A Baltimore priest reflects glow of pope in his parish

April 08, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IN THE splendor of Vatican City today, Pope John Paul II goes to his grave, and in his humble rectory office behind Our Lady of Pompei Roman Catholic Church, Conkling Street and Claremont Avenue in East Baltimore's Highlandtown, the Rev. Luigi Esposito's face brightens into a kind of ecclesiastical glow.

He has been watching a special hookup to Italian television and cannot believe the size of the crowds. The whole world stands in line 12 hours for a heartbeat of a farewell glimpse. Twice, says Father Lou, he met the pontiff. His face beams at the memory. Once, years ago, when Pope John Paul was Cardinal Karol Wojtyla and came to Baltimore's Holy Rosary Church. And once, in a pilgrimage to Rome.

"You felt," Father Lou says, "as if he took a personal interest in you. My parishioners feel the same way now. They're all saying the same thing. That he was a member of the family. But I'm getting the same reaction from Baptists, from Presbyterians, from everybody. This was a pope who spoke to them all."

That feeling is important. It was the late Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill, who famously said, "All politics is local." But so is religion. If it does not translate to communities, to little church parishes, and to the human heart, then all of the pomp, and all of the splendor, count only for passing theatrics.

Pope John Paul spent the past 26 years taking his message across the whole earth. For the past 41 years, Father Lou has spread a similar message across his little quadrant of Highlandtown: Whatever our struggles, we share them. We are one community. We look out for each other, and must not turn away.

At Our Lady of Pompei, the handwriting is on the wall and is inscribed in English and in Spanish. When Father Lou arrived here in 1964 from Casoria, near Naples, Italy, he found a church built and staffed by Italian descendants. Its congregants were the same. Now, he and the Rev. Luigi Cremis minister to a flock where regular Masses are conducted in Spanish to accommodate the church's growing Latino population.

"We've seen changes," says Father Lou. "Over 40 years, drastic, tragic, sometimes scary changes. The neighborhood changed, and changed again. Houses went for sale and people ran away. We had an invasion of so many Section 8 renters, when the housing department did Highlandtown wrong. These weren't bad people, but they were rootless people who had no commitment to the neighborhood. It's not about poor people. This is a church of the poor and the working class. But it was a time of transition. And we adjusted. Highlandtown is beginning to blossom again. And we're learning to live with one another."

Now East Baltimore has maybe the highest concentrations of Latinos in the state. "Hard-working, family-conscious, religious people," says Father Lou. "This is their home, and we'll be there for them. We don't want to scare them off. We want to hold onto our Italian identity, and they want their Hispanic identity. And that's good. I'm not one who believes in tolerating our differences. I believe in celebrating them."

But, across four decades, it has sometimes been a difficult sell. Highlandtown reflected a nation's discomfort with the earliest racial changes. "We've all had to learn to embrace each other," says Father Lou. "We're trying as hard as we can to bring everybody together, all races, instead of scaring each other. And, 99.9 percent of the time, it's been a beautiful thing.

"But the church has had to change, too. We've learned that a parish can't be an island, it has to be part of the community."

That's important to communities, and to the church. As the pope goes to his grave today, his church grapples with problems. At St. Mary's Seminary, Roland Avenue and Northern Parkway, mid-century enrollment exceeded 300 students. Today, it has fallen to 62. That reflects the national shortage of priests, down from more than 58,000 in 1965 to about 43,000 today. In the past 30 years, the number of nuns has fallen from 135,225 to 70,194, and their median age has risen substantially.

And, in a time when only 18 percent of Catholics express "a great deal of confidence" in their religious leaders, the rate of those attending church every week has fallen to 27 percent (which is only slightly different than the 24 percent religious attendance for the country).

In his little rectory office, Father Lou reflects on the years of Pope John Paul II. "He brought these incredible gifts to the whole world," he says.

One was to reach beyond the walls of the Vatican. As this pope traveled the world, so the parish priests have learned to step beyond their church walls. When Highlandtown suffered from the worst of drug traffic and prostitution and the flipping of mortgages by unscrupulous landlords, Father Lou learned the value of street-corner confrontations.

"It's no good when parishes are islands," he says. "The eye-opener, for all of us, has been the act of reaching out to the larger community."

He was talking about Highlandtown over the past four decades. But it's a message passed down from Rome over the past quarter-century.

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