Servant of God Frank Parater's Birthday!
Below is the excerpt from George Weigel’s wonderful book Letters to a Young Catholic. It was through reading this book in May of 2004 that I first came to learn about Frank Parater. A month earlier in April, 2004, I had made the decision to come back to the Church after years of not believing. Given that I had been so adamant in not accepting Christ and the Church, it seemed as though an unseen hand had suddenly yanked me out of my disbelief. It was almost as if someone in heaven had looked down and pitied me and then whispered in God’s ear, “bring her back to You, Lord.” Thus, when I read this excerpt about Frank Parater’s life and learned that his greatest goal was to work for the conversion of all non-Catholics in Virginia, I considered that Frank could have been my heavenly intercessor.
Below is the excerpt that “introduced” me to this beautiful saint:
“The North American College Mausoleum, Campo Verano, Rome: The Hardest Questions”
Excerpt from George Weigel's, letters to a young Catholic (Basic Books, New York) 2004
Every Roman knows Campo Verano, although it's a bit off the typical tourist track. Originally the estate of Lucius Verus, co-emperor with Marcus Aurelius from 161 to 169, Campo Verano was designated as Rome's municipal cemetery when Napoleon and his minions were running things Italian in the early nineteenth century. It took decades to build; the idea, a grandiose one, was that everyone who died in Rome would be buried there after it was opened on July 1, 1836. This being Italy, it took a while to complete the original plans - the great gates to the cemetery were only finished in 1878.
Campo Verano occupies an enormous tract of land, some three times the size of Vatican City, in the Tiburtino District near Stazione Termini, the main train station. The gated entrance is a good stone's throw from the Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Walls; Blessed Pius IX is buried there in a memorial chapel whose mosaics are well worth a look. Once you're a few hundred yards inside Campo Verano, you can't see the cemetery's boundaries in any direction.
As you walk past the flower vendors and through the entrance gates to begin exploring Campo Verano's various "neighborhoods," you quickly get the impression that the Italians handle death about the same way as they handle everything else - dramatically. Monuments, mausoleums, family tombs, and even individual gravesites vie for splendor and bella figura. There's a very mixed population here - a little past the entrance, you can look up a gravel path to the tomb of Garibaldi, a rabid anticlerical, off to the right (inappropriately enough, from an ideological point of view). Yet as you continue along a seemingly infinity of paths, up and down hills and through small valleys, you'll also find squadrons of cardinals and other high-ranking clerics. According to one story, possibly apocryphal, students from Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University used to come here the night before exams to pray at the Gregorian faculty mausoleum - presumably to make sure that certain demanding professors stayed put. Politicians, movie stars, literary people, and ordinary Romans long forgotten to history are all here; you can actually get to know many of them from the photos or etchings that you find on their tombstones.
I first visited Campo Verano on All Soul's Day, November 2, 2001, when I went there with several faculty members and students from the Pontifical North American College for a memorial Mass at the college mausoleum. In the first half of the twentieth century, American seminarians who died in Rome were buried in this three-story stone building; the annual memorial Mass is a college tradition; and as I was staying at the college while working in Rome, I was invited to come along. After Mass, while exploring the inscriptions on the vaults inside the mausoleum, I came across the name Franciscus Parater. One of the seminarians asked whether I had read "Frank Parater's Prayer" in the college Manual of Prayers. I had to admit that I hadn't. "Don't miss it," was my young friend's advice.
Frank Parater had come to Rome in November 1919 to study for the priesthood as a candidate for the Diocese of Richmond. Twenty-two years old at the time, he was one of Richmond's most impressive young men in his day, a model student and exceptional Scout leader whose character and courtesy cut through the genteel anti-Catholicism of that time and place. He had first felt attracted to a monastic vocation and began his studies at Belmont Abbey Seminary College in North Carolina, with an eye to becoming a Benedictine. During his two years at Belmont Abbey, though, Frank Parater decided to dedicate himself to the diocesan priesthood in a more active ministry, despite his inclinations toward a more contemplative life.
A month after arriving in Rome, Frank Parater wrote the prayer to which my young friend at Campo Verano had referred: "An Act of Oblation to the Sacred Heart of Jesus." It was in fact a spiritual last will and testament, which Parater left in an envelope with instructions to open it only in the event of his death. In his prayer, he offered himself for the conversion of his beloved state:
"I have nothing to leave or give but my life and this I have consecrated to the Sacred Heart to be used as He wills. I have offered my all for the conversion of non-Catholics in Virginia. This is what I live for and in case of death what I die for:…Since my childhood I have wanted to die for God and my neighbor. Shall I have this grace? I do not know, but if I go on living, I shall live for this same purpose; every action of my life here is offered for the spread and success of the Catholic Church in Virginia…I shall be of more service to my diocese in Heaven than I can ever be on earth."
In late January 1920, after just two months in Rome, Frank Parater contracted rheumatism, which developed into rheumatic fever. On January 27 he was taken to a hospital run by the Blue Nuns, where he suffered intense pain for two weeks. When the college spiritual director came to the hospital to give him the Last Rites, Frank Parater wanted to get up from his deathbed to receive his last holy communion keeling; the doctors wouldn't permit it, so he knelt on the bed to receive the Viaticum, the "food for the journey." The college rector offered the votive Mass of the Sacred Heart for Frank Parater on February 6. He died the next day. His prayer was found in his room when a fellow student was gathering up his belongings. Pope Benedict XV and Pope Pius XI both asked for copies of "Frank Parater's Prayer."
Then the world and the Church seemed to move on, although the few who remembered were convinced that Frank Parater was keeping an eye on the Diocese of Richmond from a distance, so to speak. It took another Richmond seminarian, studying in Rome in the 1970's, to bring the Frank Parater story back to life. Having become fascinated by this striking tale during his own studies, Father J. Scott Duarte kept the story in mind after his own ordination and during his graduate studies. Years of Father Duarte's patient research paid off in January 2002, when the Diocese of Richmond officially opened the cause for the beatification of The Servant of God Frank Parater, Seminarian. Thousands of Catholics around the United States are now linked to this cause through a great chain of prayer, asking Frank Parater's intercession for their needs and asking God to bless the cause for his beatification with a miracle.
Frank Parater's story isn't an Everyman story. He died very young; he died heroically, away from home; and in some sense he not only embraced his premature death but anticipated and welcomed it as the best gift he could make of his life. There aren't a lot of us who are going to die that way. Yet for all its singularity, Frank Parater's story is a powerful one, particularly for a generation that often finds commitment difficult. In any case, here we are at Campo Verano at Frank Parater's tomb, which is as good a place as any to think about two questions this young son of Virginia seemingly answered to his own satisfaction before he died eight months short of his twenty-third birthday: Is there any meaning in suffering? Is death the final absurdity?