6/26/2014 12:04:00 PM SEMINARIAN'S DIARY My view from Rome
This is part of The Evangelist's ongoing series of reports from diocesan seminarians on their formation for the priesthood. Read previous installments under "specials" at www.evangelist.org.
BY RICK LESSER
The seminary I attend organized a trip to Rome for the canonizations of our patron, Pope John XXIII, and that of Pope John Paul II. The first thing that came to mind when I waded into the crowd was the famous line from James Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake" that described Catholics: "Here comes everybody!"
There were nuns in full habits eating gelato and teens in jeans and t-shirts camped out on the plaza for days before the big event. I saw old men with canes, old women with walkers and young families with strollers. I even saw a red-robed cardinal being swept helplessly along in a sea of people, still a half-mile away from the square!
All told, it is estimated that 800,000 people watched from near St Peter's and another 500,000 crowded around screens set up throughout Rome. You should have been there!
We've all heard the stories about St. Pope John XXIII. He was a gentle man, the son of peasants, who loved a good joke. Before he became Pope, Angelo Roncalli held posts that brought him into contact with all kinds of people: Latin- and Eastern-Rite Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Protestants, Jews, Muslims and even atheists. He was the consummate pastor of a huge and diverse flock - and he loved it.
The Church elected him in part because he was an older man whom many thought would be a place-keeper. Instead, he convened Vatican II in the 1960s, making major reforms to the Church!
Above all else, John XXIII was a man who saw others as individuals, all loved by Christ, regardless of age or station. He told those gathered in St. Peter's square on the opening day of Vatican II to "Go back home and give your little children a kiss - tell them it is from Pope John." And when a cardinal complained that an usher at the Vatican made more money than the cardinal did, the quick-witted pope commented: "That usher has 10 children; I hope the cardinal does not!"
I've been slowly reading "J23's" autobiographical "Journal of a Soul." His was not a meteoric rise to perfection. His faith journey was not unlike many of ours: a few steps forward and a few steps back. He wrote frankly about how hard it was to be obedient (boy, there is a word that has fallen on hard times) and faithful.
I would imagine that all of us can relate to his story, and find in it comfort and hope.
At one point we celebrated Mass with Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley at his titular Church, Santa Maria della Vittoria. Don't ask what I was thinking, but I volunteered to be an acolyte.
Gentle old men in brown robes patiently got me decked out and ready to serve "Roman-style." I nervously sought out one of the seminary faculty and confessed that I had no idea what I was supposed to do amid all the high church activity. He just smiled and told me it would be fine.
The cardinal's secretary, Rev. Jonathan Gaspar, kindly kept me from making a total fool of myself. There were 20-some concelebrating priests and bishops crowded into the little sanctuary. I was stuck in an alcove off to the side and had to squeeze through them all in a most non-high-church fashion each time I was needed.
All I could think as I looked through a forest of vestments was how big our Church really is - and how inadequate and small I really was. Yet, somehow, God calls me - me, just an old horse doctor - just as He calls every one of us to do our little bit here and now.
I could not help but wonder if the son of peasants who had become pope late in life might have sometimes felt that way, too.
If God calls me, and if God calls you - and He does - then we might as well confess the inevitable joy of our faith: "Here comes everybody!" In that little alcove, I could almost feel St. Pope John standing near me, smiling widely and exclaiming to the whole world, "Bene! Grazie! Prego!"
(Mr. Lesser is a widowed father of three, a former equine veterinarian and a graduate of St. Bernard's School of Theology and Ministry in Albany, serving this summer at Immaculate Heart of Mary parish in Watervliet. He has one year left of studies for the priesthood at Pope St John XXIII National Seminary near Boston.)