“So what’s this I hear – you’re going to Rome – finally?” 

That was Bishop John Flesey on the phone with me tonight.  I had called earlier to see how he was feeling (side note – keep him in your prayers as he recovers from Colon Cancer surgery and begins chemotherapy) and had mentioned on the phone that in less than 60 hours from now I’ll be en route to Rome.  The first time I’ve ever left the United States, heading to the “Eternal City.”  At the age of 38 that sounds somewhat preposterous to some…  I had a kid say to me the other day “Really, you’ve never even been to Canda?” – No?  Why would I go there (sorry, Canadians, unprovoked attack, I know…couldn’t resist)…

Bishop Flesey had been the rector at Immaculate Conception Seminary while I was in formation for the Priesthood of Jesus Christ.  In that role, he had a front row seat to the last time “Rome” was on my mind, which I quickly reminded him of as I said “Yeah, it’s taking me 16 years but I’m finally going.”

You see, 16 years ago, then, Archbishop Theodore McCarrick had one evening, probably right around this time of year, had somewhat suddenly asked me to give him a lift to the Cathedral.  So I cleaned out my Ford Escort as best I could for the Archbishop for what I had thought would be an uneventful ride into downtown Newark in the evening (never a safe assumption, but I digress).  As I was driving, he mentioned an upcoming international trip he was making, with a stop over in Rome, transitioning into a brief discussion about the men studying for the Priesthood there and asked ‘do you know any of them’(I didn’t) and then dropped “Well I’d like you to continue your studies there starting next year.”

This lack of peace on my heart and mind immediately entered in.  Perhaps it was the thought of being 21 years old and knowing I’d have to leave the US for 2 years (and not return during those two years).  Imagining leaving family – including loved ones I knew where in their final stages of life – as well as friends was a lot to consider.  Just finishing college, I was already “homesick” from Allentown Pennsylvania, missing all my friends from there, which was a mere 60 minute car ride from Seton Hall – how would I make it in Rome? 

After a torturous discernment (Archbishop McCarrick very graciously and clearly indicated that this had to be “my decision”) I passed on that opportunity – 3 times (well, he was gracious and gave me the freedom but asked me to reconsider that decision 2 times).

I suppose that’s contributed to this resistance to going to Rome.  It’s strange how these life decisions can have such an impact…  Suddenly even legitimate concerns can be connected to irrational fears & anxieties.  Doubts cement themselves in a way that they can close your heart and mind that, years go by, and you’re in the same place you’ve been – whether spiritually, geographically or a little of both.

Which is why as overwhelmed as I am at the prospect of heading to Rome for my first visit, and honestly, I am a bit anxious… there’s another part of myself that’s bubbling with anticipation and excitement.  I mean, I have no point of reference.  I’ve lived my life in a country that measures its history in centuries – this is a city that does so in millenium.  In the US, Catholicism is just one of numerous faiths people practiced;   in Rome, thousands died in witness to this faith that I have given my life too.  To be in the physical proximity to the remains of the first Pope – St. Peter (whos tomb I’ll visit) to the beloved predecessor of our current great Pope Benedict XVI; Blessed John Paul II (who’s burial place will be another place I’m privileged to celebrate the Eucharist with 40 “friends”, fellow pilgrims, I’ve never met before) – how can I begin to imagine what that’s all going to be like.

Yeah, it’s a weird place that I find myself in… not a “bad” weird – just weird, outside of the norm.  In my prayer this morning, this peace that alluded me 16 years ago when I first discerned “going to Rome” came over me where I felt the Lord was joyfully inviting me to simply open my heart and soul to experience the great gift that is within reach.  Have no idea what that is.  But I’m grateful to my friend, “The Catholic Guy” Lino Rulli for being God’s instrument in poking me to go (who knew God had such a wicked sense of humor?)  It’s taken 16 years, but I think I’m finally ready…

Will be sharing some pics and thoughts from the trip right here on this blog… so my fellow “Newmaners” and other friends can follow along on my “Spring Break”

In the meantime, here’s the first pic – my verification that the Archbishop that I’m a priest in good standing and can offer Mass and the Sacraments in the eternal city… 

In Christ’s Peace,
Fr Jim