Cardinal Samuel Stritch and St. Agnes Outside the Walls

By Christopher Lamb | Contributor
Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Cardinal Samuel Stritch blesses palms at Holy Name Cathedral on Palm Sunday, April 3, 1953. He was the first American to lead a Vatican department as prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (now known as the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples). Chicago Catholic file photo

VATICAN CITY — Anniversaries are a time to reflect, and the 125th year of this publication is a moment to think about the historic links between Rome and the Archdiocese of Chicago.  

A short walk from where I live in Rome is the seventh-century Church of Sant’Agnese Fuori le Mura (St. Agnes Outside the Walls), built above the mortal remains of the Roman saint and martyr and a set of catacombs. Off the tourist trail, the basilica is one of the Eternal City’s gems and part of a site that includes an ancient fourth-century chapel, Santa Costanza, built by Emperor Constantine for his daughter. Walk around here and you can sense the spirit of early Christianity.

It also has a link with Chicago. Go down the large steps into the basilica and you will see a large marble plaque listing the lists of prelates who had Sant’Agnese as their titular church (a church in Rome is assigned to each cardinal after receiving the red hat).  

On the list of names is Cardinal Samuel Stritch, archbishop of Chicago from 1940 to 1958, who would become the first American to lead a Vatican department as prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (now known as the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples). He was given Sant’Agnese by Pius XII after being made a cardinal in 1946.  

Today Sant’Agnese is not just a place of historical interest. On Sundays the church is packed, with a school, a soccer pitch and a cafe. It symbolizes a living tradition, a Christian community that is both ancient but new. 

While Pope Francis is often characterized as trying to change things, his reforms are often about tapping into a more ancient Catholic tradition, one that takes the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965 as its guide. 

It was this council which sought to both open Catholicism up to the world and more closely connect with those early Christian communities, out of which the church sprung in the years after Jesus. In Catholic theology today’s church is linked as if by an umbilical cord to that period of history.  

The developing tradition of the church is something the pope forcefully underlined during a recent speech on liturgy. Meeting with a group of Italian liturgists at the end of August, Francis said the Mass must be “living” and described the changes to the way Mass is celebrated following Vatican II as “irreversible.” In a rare move, the pope threw the full weight of his office behind by making the statement with “magisterial authority.” 

The council paved the way for the Mass to be said in local languages and called for a “full and active participation” of the people. While there are those who dispute these changes and feel they went too far in the years after Vatican II, Francis pointed out that the council’s reforms did not appear out of nowhere. Changes to the liturgy, Francis stressed, were made by Pius X at the beginning of the 20th century and then by Pius XII, who was pope from 1939 to 1958.

Of course the council was about more than the liturgy: It moved the church away from a fortress mentality and into a dialogue with the world. Rather than greeting scientific or technological developments with suspicion, the stance was to understand, engage and perhaps find some positives. 

Take, for example, psychoanalysis. While Pius XII in 1952 did not dismiss psychotherapy, the Vatican issued a ban in 1961 on priests becoming psychoanalysts and seminarians from going to therapy. But in 1973 Paul VI shifted the church’s position and gave it qualified approval.

Now, in a newly published book-length interview with a French academic, Pope Francis has acknowledged that he consulted a psychoanalyst when he was 42. 
“She was a very good person. For six months, she helped me a lot,” he explained in the book “Pope Francis: Politics and Society,” adding that it helped “clarify a few things.”  

Whatever people may say about Francis, he is a man at ease with himself, able to cope in many kinds of challenging situations. 

He is leading a church that is unafraid of the messy realities of today’s world; a church that is “bruised, hurting and dirty” because it is out on the streets rather than clinging to its own security, and a living church responding to the needs of a suffering humanity.  


  • pope francis
  • cardinal stritch
  • 125th anniversary

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