One year ago this week, I was deep into my summer pastoral assignment at the Pontifical Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem, Israel. That summer was absolutely incredible—any who read my column regularly will know that I have an exceeding fondness for the Holy Land. I met friends there with whom I continue to be close; our shared experiences of the holiness of the place and the magnificence of the people formed a bond that has lasted. I simply cannot recommend it enough.
My mother returned to the Lord just months before I entered Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in August 2005. She had fought a long battle with a physically debilitating disease and succumbed to an infection the previous May. Both my brother and I were given the grace to be there by her bed as she took her last breath, an image now burned into my mind. Perhaps because of the decision I had finally made to enter seminary or perhaps just because I was a little older, her passing and the funeral events that transpired after were occasions of great grace for me—moments I can still recall perfectly and in which I can still experience the love of God, who was closer to me then than at any other time in my life.
In my home diocese of Atlanta, all of the seminarians gather on Wednesday evenings for Mass and dinner, which is an opportunity to meet new men and to renew existing friendships. This gathering is especially important for those of us who study in Rome, since we are more separated from the diocese during the year. For the last two weeks, we have been treated to something truly wonderful: newly ordained priests have been celebrating our Mass and then joining us for the evening.
Each of us has a different experience of what it means to be part of a parish. For some people, their parish is something geographically close to them and nothing more—a place where they reluctantly trudge for Mass on Sunday. For others, it is a center for their life—a place to encounter God sacramentally and in other people, to make friends, and to sustain their strength in the daily struggle to follow Christ.
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.
Every Sunday, thousands of people gather in St. Peter’s Square. Their faces are filled with anticipation, excitement, and joy. More often than not, a vibrant band is playing music and drums are thumping to various beats. Banners are waving, flags are unfurled. Dispersed throughout the square are numerous wildly attired groups practicing chants. Laypeople, priests, religious, random tourists, souvenir hawkers, roving journalists—all of them are making their preparations, glancing furtively up into the air, hoping to see a flash of white pass in the miniscule blackness that has opened its windows to the world. The anticipation builds; one can sense that the crowd is about to erupt. Suddenly, there is movement in the window; a curtain is rustled, and all at once the deafening roar of a delighted people can be heard throughout Rome, for our Holy Father has just appeared to lead the faithful in prayer.
I remember watching anxiously on television while Pope John Paul II was dying. He had been the only Pope I ever knew; his face was the face of the Church for me. I remember feeling such joy for him when he died, because it was the vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday, the feast he so loved.
Holy Week, the pinnacle of the Christian liturgical year, has begun. I once again, through the grace of God, find myself in the Holy Land. I arrived on Saturday morning before Palm Sunday, prepared to help with the various liturgies at the Pontifical Notre Dame Center as well as throughout the city. I was also looking forward to participating in some of the more powerful events of Holy Week as it is celebrated here in Jerusalem. In all, my expectations were high. Holy Week has always been a powerful time for me, and I have been thirsting for the spiritual renewal that I knew would come from a generous participation in the Church’s liturgical commemoration of Christ’s final week in this world.
One of my favorite poets is William Butler Yeats. He inspires me with his beautiful verse, but his subject matter is often disturbing. "The Second Coming," a particularly powerful poem of Yeats, was written in the aftermath of the First World War Having witnessed the bestial carnage of attrite war, Yeats’ haunting words proposed a dizzying reflection on the status of hope and fear in the world:
Time is an odd thing. We mostly have too much or too little; if too much, we are bored, desperate to find something to occupy our minds, our hands, and our hearts; if too little, we are frenzied, caught up in a relentless desire to be efficient that too often ends in exhaustion and mediocrity. We are squeezed between the past and the future; the present is but a moment. It is sometimes as if our entire being wants to cling to one of those moments, grasping terribly to it as it passes—like a moment of joy, the last precious word of a loved one breathing his last, some lamented missed opportunity—or we long for some not yet realized moment in the future. These fleeting moments of time as they presently pass, so strange and wondrous in themselves, cobble together our history, and in some way, the existence of the present moment creates for us the hope of a future one. St. Augustine calls time a "distension," a certain stretching: we are stretched between the past and the future, reaching for divine perspective but limited by human perception (Confessions, Book XI). While God can see eternity at once; man can only perceive an echo of eternity in the past and its shadowy promise in the future.
Et verbum caro factum est, et habitavit in nobis. The people were arriving in droves, the priests and seminarians were hustling about making last-minute accommodations for the swelling crowds, which had burgeoned to the point that they were threatening to burst through the walls and spill haphazardly out into the street. A light rain had begun to fall in Jerusalem, which by late December reaches a state of bitter, bone-chilling cold. The atmosphere could not have been more inhospitable. The Mass was being prepared in an auditorium instead of the chapel to accommodate the multitudes of people expected in this unusually crowded Christmas season. Some groups had left in large buses for Bethlehem. Bells all over the city were sounding the call, drawing the faithful to come and adore the Lord, the God made flesh and now dwelling among us, a helpless child in the City of David. Jerusalem, the city of the Passion, was in this moment preparing to become a second Bethlehem for thousands of Christians, huddled in the cold to catch a glimpse of their swaddled savior. The Mass of Midnight commenced; the Word was made to dwell among us, and for this night, Jerusalem knew the peace of Christ.