The Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, the premier institution for the study of Eastern spirituality, canon, and liturgy was shaken earlier this month at finding out that one their professors, Fr. Lafranco Rossi, had been found dead. The 60 year-old priest was found lifeless in a pool of blood in a hazelnut grove near his community’s retreat center in San Feliciano, about 21 miles south of Rome.
Fr. Rossi was attending a weekend retreat and participants were worried when they did not see him on April 12, which lead to the discovery of his body. According to Corriere della Sera, the murder is believed to have been committed sometime during the night of April 11. The body showed signs of blunt force trauma and strangulation, asphyxiation being the likely cause of death, though medical experts reported that Fr. Rossi did not die immediately.
He was known to suffer from insomnia and to go into the words at night to meditate. As of last Friday, Italian police had no leads regarding the identity of the killer, though they have excluded theft as a possible motive.
Fr. Rossi was a professor of spirituality at both Pontifical Gregorian University and the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome and was a respected member of both faculties. He was also part of a new and small priestly community, called Riconstruttori nella preghiera, or Rebuilders in Prayer, which promotes a strict monastic discipline was well as the practice of hesychasm, a popular meditative practice among monastic orders in the Eastern Church.
The funeral was held on April 18. On April 19, the superior of the community, Fr. Roberto Rondanina, said members are “united in grief” over Fr. Rossi’s death. The members of Riconstruttori nella preghiera live in radical poverty, sleep on the floor, and follow a vegetarian diet. With Fr. Rossi’s death, the community is comprised of 28 priests.
At the same time, the Pontifical Oriental Institute underwent a substantial change in the administrative structure, with the rector, Fr. James McCann and the deans of faculties of ecclesiastical sciences and Eastern cannon law, Phiippe Luisier and Michal Kuchera, all Jesuits, being removed from their positions. The April 14 order, signed by the Superior General of the Society of Jesus and vice chancellor of the institute, Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, did not give an explicit reason for the move, but the statement said that Fr. Nicolás “has begun a process of reorganizing the institute to contribute toward improving its service to the Eastern churches.”
Egyptian-born Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, S.J. was named pro-rector to replace Fr. McCann during the transition. Frs. Sunny Thomas Kokkaravalayil and Edward Farrugia were named pro-deans of the cannon law faculty and Eastern Church Studies, respectively. All three have been teaching at the institute.
Fr. McCann told American Catholic News Service that he remains in Rome for the time being to “help with the transition” and the reorganization, “getting ready for the centennial of the institute in 2017.”
The reason for the abrupt dismissal that was done midway through the academic year is likely the controversy that has spanned over the last few years at the institute regarding irregular promotions of faculty members. The laudatio delivered in honor of Fr. Robert F. Taft, a long-time professor at the institute who retried in 2011, delivered by Stefano Parenti, a professor of Oriental liturgies at the Pontifical Antheneum of St. Anselm in Rome, decried some of the practices at the Pontifical Oriental Institute. He said, “We find ourselves facing what in politics is called a ‘systemic problem’ … This must be added to the precariousness of many contracts and the unusual ways of recruiting and promoting professors, according to which there are tenured professors, who in a good European or American state university, under the most favorable outcomes, would have remained assistants until retirement.”
The Pontifical Oriental Institute was founded in 1917 by Pope Benedict XV together with the Congregation for the Oriental Churches. In 1922, Pope Pius XI entrusted the institute to the Society of Jesus, reserving the appointment of the rector to the pope, at the independent suggestion of the Superior General after consulting with the Jesuit professors.