Posted with his permission.
Wow, what an overdue update! I believe it's been almost a year since my last one. I am sorry for the delay. It's been an intense period of reflection and growth. I've been processing a lot in novitiate and it keeps coming!
I suppose I'll take up where I left off, which was the beginning of last summer. I finished up my final exams for my philosophy classes at Franciscan University in May, and after a break at home with my family in Michigan and Canada, I spent the summer working at the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Stockbridge, a small town in the Berkshires in the western part of the state, happens to be the birthplace of Norman Rockwell.
My summer at the Shrine was an intense, sometimes-stressful but rewarding experience. I was originally asked to assist in liturgical events, give tours and teach introductory Spanish to some of the staff (the annual number of Spanish-speaking visitors to the shrine is significant). But I was soon approached by my then-superior Father Don Calloway to translate into Spanish his autobiography No Turning Back (referenced in my last email, http://www.amazon.com/No-Turning-Back-Witness-Mercy/dp/1596142103/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1300675616&sr=8-2). I accepted the project and it went on to take up my entire summer in Stockbridge (and beyond, incidentally). Though I worked briefly as a professional translator and interpreter before joining the Marians, this was my first book project. This book was my most challenging project as a translator because in addition to having his own unique style of narration, many of Father Don's experiences were rooted in some very American subcultures with its own vernacular. Father Don speaks at length about his experiences as a Deadhead and a surfer, for example. If any of you Spanish-speakers are interested in purchasing the book, please let me know and based on where you are I will give you the best website at this point for ordering.
At about the same time I accepted the book translation project, I was invited to do a couple of interviews, one for EWTN radio and one for EWTN television. EWTN is a popular Catholic television and radio network. I was interviewed for both by Marcus Grodi, a former Presbyterian minister who joined the Catholic Church and started a special ministry for non-Catholic pastors and ministers who are thinking about converting. His TV program is called the Journey Home, which interviews converts to the Catholic faith. The radio interview was for a series called Deep in Scripture, a regular program on EWTN radio. Marcus and his staff were very easy to work with and that was especially important for the radio interview, since I was asked to be a late-fill in and I am certainly not a biblical scholar! The TV interview is still posted on YouTube in case you'd like to watch it, you can just enter my first and last names into the search field at www.youtube.com and it will come up.
Preparation for those two interviews along with the translation project was a real test for me over the summer. There were times I felt in over my head but it also ended up deepening my faith because once committing to them I simply had little choice but to trust in God for help. In the weeks leading up to the interviews I would alternate between being at peace and being a nervous wreck. I think both went pretty well despite talking about some difficult subjects.
Getting a feel for Stockbridge and getting to know the staff, religious and visitors at the shrine over the summer was very important for me. Stockbridge is one one of the two main "bases of operation" so to speak for the Marian province here in the United States (the other one being here in DC). From the limited perspective of a postulant/novice, life in a Catholic religious community is a fascinating mix of family, non-profit and corporate cultures.
I was inducted into the novitiate at a ceremony on August 14th at the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Novitiate is a period of formation that is intended to more thoroughly ground someone in religious life by cultivating a more intense life of prayer and educating him or her in the community's way of life, spirituality and history. With this experience and knowledge one is then able to really decide whether 1. religious life is for him/her and 2. whether this particular community is for him/her. All of this goes into the Catholic understanding of the term discernment and the idea of exploring one's vocation as applied to religious life.
Shortly after I returned to our house at Catholic University in Washington, DC. I settled in with a mix of other novices, seminarians, priests (and one permanent brother) from our community, guest priests and occasional guests.
I have seven fellow novices with me: Michael, Kenny, Adam, Giuseppe, Abel, Joe and Jonathan. I was with Abel and Joe for a full year of postulancy. The others had prior experience with Catholic religious communities or diocesan seminaries and therefore went through an abbreviated one-month postulancy treatment. No, I'm not jealous anymore :) I needed the extra formation. Their backgrounds/former occupations are varied: musician, television producer, bank teller, construction worker, computer programmer, construction business owner and student.
As to the others who live here at our house in DC, it's quite an eclectic group:
Father Mark - our Novice Master and the House Superior of our residence. Big into working out and putting us to work, always springing unexpected assignments on us, which is probably typical of novice masters throughout Church history. Fearless as well. The other night in Baltimore he walked right up to the front entrance of a strip club and started evangelizing the men gathered out in front. He must have started quite a conversation inside the place, because even one of the strippers came out to talk to him and ended up being receptive to what he had to say to her. Never a dull moment with Father Mark!
Father Jim - was ordained July of last year and serves as Assistant Novice Master. He has a very keen intellect and I've never seen him rattled (except maybe by food items with too much MSG). Father Jim got engineering degrees from Yale and Stanford and designed microprocessor chips for HP before finding his vocation to the priesthood.
Father Larry - a semi-retired Marian priest and former vocations director and house superior. A Bronx native, history buff and expert on DC lore. Always good for a joke!
Father Wladiswaw - Marian priest from our Polish province, here studying English. He was a missionary priest in the Czech Republic for 14 years. Now he is preparing for a new assignment in the Philippines, where we have established a new mission on the island of Mindanao.
Father Gregorio - Marian priest from our Polish province, here studying English. Father Gregorio is a missionary priest in Rwanda. Probably the most stoic priest I've ever met. He will return to Rwanda after his classes are finished and will be at or near Kibeho.
Father Kaz - Marian priest from our Polish province. Over eighty years old, Father Kat is a polyglot and still works full-time as a translator for the community, primarily Latin-to-English and Polish-to-English. The man is a machine. I've never seen him miss any prayer in community, even the optional Rosary or Divine Mercy chaplet prayers. Father Kaz was a member of the Polish resistance that fought the Germans during WWII. After the war, he discerned a call to the priesthood, studied in Rome and got a doctorate in sacred theology. He stayed in Rome for 40 years and was the main force behind the the cause of beatification of our founder, Blessed Stanislaus Papcynski (I'll explain beatification, canonization and Catholic sainthood in a future email). I think he moved to our DC house about 10 years ago and has been here ever since.
Father Don (van Alstyne) - a Marian priest, military chaplain and pastor of a Catholic Church at Fort Bliss in El Paso. Father Don has been in the military for quite some time and holds the rank of Major in the Army. Over the last several years, he has done two tours of duty, one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. Prior to that he served in Bosnia and South Korea. He will be deployed again to Afghanistan in November. He was recently living with us here in DC and underwent several months of advanced military training. Please keep him in your prayers! He's a man of great integrity and a dedicated priest. Not too long ago Father Don wrote a brief but powerful account of an experience he had in a Kandahar field hospital. Here's the link if you'd like to read it - http://thedivinemercy.org/news/story.php?NID=3636&PLID=72
Father Diego - Marian priest from Argentina, recently concluded some English classes here. Father Diego left only a short while ago and will be taking up a new apostolate all over the United States, giving talks and conferences to Spanish-speaking Catholics. I will be following his new apostolate with much interest over the next few years.
Father Bob - a diocesan priest from Winona, Minnesota. Pursuing a doctorate in philosophy, after which his bishop plans to have him teach at the diocesan seminary in Winona. Great sense of humor and a good buddy of all of us novices!
Father Kelly - a diocesan priest from the Caroline Islands in the Pacific Ocean. Was sent here to get a degree in canon law. Catholic University is home to one of only three canon law schools in the world, the other two being in Ottawa and Rome. Nobody downs hot sauce like Father Kelly, even my novice brother Abel from San Antonio.
Father John - a Dominican priest, on the verge of finishing his doctorate in philosophy. Would have been staying with his brother Dominicans down the street but they ran out of guest rooms.
Deacon Angelo - Marian seminarian from California, in his last semester. Will be ordained to the priesthood this coming July. Quiet and humble guy, no pretensions whatsoever.
Brother David - Marian seminarian from Florida, in his second year. Extremely pious but that doesn't stop him from messing with me :) (in a good way)
Brother John - Marian seminarian from Rhode Island, in his second year. Very intelligent and eloquent. And a mother hen to us novices. :)
Here in DC, our resident Marian priests do a few different things. They serve a couple of womens religious communities (the Missionaries of Charity and the Oblates of the Most Holy Eucharist, a little group of Mexican nuns. We novices sometimes take a movie over to Oblates and watch it with them; they're wonderful. Our priests also say Masses at the Pentagon, Reagan National airport, a chapel at a property we use to own and of course also at the chapel here in our house. The Pentagon chapel is a very moving place; it was built after the 9/11 attacks at the very site of impact of the plane-missile.
Since my last email blast mentioned the high number of men in formation in our community, you might wonder why there aren't more seminarians from our province living here in DC. They're kind of spread around right now. A couple are in the Philippines studying at a Jesuit seminary there and will likely remain in the Philippines after ordination. A number of others are taking what's called an "apostolic year" which is roughly a kind of internship year that exposes the seminarian to work in the field of ministry.
My schedule doesn't deviate a whole lot in novitiate. Morning prayer and meditation in the morning, followed by Mass. We novices and seminarians take turns serving and lectoring. After breakfast, class for a couple of hours. Subjects have been Catholic spirituality, the history of religious life, history of the Marians and other subjects as well. All very interesting and good fruit for our ongoing discernment. After class, lunch and then it's on to work projects. Various manual labor tasks but also some other tasks are in the mix for some of us. I average about seven hours of work a week on translation assignments, for example. Divine Mercy chaplet (optional) at 3 pm, rosary (optional) at 5:15, followed by evening prayer in common and dinner. We novices are also assigned to two-man cook teams. My cook partner Joe is from Iowa, which translates to beef for dinner. Hamburger Helper, chili and goulash are his mainstays, which translates to a full supply of Tums in my closet. When it's my turn I almost always go with my enchiladas or tacos, which I suppose also contributes to the burn. After dinner, it's time for reading assignments, unfinished chores and generally quiet time. Yep, no vacuuming the hallways after dinner, I learned that lesson pretty early on. Saturdays and Sundays are looser in, with more free time.
As everybody knows, there are a lot of things to see and do in DC. And I have seen and done some pretty memorable things in and outside of town. A tour of the Pentagon, visits to the Holocaust Museum and National Gallery of Art, a beautiful hike in the Shenandoah Valley, and almost getting rear-ended by the President's motorcade on its way to the State of the Union address are all standouts.
A very unexpected blessing came one day that deserves special mention. My brother novice Michael decided to call the Vatican's embassy here in DC and ask whether they offered any tours to groups. The Vatican's ambassadors around the world are called Apostolic Nuncios. The office of the Nuncio called back and told Michael that the Nuncio, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, wanted to meet us. A group of us went over there, a beautiful manor across the street from Vice President Biden's residence. We expected maybe a ten-minute audience with him. He sat down with us for over an HOUR AND A HALF. We were stunned. He talked about his life as a priest and career as a Vatican diplomat (he previously served the Vatican Diplomatic Corps in Palestine, Cyprus, Israel, Indonesia, India, Belgium, Nicaragua, Algeria, Cuba and Cameroon). He gave us simple but profound insights into the state of the Church, the challenges and blessings of the priesthood, the importance of ecumenism, the importance of knowing Jesus through the words of the Gospel, the qualities of being a humble servant of the people (which is what a priest is supposed to be) and the connection between God and human dignity. It was overwhelming. All of us left there in a bit of a daze. We scrambled to write down thoughts and notes afterwards so we wouldn't forget anything!
But for the most part the biggest occasions for my spiritual growth have occurred over time here in the house as novitiate has progressed. There are so many things, I really don't know where to begin. I'll just list some of the big ones:
- the importance of overlooking the faults of others and concentrating instead on my own shortcomings (which have been getting exposed in this environment, believe me)
- the importance of the role of silence in the cultivation of a recollected state of mind that seeks an ongoing connection with divinity, and through that, authentic interior peace
- the difficulty of pulling away from the tv and computer, a very important thing to do during novitiate, one of the purposes of which is to build a solid spiritual foundation of habitualized prayer and quiet that will serve someone for the rest of his/her life as a religious. Pulling away from the computer has been especially hard since my translation assignments require that I be on the computer. I've gotten better at spending time perusing news and blogs but I did join Linkedin (I don't regret doing that, but I still need to watch it)
- the challenge of persevering in meaningful, consistent meditation and prayer
- the utter importance of the role of the three vows that form the basis of religious life in a Roman Catholic religious order - poverty, chastity and obedience (more on these in my next update)
- greater self-awareness, particularly in the area of the tendency of my mind to run, get carried away by various anxieties, etc. Not that those anxieties have diminished a whole lot (old habits die hard as they say) but rather that my awareness of them is growing as well as my capacity for analyzing them and bringing them before God is improving, which is at least a step in the right direction.
- the giving up of control, especially the freedom to determine my own schedule. I had much more control over my schedule even in postulancy, much less in my life outside of the community
I am so very grateful to God for the way this path has gone so far since joining the Marians and the people he has put on it. I am very much looking forward to the next stage in my formation, which is temporary vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. God willing, that will happen in mid-August and I will then become a full-fledged seminarian.
A few pictures attached:
Pic 1 - in Stockbridge at the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy, Br.Angelo's ordination to the diaconate. Notice Br. John playing Where's Waldo...
|Note: look closing to see Father Donald Calloway|
Pic 2 - our house in DC
Pic 3 - with Fr. Don van Alstyne in our house chapel
|John Nahrgang with Fr. Don van Alstyne|
I will conclude this tome with that. Take special care and don't be shy about sending me prayer requests. As a novice, I'm in the chapel quite a bit, whether I'm in the mood for it or not! :)
All my best,