The Magic Number
My dear Aunt Angie in Virginia -- born Catholic, now a Baptist, yet still the closest thing to a saint I've ever known -- has always maintained that "When you see the number 14, it's like God saying 'Hello!' to you." Through the years, I've come to see a lot of wisdom in her take.
Yesterday -- the 14th July -- marked the 14th anniversary of the moment I've always counted as the beginning of this whole experience, this ever-thrilling ride. On that sweltering Sunday afternoon in 1991, I first met the mentor whose encouragement, guidance and protection enabled me to explore this singular world. And the rest, as they say, is history....
The circumstances of that Cathedral liturgy welcoming the newly-minted Cardinal Bevilacqua home from Rome are too emotional and lengthy to explain here (I'll do it in a book), but the encounter was substantive enough to create the belief -- both in my own mind and in the impressions of others -- that I was headed for the seminary, where my perceived talents were judged to be best spent.
It's no hyperbole to say that I was head-over-heels enamored with the sensory overload of this amazing new world, to which I'd been given the keys on day one. This being Philadelphia -- where we love our priests to bits and pieces -- there was no shortage of effusive support for my budding vocation, even from my teachers... and I went to public school. For an eight year-old in the system, it was majestic, overarching and intimidating all at the same time. But it gave me joy, it gave me a sense of mission, and it was never dull because there was always something to learn and someone to learn from. And I revelled in all of that.
And so I kept at it through my teens -- choir practice at the seminary mixing it up with the students; doing the circuit of diocesan events; dinners at rectories, and always keeping in close touch with the Boss, whose example, wisdom and counsel still resonates with me everyday. (May I one day live up to his confidence in me.) Admittedly, I never had the patience for the Youth Ministry stuff -- it always seemed too "artificial" for my tastes, and I preferred to hang my hat with the big boys in any case. But through it all, I kept reading with an insatiable appetite. Books on history, ministry, liturgy, the canons, the structures. Most of the gruntwork which prepared me for this work was accomplished during all-nighters in my teens as Sarah McLachlan or Dave Matthews CDs played.
The late 90s came, and the question of college seminary started to come to the fore. My circle of priests advised me to take it easy, wait, date around a bit, go to college elsewhere. I, meanwhile, already had the ordination date -- in 2009 -- marked on the calendar.
Look who ended up being right, and thank God they were.
There came a point late in my high school days when the dream of priesthood started to fray. My ties and profile made me a target for the internecine rivalries and jealousies which happen among Philadelphia priests, as they do in any comparable group. I didn't expect the slings and arrows, I never had any clue they existed among men who were called to be shepherds of souls, but once launched, they went a long way toward almost crushing my idealism and awakening me to the often harsh reality of this business. Thankfully, they wizened me and, over time, made me stronger.
On top of this, my educational background pressed me to thoroughly consider whether a life of obedience would mesh with my more iconoclastic tendencies. I would not seek to have my cake and eat it too. If I were to enter the seminary, I'd do it right, play by the rules and not seek to rattle cages on the inside, but I forced myself to decide if that course were the best thing given the opportunities and the mission of laypeople in a wider church, a wider world.
Most of all, there was the pressure of high expectations from clergy and laity alike. Well-meaning though it was, they saw more potential in me than I've ever seen in myself, and the talk of a vaunted career path -- to Rome and back, a mitre by 40 and maybe more down the line -- was downright frightening. It was too tall an order to live under, and it served to establish in my mind early on that, wonderful though it is, one's title and color worn is no measure for the effectiveness and quality of his priesthood.
So I had these nagging doubts, and I doubted myself. I was blessed to experience some amazing priesthood growing up -- men who really saw it as being a ministry of service, never thinking of power or his own gain, but living a sacrifice for the nourishment and renewal of all. I knew I could never live up to that.
Something had to give, and I was looking for a sign, some indicator of where I needed to go and what I had to do. As it was when I entered into all this, I found it in the most unexpected moment....
*TO BE CONTINUED*