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Benedict’s Birthday, and Roman Jalapeños…

Benedict’s Birthday, and Roman Jalapeños…

Benedict’s birthday, and Roman jalapeños Skip to content

Hey everybody,

Greetings from Rome, where Ed and I have traveled for a few days of Pillar meetings. Well, actually, I got here this morning, and Ed will show up in a couple of hours.

First, let me acknowledge that when Ed and I travel, The Pillar produces just a little bit less. For example, I’ve got two important news reports I had hoped to write while I was on airplanes yesterday. But I had two flights, and two middle seats in a row, and I found it impossible to work from either one of them. I’ll do them after I send this newsletter, I promise! 

So I’m sorry for the slight dip in news production that you experience when we’re traveling. But it’s worth it — making somewhat regular trips to the Eternal City is an important part of how we do the serious reporting and investigations that matter in the life of the Church. 

In so many ways, there’s little that compares with a few days at the heart of the Church.

And that includes, of course, praying for our readers, our work, and the people we cover. 

Today, I hope especially to pray at the tomb of Pope Benedict XVI, in the crypt below St. Peter’s Basilica. 

The tomb of Benedict XVI. Credit: Vatican Media.

The late pontiff was born 97 years ago today. April 16 was Holy Saturday that year, and Joseph Ratzinger — named for his father — was born at home, in his parents’ house, in the small town of Marktl, Bavaria, near the Austrian border. He was baptized the same day.

The house where Joseph Ratzinger was born. Credit: Vatican Media.

His seminary studies delayed by the war, Ratzinger became a priest in 1951, a bishop in 1977, and the Roman Pontiff on April 19, 2005 — three days after his 78th birthday. 

Last January, I had the privilege to be at his funeral, covering it for The Pillar. I talked with people who waited hours to pray before his body, and with the Catholics who chanted “Santo subito” — “sainthood now!” at his funeral. 

It’s presumptuous, of course, to assume anyone’s salvation before the Church declares it. So I’ll pray at his tomb today — if I can get in — for Benedict’s soul. And I’ll ask him, if he’s in a position to do so, to pray for the renewal, reform, and vitality of our Church.

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The news

The Pillar reported on Saturday that Fr. David Nicgorski, the American priest accused of manipulating, grooming, and assaulting religious sisters in spiritual direction, faces new allegations, after another religious order made a report to the Vatican about his alleged misconduct. 

But the priest’s own religious order, the Oblates of the Blessed Virgin Mary, has declined to comment on Nicgorski’s current status. And the newly reported allegations raise questions about whether members of his community knew, or could have known, about serious misconduct before Nicgorski was elected their superior general. 

This is a sobering situation, and it’s not yet resolved. And it points to something that victims’ advocates have said for a while — that the abuse of adults in the Church, both and in and out of religious life, has not yet been thoroughly addressed, understood, or adjudicated. But it needs to be.

Read about it here.

A Vatican City judge dismissed on Friday criminal charges filed against an Italian journalist, with the judge ruling that the court has no jurisdiction over foreign media.

What happened was this: Earlier this month, Vatican prosecutors charged an Italian website with publishing confidential documents and defaming Pope Francis. 

The site said the charges were retaliation, which came after it published information about a connection between some Italian Church officials and a regional politician, along with criticism of Bambino Gesù Hospital’s compliance with ecclesiastical law. 

If the charges were retaliatory, the effort didn’t work, because Vatican City judge Giuseppe Pignatone struck them down after a very brief hearing. 

That’s not the first time that Vatican City prosecutors have tried to take Italian journalists to court. And the results are usually the same.

Read all about it.  

Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako returned to Baghdad last Wednesday at the personal invitation of the country’s prime minister, nine months after leaving the Iraqi capital.

Sako had left Baghdad in July 2023, entering a kind of self-imposed exile, as he claimed that the government’s policy toward his church was being influenced by an Iranian-backed militia leader who has claimed to speak for Chaldean Catholics in the country. 

While Iran’s aggression in recent days makes headlines around the world, Sako’s possible relief in Iraq likely won’t. But the cardinal said he believes that the Iraqi government will do the right thing in the days to come, by supporting Sako’s right to lead the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq.

More here.

The Holy See expressed serious concern Saturday after a French civil court found Cardinal Marc Ouellet liable for authorizing the dismissal of a religious sister without just cause.

The Holy See indicated in an April 13 note that a civil court decision about a religious dismissal is a very dangerous precedent. 

That decision “could have given rise to a serious violation of the fundamental rights to religious freedom and freedom of association of the Catholic faithful.”

To understand the Vatican’s objections — and the backstory of a very complicated canonical and civil case — look no further than Luke Coppen’s reporting.

Check it out here


The way of beauty

On a walk this morning, I ambled past a sight I almost never stop for in the Vatican neighborhood — the long line of tourists waiting to get into the Vatican Museums.

Tourists line up outside the Vatican Museums.

Readers of The Pillar know that line is important. Almost seven million people visit the Vatican Museums annually. The revenue that generates plays an increasingly important part in the operating budget of the Roman Curia. When people come to see the Sistine Chapel and the Stanze di Raffaello, they’re contributing to the operations of the Vatican itself — to the ongoing and necessary bureaucratic work of the Church. 

Today I watched people in line for a while. They came in shorts and flip-flops, they crushed candy on their phones while they waited, they queued wearing cruise-ship nametags, and with group leaders speaking Mandarin, English, German, and a handful of other global tongues.

And statistically, it’s likely that most of them don’t practice the faith. They come because there are great and beautiful works of art in those museums, and when you come to Rome, you’re supposed to look at them, before you get a gelato and move on to the next thing. 

Tourists line up outside the Vatican Museums.

But it occurred to me today that the 6.8 million people who went to the Vatican Museums last year had the opportunity to be touched by the grace of beauty. Now, don’t get me wrong. Many Vatican and Roman tour guides — with some very impressive exceptions — don’t practice the faith themselves, or frame their tours in the context of prayer for which many of those works of art were created. But the pieces of sacred art in the Vatican Museums are themselves sacramentals. They point to the Paschal mystery of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. 

I started to think this morning that seeing those beautiful sacred things may well sow seeds in the hearts of the thronging, flip-flopped, bickering tourists who file past them before getting back on the bus. And it occurred to me that for some of them, those seeds could be the instrument of conversion.

And I guess I realized that means that we — readers and writers of The Pillar, and Catholics of goodwill — should be praying for the tourists who see the work of Michelangelo, Bernini, and Fra Angelico.  Not just that they keep the lights on, but that the Holy Spirit stirs their hearts by beauty. 

“Some artistic expressions are real highways to God, the supreme Beauty; indeed, they help us to grow in our relationship with him, in prayer. These are works that were born from faith and express faith,” Benedict XVI put it.

Many of those artistic expressions are in the Vatican’s Museums. May faith — real, convicting, transformative faith — be born from them.

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All roads lead to al pastor

Because I come to Rome a few times a year — and because I’m jovially portly, I suspect — I get asked fairly often for Roman restaurant recommendations: the logic being that a person of my girth doesn’t travel somewhere to eat poorly.

It’s sound logic, but lately I’ve felt badly that my restaurant recommendations are mostly confined to standard Italian places around the Vatican, or at Piazza Navona, or in a few other well-trafficked parts of the city. If you’re coming to Rome and you want to eat cucina Romana, I can steer you pretty well, and explain, for example, why da Roberto is the hands-down best lunchtime fare within spitting distance of St. Peter’s. But a lot of people can explain that, and lately I’ve felt that I should expand my repertoire, and get a little off the established restaurant path.

So today, mostly to stave off the first-day jet lag — and for you, dear readers — I hooked it off the beaten path, walking a couple of miles to the Mercato Irnerio — an open-air neighborhood market well outside the ordinary Roman tourist track.

These fishmongers don’t like looky-loos.

The market is in a neighborhood where I got yelled at in Italian, in Farsi, and in Hindi, but I didn’t hear anyone at all speaking English. There, I got scolded by a fishmonger for looking at his selection of squid with no obvious intent to purchase:

I ogled these squids, but obviously wasn’t buying.

And at an attached flea market, a couple of persuasive merchants tried to convince me that I should buy a 100-year-old rusty and decorative sword — an antique, sure, but not an antiquity.

I didn’t buy it — obviously — but I did take a few practice swings:

But much as I enjoyed watching a shoe repair guy work, and perusing an Italian party store, that’s not what I was there for.

I was there for tacos. Because Mercato Irnerio promises to be the home of the most authentic, and delicious, taco stand in all of Rome. Probably all of Italy.

El Jalapeño, as it’s called, isn’t much to look at. It’s a taco stand. It’s got a few tables out front, and Norteño music pumping out of the kitchen. It’s owned by a Mexican-Italian woman, and staffed by a few Mexicans and a few Italians.

El Jalapeño.

And guys, El Jalapeño is not the greatest taco stand you’ve ever visited. Unless you’ve only been to taco stands in Italy.

The tacos are fine. The al pastor is very good. The taco with Italian bacon is delicious, albeit greasy. The chicharones taco is a drippy, flimsy thing, with no crispness whatsoever.

But there comes a point in everyone’s journey to Italy when they’re ready to take a break from carbonara, norcina, and saltimbocca. There comes a time when every traveler is ready for a taste of home.

Here’s my recommendation: When you get to that point, don’t go to the Roman McDonald’s, like everyone else does. Take a long walk, clear your head, and then sit down for some very cold beer, and a more American-style bit of culinary appropriation. Get yourself some so-so Mexican food. 

A squash-blossom quesadilla.

That, my friends, is the American way. 

By the way, one of the reasons we’re in Rome right now is to meet with Edgar Beltrán, whom we are hoping to hire as our Rome correspondent. We’ve told you in the last few weeks that hiring him depends on you — that we need our readers to become our (paying) subscribers for that to happen.

A lot of you have responded. Thank you for subscribing, or for upgrading your subscription. Really, it means a lot. We’ve gotten almost to the goal we set, of 200 new subscribers. 

If you think having a Pillar correspondent in Rome, doing full-time and serious journalism, is worth it, well, now’s your chance to support it:

upgrade your subscription.

Subscribe now

Thank you.

Please be assured of our prayers, today, from the Eternal City. And please pray for us. We need it.

Yours in Christ,

JD Flynn
The Pillar

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