After innumerable train and plane rides, walking through strange cities in the rain with luggage in tow, and meeting up with a seemingly interminable catalog of remarkable and inspiring people, I am back. It's hardly believable that this trip of a lifetime, which has been a part of my imagination and hopes for years, has finally ended. Laying awake at 3:30 a.m. this morning, jetlagged and racing through all the things that need to be done to re-settle myself here at the seminary, an intense feeling of gratitude washed over me--with the sort of intensity that only comes when you're alone with your thoughts in the dark. Some days it's the sense that I need to engage in spiritual warfare and pray the Exorcism prayer of St. Leo; others, I'm just happy. Go figure.
Laying there on my back, suddenly acutely aware of how awash with blessing and grace I've been these last weeks and months, it was hard not to believe that I'm in exactly the right place with exactly what I need to live God's will. Part of that is probably the endorphin-like high I get when my sleep cycles are messed up, but another part is pretty sure that this little intuition is spot on. I'm thirty years old, and set to embark on the great adventure of my vocation, and such confirmations are incredible treasures. And it's not simply a pleasure at having seen wonderful things and been to wonderful places. Pilgrimage was difficult, though not on the day-to-day basis; our guides and faculty took care of most everything we needed (doing laundry was the only real problem we had to deal with ourselves). The real difficulty lay in the confrontation of realities of which I was aware but had never presented themselves as forcefully as they arise in that holy city.
Perhaps the greater challenge was, in a sense, taking a "break" from the identity of a seminarian. It was never intentional, but it required an interior effort to continue seeing myself--ourselves--as men in preparation for priesthood. All supports of this identity, both interior and exterior, were pulled away, and the edifice was left to stand on its own foundation. And I don't just mean things like wearing the Roman collar or being known by others as "a seminarian"—it was more that were were not able to exercise that identity in the normal ways, through outreach and apostolates which are such an integral part of our formation at Mundelein. As a result, questions about identity and motivation began to float to the surface. Why am I doing this? Am I freely choosing it or just going with the flow? What am I giving up? What am I gaining? Is this really what I want? Is it really what God wants?
There were definitely some days where I didn't know how to answer those questions. Toss in the fact that the Holy Land isn't exactly Catholic Disneyland, and you have a recipe for frustration and confusion of all sorts. The Church suffers from a chronic lack of growth due to the cultural and legal constraints placed on it, and the attrition that inevitably follows keeps the population at around 1.2% of the general census. Over the last fifty years, this percentage fell from 10% of the general population—meaning a net loss of over two hundred thousand. Stir in virulent and long-standing divisions within the Christian community—many of which are far beyond the lived experience of the typical Protestant-Catholic divide here in the U.S.—and what many visitors experience is not quite the overwhelming spiritual refreshment you’d expect. It feels more like a stab in the heart.
There's nothing like a trip to Rome to cure what ails you.
I was certainly encouraged and inspired by the beauty and grandeur of the churches we visited, and the relics of so many outstanding saints (we prayed before the relics of St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Francis Xavier, St. Philip Neri, and St. Peter himself, all in one day), some well known and revered, others of which I'd never before heard. I was bowled over by the frescoed naves bathed in light, opening up to a heavenly vision of angels and clouds and exquisitely posed figures absorbed in love and desire for the things of God, for His beauty and the peace it brings. I received sacramental absolution on the Feast of the Chair of Peter in a small wooden confessional in the transept of St. Peter's while a soaring hymn of praise swelled to fill the towering spaces that dwarfed us. The voices seemed to twist and dart playfully about the capacious dome, sidling down the fluted pilasters that sat on pedestals with footings the size of my room at the seminary. Each edifice was more spectacular, more opulent, more jubilant than the last. Inspiring as it all was, it wasn't giving the answers I was looking for.
The shadow of a hint of a clue to the answer came, as it usually does, in a far less dramatic setting.
We were invited out to dinner by a priest who happened to be studying for his doctorate in dogmatic theology at the Angelicum. Over delicious rigatoni and gnocchi, he related to us some of his experiences as a priest here in Rome, fully immersed in study and somewhat far removed from the daily pastoral responsibilities of a diocesan priest (a nice parallel to my own sense of having been cut off from what I'd been accustomed to doing and being as a seminarian). He spoke to us of a series of short conversations he'd had with a young man employed in construction there at the American priests' residence in Rome, and of the reflection over his responsibilities as a priest in those conversations.
Now, there was nothing deliberate about these encounters; he was a busy priest trying to finish his doctorate before departing the country and the Romanian fellow needed to work hard to keep his job, so there were no long soul-searching discourses being carried out. But the attention and effort this priest was putting into these brief conversations demonstrated a deep care for the good of this young man. It would've been easy for him to justify passing over the openings for a deeper exchange--the admissions that he'd been living with his girlfriend, for instance--and just telling himself that this wasn't the reason he'd been sent at great expense to Rome, or that it would be better to just build a relationship with the guy without launching into moralistic diatribes, or any number of perfectly reasonable trains of thought.
But he would ask himself, what if this is the only spiritual connection this young man will ever have? What if he's surrounded with people who will never speak to him of the grace offered to him in Christ? What if his only chance for a real encounter with Christ was to be on a scaffolding outside my window, and I missed it, or talked myself out of it, or just tried to ignore it? If not me, a Catholic priest, then who?
This priest carried something with him that didn't disappear when he was engaged in mundane tasks or urgent matters of importance—an awareness that each and every person that came into contact with him was, in some sense, his responsibility, and that responsibility trumped everything else that he was accountable for. In the midst of crafting a dissertation of some size, and all the deadlines and pressure that accompany this enterprise (not to mention offering hospitality to the droves of pilgrims passing through Rome and eager for a local connection), this priest was recollected enough to be attentive to the movements of grace that were eager to flow through us all, but find a conduit far too infrequently.
And there it was—the shadow of a hint of a clue to my answer. In my loss of identity, I'd turned inward, and there wasn't much there to sustain me, or even interest me, and that was scary. It catalyzed some unhealthy navel-gazing when the antidote was to be found in an attentive turn outward, to the other. It was then that I realized that on this pilgrimage, and by extension, during my time in seminary, I'd managed to lose sight of the mission.
Those years of missionary work with FOCUS all came back to me—the months of preparation, the fundraising, the Bible studies, the awkwardness and the discomfort with my situation, the fraternity, the breakthroughs, the disappointments were all sought or endured on account of the mission, the hope against hope that the casual encounter we all usually miss would be caught, and something good, something divine, would enter into the world. For all the struggle of those years, I realized that I missed it, because it had given form and purpose to my commitments. It was the principle and purpose of everything we were doing. It was the reason I wanted (and still want) to be a priest. For whatever reason, I'd lost touch with it. The consequences, while not drastic, certainly were real.
I'm glad we've got priests around like the one I caught up with that night. Oremus pro invicem.