Just before Memorial Day Weekend I travelled to Cheshire, CT to the Legion’s Novitiate and College of Humanities. It was my first visit in about seven years. I had originally travelled to Cheshire to start my Legionary adventure on May 30th, 1997, and after a summer candidacy program I entered the Legion of Christ Novitiate on September 14,1997, a two year program where I learned what it meant to be a religious (to live the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience) as a Legionary in preparation for making my first vows (which I did on September 4th, 1999).
Since June of 2020 I have served the Legionaries of the North American Territory (consisting of the United States, Canada, and some Legionary communities in Asia) as the Territorial Prefect of Studies, overseeing the intellectual formation of all the Legionaries in the territory. Last year the Legion’s General Chapter approved the first revision of our plan of studies since 2001, so at the invitation of the Dean of Studies I came to present the new plan of studies to the brothers and their formation teams in Cheshire.
A Legionary before priestly ordination will get an Associate of Arts degree Humanities, a Bachelor’s in Philosophy, and a Bachelor’s in Theology. A Legionary spends a lot of time studying in preparation for evangelizing our culture and navigating a complex world with complex problems. Every stage of this intellectual and academic formation addresses past, present, and future culture in the light of Humanities, human reason, and the light of faith to bring the Gospel to the world more effectively.
The brothers were finishing their final exams for the school year and preparing to transition into summer, so in addition to presenting the new plan of studies the rector invited me to preach the monthly retreat to the Humanists (the Legionaries doing studies in the Humanities and sciences–their first 1 or 2 years as a professed religious). In a talk to the Novices I also told them a little about my years of priestly formation. With the Humanists, some about to move to Rome at the end of the summer to start studying Philosophy, I told them about my experiences in Rome and fielded their questions about life in Rome.
I was surprised how little nostalgia I had when I walked the halls of Cheshire once again. I walked through the halls and grounds, remembering and being reminded, but also seeing how many things had changed in 24 years. The generations of Legionary brothers after me had put their mark on the grounds. The inner garden, a place where I often prayed my rosary and re-discovered my devotion to Mary many years ago, had been re-landscaped and remodeled. It was beautiful, but changed just enough (even the statue of Mary) to not re-evoke those Novitiate years in me.
What I did re-experience fondly at Cheshire was the quiet and the joy of brothers taking their first fledgling steps as Legionaries. I returned to the airport with two Humanists who were about to help out with a camp in LA, and after finishing final exams they were excited about heading out to a new apostolic adventure.
Almost a month to the day I drove to VA on July 1st to visit Divine Mercy University at its new campus. The last time I had briefly visited DMU was in 2008, when it was just the Institute for Psychological Sciences. Now the university offers graduate programs in Psychology and Counseling, as well as a certificate in Spiritual Direction. The rector had invited me to come and sit on a residency for the Spiritual Direction certificate, since for many Legionaries it was a tool for their ongoing intellectual formation and pastoral training, although the program is open to anyone who satisfies certain admission requirements.
The certificate program consists largely of distance courses, but twice a year the students gather for residencies of 3-4 days on site. I attended the residency where they focused on relational skills. Under the supervision of a faculty member the students organized into the roles of spiritual director, directee, and observer. The directee, based on a vignette, “presented” his or her spiritual life so the director could help them explore it and get to know the directee better. The faculty member and observer would then give feedback, and the roles were rotated.
Since the majority of my experience counseling souls has been in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, it was interesting to see the difference in approach when you had more time to direct a soul. Many times I know I have a few minutes in Confession with a soul and may never see them again. Therapists and counselors have developed many skills, especially relational skills, that a spiritual director can also use to help their directees. The students in the role of spiritual director listened and helped their directees explore what was going on inside.
With a drive back this Fourth of July weekend I made it back to Raleigh without too much of a delay due to holiday weekend traffic. Have a blessed Independence Day weekend.
We start a new liturgical year today, and 2020 is almost over, and I think everyone would agree that this was a year of the unexpected. A lot of unexpected things happened to me as well, and not just due to COVID-19.
In January, while I was in Rome, my superiors asked me to transfer to the new Legionary community in Raleigh, founded in July 2019. We decided on waiting until Easter so that I could help out during Lent at St. Brendan’s. Lent was a busy liturgical season, especially with the extra penance services. As January drew to a close COVID-19 was arriving in Northern Italy, and I returned to the U.S. right at the start of February. Not long after that the first COVID-19 wave swept over Italy and they implemented a complete lockdown. The professors at the Athenaeum had to do everything via streaming, and to leave your home you had to present a form at watch stations showing you had a legitimate reason to be out. I barely missed that.
In the United States things were starting to heat up, but it took a few more weeks. They locked down the assisted living communities first. It first came home for me when I was denied access to an assisted living community because I had recently been travelling to Italy. Masses continued at first, and a family asked me one day (before Mass) whether I was comfortable giving them Communion on the tongue, since most at St. Brendan’s received in the hand and those who continued to receive on the tongue made them nervous. I told them I didn’t have a problem giving them Communion on the tongue, but I also told them to be aware that they made others nervous doing so. I also told them that we had to take precautions but ultimately it was the Lord who would watch over us.
Pretty soon the parish buildings were shut down, as well as public worship. We heard confessions on a patio behind the parish social hall that allowed for social distancing and ventilation. I only helped with a penance service at one parish before the others scheduled for Lent were cancelled as parishes were closed. Sick calls were restricted to those who were in hospice (in the process of dying). A lot of my work is not direct parish ministry, so most of my projects (studying, writing, researching, working on online courses for RC Spirituality) were not impacted by COVID-19, but the parish was scrambling to see what we could do. We started with recording a daily homiletic reflection, but soon saw the need to stream Mass. Since I had some equipment for my online classroom work I became the streaming engineer for the Masses we celebrated and streamed from the parish rectory’s chapel. Other than one music minister for the Easter weekend only the priests were at Mass; everyone else watched via streaming.
Five years in the making, my book Maximizing the Mass was published in March. I did an open webinar to present the book, and I can honestly say I would have never imagined releasing this book, on the liturgy, when the faithful could not participate in Mass. I would never have imagined we would ever have a situation where the faithful couldn’t participate physically in worship. The sacraments are the lifeblood of the Church, and they not only benefit us, but the whole world. As a priest I was always aware that having even that brief personal interaction with faithful, from hearing a confession to simply giving Communion, was a moment where the virus could spread. When the diocese announced it was suspending public worship one of the main reasons was because most of their clergy were at-risk due to age. With a lot of unknowns and uncertainty about what medical expert to believe it just reminded me that we are always in the Lord’s hands. If he wanted me to get sick, it would happen, and if I sought to do his will, he would help me continue. However, among some of the faithful there was an unhealthy fideism, which made them suffer the restrictions more and reject some of the measures being taken to check the virus’ spread. While Our Lord can work miracles we shouldn’t count on them being frequent or automatic. Good and holy people get sick every day and Our Lord permits that suffering for many spiritual goods. COVID-19 is not an exception, so we have to be prudent.
I still had the grace of daily Mass and Adoration, so I can empathize with all of you how difficult not having the Eucharist was. There was a lot of heroic obedience out there and it was not without spiritual fruit. The recent Supreme Court decision regarding attempts in New York to restrict worship was very encouraging, because freedom of religion means that worship is an essential service and should be legally protected like other essential services. Good Friday was surreal this year, since I spent it in the rectory when normally we’d be hearing confessions from morning to evening. On Easter Sunday I published a farewell video for the parishioners of St. Brendan’s:
On Easter Monday I left for Raleigh. A lot had changed since I was told in January that I would be transferring to Raleigh. I wasn’t sure whether I’d be stopped, so a I had a letter from the Legion explaining I was being transferred, just in case. Traffic was light from GA to NC and I made it without any problems. Raleigh was on lockdown too, so I focused on my projects and started settling in. An academic seminar I was scheduled to attend in July (in PA) was postponed to 2021, although we had one Zoom meeting to prepare for next year.
In Raleigh we reside in a house on the property of St. Joseph Catholic Church, in southeast Raleigh. This view of the parish is from the house where we live. The community is myself (from left to right below), Fr. Peter Devereux, Fr. Joshua West, and Fr. Stephen Ellis.
In late June it was confirmed that after the 1st semester of the 2020-2021 school year I would no longer be going to Rome annually to teach theology. The Athenaeum was re-structuring its Bachelor’s program and it provided a logical opportunity to bow out and pursue teaching opportunities in the U.S.. Until a few months previously I did not see this coming, making it another reason this year was a year of the unexpected.
On July 1st the Legionaries assumed the pastoral leadership of the parish. Fr. Peter Devereux, L.C. was installed as pastor on July 30 and the bishop came to preside over the Mass, as well as Legionaries from out of town:
I didn’t work much in the parish, since it is much smaller than St. Brendan’s, but I often help out with Sunday Mass at the nearby Our Lady of Lourdes. I also received a new assignment that was internal to the Legion around this time: Territorial Prefect of Studies. I oversee the intellectual formation and doctrinal fidelity of all the Legionaries of the North American Territory. It mainly consists of coordinating the review and approval of books published by Legionaries that touch on faith a morals, supporting the Deans of Study of the two formation centers in the territory (the Sacred Heart Apostolic School in IN and the Novitiate and College of Humanities in CT), and helping the fathers and brothers not currently studying full time to form whatever study habits they need to be more effective in their ministry or apostolate.
In July there were also protests regarding the disgraceful George Floyd incident. Demonstrations were held downtown, but nothing happened at the parish, although some parishioners had to board up the windows of their businesses, and there was a curfew imposed a few weekends, including the weekend of the installation. Mid-July we had a scare that a member of the parish staff tested positive (without symptoms) for COVID-19, so we all got tested and a couple of days before my scheduled trip to CA to visit my Mom I found out I had tested negative. I spent the beginning of August having a quiet visit with my Mom. Since Santa Cruz county was on lockdown we didn’t go out to eat or visit family (at their request), so it was the quietist visit home I’d ever had. The parishes were closed, so for the first time I celebrated privately with a Mass kit at home, another situation I would have never expected.
After returning from CA I’d planned to visit Philadelphia and then stay with my old Legionary community in RI, but RI had mandated a 14-day quarantine for visitors, so I ended up staying in Raleigh and doing a staycation instead, visiting the NC Zoo (highly recommended) and hiking in some parks. As I prepared for my return to Rome in September there was guarded optimism and things started opening again. Until late July it wasn’t clear whether I would be allowed to return to Italy at all, since the border was closed, but on September 21st, mask worn for the duration, I returned to Rome, passing through JFK. All the airports I’d visited in August and September were well under capacity, almost ghost towns, and JFK’s International Terminal ever more so, although, strangely enough, there was a large group of Asians. The plane to Italy had 33 people on board. One passenger was bipolar and suffering from a Messiah complex (and tried to recruit me to his cause–pray for him). I made it to the CILC (Collegio Internazionale dei Legionari di Cristo) and had to self-quarantine for 14 days, during which I did my annual eight-day spiritual exercises. It’s a large house, and one father did come down with COVID-19 (with symptoms) requiring a group of fathers and brothers to quarantine. At the end of my quarantine I was told to take an antibody test, and, to my shock, the antibody test said I had COVID-19 at some point, but not currently.
The last time I had experienced anything resembling symptoms of the cold or flu was in December of 2019, but one doctor told me that was too long ago to register on the antibody test results, so I must have been asymptomatic. I said some extra prayers for anyone I had contact with whenever I was infected, with no way to know whether I was the cause. Another unexpected thing to add to the year. Classes began the first week of October, and my first day of class was the day after my quarantine ended (not scheduled that way; it just happened). No one was allowed in the building without a mask and a temperature check, and every day we had to submit a signed form saying we weren’t sick and hadn’t been knowingly in contact with someone who had COVID.
Within a few weeks the cases of COVID began to rise, so they restricted in-person classes to those doing their first year of study. That meant I had to stream all my lectures from my room in the CILC. Since I do a lot of meeting by Zoom and work on creating online courses I had a good microphone and so far, so good. It also has the added advantage of not having to lecture wearing a mask. The decree is schedule to expire on December 3rd, so we’ll see if they extend it.
I voted with an absentee ballot and the election continues to be crazy. I think everyone was hoping COVID hysteria would die down with the election, but since Trump is contesting the results (as is his legal right) the election hasn’t really ended and the COVID hysteria either. At least some hope seems to be on the horizon with the vaccines, but I don’t put my faith in vaccines. Realizing, despite my precautions, that I had been infected with COVID at some point just reminded me that our faith must be in the Lord.
That goes for the election too. I watched a documentary recently called the Social Dilemma, and one of the points it made is that social media, in trying to cater to the views and preferences of its users (in order to get ad revenue), has contributed to a polarization where the two sides are confirmed in their beliefs so much that they are more hostile to the beliefs of the “other side.” This is one factor in recent campaigning on both sides presenting this election as either world-saving or world-ending. The result is if your side seems to be losing it seems to be the world is ending. This has happened on the liberal side of politics as well as the conservative side before. We must keep praying that what is best for the U.S. happens and remember that the Lord is much bigger than one country or one political agenda, I had this especially in mind last weekend when we celebrated the Solemnity of Christ the King (full name of the solemnity: The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe). Trust in the King, not the election.
Thanksgiving is not a holiday in Italy, but being an international community we had a Mass in English (over which I was invited to preside), and in the homily I reminded everyone how important gratitude is, because if we don’t give thanks the void is often filled by the opposite: an attitude of entitlement which is a recipe for frustration that focuses on what you don’t have instead of what you do have. Thanksgiving this year was hard for many who couldn’t be with family or friends, but especially for those who have lost someone this year. Let’s continue being grateful for what we do have, not frustrated for what we don’t. Have a Blessed Advent.
I am happy to announce that my new book, Maximizing the Mass, has just been published with spiritual reflections to help you get more out of Mass. For my Finding the Plug blog readers (and my Maximizing Mass parish bulletin excerpt readers) this book has all the reflections in one place. It’s currently on sale on Amazon in print and should be available for Kindle within two weeks. God bless you!
Within two days 2020 will be upon us, and I thought it would be good to take some time during the Christmas break to remember some of the best of 2019. I already wrote at length about my pilgrimage to the Holy Land in February, but there were also many other memorable moments in 2019. After finishing the first semester at Regina Apostolorum in Rome and going on pilgrimage I returned to the United States on February 14th and returned to the parish rhythm of life with a few weeks of Ordinary Time before Lent began on March 6th. During Lent all parish priests organize and help with Penance Services in their parish and neighboring parishes, so Lent was full of extra sessions of Confession.
On March 30th I gave a presentation on our Holy Land pilgrimage and practically every pilgrim, along with other parishioners, attended, including some from out of state.
On March 31st I gave a presentation on the sacraments of Holy Orders and Anointing of the Sick to our RCIA group as part of their catechetical preparation. On April 12th I presided over a live Stations of the Cross. The parish is undergoing a heavy renovation, so we had to be a little creative with the route, but it’s a very powerful presentation. On Fridays in Lent the Knights of Columbus host a fish fry, so people coming out of dinner (or going in) joined the Way of the Cross procession. A powerful evangelization event. On Good Friday (April 19th) I and other priests heard confessions all day except for a brief lunch break until the Commemoration of the Lord’s Passion in the evening (and then a few more penitents after that). On Holy Saturday (April 20th) I presided over midday prayer and blessed Easter baskets, a tradition from Slavic Christianity that is growing. That evening at the Easter Vigil I sang the Exsultet (the Solemn Easter Proclamation).
Part of our parish renovations is the addition of a new chapel, and the pastor asked me to help with the artistic designs in the chapel, including the altar, ambo, and baptismal font. Meetings and conversations began in April. The renovations and new chapel are being finished over the next month, so when I return to the States in February it should all be done.
The week after Easter week the parish fathers went to Tybee Island on the outskirts of Savannah for a few days of rest after all the Lenten and Easter excitement. On the way down to Tybee Island we stopped to visit the beautiful Church of St. Joseph in Macon.
On May 13th I visited the Museum of Aviation in Warner Robins, GA.
In the first week of June I spent a week of working vacation in Keystone, CO. The community had their vacation schedule in Colorado for the first two weeks of June, and I had to prepare for an academic seminar at the end of the month, so I brought my books and read with liberal sprinklings of hanging out with the fathers. Colorado is a beautiful state. I’ve never seen so many shades of green in the trees. I returned to Georgia in time to walk the parish Navi-gator 5K on June 8th (thanks again to everyone who sponsored me and pledged donations to the parish). It was pouring rain, but fun as always.
The academic seminar was held in the last week of June in Oxnard, CA at the Santa Clara Retreat Center (the airport shown is LAX). It was a Fides et Ratio Seminar organized by the Faith and Reason Institute, and the topic was priesthood, right up my alley. Several other priests participated (about twenty-five participants in all) and we had some great discussions. As proof of what a small world we live in I saw one of the participants a few months later in Rome at St. Peter’s Basilica, chaperoning students on pilgrimage.
In July I gave two catechetical talks to elementary school students about All Saints and Pentecost. Some of them dressed as saints for the All Saints talk, so I dressed in my cassock and explained to them why it was not a costume.
In August I visited home in California at the start of the month (good to see many of you while I was visiting). The blue ocean below is the Pacific, seen from the Santa Cruz wharf, with the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in the background. It was a clear day and I could hear people on the rides at the Boardwalk.
I returned to Georgia, then continued my vacation by driving down to Louisiana. I hadn’t driven there since 2003, and I hadn’t visited since 2008. I had a tranquil vacation, staying with the Legionary community in Mandeville, reading, walking, watching videos, and visiting with old friends. I returned to the World War II Museum, which when I last visited it in 2003 was the D-Day Museum, and it had changed a lot. I highly recommend it if you ever visit New Orleans. It originally opened in New Orleans because the landing boats for D-Day were manufactured there.
On my walks I ran into some large spiders that spun webs across the trail. They were about two-thirds the size of a Tarantula. I later discovered that they were Golden Orb Weavers and not harmful to humans (unless you count psychological damage). On a rainy day I pushed through one’s web with my umbrella unknowingly and it later crawled up into the inside of my umbrella (in the woods, unlike space, people can hear your scream, but thankfully no one was around…to hear me scream). Thankfully it was a large umbrella so I got it out pretty quickly.
I returned to Georgia before vacation was over for a day trip to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where a World War II landing boat, still sailing, was docked for a few days, the USS LST 325. They fired the forward gun at our request (not loaded, but it made the same noise as the genuine article would), and I was able to sit in one of the side turrets and look menacing. It was not far from the Tennessee Aquarium, which is one of the best fresh water aquariums in the world, along with a good salt water aquarium. I am not in the cage below for trying to fire to gun on the ship; it is a shark cage, and no priests or sharks were harmed in the taking of the photo.
On September 7th we organized an investiture ceremony at the parish for the brown scapular of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. I was amazed at the turnout. People had asked individually over the months leading up to the ceremony, thinking a blessing of the scapular was enough (it’s not; there are some devotional commitments to make too), so we decided to organize it and it was a good First Saturday gift for Mary.
On September 14th the parish had a half-day pilgrimage to the Trappist Monastery in Conyers, GA. I had heard of it for two years and it was my first opportunity to visit. The serenity and silence there were palpable and wonderful. Their simple monastic rule of life, inspired by St. Benedict’s ora et labora (pray and work) reminded me of my Novitiate days. What impressed me most was their church, made from cement that they had brought and poured wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow. They arrived in Conyers from Kentucky with not much more than a barn and some property and built a wonderful monastery and retreat center. At midday we attended the Divine Office with the monks in the main church.
On September 18th I return to Rome for the first semester (still here as of this writing), starting eight days of spiritual exercises that same day, and then a week and a half of class prep before classes began for me on October 8th. In addition to classes in October and November I was preparing a paper for a Christology congress scheduled for November 21st. The paper I contributed was on the complex reality of the Church in the light of the mystery of the Incarnate Word, a thought inspired by Lumen Gentium 8. I’ll be publishing it in English sometime in 2020 and it will be published in Italian as part of the congress’ proceedings as well.
Thanksgiving is not celebrated in Italy, but I didn’t have classes that day and it was a nice quiet day. We had turkey for lunch and pie, which is not guaranteed in Italy, so it reminded me of how much for which to be thankful. In December I had a nasty cold/flu that pretty much knocked me off my feet for three weeks, so it was a quiet month. It didn’t keep me from visiting the Galleria Borghese on the 1st, before I got sick. No photos were allowed inside, but they had several wonderful works of Bernini.
On December 23rd I concelebrated at St. Mary Major’s for the the thirteenth ordination anniversary of my class. The silver reliquary above the Missal below contains relics of the the Lord’s crib. We celebrated Mass at that altar, down below the main altar. The altar trimmed with blue is the altar Salus Popoli Romani (which means “salvation of the Roman people) where Pope Francis comes before a trip to pray. The icon at its center is believed to have been rendered by St. Luke the Evangelist in the first century A.D.
We’re still in the octave of Christmas, so have a Blessed Christmas and New Year.