Fall, Advent, and Christmas

My intention was to just write about my visit to Sacred Heart Apostolic school, our minor seminary in Indiana, sometime in mid-November. Two months happened. It was the first Fall since 2012 that I didn’t head to Italy to teach at Regina Apostolorum. The book project I completed in October was the last major commitment to the university, and I started applying for positions teaching theology in the United States (as of this writing, no offers yet). Over the summer I received the community responsibility for the finances (the community administrator), and with RC Spirituality and my work for the Legion as Territorial Prefect of Studies, I’ve been happily busy.

In late October and early November I covered a little more than usual at Our Lady of Lourdes in Raleigh while the pastor was on a pilgrimage to Medjugorje. All Saints on 11/1 was a beautiful liturgy, and I celebrated All Souls at the parish and we processed to a columbarium at the parish and loved ones prayed for their dead buried there.

On 11/3 I visited, as Territorial Prefect of Studies, Sacred Heart Apostolic School, in Rolling Prairie, Indiana. I had not been at the school since 2008. I’d been making the rounds of our formation centers, presenting the new plan of studies, and at Sacred Heart I met with the formation team, the professors, and the students.

After catching up with a family I’d know in Florence (Italy) I visited the Legionary fathers studying at the University of Notre Dame and had my first tour of the university. When I was flying into South Bend one of the attendants at the gate kept talking about the “touch down Jesus.” I had no idea what it meant until I saw the huge image of Our Lord on the side of their huge library. Seeing two floors of the library dedicated to theology alone made we want to move in (I did apply for a position at UND in October; I didn’t get an interview). The basilica on campus was also breathtaking.


On campus there is also a beautiful Marian grotto inspired by the grotto at Lourdes.

I celebrated Thanksgiving for the first time in nine years in the U.S. In Rome they always made a turkey lunch for us, but the fixings were never exactly the same. It was a long forgotten experience for me to have to wind down around a Thanksgiving break, since it wasn’t celebrated in Italy. A parish family arranged a wonderful turkey lunch with all the trimmings, and I and the fathers of my community in town had a quiet day at home after morning Masses.

With the arrival of Advent I and the other fathers helped out with penance services at the local parishes, which had been on hold since COVID started. A meal with the other priests was offered at each penance service, so it was the first time I spent time with the clergy of my deanery. For my fifteenth anniversary of ordination (12/8) I took a cultural tour of a Cabela’s (I did get a couple of things, nothing too outdoor or lethal) and then was treated to a steak dinner.

The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe was on a Sunday of Advent this year, which took priority, but that didn’t keep the parishioners at Our Lady of Lourdes from constructing a beautiful shrine to Our Lady, right in front of the presider’s chair during Mass. At the start of Mass I quipped, since many of the faithful couldn’t see me as usual, due to the shrine, “for the record, I stand behind the Blessed Mother.” A large image of her is kept in the vesting sacristy of the parish, and I often speak to Our Lady in the few minutes before I process out for Mass.

On 12/16 the diocese had its first clergy Christmas gathering since 2019. I was not at the September convocation of priests, so it was my first opportunity to meet clergy from all over the diocese of Raleigh. Earlier the same day I visited Bishop Luis Rafael and gave him a copy of my new book. I also gave a talk on liturgical life to the young professionals group at St. Joseph’s parish.

On 12/21 I travelled to California to spend Christmas with my family for the first time in 25 years. When I knew my annual Rome teaching commitment would be concluded by 2021 I pitched the idea to my Mom, and we were both excited. It was also the first time reconnecting with some friends and family since COVID broke out in 2020. The afternoon of Christmas Eve I helped my Mom wrap presents for nine people: it was probably more presents than I’d wrapped in the previous 24 years combined.

Fr. Jason, the pastor of St. Patrick’s, invited me to celebrate the Midnight Christmas Mass at the parish where I was baptized. The day of Christmas was the best. My Mom had all my brothers, my sister-in-law, and my nieces over for dinner. I had not been around children excited about opening Christmas presents in years; my youngest two nieces, Petra and Rose, were excited, but patient. After dinner (which the girls ate in record time) we gathered in the living room and took turns opening presents. My niece Rose hugged her grandmother after opening each present from her.

For me the greatest gift was to be home with them for Christmas. A few days later I travelled up for a day in Chico to visit and say Mass for my aunts Lucy and Marie. My family gave me a chalice and I used it for the first time for Mass with my aunts. I returned to Raleigh on 12/30 for our customary end of year retreat on 12/31. I wish everyone a blessed 2022.

A new book on the Kingdom of Christ published

The theology book I have been editing/translating for the last few years on the theology of the Kingdom of Christ is now for sale in print and Kindle formats. It includes my study on the relationship between the Church and the Kingdom.

A Visit to the Novitiate in CT and to DMU in VA

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.

A year of the unexpected

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.

Maximizing the Mass now available

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!