Dominican Father Antoninus Wall, former president of a school of theology, comes to Lloyd Center Mall during January, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays. He listens for as long as anyone wants and shares what he sees as the church’s treasures of insight. He’ll hold forth on joy, family life, evil, sin, the role of the laity, sickness, death, humor, morality and scores of other topics.
“When St. Paul went to Athens, where was the first place he went? The Agora,” says Father Wall, an 86-year-old scholar now in his second January at the mall. Lloyd Center falls within the bounds of Holy Rosary Parish, staffed by the Dominicans, an order of preachers founded in the 13th century to spread the gospel in newly flourishing European cities and universities.
“St. Dominic would be in the marketplace,” Father Wall says, framed by wandering shoppers and the smell of Cinnabon.
On weekdays, he wears black clerical garb and sits in a chair across from Macy’s on the mall’s second floor. On Saturdays, he rents a kiosk on the first floor near an ice rink.
“A parish is not just a place where people come, it’s a basis of evangelization,” says Father Wall, who led the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, Calif. 1980-’86.
John De Guzman came to Lloyd Center on a recent weekday morning and sat down with the priest for a chat. De Guzman felt curious about Jews and Arabs and got a sensible, respectful treatise from the well-read cleric.
As he listens to people who come to him, Father Wall looks intently and steadily at them with blue eyes, despite the hurly-burly of the mall.
“This is remarkable,” says De Guzman, a member of Holy Rosary. “I think this is something the church should be doing everywhere.”
Others come to discuss personal problems, like struggles in marriage. Father Wall is as comfortable talking about relationships as he is about Thomas Aquinas.
“Millions of people have never talked to a priest in their whole life,” he says. “They’ve never had the chance.”
He is not allowed to approach shoppers or hold signs. So he just waits with his pleasant, round, Irish face.
“The Catholic faith just makes sense when you sit down and talk about it,” says the octogenarian priest. But the church, he adds, needs more zeal and openness to the Holy Spirit, in everything from parish faith formation to the way bishops are chosen.
St. Dominic and St. Francis helped birth a new church in the 13th century. Today, Father Wall says, the laity are the ones who will bring forth the new church.
He was born in San Francisco to parents who had come from Ireland. He entered the Dominicans out of high school and in 1947 was sent to Rome to study theology. One of his classmates was a Polish lad named Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II.
In 1986 — after years of teaching, administrating and a little parish work — Father Wall became a missionary preacher. He’s traveled all over the nation and to India. He’s sought to meld the academician’s dispassionate search for truth with the preacher’s heart, developing a language of logic and love for the modern ear.
In the back of his mind, he long thought the church should establish a presence in U.S. shopping malls. Ideally, he says, the Dominicans would like to raise enough money to have a permanent space at Lloyd Center, where they could offer counseling, Mass and seminars.
Meanwhile, Holy Rosary has begun a Tuesday series of forums on matters theological and social hosted at the parish. Father Wall, who will move on from Oregon at month’s end, spoke at one session last week, explaining that tragedy can be the birthing process of great love and advance. The Passion of Christ, while seemingly evil, allowed the crucifixion, the most perfect act of love, he says.
Father Wall has published pamphlets on pastoral problems like terminal illness, the death of a loved one and post-abortion spiritual trauma. Central to all his messages is God’s abiding trend to push humanity toward greater love.
“Whatever love is in you,” he says, “is part of God’s love.”