And then he wrote back.
A message in a bottle eventually drifts to shore, the tide being what it is. But will the note bob towards the right destination, find a smooth landing, touch the intended hands? Sealed tight and flung with hope, will it ever be read?
And then, answering those seaside questions, he wrote back.
When the archbishop called me in late January, I was drifting a bit in the current. “I’d like to resubmit your dispensation application,” he detailed. My brain didn’t exactly follow, though. For one, I had just clicked submit on that 55 page paper (that I keep withholding from this blog). For another, I was returning the call while navigating towards another king cake (to be exact, the Haydel’s on Metairie Road, if a trip to parking-lot trailer can be exact). But the biggest eddy was the real flooder: nothing had changed, right?
At the first denial of my dispensation from the clerical state, I was told the age of forty and/or five years out of ministry were important, vow-lifting markers. This made sense to me. If I were running a worldwide institution, I probably would do the same. It’s not as though Francis and I are on a common group chat—more my Italian than his English.
“I think it has a better chance this time,” the archbishop continued. I happily, if skeptically, went along for the ride, supplying a civil marriage license copy as an addendum to the file (a certified one, I reasoned, because Italians love stamps).
And then, sixty days or so later, he wrote back.
The archbishop called with the news on Holy Thursday. The first of the three big Triduum days, Holy Thursday has layers of meaning. Jesus’ big meal, the apostles’ big foot bath, Judas’ big betrayal—all falling Holy Thursday evening. Classically, it’s also the day the bishop blesses the oils used in the local sacraments, gathering the priests together for a morning Mass and sending them out with the oil of anointings, of Baptisms, of ordinations.
Holy Thursday is the anniversary of the beginning of the priesthood. And the archbishop was calling to tell me the formalities of my priesthood were being lifted. A day of layers, to be sure.
When we later met, I thanked him for making that call, on such a busy day but also on a day with meaning we both understood. “I thought it would be an Easter gift,” his response.
When we were young, my dad tried to properly explain the word “ironic” to his four kids. Perhaps Alanis Morissette was too forcefully pushing herself onto his grammarian corner. Shooing away 98-year-old lotto winners and black flied chardonnays, my dad offered the verse Morissette neglected: “Ironic is an Olympic-champion swimmer drowning in a bathtub.”
Needless to say, my mother was less than impressed with the English lesson, correcting his statement but, of course, only helping to enforce it all the more (isn’t it ironic?).
A dispensation from the clerical state on Holy Thursday probably qualifies, too—though not even my dad’s mind could have come up with that one.
Neither, truth be told, could mine. Ironic, maybe. Layered, certainly. Providential, most precisely.
The archbishop’s number popped on my phone Holy Thursday morning just as I was leaving a Broadmoor house, having dropped off an Easter basket from St. Jude Parish. I had come to the conclusion that God was calling me in a different direction than the ordained priesthood, casting that bottle out there in hopes of a Vatican City State reply. I hadn’t, though, come to the conclusion that my life was not meant to be priestly—that is, expressed in service. Amid my living that priesthood of the faithful, the archbishop made his call.
He, incredibly, wrote back.
Ok, it’s not Francis who writes back, but he is the one who offers the consent. The Congregation for the Clergy sends the “Dispensatio ab oneribus Ordinationi conexis” replies, particularly its prefect, Archbishop Lazzaro You Heung sik, a South Korean who Sunday was named by the pope to the College of Cardinals. A good friend to have.
And a good Easter gift to get. Come Saturday, I’ll return to the Communion line for the first time since October 27th—but who’s counting?
This prolonged Communion fast, since the time of my wedding, has helped me see church differently, particularly from the perspective of those on the outside. It’s a humbler, more fragile place, a place the good but overworked clergy struggle to understand. The line from rapture-believing Christians often applies: get right, or get left. It’s a place and a time I hope I don’t soon forget.
But in a quiet ceremony in our home church, Jen and I will again recite vows and again exchange rings and again know something of God’s love. October 27th was the feast of St. Jude, and Saturday is the beginning of Pentecost, the celebration of the sending of the Spirit—good bookends.
Saturday, too, is the local ordination of priests—a date overlap we didn’t realize when it was named as the one free Saturday of our pastor’s month. A little too ironic? Yeah, I really do think.
But before we start singing about rain on our wedding day (thanks, Alanis), I’ll say it again: this God of surprises calls personally, calls to service, calls Jen and me and those men at the cathedral. Layered, providential, a bit more than ironic. No one is drowning in a bathtub, after all.
We’ll all be praying together, at different Masses, in different expressions, from different Communion line vantage points.
I’m just thankful to get back in—that is, once we get through that confessional line.
In line, while staying connected to those out of line. That’s what I would write about in my next message-in-a-bottle.
Who knows? Maybe Francis is awaiting that reply. After a short seven months, he wrote back.
This week brings me a new beginning, but also a fresh end. A week ago, after ninety-eight years, St. Rita School closed. Since the press release announcement of its shuttering, I’ve prepared for the closing of a school I previously had leadership in, while keeping my distance. It’s often said that the worst two people in the world are your predecessor and successor, and I’ve always tried to fight against that notion. We all do our best, right? Extending the benefit of the doubt feels so much better.
We were never big when I was at St. Rita, but we were important. Catholic schools are the touchpoint for many in our city. And our primarily low-income, majority-minority school was a link in a chain that extended all the way back to the Ursuline Sisters in 1727. Our St. Rita scholars are doing great things. I have a 2022 Jesuit High graduation announcement sitting on my desk to prove it.
But times change. Certainly big decisions like uprooting a community aren’t made impulsively, based on an arbitrary enrollment figure, a future forecast of budget difficulties, or a need for more archdiocesan office space. There certainly must be a good reason.
Regardless, for what was, give thanks. The Marianite Sisters of the Holy Cross opened the school in 1924 with three religious and a classroom that served as their after-hours residence. A Marianite was still on watch as the lights were turned out Thursday.
So also were the schooling nuns of our generation: teachers, usually female and always underpaid. Teachers who placed students’s needs before their own, who taught the whole child, who raised like a village.
Education is hard—the classroom tasks and the administrative mission. And nothing lasts forever. But for those teachers, those scholars, those families, forever might translate to “just a little longer.”
For what will be, give thanks for that, too.