A few days ago, I was in St. Mary Major, one of the four major basilicas in Rome. I had some friends in town, and we decided to see one of the famous displays in the city—the Bone Church—where hundreds of Capuchin monks are buried and their bones integrated into the decoration of the crypt chapels, the point being to remind the living of the proximity of death. After that experience—feeling a little shaken—we decided to head over to Mary Major because we heard that there was a Forty Hours Devotion going on for the feast of Corpus Christi.
Corpus Christi, the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, has its origins in a medieval miracle that occurred in a small Italian town called Bolsena. A priest who doubted in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist found that at the elevation, the host had bled onto the corporal that covers the altar during the consecration. This corporal was kept and is now on display in Orvieto, a little hill town about 20 minutes away from Bolsena. Each year, there is a grand procession of the corporal and the Eucharist in a beautiful monstrance through the streets of the medieval town. Last year, I had the privilege of participating in this procession, both in Orvieto and in Bolsena, and both were among the most memorable experiences I have had in Italy.
This year, because of my exam schedule and the arrival of friends from my old seminary in Maryland, Mount St. Mary’s, I was unable to return to Orvieto. However, the Archpriest of St. Mary Major, Cardinal Bernard Law, had arranged for a celebration of the traditional Forty Hours devotion to be celebrated in the Basilica. Having heard this, we decided to head over to spend a little bit of time with our Lord in the stunningly beautiful basilica dedicated to his mother.
When we arrived, the altar was abundantly decorated with flowers. The golden mosaics that cover the walls of the basilica glowed with the soft light that had been left burning all night during the forty hours of Eucharistic exposition. They were celebrating daytime prayer, and we discovered that the Forty Hours were at their end. The choir that had been invited to sing—I don’t know if they were the regular choir or whether they were special invitees—intoned some of the most beautiful polyphonic pieces I have ever heard. The cardinal gave an excellent reflection, reminding us that the procession of the Eucharist through the streets of Rome, which was to happen later that day, is a reminder of the mission we each have to bring Christ into the world: to “parade” him through the streets of our lives with exuberant joy and unfailing conviction.
I am personally a fan of Eucharistic and Marian processions. Something about a large group of people following the one they love to a place they know not just appeals to me. It reminds me of my first days as a seminarian at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland. The rector gathered all of the new men together, wobbling on new spring legs, and I will never forget the words of true wisdom that he imparted to us: “Gentlemen, you are at the beginning of what must be a grand adventure—the grand adventure of your lives. The way you’ll know the Lord is not calling you to be a priest is if you lose your sense of adventure.”
My personal adventure has brought me a long way. It has brought me through two years of seminary in one of the most beautiful and powerful places in the United States, and it has brought me to the center of the Church in Rome to study theology for two years close to the Holy Father. It has brought me to Jerusalem and the Holy Land and Assisi for extended periods of time, and it has brought me to distant lands in Europe and North Africa as I have sought out the path the Lord has for me and to experience the way in which others in this world have chosen to live their particular callings. My adventure has brought me to the end of another year at the North American College, and it has brought me to the precipice of returning home to the United States for the first time in two years. It has brought me to a place where I have missed the early childhood of my youngest niece and has kept me 5000 miles away from my nephew who constantly asks when Uncle Josh is coming home. It has led me to a lot of hours in the chapel, again and again to the confessional, and through a lot of formation into the heart of Christ. Through the whole of it, I can say without a doubt that it is indeed still an adventure, one that I look forward to continuing.
The Feast of Corpus Christi is another moment in the continuing adventure of God seeking out each of us. On that feast, all over the world, Christ processes in the streets. He is processing with the people, leading them to they know not where: “Truly, truly I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go” (Jn 21:18). Christ is leading me to where he wants me to serve him, but the exact manner in which the journey proceeds, I do not know. I might not even really want to go there—especially if he showed me everything in advance. None of us really knows where we are being led, though we can be certain that our acceptance of that path will bring happiness and holiness.
There are two possible reactions to uncertainty: one can be frightened and unwilling, or one can be adventurous and open to the unknown. I learned from my wise rector four years ago which reaction is indicative of a vocation.
It’s sort of like being led into the truth.