Reflections from Rome: Feast of St. John Paul II

By Patrick Agustin
Second Theology, Archdiocese of Washington
Pontifical North American College
October 23, 2017

On October 21, the alumni of Saint John Paul II Seminary now studying at the North American College in Rome gathered together to commemorate and celebrate the life of a great saint and the patron of our diocesan seminary, whose feast day was on October 22.

We began our day of celebration with Mass at Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Polish Chapel of Our Lady of Częstochowa.  Not surprisingly, the Chapel of St. Sebastian, where the tomb of our beloved patron rests, was booked all day, so we were unable to have Mass there.  In a providential way, however, it was as if Saint John Paul II was pointing us towards and leading us to Our Blessed Mother instead, just as he did during his pontificate.  Mass was celebrated by Fr. Wojciech Giertych, OP, a papal theologian and professor of moral theology at the Angelicum, the university where many of us receive our intellectual formation.  Fr. Giertych was joined by Fr. Robert Kilner, one of the Archdiocese of Washington’s newly ordained priests and a member of the inaugural class of JPII.

At the end of the day, we proudly donned our burgundy JPII polo shirts to pray Evening Prayer together and shared in a delicious dinner prepared by some of our more “culinarily-inclined” alumni.  The dinner included some traditional Polish dishes, such as golumpki, a stuffed cabbage roll in tomato sauce, as well as Polish sausages.  Over the meal, we reminisced about some of our favorite memories from our time at JPII, including the way we would sing “Happy Birthday” at dinner (perhaps “scream” would be the more appropriate term) and unfortunate encounters with ghost peppers.  It was an unforgettable evening, and we look forward to continuing this tradition in the years to come.

We give thanks to God for the gift of this great shepherd who by his life gave witness to the Gospel and has given us seminarians an example of a holy and joyful priesthood.  We also give thanks to God for the gift of Saint John Paul II Seminary, our home away from Rome.

Saint John Paul II, pray for us!

 

Phase III: A Symbol of Hope

By Thomas Showalter
Second College, Archdiocese of Washington
St. John Paul II Seminary
29 September, 2017

Last year, as a new seminarian, I was full of anticipation and excitement for pursuing God’s will in my life. I was ready to begin my first year and follow the Lord wherever he wanted to lead me. As I was starting my time in seminary, I was asked to write for the blog on the parallels between the start of the construction of the new wing and my entrance into seminary (click here to read that blog).

While everyone here was anxiously awaiting the opening of the new wing, I was anxiously awaiting the surprises to come in seminary as I began my preparation for priesthood. My entire first year I experienced a strong visual parallel in the building of the new wing, and the process of God’s construction in my own heart as I began my formation. When we left for the summer, the new wing was almost complete, but I had much more to go.

Upon our arrival back this year, the new edition was ready to finally hold life! Now, the seminary feels complete and is able to hold the most seminarians it ever has. Fifty-one of us share this wonderful house, and are enjoying all the benefits of the bigger refectory and the Comstock Conference Room. 

The seminary was buzzing with excitement the day Cardinal Wuerl came to open the newest edition. We were all excited and ready for the opening Mass, dedication, and dinner to follow. Having the new and bigger refectory has given us the ability to host more people at the seminary and the new conference room is equipped with all the necessary features for our formation. It will be the home of many formation nights, conferences, workshops, and study sessions for my remaining years, and for many years to come. It truly completes the house at St. John Paul II Seminary. 

For me though, the completion of the new wing is a strong symbol of hope that God will bring to fulfillment the work he has begun in me (Philippians 1:6). 

 

My Big Catholic Family

By James Morrison
Third Theology, Archdiocese of Washington
Pontifical North American College
14, September 2017

For as long as I can remember, summers have always passed too quickly.  With the new school semester quickly building momentum and the smell of fried chicken fading from memory, many people turn a longing gaze back on the cherished days of summer.    

Men preparing for priesthood are assigned to parishes during the summer as an apprenticeship to acclimate them to the routine of parish life.  The seasoned pastor is given the incredible task of breaking in the newbie.  

Our Lady Star of the Sea is a picturesque little parish a few steps from the Solomon’s Island boardwalk.  It overlooks the Patuxent River and the coastline of Saint Mary’s County and beyond.   Over a few short weeks at this summer post, I learned something that cannot be taught in a theology class or a semester of scripture studies.  I learned where to find a good crab cake and many new ways to cook with Old Bay seasoning; but perhaps most importantly I learned to see the Church as my family.   

At Our Lady Star of the Sea, I had the privilege of being a part of family, a family gathered together by the heavenly Father.  Many people welcomed me into their life and home, sharing with me the joys and struggles of life.  Over the dinner table, young children recounted their swim team victories and Irish dance competitions.  Fathers spoke of their newest projects in the yard as mothers proudly laid the warm food on the table.  Others spoke of life after the loss of a loved one; a painful chapter of life that they never saw coming.  

If we search through the Gospels, we see Jesus performing grand miracles, instructing His disciples, and preaching to the multitudes.  His ministry, however, also included more intimate encounters: sharing meals with friends, accompanying them through the joys and challenges of life.  The familiar story of Mary and Martha (Lk. 10: 38 - 42) can remind us just how embedded Christ was in the life of his people. 

The life of a priest and those aspiring to such a life are called to give themselves in this same way.  One’s relationship with Christ goes beyond the walls of the church; so to must His ministers.  A priest accompanies his family as Christ would, walking with them in all the experiences that life may give.   

For me, the face I saw and the stories I heard have given me renewed enthusiasm.  This summer has indeed gone too quickly, but it is not one I will soon forget!  There could be no better inspiration moving into this new year. 

 

Ascension

By Christian Huebner
Second Theology, Archdiocese of Washington
Pontifical North American College
29 May, 2017

In Oxford, there’s a custom on Ascension Thursday for all of the choirs of the various colleges to climb to the tops of their gothic spires early in the morning to sing to the Lord as the sun rises over the Cotswolds countryscape.

It may seem a bit silly, a bit literalist for our age, but there’s something very dear and true at the core, I think.  We climb a tower on the day we remember Jesus ascending into the sky and disappearing from sight by a cloud because we want to be near him.  We don’t have the language to say the kind of prayer of longing properly, so we do what dumb animals or children would do—try to act out what we want as best we can, however crudely.

The prayers of the Church for the Feast of the Ascension speak about how in ascending to heaven forty days after his resurrection, Jesus Christ drew nearer to us.  Nearer, not further.  It’s one of the aching paradoxes of the pilgrimage of faith to try and untangle what this could mean.  Before his death, he talked at length with the twelve apostles about how they would mourn and long for him, but how it was actually better that he was leaving them.  How can we understand this?

There are two images that come to mind.  Imagine a couple out on a long hike, say a many-staged camping journey, like you might take in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota or another similarly wild and remote place.  At one point, the two decide that one of them needs to leave and push on ahead at a faster pace.  A few days’ journey from where they are is a cabin with beautiful furnishings, a pristine spot by a lake full of fish, a well-stocked pantry and cellar and enough kerosene and fuel to last all through the coming winter.  But the house needs to be opened up and made ready.  One of them needs to go ahead and make preparations.

As the man and woman part, they grow farther apart by one measurement, the measurement of physical space, of sight.  But what about the invisible part of them?  Aren’t their hearts drawn all the closer together?  They’ve been camping and fending together all along the way, but now, with the promise of these preparations, they have a new dynamic in their hearts, the energy of hope for a settled life together, a stable resting place where they will be able to simply be with one another in peace.  In this sense, they are far, far closer than they ever have been before.  The promise of a deeper union after the separation even now binds them more closely together within their hearts.

Jesus promised us something like this, only much greater.  In my Father’s house there are many rooms, he told us; I go there to prepare a place for you.  This is the final Sabbath rest, the settled place that we long for more than anything else.  This is the settled Sabbath rest with the great love of our hearts, the God who is the communion of love, who made us and then re-made us in baptism to enter into that communion.

A second image also comes to mind.  When a town has a good mayor, or a parish has a good pastor, it sometimes happens that he is called to a higher place.  “Higher” means being responsible for and with power over a greater scope of terrain.  We frequently express this with physical space—the CEO is usually on the upper floors of the skyscraper—and for good reason.  Often physical height does make a person more present to a large area, as when an army can take a mountaintop and see everything else below.  But the deeper meaning of “height” is really about the range and depth of influence, presence by power.

But back to our promoted man.  We’re sad to see him go.  We’ll miss his daily presence among us, the way he brought life to the community through his leadership.  But in another way we’re happy, not just for him and they joy he’ll receive from his promotion, but we’re also happy for the world because of the good that will come about.  Soon after the promotion, we start to see traces of it.  The mayor becomes governor, and a few months later on a visit to a neighboring city we notice how here, too, now the bus stations are cleaner and more efficient.  Or our pastor becomes bishop, and we notice a fresh spirit of prayer and joy now spreading among the leadership of the entire diocese.  It’s almost as though the traces of this man are now waiting for us in new places by reason of his influence, long before we even arrive.

The Spirit of the Lord has filled the whole world now.  Christ has taken up his throne and he is the Lord.  Not just lord of this, or the lord of that—he is the only true Lord, to whom is entrusted everything that is.  Any other meaning of “Lord” or “king” or “CEO” is only a puny analogy to what Lord truly means, and that is Jesus Christ.  We can see his traces waiting for us now all over the world.  Sometimes obviously, like when we go to places where the Gospel has been preached and the Mass is celebrated, and people live in hope of the resurrection, or when we meet people who are not Catholic or even Christian, yet nevertheless sense the importance of the Pope for all humankind.  But also in more mysterious ways.  A friend once recounted to me how she traveled to a largely unevangelized part of the world, expecting to bring Christ there with her; instead she found that he was somehow already there among the people, secretly unknown to them, but still there for someone who already knew him.

At my seminary, we have a large tower that rises above most of the buildings in the surrounding city.  All day long last Thursday, I’d been remembering a year, more than a decade ago, when I’d climbed the bell tower of an Anglican chapel and listened for the English psalmody as a grey dawn unfurled.  But the days are busy, and it is easy to lose track of little inspirations.

At the end of the day, though, after night had fallen and I was brushing my teeth, I remembered again.  In my slippers, I made for the elevator and then climbed two more flights of stairs to the uppermost observation deck.  I was, in one sense, alone, as I had hoped.  It was all that a simple, dumb creature like me could ask for, trying to express something of longing that words could not capture.

 

The Eternal City: A Pilgrimage to Rome

By Stefan Yap
First Theology, Archdiocese of Washington
Mount St. Mary's Seminary
23 March, 2017

After ending a long week of classes, late night studying, and midterms, twenty-three other seminarians from the Mount and I found ourselves on a bus towards Philadelphia International Airport. We checked in our bags, stood in line for TSA, and hopped on a plane headed for Italy. Once on the plane, it finally hit me, "When this plane lands, I will be in Rome." I was beyond excited to see all the beautiful sites, to taste the delicious food, and to see my brother seminarians at the North American College. 

After a long overnight flight, we landed at 9:30 in the morning, and right after landing we were on the move to the North American College or “the NAC” as the Americans call it. The Archdiocese of Washington currently has eight seminarians and three priests studying at the NAC. It was a blessing to see the NAC seminarians, especially since it has been more than a year since I last saw a few of them. Being the adventurous city boy that I am, after I put my bags down in the hotel, I left to explore the city. I discovered that St. Peter’s Square was only a five minute walk from our hotel. I have to admit; my first impression of St. Peter’s was not great. I found myself shortly, thereafter, roaming through the different parts of the city. As I wandered back towards St. Peter’s Square I found myself at the end of the road leading to the basilica. As I walked towards the Church it began to hit me just how massive it truly is. Once I got to the front of the square and the columns of the square came into view, the idea of the columns being the arms of a mother taking in her children came to mind and I was captivated. The visit to the Square, which was initially an underwhelming experience, became a regular activity for me as we were given free time.

Most of our time in Rome was spent touring the city and seeing the many things that Rome has to offer. While all the tours were great, my favorite part of the entire trip happened on our free day. I have a deep devotion to St. Agnes, and since her tomb is in Rome, I had the chance to pray in front of her the place where she is buried. I took full advantage of our free day and I visited both sites where St. Agnes is found. You can see St. Agnes’ skull in her church in Rome, and you can visit her tomb in St. Agnes Outside the Walls, just beyond of the main city. When I went down into the crypt of the tiny basilica, I was overcome with emotion as I was about to see my favorite saint’s tomb. As I knelt down in front of her tomb I could only thank God for allowing me to be there. I prayed a holy hour in the small crypt as tour groups came by to see the tomb. While I was there, a religious sister came down to pray alongside me and as I was about to leave she turned and shared with me some words. In thanksgiving I asked if we could pray the Pater Noster together. There I was, kneeling in front of the Tomb of St. Agnes praying the Lord’s prayer with a religious sister!

Without a doubt my week in Rome was a time of relaxation and fun, but it was also a time of prayer and a deepening of faith. There I was, at the heart of Catholicism. St. Peter came to Rome to build the Church that Jesus spoke about while he was on earth, and it is where so many martyrs, like St. Agnes, risked their lives to profess the truth of the Gospel. I don’t think I have said the Creed as many times in a span of a week than when I was in Rome. The richness of the Church is easily recognized in that city and yet, a lot of it is shrouded in mystery. I think that is one of the true beauties of Rome. The eternal and the temporal meet at this place in history in Jesus Christ, but also in the founding of the Church through Peter. To be physically there in Rome, in St. Peter’s Basilica, at the tomb of St. Peter, the rock on which the Church was built, in a way, allowed me to feel more intimately connected with the Church. The continuity in the Church that is found through the Pope and Peter, and guided by the Holy Spirit, is clearly evident when you are there. My words do not do it justice, but the experience did invite me to deepen my faith and I have thanked God for such a gift every day since coming home. Rome is known as the Eternal City, but may the Lord continue to guide His Church and the Pope, to lead us to the true Eternal City in Heaven. 

 

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