The Church gives people many things, good things, holy things. I am sure you could list many that she has given you, starting with the Good News, or the sacraments, or the Faith. Those would be fun to discuss – heck; I discuss them all the time! But they are pretty much the expected things. The Church also gives us unexpected things.
Last week, I took our summer seminarian, Chris Seith, out for a good steak dinner of the kind he cannot hope to get in Rome. Earlier that afternoon, I had been exchanging email with my own seminary classmate, Fr. Mark Knestout, who was having a bad day. In an effort (successful, as it happened) to bolster his humor, I invited him to join us. As Chris and I parked a block from the restaurant, my cell phone rang and Fr. Knestout began to pepper me with questions about why we weren’t there yet, and where I wanted to be seated. Ending the call so we could walk the two minutes to the restaurant, I rolled my eyes in mock frustration.
“Be careful who they stick you with as your classmate,” I warned him. “You’re pretty much stuck with him forever.” Since Chris is heading back to Rome for his third year of theology, he knows what it is like to be one of two Washington men in a class as it moves through the hurdles of formation at the North American College. In addition to the normal experiences of formation, there are even more things that you wind up doing together. The NAC has certain expectations of Washington men, and most of them involve little bonus duties. The Archdiocese also has expectations of her NAC men, with similar bonus duties, many of them affected by the Cardinal’s visits to Rome.
After decades of steadily sending men from our Archdiocese to the NAC, the role and experience of Washington men there has developed into a culture within the culture, a corps within the corps. For that reason, this week I will be hosting our annual send-off dinner for the “New Men.” The priests who are alumni of the College, and the men studying there now, will come together to encourage, and perhaps instruct, Stephen Wyble, Robert Boxie III, and Jack Berard, who will set out within the month to begin five years in Rome. It will be for them an introduction to a unique fraternity. The experiences and expectations that they encounter over the coming years will unite them to Christ in the priesthood, please God, and to us who are already ordained. It is more than likely that it will unite them also, even especially, to one another.
Sometimes it seems that Father Knestout and I can hardly handle any problem on our own, though there is nothing we cannot conquer together. We gripe, and encourage; advise, and admonish. We vacation together, and occasionally – rarely -- even get assigned to work together. One day in 1993, Fr. Brennan, the vocation director, turned over the phone so I could speak for the first time to my classmate. Who knew?
A retired Marine friend of mine maintained (and his wife agreed) that, “If the Marine Corps wanted me to have a wife, it would have issued me one.” Obviously that is not something that the Church wants me to have, nor will she issue one to the young men answering Christ’s call to priesthood in the Latin Rite. But for these men who are following that same call to the seminary in Rome, it is very likely that she is providing them friends for life.