The Anniversary Party
There's a passage from Milestones which has stuck with me since the first time I read it in the middle of a 9th grade Biology class back in 1997. I return to it often in my thoughts.
Near the close, speaking of his ordination as archbishop of Munich and Freising, The Man Who Would Be Pope said,
"This episcopal consecration brings me into the present period of my life. For the present is not a specific date but the Now of a human life. And this Now can be long or very short. For me, the Now of my life is still determined by what began in the cathedral in Munich that day with the laying on of hands for my consecration as bishop. This is why I cannot write any memoirs about it but can only attempt to fill in this Now."It's in that spirit which I attempt to fill in this Now, my Now, one determined in a place far from home which, in a twist of fate, became home nel cuore.
The first ten years of my ecclesial journey brought me a wealth of friends and people to share the experience with. From all walks of life, all areas of the church, I was lavished with the support, cameraderie and encouragement of amazing people who have given their lives to building up this community by their example of selflessness and wholehearted love. Then, as now, I'd spend a lot of time writing notes out of a love of keeping in touch and, admittedly, because I thrived on the encouragement, support and the spiritual stimulation which came from this exchange of ideas and the love that is friendship.
Affirmation -- adulation, even -- is a very human need, and especially given that I wasn't your normal teenager, I guess it could be said that I needed it more than the rest. I still do, and I love giving it... all appearances to the contrary, I know, but it's the truth.
And then I crossed paths with this incredible priest, a renaissance churchman if ever there were one, who had been raised to the fulness of the priesthood -- and with good reason. I found in this guy the same spirit of my Father-Mentor, with that rare charism of genuine devotion to the role of youth in ecclesial life. He did and gave much to cultivate me and be overly supportive, in the process setting the gold standard in my mind for what a bishop-shepherd should be. Where he gets his energy from, I haven't a clue -- but his ministry is proof that God makes caffeine seem as Xanax... Maybe the Mormons are onto something.
For years, in our correspondence, he'd keep telling me, "You have to come. You have to come." He had been given a great diocese, and it's rightfully the apple of his eye. As I've always been a "come and see" kind of guy, I decided to spend the 10th anniversary of the journey's beginning nel paese lontano, getting a feel for a different kind of church than the one in which I had been raised. Little could I expect what the forces of the world would have in store....
I touched down on a July afternoon, undergoing one of those input overload experiences where you try to take everything in to the point of your brain exploding because you want to remember everything and hold onto it forever... and this was just at the airport.
Heading into town, a sunny day suddenly turned dark and a freak thunderstorm broke out with the most brilliant, direct, powerful lightning I'd ever seen. Noticing my amazement, my seminarian-driver said, "Oh, we get these every day." Luckily, his matter-of-factness didn't ruin my wide-eyed romance with the moment.
And so I spent the days taking in the terrain, just wandering around this place which felt so much closer to heaven than the river city of my birth, immersing myself in the joy, kindness and enthusiastic welcome of these glorious people: in the parishes, in the seminary, in the diocesan offices. The contrast with my beloved church of Philadelphia was, literally, night and day -- and I loved the thrill of what I came to term my "pastoral visits."
Indeed, I had come home to a place I'd never been before.
The weekend came, there were parishes to see, company to enjoy and dinners to have -- and I had a bishop-chauffeur to boot. Not too shabby, eh?
I didn't know this when scheduling the trip, but my stay coincided with a major youth festival in the diocese. And the host bishop had the privilege of doing the closing liturgy. Early that Sunday morning -- way too early for this legendary night-owl -- we packed it in and headed to the hotel. And I could not believe my eyes.
It wasn't even 9.00, and there were young people everywhere -- there had to be well over 1,000 packing the ballroom, singing, chanting and in this spirit of prayer which filled the place in a way I've not seen before or since. You could cut it with a knife.
Vibrant, overjoyed and enthusiastic are words which do not do the scene justice. No words can portray it accurately, even now.
This doesn't happen often, but I had the immediate sense that I was out of my element -- way out. It was somewhat implied earlier, when I met up with my host and he started taunting me with a chant of "Over-dressed! Over-dressed!" But I was only wearing a Banana Republic button-down and slacks... He ended up being right -- but one should be Georg-esque when hanging with bishops, no?
In possibly the most egregiously out of character thing I've ever done, I started looking around for a quiet corner of this cavernous, packed ballroom, with the intent of being as inconspicuous as possible. I just had to take this unfolding beauty in and not let my sartorial fabulousness get in the way. I found a divider about halfway back and made a beeline....
Swooping into my little nook against the wall, I leaned back and breathed a sigh of relief. Settling in, I started looking around....
And then the lightning hit.
*TO BE CONTINUED*