When I first attended Mass at my local parish, I liked the pastor right away. I couldn’t explain why. He was serious and quiet, unlike the other priests I’d come to know. After Mass, he didn’t chat up everyone but simply shook their hands and thanked them for coming. As much as I need someone outgoing to counterbalance my introversion, I felt something of a kindred spirit. Of course, this means we barely spoke, not saying I wouldn’t have liked to.
This week, he announced that he’s stepping down as pastor. Among other unnamed health issues, he notes in his parish letter that he struggles with anxiety and depression. As soon as I knew that, everything made so much more sense: The notecards for the homily. The quiet, post-Mass handshake. The eloquently-written emails, compared to the quiet in-person nature.
It should’ve been obvious to me, but it’s often difficult to see in others the struggles you have yourself. Nothing would’ve changed, because I know me. I’d continue to offer a slight smile as I enter through a side door, even with flute in hand to play that Mass. I’d still sit at a different table for the few social events I’ve attended, because I don’t know how to talk to people like myself—more so those in some kind of authority position.
But I can do the same thing he’s done all these years: Send an email. Introduce myself, albeit a little late, though he’ll understand why it took so long. I’ve always believed in the positivity of our struggles, even if they don’t make sense at the time. By admitting our faults, others are strengthened in knowing they’re not alone. I never felt that strength much from the side of one who’s struggling, but know it now as the faithful disciple. Nothing speaks of the glorious power of God as a 30-year priest struggling with the same things I have to face myself.
When I was in Italy, my fellow pilgrims encouraged me to write a devotional. We came up with all sorts of atypical, off-the-wall ideas, but in the end kept it simple: Aiding others through my own struggles. Our weaknesses are not sinful or shameful; it’s because of them that we learn to trust God. And by sharing these experiences, others can learn and grow, too.
Honestly, I haven’t gotten very far with that. Partly because it’s a daunting task, but mostly because it means stirring up those feelings. It’s easy to bury our supposed sins, thinking no one else feels or experiences this. But through Monsignor’s resignation, I’ve remembered brainstorming across the Italian countryside. I remembered my fellow pilgrim’s excitement over having a well-read convert in their midst. And, despite my continued reluctance, I remembered that I have work to do.
I read the resignation letter several times. The more I did, the more I understood the depths of his sacrifice. Even more, I understood the overwhelming impact he had on his parish, despite his supposed weakness. Maybe, before he leaves, this quiet convert—who often hides behind a hymnal or her flute—can call on God’s strength to thank him. And maybe answer her own sacred calling, too.
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.
At Bible study last night, we watched a video in which Dr. Allen Hunt described his journey to the Vatican. (I immediately wanted to turn to everyone and yell, “I SAW THAT. I WAS JUST THERE!”) He spoke of visiting the tunnels beneath St. Peter’s Basilica (which I did not see, alas) and standing before the tomb of St. Peter.
The basilica is built right above the location of his tomb. Dr. Hunt said that, at that spot, you can look up and see the floor of the altar through slats in the ceiling. Which means the altar in St. Peter’s Basilica was built directly above his tomb.
“Upon this rock,” he quoted, “I will build my church.”
We’d just celebrated Mass in a side chapel at St. Peter’s. It was still too early for guided tours (they’re not permitted before 9:00 a.m., to give people prayer time), so we had time to wander the basilica on our own. I don’t think I fully grasped where I was, until I approached the altar. Beside it was a placard declaring it the site of St. Peter’s tomb. Beneath my feet was the place where Peter lay to rest. Peter of the Bible. An apostle of Jesus. The very one Jesus entrusted to tend his flock.
The rock of Peter himself, who guided those first Christians to the truth. And the literal rock of his tomb, on which the basilica bearing his name—the center of the Church itself—was constructed.
I don’t remember much from what followed in that video. But I remember Dr. Hunt looking up at the ceiling, like he was still standing on that first century ground beneath modern Rome. “Upon this rock,” he repeated, pointing downward, “I will build my church.” And he pointed to the sky.
And, yes, once we broke into smaller groups, I shared some of my photos of the Vatican.
We sat in a restaurant in Rome, our group filling the entire room, with opera singers serenading us. It was the farewell dinner of our pilgrimage, and the table was piled with food and local wine. I was drained from travel and ready to head home, but also not ready to leave. I’d asked the person beside me to pass the rosemary focaccia, and there was a cacophony as she tried to lift the platter. “Oh, just use your hands,” I said. “We’re family now.”
We’d spent a week together on the bus. We’d traveled from Assisi, to Orvieto, to Tuscany, to Rome; we’d stood on chairs together in St. Peter’s Square for a better view of Pope Francis. We’d celebrated Mass together every day. We’d prayed at the tombs of St. John Paul II, St. Francis, and St. Clare. We’d eaten so much food, from pizza and pasta and antipasto and meats that tasted delicious that we didn’t even recognize.
I didn’t know anyone going into this pilgrimage. I’m very shy with new people, so I didn’t expect to connect right away. And it wasn’t instantaneous. I sat in the back of the bus, and hovered on the outskirts of the group. Many of them knew one another already. But all it takes is one person to say, “What are you doing for lunch?” And then you find yourself at a table for four in Assisi, trying to decipher an Italian menu while learning one another’s names.
Over the course of the week, we became a family.
I’m still processing this trip as a whole. A lot happened, both internally and externally. I learned a lot about the early Church, and a lot about myself. I was surrounded by wonderful spiritual guides, and beautiful people who I connected with despite my initial shyness. I took over eight hundred photos that I am also still processing. On our final day, I took my journal and headed for the Vatican. I’d planned to sit inside St. Peter’s Basilica to write, but the line for security was wrapped around the square. But the sun was out, and it was almost too warm for a coat. So, instead, I sat on the stairs outside to record my thoughts. I was there for a long while, looking around, even after I had finished writing.
“We’re family now,” I had said at dinner, accepting the piece of focaccia. Later, the room grew silent as the opera singer belted Ave Maria. There were tears and resounding applause as she bowed. I looked around at my new spiritual family, at our piles of empty plates and platters, and I loved them.