A pilgrim’s experience of Domus Australia

Perhaps it’s the tranquillity of the courtyard on sunny winter mornings, the welcoming breezes on the rooftop terrace on baking Roman afternoons or the unfailing kindness of the staff. But the Eternal City has taken on a more homely, comfortable countenance for Australians, including priests, with the opening of Domus Australia – our home away from home.

Domus has an atmosphere that is welcoming and restful and even in an ancient city graced by seemingly endless churches and chapels, the Domus Chapel of St Peter Chanel is something special.

Fifty six years after being ordained in the Chapel of Propaganda College atop the Janiculum Hill on December 21st 1955 I returned to Rome in January 2012 for what proved to be my most rewarding return visit ever. Accommodated in one of the rooms in the Duhig suite, the familiar face of my first Archbishop looked down at me from the corridor wall.

‘How proud James the Builder would be of Domus Australia’, I thought. And how proud I felt to see Broadford, my home village in Ireland, mentioned as his birthplace. Sir James loved Rome and was immensely proud of the advancement of the faith in Australia. A man of immense vision and drive, he would have been in his element in our Domus and full of admiration for Cardinal George Pell whose vision the project was and who steered it to fruition.

Sir James is just one of our great church pioneers whose images grace the walls of Domus. Strolling around I found his close friend Archbishop Daniel Mannix, Sydney’s Cardinal Patrick Francis Moran and pioneer priest Father John Therry from my old seminary: St Patrick’s College, Carlow. And to balance the Anglo-Irish equation there’s that wonderful, saintly woman Caroline Chisholm, who served the needs of early immigrants in the colony so well, and Benedictine Archbishop Bede Polding: the founder of the Archdiocese of Sydney.

Gazing at their images evokes a strong sense of the universality of the faith, and its continuum between the old world of Europe and the new in Australia. In Domus, we have given something very special back to the old world.

When he blessed and opened the complex last year, Pope Benedict XVI noted that it had brought “a little corner of Australia to Rome” and mentioned that the Church, like good parents, should provide her children with “roots and wings’’.

As Parish Priest of St Kevin’s Geebung, on Brisbane’s northside, I have long been impressed by the eagerness of my parishioners, young and old, to see more of the world, including places connected with Christ and His Church. In nurturing their faith, we priests would do our people a great service by extolling the importance of including Rome in their itineraries and encouraging them to stay at Domus. It will certainly provide them with the “roots and wings’’ for discovering the Eternal City. With rooms to accommodate one, two, three or four guests, Domus will also be a haven for the increasing number of school and youth groups that venture to Rome.

It would be hard to find better value accommodation in Europe and it especially surpasses other ‘affordable’ accommodation in Rome, which in my experience is better suited to mountain goats adroit at climbing high stairs and those young enough to endure pokey rooms, lumpy beds, slippery floors and bath towels the size of tea towels.

Domus verges on the luxurious – the beds are most comfortable, the showers roomy, the towels enormous. It feels like a five star hotel, which is welcome after a day on the cobblestones. The centre is air-conditioned in summer and heated in winter.

All areas are easily accessible by lift, the lounge feels like a homely common room, the food is delicious and plentiful and the service wonderful. The self-service laundry is handy and yes, I looked forward to the front page of The Australian on the breakfast table each morning. I hope it’s not disloyal to mention that the Cannelloni at the small restaurant directly across the street was some of the best I’ve ever tasted.

Staying at Domus was also a chance to meet many interesting Australian Catholics, including some of our Seminarians in Rome, who attend various functions at the centre. A priest travelling on his own and staying there would never be lonely, especially with Domus’s Rector Father Anthony Denton being such a friendly, capable leader of the complex. There are very generous discounts for priests, too, though the normal prices are very reasonable. I especially enjoyed the tranquillity of the off season in January.

Beyond the practical and the social, however, Domus Australia is a spiritual oasis. Unlike the Irish and English Colleges in Rome which cater for seminarians and which can seem a little aloof for visitors,Domus opens its arms to all comers – priests, laity, those of great faith, little faith and none. The Visitors’ Centre, providing tickets to Papal audiences, useful maps and information about all that Rome has to offer is a great help for newcomers as they come to grips with the city. The computers and internet access are speedy and reliable.

Many parishioners have told me that it took them two or three visits to feel at home in a city that is so different from what they’ve known, but Domus is geared to helping those from 20,000km away get ‘inside’ Rome much quicker. Mass in English is offered daily and the centre is solid basis from which visitors can explore and enrich their faith.

On some afternoons during the Italian academic year, Australian seminarians provide free, personally-guided tours of St Peter’s Basilica, as part of their apostolic work at the North American College, introducing newcomers to its magnificent history, art and architecture. Even those of us who think we know St Peter’s well could learn a thing or two. Ah … seminary afternoons off in Rome … always Thursdays in the ’50s, when the mischievous pleasure of my generation was to head to a particularly generous group of German nuns who served ham sandwiches.

Visitors and Romans needing to host large gatherings have access to conference and catering facilities for about 150 people downstairs at the Domus complex. These are named after the late Cardinal James Knox, former Archbishop of Melbourne and former Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, whose Episcopal consecration I remember fondly during my first week as a student in Rome in November 1953. He, too, would be immensely proud of Domus as a link between the heart of the Church in Rome and his Australian homeland.

For all its creature comforts, the heart of Domus is the Chapel of St Peter Chanel, which has been restored magnificently and retains its links with the Marist order who previously owned the complex. It seats about 150 people, which makes for very special Masses, especially on ANZAC and Australia Days.

Melbourne Parish Priest Father Charles Portelli deserves our congratulations and hearty thanks for restoring the chapel in a way that is beautiful, promotes prayer and devotion and is quintessentially Australian. His taste in everything, especially the golden, enamel and marble tabernacle with its green malachite dome and bejewelled door set with semi-precious Australian stones, which stands proudly and prominently at the centre of the sanctuary, was impeccable.

Offer Mass at Domus and you’ll be offering Mass on an altar containing the relics of Saints Peter Chanel, Pope Pius V, Maria Goretti, Mary of the Cross MacKillop, Andrew Dung-Lac and companions and Bishop Hugh of Lincoln. You’ll feel proud to see our Australian coat of arms on the back wall of the sanctuary and no doubt smile to see the kangaroos around the foot of the ambo.

Among many magnificent art works in the chapel, including Our Lady of the Southern Cross, Saint Mary of the Cross MacKillop and the life-sized, bronze sculpture of the Crucifixion, one painting especially caught my eye – a lifelike work by artist Paul Newton entitled First Catholics of Sydney, circa 1818. ‘How old, and yet how young is our faith’, it made me think.

The painting depicts about a dozen men, women and children, probably not well off judging by their clothes. The group is illuminated by the light of two candles and gathered around a crucifix and a small pyx.

After further inquiry I found that a pyx containing the Blessed Sacrament had been left behind in 1818 by early priest Fr Jeremiah O’Flynn before his deportation, which left the convicts and settlers without a priest for two years, until the arrival of John Therry and Phillip Connolly in 1820.

In the intervening years that Sacred Host, held in a house near the centre of Sydney, was a focal point for private worship among Catholic colonists. How many of our people appreciate the Real Presence so well today? That is one painting I would like replicated in my parish.

A striking painting in every way, it has powerful lessons for today about holding to the truth in adversity and directing our attention to what matters: our relationship with Our Lord.

To that end, Domus Australia deserves to be well promoted within our ranks and should help our people grow in Catholic understanding and faith. While new, it encapsulates our past and is about the future, and underlines the central place of Our Lord in our lives: yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Fr Timothy Norris OAM PP STL was Parish Priest of St Kevin’s in Geebung, Queensland, for 54 years! He was also a founding member of the ACCC. Fr Norris died on 22 March, 2012. Requiescat in pace.