I was two days into my thirty day pilgrimage. Active ministry had begun. Several Jesuits and I drove over 100 miles from the small rural Minnesota town to Iowa to attend the funeral of a parishioner’s father who had passed away (and who was Christian but not Catholic). I was invited to come. Praying for the deceased is an act of Charity so I welcomed the opportunity. There must have been over one hundred people in attendance for the funeral service and burial. I dare to say double that showed up for the reception afterwards to pay respects to the family. I learned more about this man by the stories being told and the memories swapped by his family and friends. It was a true testimony to the legacy he had left behind. Ironically, the day I arrived, was a different experience altogether. My Jesuit friend and I had arrived to the community house shortly after dinner. The day darkened prematurely because of the deep rain clouds that rolled through bringing heavy rain. We were in a hurry because my friend was called at the last minute to preside over a memorial service for a young man that had taken his life a few days ago. Father was slightly surprised by the request, and taken aback. He looked at me with eyebrow raised,
“Are you busy?”
“Not at the moment,” I responded , not sure if he was being serious or flexing his witty sarcasm.
“Good. I need your help serving.”
“It’s been years since I did that.”
“Don’t worry it’s like riding a bicycle. Let’s get over to the church.”
One of the nice things of community life with religious in America, is the Church is very close. We jumped across the puddles of rain into the back of the church.
“I know what they are going through,” he spoke absent minded as we quickly gathered the chalice, hosts, and put on the garb. “My best friend committed suicied when we were in high school. It was the hardest experience I went through at that age.” Again, he trailed off. He looked hesitantly at the side door leading to the altar.
“Are you ready.”
“When you are,” I whispered.
He took a deep breath and walked out. I should have taken a deep breath too. The church was packed with family, friends, and community. They had come together at this moment to mourn, to remember, and to break bread. As Father took to the pulpit he opened his heart to the community and shared with them his experience and then he wove together how he made sense of it all through the redemptive work of Jesus and the Church. From my seat on the side of the altar I could watch his consoling words connect with many of them. It was comforting even for me to know that he could empathize with them – meet them where they were and help guide them in this valley. As the service ended I took the opportunity to quickly step back to the community house. The house where the day began and day ended, always in the same way — prayer. I offered a prayer of gratitude for these experiences, a prayer to understand them, a prayer to know my next steps in this pilgrimage, and for all pilgrims on a journey.
Juxtaposed to these early day experiences, my last day was a call to a hilltop, where three of us went to celebrate a milestone anniversary of Notre Dame Sisters that served the community since the pioneer days of the old town. They were instrumental in the religious and formal education of children and families that passed through. And as I passed through the convent on tour I meet over a dozen sisters ranging from novice to octogenarian that were filled with the Spirit and tons of joyful memories teaching, praying, and serving. It reminds me of Jesus’ comment to his nascent disciples, “Amen, amen I say to you, you will see the sky opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man”(John 1:51). The ministries performed by the Jesuits in the community, the Sisters of Notre Dame, and the families I met were actively going to and from one event, to and from one another bringing mercy, bringing their time, talents, and importantly their presence. From the most rural hamlets to the most dense cities these great and simple acts occur everyday. It is helpful to remind ourselves that we are a part of this beautiful act both as givers and receivers. Truly, wherever two or more are gathered in His name, He goes before us.
Of course, it was still unclear to me how I was going to make it to my next destination , which was Chicago. Saturday evening I was asked to make a delivery in the morning. The Bishop was celebrating First Communion in an even smaller rural town, bringing with him a priest that needed to celebrate a wedding here. I needed to give him the car keys. I made it just in time to be late. I made may way to the back of the church and waited. A whirlwind consumed the small room when mass ended. The Bishop flew into the room and quickly threw off the vestments. His attendant was quickly briefing him on the next appointment. I found the other priest and handed him the keys. The bishop interrupted our conversation to thank him for his help. He noticed me and didn’t miss a beat,
“Hi there, pleasure to meet you. Fr. Michael mentioned you were delivering him car keys, but tell me, where are you going? Do you live here?”
“No sir, I’m heading down to Chicago.”
“How are you getting there.”
“The grace of God I suppose.”
The bishop roared in laughter, “you must be a a Jesuit. Are you?”
“A novice, first year.”
“You can come with us. We’re not going to Chicago, but it will be a little closer.”
And so the journey continued.