It is a source of great honor at my alma mater, the Pontifical North American College in Rome, that when Rome fell to Garibaldi in 1870 seminarians from the College saved the life, if not the worldly kingdom, of Pope Pius IX. Honorable young men who had been on opposite sides of the American Civil War just a few years earlier, some of whom may have met each other on the field of battle back home before meeting again on the ship that took them to Rome, refused to abandon Pio Nono to the revolutionary mob crying for blood and gold.
That’s how the North American College got the reputation it has today and why the seminarians have a particularly strong bond with every pope, from Pius IX to Pope Francis.
But it’s easy to forget that for every naive smalltown Midwestern boy who can’t hold his liquor, has never won a fistfight, and wouldn’t use a gun to save his own life — guys like me — there are others who have been to war and, therefore, understand matters of war from a place of personal experience. There are even some seminarians in the College in Rome who give up the future of a mansion to call home, gourmet meals cooked just for them every day, and an annual club-med vacation on a manicured beach somewhere, choosing instead military service as chaplain ministering to U.S. troops in places like Sadr City and Kabul, and every other place where there are Catholic (and non-Catholic) troops who need a priest who understands along with them what the Prophet Isaiah taught: Verily thou art a God that hidest thyself.
When I was a seminarian in Rome, I spent my time doing what I thought would best prepare me for a future of serving the world through the Church — practicing and studying and praying the liturgy in as many forms as I could. Surely it seemed odd that while my brothers at the College spent time together after Sunday Mass, I rushed off to attend Mass in a different rite. Sometimes I attended Mass three times on Sunday, and evening Vespers twice!
Why? Not piety, though I tried and failed to be as pious as I thought I should be. Certainly not rebellion or protest, as there’s no need to spend the widow’s mite on such frivolity. (It’s not exactly cheap to spend four or more years in Rome!) Rather, I had an intuition already back then that the only way to arrive at the spiritual reality — the “mystery” in ancient theological terms — expressed by means of words, movements, symbols, sounds, and rituals (and that’s what liturgy is, the intersection of all those things) is to set aside exclusive attachment to one’s own fixed, habitual experience and enter into an alien expression of the very same reality.
The priests of the Dominican Order at the Angelicum made sure that I understood something of St. Thomas Aquinas’ epistemology: the words we use point to something beyond themselves, to realities that are beyond human words altogether. But we’re human and so we have to make the best of who we are and what we have and what we’re able to do. That was essentially my motivation in learning how ritual communication is able to ensure the transmission of profound and complex ideas while making use of common and even simple physical elements to evoke lived experience. (Something akin to “form” and “matter” in sacramental theology, and anamnesis in liturgical theology.)
I wish I had played baseball or soccer with my brothers back at the College. Shared a beer and cigar with a Brother to celebrate his approval for ordination and final trip home. Or sat on the edge of my chair with everyone else as one last Hail Mary pass decides an entire Superbowl. But I had to figure out whatever it was that only I could do, so while I was doing what I needed to do, everyone else was doing what they needed to do. Each of us discovering our part in the future of the Church and the world.
For the past three years, in preparation for an inevitable encounter with alien beings from far away places in the Universe (and maybe even not-so-far-away places), I’ve been writing about things that must have seemed odd, silly, or useless. Certainly they seemed that way to me at times. I often doubted myself and wondered if I was simply indulging my vanity. That’s why I took down my Tumblr site and my first blog site and came close to chucking desktop folders full of half-written, over-written, and barely-written reflections and dream accounts, most of which I’ve never publicly posted or even shared with another human being. Too many times I came close to destroying every single word I wrote across these years. Yet here I am even today, still writing. Still hoping.
So let me just put this out there: When the folks at SETI and METI (and the rest), discover repeating signals from deep space and do all the science-y things they have to do to make sure they’re not deluding themselves or the world, I’m pretty sure that beyond a shared means of communicating (language) and a common mode for expressing experience of natural phenomena (science and mathematics), we’ll find that things like culture and religion, mortality and Family, purpose and hope, will give us something to talk about with each other. When we find someone to talk to and figure out how to talk to them, we’ll have something worthwhile to talk about. And maybe even something to do together — like seed the Universe.
I’m not much use in a fistfight or a gunfight, but I’m willing to risk everything and even shed my own blood for the sake of life and family — not just here on Earth but across the Universe. Isaiah’s God is my God — and when I wanted to give up on myself and on my own life, it was the act of living and the love of Family that kept me going, that kept me alive.
Axios! Axios! Axios!
One of my own classmates from Rome — our rooms were right next to each other for most of our time at the College — is already a bishop. (Steve Lopes was one of the few true intellectuals in our class — we couldn’t have found a better guy to represent us.) A few of those who were upperclassmen when I was a freshman (a New Man, in College lingo) are bishops now, too.
One day soon, I imagine there will even be a cardinal among them, the first Gen X cardinal.
A Gen X cardinal — how absurd that sounds.
A Gen X cardinal — how beautiful that sounds!
December 8, 2017
Patronal Feast Day of the College