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Turn to Jesus (Article)

A Gift Observed
Fr. John Angelo Pietropaoli

P. John Angelo Pietropaoli L.C.
Fr. John Angelo Pietropaoli L.C.
Fr. John Pietropaoli

Growing up in northern New York I was only certain of one thing – I had no intention of being a priest. For a child in a very Catholic family living in a very Catholic corner of the country, it was, in retrospect, a rather odd certainty. I entertained many possibilities over the years leading up to college – armed forces, archeologist, attorney, itinerant mountain biker – yet I never felt the slightest glimmer of attraction towards the priesthood and was quite content to maintain that comfortable absence. But God, it seems, had other plans… And another gift in mind.


I was born on the two hundred and fifth anniversary of the opening shots of the American Revolution, to, appropriately enough, a history teacher and an English teacher. Both were, and remain, practicing Catholics. My family is the foundational gift of my life, my first experience of that unconditional love which is a mirror of God´s love for us and establishes the touchstone for an entire life. Essential to that gift are my brothers and sisters: my elder sister, my younger brothers (twins, who, being three  years younger than I, provided perfect sparring partners in two against one matchups – until their rapid growth began to make them dangerous), and  my youngest sister.

My parents considered that their most precious bequest to their children was the faith we profess every Sunday at Mass, and so they took appropriate steps to ensure its eager reception. I´m afraid that I was not a particularly promising pupil though. According to family lore, my first liturgical intervention occurred at 3 years of age when I stood up on the pew during the homily at Sunday Mass (at that time my family still sat near the front, a practice they discontinued after the event here described), and loudly demanded to know if the man in the robe was ever going to stop talking. (In my defense, it seems it was a very hot day and a very long homily.) Thankfully, however, my parents did not succumb to despair, and braving the glaring gaze of the legitimately offended pastor, who had unfortunately heard every word, they continued to bring their small and opinionated children to Mass.

Religious education was not limited to Mass, but extended to frequent family rosaries and memorization of the Nicene Creed and the Ten Commandments. As regards the latter, my parents must have really been tempted to abandon ship when one of my sisters, incensed that the recitation of the Sixth Commandment always fell to me, asked why she never got to commit adultery. However they kept at it.

One Shade the More

Fulton Sheen used to talk about two types of grace: white grace, or the presence of God in our souls, and black grace, or the awareness that something is missing in our lives, that there is a tremendous gaping hole that nothing quite seems to fill. This second type of grace – also a gift – was the experience of my teenage years. I remember a constant search for something more, for perfection, with the conviction that if I found it – in accomplishments, knowledge, another person – then I would find happiness. In retrospect it was what St Augustine described when he wrote that since God has created us for himself, our hearts are restless until they rest in him. But at the time that realization hadn´t yet dawned upon me, and I was only aware of this gnawing emptiness that all my attempted remedies seemed only to increase. Of course I still knew the Ten Commandments, and I still attended Sunday Mass (more to avoid family fights than out of any conviction), but my attitude towards God was something like what Francis Thompson describes in his poem The Hound of Heaven: fear that in having God, “I must have naught beside”.

There was however a parenthetic moment in all this teenage angst; it came one spring evening of my senior year of high school, as I made my way back home from the law office where I worked part-time. My route took me past Notre Dame church where we attended Sunday Mass, and on a whim I stopped and entered the quiet building. I was facing a dilemma in my choice of colleges - a choice between the college I wanted to attend and the college that offered me the largest scholarship - and I was not at all sure what to do. But I recalled that whenever my parents had a difficult decision to make they always prayed. Now I had long since given up the practice of prayer, but when I walked into the church I decided to give it a try. I recall sitting down in a pew, looking at the tabernacle, and saying something along the lines of “I´m not really sure if there´s anybody there, but if you are, I have this problem and could use some advice.” And then I fell asleep. After what must have been fifteen minutes or so I woke up, decided that there was nothing to this prayer business, and got up to leave. But before I could do so, a thought flashed through my mind: “you know, I could be a priest.” It was not a voice; it was not a vision; it was a simple thought, and yet it seemed so strange and out of place that I thought I was still asleep. Wondering what had caused that thought, and hoping that it would not occur again, I went out into the cool April air.

In the end I went with the money and attended St Anselm´s College in Manchester, New Hampshire, a beautiful Benedictine institute complete with a monastery, and a church.  And my first semester was a perfect paradox. For years I had anticipated that college would be a moment of freedom, when I could finally live my life as I wanted to live it and find the happiness I hadn´t yet found. My first semester should have been all that and more: classes were good, sports were good, my grades were decent, I was having a lot of fun. But I was missing something. I had taken hold of God´s gifts, and hadn´t yet learned that the gifts without the Giver are ultimately hollow.

At the end of the semester I went home for the Christmas holidays, where, one sleepless night, I wandered downstairs and turned on the television. (At the time we only got two television stations, one of which was in French, so the options were fairly limited.) However the English channel was playing a movie called Blackrobe, which loosely recounts the heroic missionary work of seventeenth century French Jesuits in what is now Quebec, Ontario, and New York.  As I watched it the obvious sense of purpose struck me: these were men who had found something that impelled them to an incredible heroism so different than the ennui I was experiencing. And I decided to learn more about it.

When I returned to college I ransacked the library in search of books about these Jesuits, and began devouring everything I could find. What I read fascinated me – to the extent that I began to think “Ok, I have no intention of being a priest, but if I were to be one this is the sort of priest I´d want to be”. That second semester of my first year of college was crowned by my roommate’s surprise invitation to accompany him to confession, which marked my first good confession in some time and brought me a taste of something I´d been missing for quite a while.


By the end of my freshman year of college I was thinking pretty seriously about the priesthood, but I had no clue what the next step should be and returned home for the summer to work, play, and think. And then one Sunday in June of 1999 my parents´ best friend – who happens to be an exceptional parish priest in my home diocese and a member of the lay movement Regnum Christi – dropped by the house for a visit. He mentioned that he was heading up to a seminary of the Legionaries of Christ on the other side of the St Lawrence River, in Cornwall, Ontario, and that one of the items on the agenda was soccer. Would my brothers and I like to come? Since it was a quiet Sunday we acquiesced, and headed off to Canada. At the time I already knew a little about the Legionaries of Christ: several of them had visited my house with this priest some years before and left information about the Legion´s minor seminary in New Hampshire, which, at the time, held rather less interest for me than a trip to the dentist´s.  Yet I didn´t know how they would play soccer. My brothers and I were all in pretty good shape after a couple of years working out, and figured we´d decimate any seminarian opposition; but these seminarians, contrary to all expectations, could really play! After the game we got a quick tour of the seminary, and I was very impressed to see the same guys we had just played with already showered, dressed in wool cassocks, and praying before the Blessed Sacrament in a small chapel without air conditioning. In fact it reminded me a bit of what had so impressed me in the Jesuit missionaries. 

I began to consider the Legionaries as a legitimate possibility, but I didn´t pursue it that summer and returned to college in the fall. At the beginning of the second semester of my sophomore year, I received an email from a Legionary seminarian who said that he´d be passing through Manchester and would like to drop by for a visit. Although I wasn´t sure how he had gotten my name, I thought it might be fun to see how serious these guys were, and I accepted the invitation. (At the time I was in the midst of a skateboard moment, with hair and clothes accordingly, so I figured that they would probably take one look at me and bolt in search of a more respectable candidate.) In the end two seminarians came, and, since they were looking for exercise, we went to play racquetball. Racquetball was (and is) a sport largely unknown to me, but even so I was impressed by the energy with which my competitors attacked the little blue ball. After the game (which I lost) we went to eat at a Bickford´s restaurant and had a thoroughly enjoyable conversation and a lunch which, if I remember aright, I paid for. I was intrigued by what I heard, and when they invited me to come to a retreat at the Legionary novitiate in Cheshire, Connecticut I decided to go.

As things turned out, however, I very nearly didn´t attend. I got extremely sick just before that retreat, and then a snowstorm wiped out my expected transportation to the Manchester bus station where I was to catch the bus to Connecticut. But in an ironic turn of events one of my roommates, a vociferous atheist, offered to drive me to the station and so I made it to the Ignatian spiritual exercises, a silent retreat designed to put you in direct contact with God. I´ve heard these spiritual exercises compared to drinking out of a fire hose: the deluge of grace is overpowering. And my experience was no different. It was the first time in my life that I realized that Jesus Christ is a real person, that he is present in my life, that he has a plan for me, and that I can make him happy. Simple truths, but life-changing.

The retreat happened to begin on St Patrick´s Day, so the first night we had beer at dinner. The next day was another feast day, so we had wine at lunch and beer at dinner. And the final day of the retreat was the feast of St Joseph, so we had more wine and shots at lunch. All of it, needless to say, was free, and I began to think I could get used to this seminary life (it wasn´t till later that I learned that it was the exception, not the rule).

The End of the Beginning

The rest of the semester flew by, and in the spring I knew I had to make a decision. The candidacy program for the Legionaries began in June and the aforementioned seminarians, who visited me shortly after the retreat, had left behind an application form with an impressive barrage of questions necessary, it seemed, for admission. I doubted if even the CIA asked so many questions, but I finally filled it out several weeks before the program began, and went down to Connecticut in mid-June of 2000 not exactly sure what to expect. I have been a Legionary ever since.

When I think about the priesthood I´m always reminded of Pope John Paul II´s 1996 memoirs which he titled Gift and Mystery. The mystery – that sinners are called to be God´s face for the world; the gift – that they are able, with God´s grace, to do so. The mystery – that someone who lived only for himself is called to live for others, in Christ; the gift – that God trusts him and will never revoke his call. The mystery – that a man can say “this is my body given up for you…this is my blood, shed for the forgiveness of sins”; the gift – that by his priestly ordination these words come true.

A priest is a living reminder that the great work of our life is to let God love us, to let him work in our soul and give us the unimaginable gifts he has planned for us. I think there are moments in our lives when we see God´s gift with more clarity; the sheer goodness of his plan overwhelms us and reduces us to a simple “thank you”, which although woefully inadequate is still, somehow, enough. And we can only marvel at the strands of our past and the promises of the future, glimpsed through a now that completes the gift and makes it ours. 

Fr. John Pietropaoli was born in Malone, New York, on April 19, 1980. After two years of university studies he entered the Novitiate of the Legionaries of Christ in Cheshire, Connecticut, in September of 2000. Following his religious profession in August of 2002, he studied Classical Humanities in Cheshire and Philosophy in Rome, Italy. He subsequently spent several years in Thornwood, NY, in a ministry internship, and began his theology studies there in 2009. In 2011 he returned to Rome to finish his studies, and was ordained a deacon on June 30, 2012. He is currently working on his Master´s Degree in Spiritual Theology, and is an assistant to the rector at the Legionary seminary in Rome.   



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