Catholic Herald Staff
Editor’s Note: Catholic Herald reporter Jenny Snarski recently visited Italy with family for her brother’s ordination to the priesthood. A Legionary of Christ priest, Fr. Terrance Allen’s first assignment will be as as chaplain in the congregation’s school in Dallas.
Driving in Italy is an experience hard to describe. In the city, pedestrians are everywhere and tiny cars parked in a mismatched mosaic. Roundabouts are unstoppable gear-houses where indecisiveness leads to chaos and only the confident will ever reach their destination.
Along the coast, roads literally hang out from the mountainside, which juts up (and often out) one side, down to terraced homescapes on the other. At times, with lanes so narrow that one (or more) vehicles have to back up until there is space to safely pass. By “space,” I mean inches, and that with mirrors pulled in on both sides. As tour buses come out of hairpin turns, they pass so close you can write your name on the dusty side panel as it barrels by.
Something about the Italians’ driving character seems a good summary of what I lived and learned during the recent celebrations for my younger brother, Fr. Terrance’s priestly ordination, in Rome.
Attentive, assertive and focused.
The ebb and flow of drivers in tune with each other is like a graceful yet definite dance of independence and interconnectedness. You learn just how little time and room is needed to edge your nose out and enter the endless stream of cars. And you realize that a little courtesy goes a long way for personal sanity as tiny cars intersect and find their place, as well as tuning out the hum of carefree motorcycles as they pass in and through oncoming traffic.
During our time in Italy, both the parallel and paradox of this dynamic, as it relates to history – of humanity as a whole, of the church and my own personal journey – was as striking as it was unassuming.
The past and present are next-door neighbors, the old lives proudly among the new. On every corner, in every church and piazza, you can barely separate the centuries. Walking over ancient cobblestones, through narrow streets with drying sheets providing welcome shade, it is hard to distinguish where one period ends and the next begins. With so many architectural details and Latin engravings, you could sit for hours in one spot; but the graffiti and garbage tucked in between window grates is a reminder that you are in just another city where people’s ordinary lives are being lived.
Speaking with my brother just prior to his eight-day spiritual exercises (his final preparation before the ordination), he described feeling like everything was going to change, but everything would also stay the same.
He was aware of the monumental change that would take place through his reception of the sacrament of Holy Orders, assertive and confident in his decision, and yet very real about himself and that his struggles and weaknesses were not going to magically disappear.
In the homily during the ordinations, Archbishop Jose Rodriguez Carvallo, OFM, secretary for the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, emphatically told the deacons, and repeated multiple times, “Never forget that you are of the people, part of the people and for the people.”
He said a priest is called to serve, called to nourish, called to reconcile and heal, called to renew his sense of the gift and responsibility that is the priesthood. He prayed for them the grace of Mary’s intercession, to be safeguarded from evil and consecrated in truth.
Part of that truth is what we learn about in history – successes and defeats, growth and retraction, building up and tearing down, drawing from the past and forging into the future. As everything changes, everything stays the same.
Terry didn’t look any different after the ordination. His humor didn’t change nor did his laid back demeanor or his need of an espresso first thing in the morning. But the white circular host didn’t look any different on the paten before his first Mass than it did after his anointed hands turned into Jesus’ body.
Everything was the same. Just as everything had changed.
One striking image, although certain aspects of it change, will stay with me always: it is of my brother, with someone kneeling or bowing before him to kiss his priestly hands. We were all invited to do this at the conclusion of Terry’s first Mass.
It was a beautiful and humbling act, as much for us as it seemed to be for Fr. Terrance. And it was made more meaningful after witnessing the day before, during the post-ordination luncheon, when Terry’s first superior, Fr. David Steffy, came to our family’s table and knelt down before him without hesitation.
The veteran priest had known my brother since he was 12 years old. Fr. Steffy had guided and discipled him, probably even disciplined him on occasion. The reverence he showed wasn’t directed at my brother per se, it was an acknowledgement of God’s gift to become present in the world, in time and eternity, through the person and acts of the priest.
The other impressive moment of reverence came later that week, in the small town where we stayed west of Sorrento. We discovered there was a monastery of cloistered Carmelites, founded in 1673, located near the town center. We had three marvelous encounters with them, and I hung on every word (even those lost in translation) of the mother prioress.
After the second Mass Terry celebrated in the church attached to their convent, we gathered at the wooden lattice grate separating their cloister. We had learned that one of the nuns would be celebrating her 70th year of professed religious life in June. She had entered her two-year novitiate in 1947, joining her biological sister.
This nun longingly looked at my youngest brother. With his blonde hair and height, she thought he was the new priest and was motioning for him to bring his hands near the square opening in the lattice. We realized what she wanted and called Fr. Terrance over.
One by one they tenderly took his hands in theirs and kissed first one, then the other. No translation was needed for the look in that elderly nun’s eyes – love for the priest who had brought her divine Spouse to the altar.
I was mesmerized watching her during the Mass, wrapping her crooked fingers around the grille, her face pressed as close as possible to the altar.
During our prior visit, my husband, a World War II history buff, had asked if she remembered the war. Her eyes widened and she nodded, my brother translating her words, “soldiers, many soldiers, and many bombings.” She added that there actually wasn’t much she remembered of the outside world after the war because she has spent all those decades in the cloister.
It was another window looking out on an intermingled past and present, the paradox of everything and nothing changing all rolled into one. Most of us could not begin to comprehend these women’s lives of secluded work and prayer. I can attest to the great relatability of their smiles, the peaceful joy in their voices and satisfaction in their bright eyes. So much passed through the grates that to most would look sterile and suffocating.
All of their lives of total dedication to God have been lived completely detached from the outside world. Assertive in their response to a divine calling, attentive first and foremost to their relationship with him and focused on what is the eternal present.
The fullness of the life that those women live, in secret intimacy and companionship with God, is more real, more eternally tangible than much of that of which our daily lives consist. However, comparisons are futile in the light of God’s will.
We each take our turn entering and exiting the flow of human history.
Their life will inspire mine, and my life in the world will be more grounded because of their witness. Our mutually committed prayers will sustain us all. And it is Christ, particularly in the Eucharist that crosses the boundaries of a grate, of language and continents, binding us as His One Body.
A Body that is physically, sacramentally made present among us solely through a priest. A Body that my brother can now bring down bridging Heaven and earth.
It’s a strange and awesome thing to look up during the consecration and see your own brother’s hands as God’s instrument of transubstantiation. I know his strengths and his weaknesses, I know his fears and his dreams. My physical eyes see my brother, but the eyes of my soul know He is Christ in that moment.
It is faith – which I ask to be renewed and increased daily – that allows me to believe Christ is truly present in the Eucharist. The same faith that makes it possible for me to remain confidently faithful – attentive, assertive and focused – to see Christ physically and mystically present in the bright spots and shadows of my own life, the domestic church of my family, our diocese and the universal Catholic Church.
Century after century, through both saintly and scandalous priests, God has remained faithful to his Church. And century after century, Catholics have remained faithful to their God in the Church in spite of their own imperfections and the Church’s stains.
Each of us is called to follow God in individual ways. Each one of them a unique channel through which God continues to act, create and renew the Church and the world.
Our last Mass with Fr. Terrance coincided with the feast of the Apostle Matthias. The first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 1, recounted the gathering of the 11 apostles to choose a replacement for Judas Iscariot, the lots falling to Matthias. What an embodiment of God’s continued creative and renewing action in the world.
In his homily for that day, Terry shared the unnerving experience of having many of his old fears resurface in the days before the ordination. Worries of not being good enough, anxiety about the unknown, fears of the looming cross.
Meditating on the cross and crucifixion of Jesus, he said he was struck by one simple line, “standing at the side of the cross was his Mother Mary.” He shared how he is going forth “with great confidence, because of her presence… She won’t take (our cross) away or try to carry it, but she will be there.”
Her motherly presence, and God’s fatherly care, Jesus’ brotherly companionship and the Holy Spirit’s guidance are always present in the Church.
You can’t visit Rome without coming face to face with the dichotomy the Church represents – the intermingling of Divine Revelation and wounded humanity, enmeshed in God’s mercy and carried forward attentively and assertively by the thousands of saints and witnesses who constantly call us to focus on the essential, the eternal.
The seismic action of grace ripples outward, touching everything in its path, connecting past to the present and rushing forward into the future. Through random and providential circumstances, God is constantly acting, calling and accompanying – are we attentive to his invitations? Are we assertive enough to respond? Are we focused on the essentials in a way that allows God the freedom to work as He wills in our life?
The second-to-the-last Mass Fr. Terrance celebrated during our time in Italy was at the famous Abbey of Montecassino. Located halfway between Rome and Naples, the site is significant as the location St. Benedict founded his first monastery in 529. It has been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times due to natural and military tragedies, most recently as a long-waged World War II battle site.
It is hard to imagine any setting other than the peaceful seclusion of the bluff from which the prominent structure is visible for miles. But history has definitely been lived there – wars waged, lives lost, freedom won – history that has influenced individual lives, the political landscape of Europe, the cultural significance of Western civilization.
The walls of the small but gorgeous chapel where we had Mass were lined with the relics of saints, stacked five shelves high. Dozens of bone particles and articles of clothing belonging to saints – some I knew well and others I had never heard of – surrounded us, reminded us of where we come from, where we are going and who holds all of history in His hands.
Just as my brother felt that everything and nothing had changed for himself, I come home with a similar experience. In some ways like I have been woken up from a complacent coma, my heart and soul jump-started with a jolt of grace and perspective. I might not be returning to graceful arched hallways or quaint paver paths, but I have a renewed sense of the attentiveness and assertiveness with which I need to live out my ordinary life.
Attentive to where God wants to enter in and through me. Focused on what is essential and eternal – Himself and my relationship with Him, my dedication to cultivating Holiness in myself and gazing upon its beauty in the Church, assertive and engaged in where I can help her rebuild and reveal God’s glory.