This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.
As I boarded the my flight from Fiumicino to Atlanta – for the final time as a resident of Rome – the closing words of T.S. Eliot’s famous poem “The Hollow Men” came to mind. I thought of them because they invoke for me the essence of anticlimax.
I was scheduled to fly home on July 1. Because of an emergency at home, I had to change my flight. In fact – it happened quite hectically. I learned of a situation at home early one morning in Rome, and had changed my flight to the next day within an hour. This presented a problem: I had planned my final week in Rome – after five years of studies – to be one of nostalgic goodbyes. I had a Mass scheduled in the Clementine Chapel. I had friends coming in town. I was looking forward to the Pallium Mass and to seeing our Holy Father one more time before I left – maybe for the last time. It was going to be an awesome week.
But instead, I changed my flight, and then had to frantically pack my room, which was supposed be a leisurely five day process. I was literally throwing things into boxes and hoping that I didn’t toss anything that was too important. It was hot – about 95 degrees with no air conditioning – and there was really no one to help, since I was one of the last guys to leave.
So, by the time I made it to the airport the next morning, I felt like I was in shock. My awesome final nostalgia week was ruined. I didn’t even get a last look at St. Peter’s – not even from the outside. I could not believe it! After all, St. Peter’s had become a very special place for me. For all five years of my time in Rome, it’s dome dominated the view from my room. I’ve been to confession in the Basilica countless times, celebrated dozens of Masses inside, and encountered the Holy Father there on numerous occasions. I’ve guided hundreds of people through the Basilica, sharing with them the love I have for her history and deep symbolism. To leave without even getting a last morning glance at the façade, so beautifully reflecting the morning hues of the rising sun, really bothered me.
And then I arrived in Atlanta, and I discovered why our Lord changed my plans. In Atlanta, we are starting to feel the crunch that every diocese will soon experience: we have a “bubble” of faithful priests who have been serving the people for many years who are now looking to retire – or at the very least to give up the stressful job of having to run a parish – and we simply have not ordained enough men to replace them, much less to deal with the strong growth of our diocese.
I learned that the pastor at my home parish was without help for a few weeks. Seven Sunday Masses is simply too many for one priest, and so I was able to help him. A wonderful man – a fellow Knight of Columbus, and one who had been supportive of my vocation for as long as I even thought the Lord was calling me to the priesthood, died after a struggle with cancer, and I was able to be present and concelebrate his funeral along with many of the priests whose lives he had touched. Many other fantastic things happened during my foiled “nostalgia week” – too many to recount. Confessions. Anointings. Suffice it to say that I think the Lord was trying to remind me of something very important.
He was trying to remind me that this world – this magnificent place in which we live – is only transitory. I had planned for myself a “dream week” in Rome, but that week would have been little more than self-aggrandizement, merely the inflating of the importance of my experiences in the the life the Lord has given me to lead in these past five years.
Instead he called me home to be reinserted in the ministry of eternity. I spent my nostalgia week as a parish priest, celebrating Mass and the sacraments for the people of God, who are so grateful for the presence of a priest. God reminded me that when I laid down my life, I laid down my rights to nostalgia. Nostalgia is backward-looking, and the priesthood is entirely about eternity and timelessness. The priesthood looks forward to eternity, not backward to what we have lost. Jesus said something about that…he who lays his hand to the plow but turns back is not worthy of the kingdom of God.
I may never return to Italy. It’s hard to imagine, but it is possible. And make no mistake: it was absolutely magnificent. I met some of the most amazing people in the world during my time in Rome – from places as far as Jerusalem, Australia, and Peru. I was a fifteen minute stroll to St. Peter’s Basilica, and I saw the Holy Father on a regular basis. I had the opportunity to deacon for him on five occasions, and was able several times to meet him. I grew in my love for the saints – particularly St. Francis and St. Anthony of Padua – who both took excellent care of me during my time in Italy. I made friends when I entered seminary seven years ago who are now priests and working in the vineyard, men with whom I will remain friends I hope, but many of whom I will never see again. Our lives, for a brief moment in history, came together in a marvelous way, and then, when God was ready, we were sent on our various paths to bring him to souls and souls to him.
It’s been an amazing five years. I could not be more grateful to God for the experience, but I am also grateful that he ended it so abruptly. I think I would have ruined the whole thing by missing the point: Italy was given to me so that I could come back here and be the priest our Lord wants me to be. It was given to me as an instrument – to prepare me to serve the people of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. Pointless nostalgia should not hinder the priestly ministry of eternality. So for me, it’s no looking back, except to be grateful. Rather, it’s time to jump into my new parish, and to love these people into heaven.