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 CNS Story:

VATICAN LETTER Jul-28-2006 (830 words) Backgrounder. With photos. xxxi

U.S. priests working at the Vatican call quiet Villa Stritch home

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- U.S. diocesan priests working at the Vatican hang their collars at the Villa Stritch, a complex with two apartment buildings surrounded by green lawns and an unusual silence for the city of Rome.

The 27 small apartments at the villa, opened in 1968, have been full for more than 15 years, even though the original idea was that a few apartments would be available for visiting bishops.

And although the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' headquarters in Washington is more than 4,400 miles away, the Villa Stritch is feeling the bishops' tightening purse strings.

While individual bishops and their dioceses lend priests to the Vatican, the entire bishops' conference helps support them.

Msgr. Robert Sarno from the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y., the director of the villa, says the Villa Stritch annual budgets have remained the same for 2004-2007.

Each of the residents contributes $340 a month from his Vatican salary to the house, covering about 20 percent of the Villa Stritch expenses; the U.S. bishops' grant a $480,000 subsidy to the villa each year to cover the rest of the costs.

Meals and utilities are included, but not telephone and Internet connection charges, Msgr. Sarno said. In addition, residents pay for their own cars -- a necessity given the villa's location far from public transportation -- Vatican health insurance and contributions to the Vatican pension and severance-pay funds.

Msgr. Sarno said the bishops' conference is considering establishing an endowment fund to help cover the villa's expenses while easing the burden on the conference's annual budget.

Even though only 18 dioceses have priests living at the Villa Stritch, the entire U.S. church benefits from their presence, Msgr. Sarno said. Through the priests, the U.S. church is represented at the Vatican and bishops and the faithful know they can find an English speaker who knows the U.S. church when problems arise.

Giving up a priest, he said, "is a sacrifice for the diocese, a sacrifice the Holy See appreciates."

Each apartment at the Villa Stritch has a bedroom, bathroom, combination sitting room-study and balcony. There is a small kitchen on the ground floor of each building with a refrigerator, a hot plate and a microwave.

The industrial ice machines in each kitchen are the most obviously American thing about the Villa Stritch in a country where usually only cocktails are served on the rocks.

But the residents eat Italian meals, cooked by Polish nuns, and have their main meal together at midday in the Italian tradition.

The priests raid the fridge for their evening meals.

The dining room, chapel and communal living room are in one building, while the communal television room is in the other.

The Villa Stritch "is an oasis in the sense that it provides us with priestly fraternity in the American cultural context," said Msgr. Sarno, who has been an official at the Congregation for Saints' Causes since 1982.

"It is a supportive environment both in terms of our priesthood as well as our being in a foreign country and working at the Vatican," said the monsignor.

The current residents are employed in 19 different Vatican offices from the Secretariat of State to the Vatican Library, and from the Vatican newspaper to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

While Msgr. Sarno is the senior resident, Msgr. Anthony Frontiero of the Diocese of Manchester, N.H., is the newest. He took up his post at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in June.

From outside the walled villa, the community may seem isolated in American ways, but the priests all work in offices where Italian is the working language.

Msgr. Frontiero learned Italian while working at the Vatican's U.N. mission, but has spent his first month in Rome going to school "to get back into it."

Mainly because he did not want to have to buy a car, he said he was hoping to live closer to his office.

"The Villa Stritch is a beautiful place, but it is out of the way," he said. He now has a car "and it's fine," he added.

And while he was surprised there was not more of a common prayer life and common social life among Villa Stritch residents, he said, "it's much better than the other clergy residences in Rome."

The Villa Stritch is unique; it is the only residence for Vatican priest-employees sponsored by a bishops' conference. And it is small enough that the residents know each other, where they are from and where they work.

Most Vatican-employed priests live in one of three huge buildings that are part residence, part hotel for visiting bishops. And they pay more than $1,000 a month for rent, meals and laundry service.

But they can all walk to work in less than 15 minutes. They don't need cars, which is a good thing since there is parking usually only for the director.


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