - For the first time in its 100-year history, St. Patrick’s Irish National Church in Rome has a Cardinal Protector who is not Irish. But in Cardinal Thomas Collins the congregation figures it has been blessed with the next best thing.

“He has Irish roots,” said Fr. Tony Finn. “So there’s still an Irish connection. We’re delighted.”

When the Pope welcomes new members into the College of Cardinals they are made a titular pastor of a church in Rome. As such, they are entitled to vote in a papal conclave in keeping with  the centuries-old tradition that the clergy of Rome elect the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. Collins learned that he was awarded St. Patrick’s a few days before the consistory but was sworn to secrecy until the Pope’s announcement.

“I think Cardinal Collins will be happy here,” said Finn. “It gives our church a big lift to have him. I don’t know a lot about him but I do know that he has been focussed on child protection, and people appreciate that.”

On the day Collins was made a cardinal, Finn went to a public reception to welcome his new Cardinal Protector. He said he was very impressed.

“He’s a very pleasant man. Warm. Humble. He seemed very happy to be coming to St. Patrick’s,” Finn said.

“I found him very open. He has an easy, pleasant manner, a good warm smile and a good warm heart.”

St. Patrick’s was founded by the Augustinian Order to serve Irish expatriates in Rome. It is on land donated to the Church in the 1890s by a wealthy Rome landowner, the Ludovisi family, and today is surrounded by embassies, banks and high-end retail shops in an upscale neighbourhood about 10 minutes walk from the Spanish Steps.

The church celebrates a Mass in English each Sunday for expats as well as visitors. On a recent Sunday, however, there were few of either. The church has seats for about 300 worshippers but only 17 were filled. Five of them were occupied by a Dublin family on vacation and two held Iraqi Christians studying in Rome.

“There aren’t many families in the neighbourhood any more,” Finn explained. “It’s gone very upmarket and people can’t afford to live here.”

By Rome standards, the church itself is simple but very elegant, with marble floors and 14 pink marble and alabaster columns. The side walls are bare except for a set of Stations of the Cross that are exquisite carvings in marble.

But the most striking feature is a huge, beautiful mosaic high above the altar depicting St. Patrick using a shamrock to explain the Trinity as he converts the Irish king.

Irish couples from Rome and beyond come to St. Patrick’s to receive an Irish wedding. At one time, weddings were held almost every weekend and bookings had to be made well in advance. But, says Finn, business has declined in recent years.

“It’s a symptom of the time we live in,” he said. “Tough economic times have hit and we’ve gone back to small numbers.”

St. Patrick’s has been without a Cardinal Protector since the death of Irish Cardinal Cahal Daly two years ago. His coat of arms still hangs beside the main entrance. It will be replaced by the coat of arms of Collins as soon as possible, said Finn. He is also looking forward to hanging a large portrait of Collins in the church.

“And maybe we’ll also hang a smaller version in the hall,” he said. “I think the people would like that.”

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