My 12 years in Rome

By L.X. Jerome, SJ

Experiences: A few months back INI’s editor, M.A. Joe Antony, SJ, a good friend, sent me a mail asking me to write an article for INI on my experiences in Rome. My initial reaction was an emphatic ‘no’. I told him that talking about my experiences would sound like ‘bragging’… Instead, I had suggested, I was willing to write an article on a particular topic. Joe was gracious enough to accept my view, but, later, he sent me a message: “Jerry, ideas can be got from anywhere. But only if the person is willing, we can get to know his experiences. It is easy to discuss ideas. It is very difficult to share our experiences.” He went on to say: “But experiences are more valuable as they bring us a person – not just ideas. Trouble arises if you interpret sharing as bragging. You can share without bragging.”

Joe, as most of us know, has been quite successful in editing various magazines – New Leader, JIVAN and now INI. Now I understood it is partly because he is good at persuading people to write on various topics. Count me as one more person giving in to his persuasive power. I shall try my best to share my experiences in Rome for 12 years – from 2009 to 2021 – both pleasant and unpleasant, the joys of living in the famous city as well as those experiences that shocked or saddened me.

Asked to go: In April-May, 2009, when I had completed 14 years of service as a lecturer in Loyola College, Chennai, my Provincial, Fr Devadoss Mudiyappa, literally ‘packed me off’ to Rome, saying that my services were required at Vatican Radio immediately. When I expressed my hesitation to go to another country at the age of 59, Fr Devadoss reminded me of Fr Adolfo Nicolas, who took up the ministry of leading the Society of Jesus just the previous year, 2008, at the age of 72. Later, while I was in Rome, I saw another Jesuit, who took up the ministry of leading the Catholic Church as the Bishop of Rome at the age of 77. So I learnt the simple lesson that there is no ‘retirement age’ for a Jesuit!

I learnt the simple lesson that there is no ‘retirement age’ for a Jesuit!

Contract for three years: I was given a contract to work in the Vatican Radio for three years. When I eventually left Rome, I had served there for 12 years and three months. During all those years, there was no mention of the ‘contract’. During my stay there, I met two more Provincials of my province as well as three Delegates in Rome. Whenever I brought up this topic of the ‘contract for three years’ with my Provincials and with my local authorities in Rome (Delegates, Community Superiors and Directors of work at Vatican Radio), I was simply given the assurance that ‘I was doing a good job’. Those assurances gave me the necessary energy to continue with my work. Of course, there were moments when my energy level was low. In those moments, I drew inspiration from other Jesuits who had worked in Rome for many, many years!

Canisius: I had the privilege of living at the Jesuit Residence of St Peter Canisius – which also was the infirmary for the Jesuits in Rome. It is there I met all those stalwarts who had worked for more than 30, 40 or 50 years in Rome. Many of those Jesuits were in their 80s and 90s (two of them lived beyond 100!). I could interact with many of them and learn quite a few lessons. Some of them were ageing gracefully, while some others found it difficult. I had seen many of them diminish gradually – from walking with the help of a support to being confined to the wheelchair and, ultimately, to being confined to the coffin – a great lesson for me as to how I need to get ready for my ‘second childhood’.

It is there I met all those stalwarts who had worked for more than 30, 40 or 50 years in Rome.

Learning Italian: The natural facility that children have to learn new languages was not available to me at the age of 59. I was expected to learn Italian at that age. Since I had gone there on a ‘three-year contract’, I did not push myself too much. I did not graduate from the elementary level in the Italian language. Fortunately, it was sufficient for my life in the community as well as in my workplace. But attending various meetings with this handicap was a lesson in humility!

Pope John XXIII: For the first three years (2009 – 2012), life in Rome was rather ‘normal’. I was rather ‘choosy’ in visiting various places in Italy. One of the places I really wanted to go was ‘Sotto il Monte’, a small village in the Bergamo region, where one of my favourite Popes, Pope St John XXIII was born. My visits to St Peter’s Basilica almost always ended with a visit to the altar of St Jerome, where the body of St John XXIII is preserved. Happily, I was present in Rome on the day (27 April 2014 – the Divine Mercy Sunday) when the ‘Good Pope’ John XXIII was canonized along with Pope John Paul II.

When a Pope renounced: After the first three ‘non-eventful’ years in Rome, came 11 February 2013 – the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, when the then Pope Benedict XVI announced his ‘Renunciation’. From then on, life and work in Rome were a roller-coaster ride. From 12 February, 2013, Rome was filled with journalists from all over the world. Rome became, as it were, the centre of the media world. Vatican Radio also had its fair share of media attention.

The Jesuit community where I lived also played host to many important persons – Church and media personnel. The excitement from our work station spilled over to our community – especially in the form of the ‘table talk’. Since our community is an international community of Jesuits coming from more than 15 countries, we spoke about many ‘candidates’ who could be the next Pope and the criteria to choose the Pope. The Holy Spirit made His choice on 13 March, 2013!

Memorable day: 13 March, 2013 is etched as one of the most memorable days of my life. After having completed the day’s work at Vatican Radio around 5 pm, I went back to my community, saying to myself that the chances for a new Pope being elected in the evening ballot of that day were very slim.

I was wrong. Around 7 p.m., white smoke drifted from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel where the Conclave was held. Habemus Papam! Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the only Jesuit to attend the Conclave, had been elected the new Pope! 

Pope Francis: When Pope Francis appeared on the balcony of St Peter’s Square wearing only a simple white robe and a silver cross with no other ‘extra fitting’, I felt happy. His first greeting – a simple  ‘Buona sera,’ or ‘Good evening,’ made me feel closer to him. The special ‘quality moment’ came when Pope Francis requested the people gathered at St Peter’s Square to pray for him and stood in front of them with his head bowed. Those few seconds, in my opinion, set the tone of his style of leadership. I was happy that the ‘Jesuit Pope’ had put his signature on the papacy in terms of simplicity and humility.

In the first three to four years, Pope Francis surprised me with so many gestures and statements and thus he found a way into most of the homilies I had shared in Vatican Radio. After those years of romantic fervour for Pope Francis, there came a period of mixed emotions. There were moments when I could not see eye to eye with Pope Francis. I guess a position like his has its own ‘political equations’ to resolve. Given my nature, I could see that I was slowly withdrawing from the magic circle Pope Francis had created in 2013.

This distance became critical when the case of Fr Stan Swamy captured the attention of the Indian media as well as the world media. I was expecting a statement – some statement – from the Vatican and from Pope Francis, who, in all probability, was a contemporary of Fr Stan Swamy. When there was total silence from the Pope, even after the death of Fr Stan, I was highly disappointed. To this day, I do not know why Pope Francis said nothing about Fr Stan Swamy! Well, since the Pope is also a head of State, I think I need to ‘learn’ what a Pope can and cannot say! I guess I have to go to my grave with this disappointment!

GC 36: I consider it a privilege to have lived in Rome when Fr Adolfo Nicolas stepped down from his leadership role in the Society of Jesus – 2016. I had the opportunity to rub shoulders with many delegates who attended GC 36. The way the General Congregation was conducted, especially the way in which the election of the General was conducted, gave me an assurance that St Ignatius and our predecessors have established our governance on a solid foundation. I was glad that at GC 36 the Society stepped out of the European continent to choose a leader from South America – Venezuela. Soon the Society will have to think about its leadership from other continents like Africa and Asia, and then we can surely boast of universality.

Taken from the Jesuits: One of the low points in my life and mission in Rome came when a radical change happened in Vatican Radio. Ever since its establishment in 1931, Vatican Radio was entrusted to the Jesuits. After 84 years of operating under the guidance of the Jesuits, Vatican Radio was made a part of the newly-created Dicastery for Communications in 2015.

I had worked with the Jesuit team for the first six years and then worked under the new set-up for another six years. The change of governance – first under the diocesan clergy and then under lay persons – posed several challenges.

Lay collaboration: I was aware of the Society placing more and more emphasis on lay collaboration. Collaborating with lay persons and working under lay persons are very different. With the dwindling number of our vocations, Jesuits in the U.S. as well as Europe have been facing the challenge of working with and under the laity for many years. Now, we in Asia, especially in India, need to learn this lesson sooner than later.

Number 12: Twelve years in Rome… I am reminded of some special numbers in the Bible – 7, 12, 40 etc. Each of them has a special significance. The number 12 represents the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 Apostles. The last two chapters of the last book of the Bible – the Book of Revelation (Chapters 21 and 22) – speak of a ‘new heaven and a new earth’ and the ‘new Jerusalem’. In those two chapters the number 12 appears quite a few times: 12 gates, 12 angels, 12 tribes, 12 pearls, 12 kinds of fruit from the tree of life etc… All of them serve as symbols for me as I reminisce the 12 years of service in the eternal city! These Biblical references should make you know that I spent more time reading the Bible in the past 12 years than in my entire Jesuit life. My work at Vatican Radio revolved around my radio programmes – Reflections on Sunday Readings and Bible Reflections – twice every week for the past 12 years!

Fr. L.X. Jerome, SJ (MDU) served at the Vatican Radio, Rome for 12 years from 2009 to 2021. He has a Master’s degree in Physics and Communication Arts. For many years he was a Lecturer in Visual Communication Department, Loyola College, Chennai. Currently, he is serving as the Spiritual Guide to Scholastics in Clive’s House, Trichy, Tamil Nadu.