Monday, December 15, 2014

remembering a year ago today

the Chapel of San Pellegrino in Vaticano
Dear Family and Friends,

I can’t help but remember a year ago today – my first mass at the chapel of San Pellegrino in the Vatican.

And remember what lead up to it, starting a year before  – on December 14th, 2012.  I had been searching for a long time for the right place to do my first mass. At the same time, I had been doubting, for several reasons, whether I would even make it to ordination. That morning I was taking care of the family of one of my friends, Father Michael Moriarty, and had left them in a nice Roman cafe and was heading to my university to attend some Theology classes. I like to do an hour of silent meditation every morning, but hadn’t had a chance yet.

Walking down Via del Pellegrino through the Vatican, an open door caught my eye. I had walked down the same street countless times in my four years in Rome, but had never noticed the small medieval chapel nestled between larger Roman Palazzos. Peeking inside, there was no one in sight. I don’t know what moved me, but I made my decision, “Forget class. I’m going to do my prayer here.” I knelt down toward the front of the chapel. Multi-colored light streamed into the small space from large stained glass windows.

And there, in the chapel of San Pellegrino, I received a tremendous grace, a light – I don’t know what to call it – but I knew then and there that yes, I would be ordained a priest, and that I would celebrate my first mass in that very chapel. It was a certainty that I couldn’t doubt, somehow. I was confirmed in my path unlike ever before. Light, strength, grace… they all came flooding in. As I left the chapel at the end of my prayer, I realized that it was exactly a year to the day before my ordination as a priest.

Fast forward six months to June 2013. Now ordained a deacon, I was about to leave Rome after five unforgettable years in the Eternal City. Last item on my to-do list? Reserve the Chapel of San Pellegrino for my first mass, of course. I headed over early one morning, and sure enough, the door was open. I stepped inside and was greeted by the sight of scaffolding and the sound of heavy machinery. Apparently, the chapel was under renovation. And try as I might, I couldn’t find out who was in charge of the chapel or when the renovation would be finished. So I wrote down a telephone number and headed off to my new assignment in Cincinnati.

Two months before ordination, I tried the number, but got no answer. Several times I called, and always, no one answered. People asked me more and more, “where will your first mass be?” “The Chapel of San Pellegrino, I think,” would be my reply, and the “I think” got stronger and stronger as time went on.

“The renovation can’t last 6 months” I told myself. But when I arrived to Rome and headed over to the chapel, I was greeted yet again by the same old noise and the scaffolding. This time I was able to talk to the foreman. His news was disheartening: he had no idea when the renovation would be finished. It seemed like my first mass would not, could not be at San Pellegrino.

my mom and dad waiting for mass in the same pew I prayed in
Still, I wasn’t about to give up. I asked and asked and asked around the Vatican until I got the name and number of the priest in charge of the chapel. Two nights before I was to go on my pre-ordination 8-day silent retreat, I managed to get through to him. He turned out to be the head of the Vatican Publishing House, Don Sergio. I explained my situation to him and my desire to celebrate my first mass at his chapel. I remember his words “Well, the chapel is still under renovation… but let me check my calendar… Yes, I have to celebrate Vespers in the chapel on Monday the 16th, so the renovations will have to be finished by Saturday the 14th. You’ll be the first one to celebrate mass in the newly renovated chapel of San Pellegrino.”

celebrating mass for the first time with Father Gregory, an old friend, making sure I didn't mess up too bad
Wow. God sure had come through. December 15th, 2013 dawned and I found myself celebrating my first mass in the Chapel of San Pellegrino surrounded by family and friends. The little chapel resonated with the sound of the organ and the voices of all. It was Gaudete Sunday, one of the only two days of the year when the priest can wear rose-colored vestments. I had worried beforehand that I wouldn’t have the right color, or that there wouldn’t be anyone to play the organ, or that there wouldn’t be anyone to be altar server…. All of those things were taken care of without my doing anything. I had wanted a chapel with kneelers and heating - a rare find in Rome, and San Pellegrino had both. Two of my sisters sang a beautiful song at the offertory. My mom did the first reading. Everything turned out far better than I could ever have arranged it.
after mass with my family

with my brother Legionary priests and seminarians

with my Italian friends
Last Friday, I was walking by the chapel again for the first time since my mass there. The door was closed this time, so I took a closer look at the painting on the front of the chapel. (See picture) It’s of San Pellegrino (“Saint Pilgrim”), bishop and martyr, to whom the chapel is dedicated. Below him stands an angel holding a scroll. It reads, “Nulla mihi patria nisi Christus Nec Nomen Alind Quam Christianus” “I have no fatherland but Christ, nor name except Christian” I had never seen that before. But it could be the motto of us all, all of us pilgrims who walk the face of this earth knowing that it is not our true home. We keep our eyes set on heaven, our true homeland, and on our Lord Jesus, who will welcome us there. He gives us glimpses of what heaven will be like so that we don’t lose heart when nothing seems to be going right.
close up of the painting on the outside of the chapel

I glimpsed heaven that day of my prayer, and that day of my first mass. And I can’t help but offer to God a prayer of gratitude as I think back on those blessed moments.

May He be with you and bless you,
Father Kevin