|This wasn't our actual bus... but it didn't look too different.|
There was a moment when I was 15 that began to unfold some 20 years, or more, earlier. It was a beautiful summer day, and my mother told me to pack my bag because the family was going to the house that she shared with her sisters down in Rhode Island for the weekend. That much was true, the family was going to the house in Rhode Island for the weekend, and I would go to the house in Westerly for a couple of minutes and then get back into the car to go to the Church. When we arrived at the parking lot of St. Pius X parish I saw a large coach bus. The lot was also filled with a bunch of high school kids, some looked excited, others reluctant, and there was one with a surprised look on his face.
That surprised look on my face came from the fact that I really knew very little about what was going on. I knew that the parish that we used to go to during the summers in my mom’s hometown had an active youth group. I knew that they went on a trip to Ohio every year; I had heard that it was 15 hours, one way, on a bus. I also knew that at that time that I wasn’t sure that I wanted much to do with it. My mother shoved into my hands a small box that had my well under-used rosary in it and a bible that had been bought a week before (which still sits on my desk to this day) and I was off.
15 hours there, on a bus. Connecticut seemed endless, Pennsylvania, infinite. Initially out of boredom, I began talking with a few of the other kids on the bus. It turned out that one, who subsequently became one of my better friends in High School, was someone I had played with as a child and that his family lived across the street from my grandparents. Two others whom I befriended had my opinions about the weekend, if we were on a bus at least there were cute girls along for the ride too. (A thought shared by many 15 year old boys on that bus I am sure.) Very quickly I started noticing that the last names were names that I had heard growing up, it turns out that these were all the children of my Mom’s friends… and we were all being shipped off together to Ohio.
Somewhere about 11 hours into the trip we stopped as a Shoney’s outside of Pittsburgh for Breakfast. Among the deliriously tired was my friend Mike, who when asked whether he wanted chocolate or white milk could only respond “White is nice!” My friend Colin laughed so hard that I thought the milk that they had just brought him would end up shooting out of his nose. My friend Frank was too asleep to even notice. So we sat and ate what was the greasiest, least nutritious, meal of my life and laughed and enjoyed ourselves. "Well," I thought, "at least I got some new friends out of this."
About four hours later the bus crossed the river from West Virginia into Ohio. I looked down at the brown, muddy expanse of the river, and up at the hills on the other side, and as the bus pulled in I saw a giant Red and White Circus tent, and a couple of thousand of other teenagers mulling about. Most were surrounding a Domino’s pizza trailer that we were told had free pizza for everyone. It was then that I thought that this actually could be ok.
We got off the bus, unrolled sleeping bags on a racquetball court and took showers after our long bus ride. Then we all went down under the main circus tent, and people were singing about, of all things, Jesus. Almost immediately I began to be afraid, I called my mother later that night to tell her that I had walked into some kind of cult… I asked what I was doing there, and more importantly told her that I needed to come home, quickly.
I suppose that at this point this story warrants some explanation. Yes, I was still an altar boy in the summer between my Sophomore and Junior years of High School. Yes I did always do well in theology class, and yes I would have comfortably described myself as Catholic. However, there was something comfortable about my Catholicism. Being an altar boy meant $20 every other Saturday for serving weddings. Getting good grades in theology was just what was expected in my house growing up. Sure my Dad prayed with us before we went to bed, but as a high school kid this was quickly replaced with the new ritual of watching TV before bed. I was Catholic, sure, but it was comfortable. It was just easier to be Catholic than not and more than likely, at the pace I was going, once college rolled around Sunday mornings would become a time to sleep in rather than go to church. My parents could sense this and they turned to an old friend to help.
|The Padre himself.|
When my parents were both attending Providence College they had a friend named Ray Suriani, and while they were planning on getting married, he was beginning to think about entering the seminary. As fate, or rather providence, would have it he ended up as the associate pastor of my mom’s home parish years later, and they reconnected instantly. Fr. Ray came to a parish that had had two very holy, but very old, priests. Instantly he was able to connect with the young adults and teenagers of the parish, and began taking groups on pilgrimages. When one of those pilgrimages fell through they started taking this bus out to Steubenville, Ohio every year for the youth conference. My mother turned to an old friend that she had met years before for help, and he invited me along.
Given this, it is not surprise that my mother told me to stick with it when I told her over the phone that I was at a cult meeting. I thought she was the worst mother in the world when she told me that I couldn’t come home immediately. In truth, I am not sure how exactly I would have made it home anyway; 15 year olds don’t think this stuff through. So I stayed, and the next morning I sat next to Colin, Frank, and Mike under the big tent, and started dancing to the music at first to impress some random girls who were nearby, and then I found myself actually letting go and beginning to enjoy it. Later in the day I listened to some talks about living a Catholic life as a teenager and went to confession. Still hedging my bets, I thought to myself: "Sure I will go to confession I haven’t gone in a couple of years and this priest will never see me again so why not?" Then Saturday night came.
One of my Christology professors at the Gregorian says that all faith begins in an encounter, and he is right of course. If faith begins with an encounter, then in a real sense, my faith began that night. I am not sure if I can explain or describe what happened that night under that tent. There is a famous story that one day St. Augustine was walking along the shore taking a break from writing a book on the Trinity and saw a young boy using a shell to pour water from the Mediterranean into a little hole that he had dug in the sand. When Augustine asked the young boy what he was doing, the boy responded, “Trying to empty the sea into this hole.” Augustine smiled and told the boy gently that that was impossible. The boy responded, “so is trying to understand the Trinity.” That Saturday night is much like what the story describes, it would be impossible to really say what happened, other than that for the first time in my life I had an encounter with God. There was Eucharistic adoration and singing, but somehow I just became aware that God was alive, real, and wanted to love me, if I would let him. That moment was a turning point in my life without which I would not be here. I knew in my heart who the living God was, and at 15 I wanted to follow Him, whatever the cost.
|One of the youth group meetings, I am not in this picture,|
though I recognize the miscreants who are. :)
Of course the truth of life in faith is that it is not sustained by one simple moment, and as much as faith is a response of commitment to the one who we know loves us, that commitment is not without struggle. I needed to find some support. I began going to the youth group meetings, and made some friends that helped me to sustain me through high school and college. Beyond Colin, Mike, and Greg, there I would meet my friends Adam, Stephanie, Kara, Greg, Kristin, Melissa, Jaimie, Maria, Kendra, Lisa, and Beth. The truth is that for most of my teenage and college years, my mother’s friend, Fr. Ray, was there to help me sort it all out. Even now, having been a Jesuit for 8 years, his support and prayers have helped to sustain my vocation. I am also certainly not the only person to come from St. Pius X Parish, where he has been Pastor for a while now, with that story.At the beginning of the book of the Prophet Jeremiah, God says to Jeremiah. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” It is amazing to think that before my parents were even married their simple decision and Fr. Ray’s decision to go to Providence College shaped this crucial point in my life. This was one of the most important moments of my life, without which I very much doubt that I would be who I am today. In each of our lives there are those people and those moments. There behind it all is providence, the divine hand of God, leading us in love to those moments even long before we exist, where we can choose to find him, to know him, and to love him. From that knowledge and love comes a service, and like Fr. Ray couldn’t have known that saying yes to taking this non-chalant kid from outside of his parish along on a retreat for the weekend would have meant that that kid would become a Jesuit, none of us can never know the immeasurable good that God wants to work through us.