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Attention shoppers: Mall minister offers free priestly counseling

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Catholic News Service

PORTLAND, Ore. — Amid a thrum of commercialism, an amiable priest spent most of the month of January waiting patiently. His hope was to talk about faith and life with anyone who took an interest.

Dominican Father Antoninus Wall, former president of a school of theology, has made the Lloyd Center Mall in Portland his mission the past two years. His routine includes five hours at the mall on weekdays and seven hours on Saturdays listening to people and discussing 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?” asked the priest, an 86-year-old scholar. “The Agora,” he said, referring to the ancient city’s marketplace and civic center.

Dominican Father Antoninus Wall, former president of a school of theology, listens to John DeGuzman in early January at Lloyd Center Mall in Portland, Ore. The traveling priest has a regular ministry of listening to and counseling shoppers. He spends five hours on weekdays and seven hours Saturdays, listening for as long as anyone wants to talk and sharing the Catholic Church's insight. (CNS photo/Ed Langlois, Catholic Sentinel)

The Portland mall is within the bounds of Holy Rosary Parish, staffed by the Dominicans, the 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 said, framed by wandering shoppers and the smell of Cinnabon.

“A parish is not just a place where people come, it’s a basis of evangelization,” said Father Wall, who led the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, Calif., from 1980 until 1986.

At the mall, John De Guzman of Portland came to Lloyd Center one 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 listened to those who spoke with him, Father Wall’s blue eyes looked at them intently and steadily, despite the chaos of the mall.

“This is remarkable,” said De Guzman, a member of Holy Rosary Parish. “I think this is something the church should be doing everywhere.”

Others came to discuss personal problems, such as marriage struggles. 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 told the Catholic Sentinel, archdiocesan newspaper of Portland. “They’ve never had the chance.”

The priest is not allowed to approach shoppers or hold signs. So he just waited for people to come to him. “The Catholic faith just makes sense when you sit down and talk about it,” said the octogenarian priest with a pleasant, round, Irish face.

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 young Polish man 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 has traveled all over the nation and to India. Currently, he is on a preaching mission at St. Patrick Church in Fredericksburg, Va., for Lent.

In the back of his mind, he long thought the church should establish a presence in U.S. shopping malls, so he commits each January to the Portland mall.

On weekdays, he wore his black clerical garb and sat in a chair across from Macy’s on the mall’s second floor. On Saturdays, he rented a kiosk on the first floor near the ice rink.

Ideally, Father Wall said, the Dominicans would like to raise enough money to have a permanent space at Lloyd Center, where they could offer counseling, Mass and seminars.

The priest has published pamphlets on pastoral problems such as terminal illness, the death of a loved one and post-abortion spiritual trauma.

Central to all his messages is pointing out God’s abiding task — inviting humanity toward greater love. “Whatever love is in you is part of God’s love,” he said.