It seems worthwhile to spend a few minutes to look back on my year. 2015 was interesting and had some great news and events and some very sad occurrences.
Winter and spring
I attended my annual retreat with the seminary in Houma, Louisiana. I also finally got to try some of the doughnuts from the joint that the guys from down there claim is superior to Krispy Kreme. I understand their enthusiasm. They are some pretty awesome doughnuts there, but I can’t say they are either better than or inferior to Krispy Kreme. They are just an entirely different doughnut.
Classes were pretty swell through the spring semester. People often ask what my favorite is, but I never stop to reflect on an answer. I’m going to finally take a stand, here, and say that our class on the Synoptic Gospels and Acts was my favorite. There are two reasons. First, we had an excellent instructor (Dr. Eubank, who left the seminary to teach at Oxford) and the content of the class was essential to properly serving as a priest. He also dispelled several myths that have worked their way into the way we picture the Gospel stories themselves. Can you believe there was no “inn,” and there was no “stable”? I also got to really dig in and research the Annunciation and the Catholic notion of Mary’s perpetual virginity. Sorry. I got all Catholic-nerdy.
Summer break this year was interesting. I went into the summer with great joy. Since my father’s condition had considerably worsened, Bishop Choby had determined that I was to be ordained to the diaconate a year early so my father could attend. We made it by about two weeks.
The night before my ordination, I was at dinner with my mother (dad wasn’t feeling up to coming) and my sister, Becky, and my uncle and aunt on my mother’s side. We started receiving a series of phone calls to all of our phones, which we ignored since we could deal with them later. Finally, Mom picked up and received the news that my nephew had killed himself. He had been suffering from bipolar disorder and had attempted to do so in the past using pills; this time, he used a gun, and he was successful. So, I left dinner with Becky to meet Carol, my other sister’s, family and wait until we were allowed back in their house so they could get some overnight bags together to stay the night in a hotel. At my request, we were met by Father Jerry, the priest with whom I was staying for the summer, and Deacon Paul, a friend from New Orleans who was in town for my ordination. After we were allowed back into the house, Father Jerry blessed the body, and Carol and Edmundo gathered some clothes for themselves and their two younger children. We did some room-shuffling so Becky stayed in the extra room in the rectory in which I was staying, and Carol and family stayed in the hotel room that Becky had originally reserved.
The next morning, May 15, 2015, I was ordained a deacon as planned. The ordination was an amazing experience. It’s both exciting and a little overwhelming to be the guy up there being ordained instead of an acolyte at the Mass. I then preached for my first weekend as a deacon at the parish in Hendersonville where I had spent several holidays.
A few days later, we buried Eddie, my nephew. The parish priest at my parent’s parish (where he’d also been a parishioner until very recently) presided at the Mass. I served as deacon. I then presided at the graveside services. I have to admit that the hispanic community in the parish knows how to throw a party. There was more food than anyone could have possibly eaten (or even a hundred people could have eaten).
A few weeks after that, in fact, the day before my mother and I were supposed to leave to go to my eldest brother, John’s, wedding, I got a call from my mother that Dad had just died. Like I said, we made it by a couple weeks. Now, I won’t pretend that my relationship with my father was ever perfect. I won’t pretend that he was the best father anyone could have. I see a lot of people do that kinda stuff to be nice to the memory of the dead, but it doesn’t feel right to do that if it’s just untrue. What is true is that he did the best he was able to do; I firmly believe he tried, even though his own challenges growing up had left him incapable of filling the role of father much better than he did. I got up, got dressed, and drove up to the hospital nearest my parents’ house where his body was and my mother and their priest were waiting. Their priest let me bless the body and pray the commendation in the hospital. Strictly speaking, that isn’t a prayer and rite that is reserved to clergy, but it is nice to be able to do it. A week or so later, I assisted at the second funeral of my diaconate, my father’s. Again, I presided at the graveside and served as deacon at the funeral.
I’m telling all of that even though my reader(s) already know all of it because it made a very interesting start to public ministry. At the same time I was getting settled into the role of clergy for the Catholic Church, I was serving in that role for my own family. I wasn’t acting as the youngest of the children, but rather as a Catholic cleric. In a way, I wonder if that stark change in service didn’t help my transition in the eyes of my family, so they could more easily see me in my public role. Also, it really was a stark change to me so I could better reflect on the relationship I would have with my family and the public going forward.
For the rest of the summer, I served in a pastoral internship at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. I visited patients and talked with families. My job was to bring God into the room just a little bit. Very few of my patients were Catholics, so I had to relate to them with a balance of service as any baptized person is called to minister to his brothers and in my role as clergy. At the beginning of the summer, I commented in a phone call to my spiritual director, Archbishop Hughes, that I was introducing myself as deacon or not depending on what I saw in the patient records and their reactions when I came into the room. He simply asked in reply if I was less a deacon because people weren’t Catholic and may not believe as we do in Holy Orders. From that point on, I always introduced myself as Deacon Joe (I still don’t want to force people to say my surname).
Fall and winter
After this experience, I returned to the seminary for my first semester in the seminary after ordination – but with the instructions from Bishop Choby that I should not exercise my ministry there to avoid ill will from my brother seminarians who should have been ordained with me, but would now be ordained a year after me. I don’t have much I can really say about the semester that I just finished. We did determine a few times when I was allowed to offer a blessing (for example, after our hallway evening prayer if no other deacons were there). I also got the opportunity to lead evening prayer for the community once since all of the priests of the house were at the Archdiocese of New Orleans priestly convocation. Amazingly, in a nervous enough situation, it is actually possible to forget how to walk. I remember that I made it from the door of the sacristy to the altar to reverence it and had no idea what had happened in the intervening moments. To the best of my knowledge, I didn’t fall down, but I could have, and I wouldn’t even know it. I’m glad my body (I think) remembered what it was supposed to do.
I decided to try to teach myself to sketch portraits again, too. I bought myself a new sketchbook and a few pencils for my birthday and got back to it. Needless to say, the 10 years since I last tried are pretty apparent. I’m getting better, though.
The semester came to an end, and I visited some friends in Florida as has been my custom for the previous Christmas breaks since I’ve been in seminary. This time, though, there was a difference. I am a deacon, now. I requested (and was permitted by the pastor there) to assist at Mass and preach the homily at Saint Joseph Church, the parish in which I grew up in Lakeland, Florida. Thirty years ago, as a first or second grader, I stood behind the ambo for the first time to present something at the school Mass when I attended Saint Joseph School. Now, an adult and cleric, I stood behind that same ambo and preached the Gospel to the people of God. It was so cool!
After I left Florida, I made the drive up to Nashville (technically Franklin) to spend the rest of the Christmas holidays. I assisted at St. Philip Church, where I was last Christmas, too. I got to preach the homily there this past weekend. It has been a great experience.
New Year’s Eve
So here I am. I’m writing this in Jamba Juice as I watch the clock for closing time (they close at 5) and try to get my last post of 2015 written and published before they kick me out. I already spent a few hours camping in a coffee shop nearby and decided to let them have their table back. In 2016, I will spend my last summer in priestly formation (at least that part of formation before I’m ordained a priest). Unless something goes awry, I will be ordained to the priesthood in a year and a half. It’s been a long road. There have already been ups and downs. But I thank God for all of it.