Rome: March 2009 Lukus and I are standing in Saint Peter’s Square. He holds the video camera as I attempt to recount a story we overheard from one of the tour guides. I’ve gotten the facts of the story wrong. We are politely interrupted by two young men dressed entirely in black with white collars. One has a distinctive handle-bar mustache, the other a kind face. They’ve come over to correct my inaccuracies. Forty-five minutes later, we are shaking their hands good-bye.
Oklahoma City: July 2012 Taytem and Eisley are hungry after the service, and going to the pancake breakfast might be a good way to meet people and see if we like this church. Lukus and I find a table across from two old men and one young man. The young man introduces himself. One of the old men explains that the young seminarian is just helping out for the summer before returning to Rome. We tell him that it was two young seminarians like himself that had sparked our interest in the Church while in Rome. He asks their names. Sadly, we do not know. All we remember is that handlebar moustache.
Last night, I had a nightmare – the worst nightmare of my life, the kind that’s so especially awful because it seems like something that could actually happen (as opposed, say, to being chased down by Soviet spy alligators that are angry because you beat them at chess). I had such a hard time shaking it off that I didn’t want Lukus to leave for work. I turned on some worship music from my phone to restore some peace to my rattled mind. There was a break in the music as my phone informed me that I’d just received an e-mail. I opened it up, read it aloud to Lukus, and for a moment, we were back in Rome as the story of God’s providence over our lives was recounted from precise memory from a young priest in Boston.
Three years ago, Lukus and I took a vacation to Italy – our first ever overseas trip for either of us, and with one two-year-old and a five-month-old belly, we knew it would be a long time before we’d see Europe again. We had changed our plans from my dream of seeing France to Italy. My weird obsession with doing things “in order” meant that if I wanted to learn history in order (skipping ancient times) then we should travel the world “in order”, beginning with the center of the Roman Empire and the origins of the Christian faith.
When we gave my parents our itinerary, my dad was baffled as to why we’d want to visit the Vatican. Because it’s the Vatican, one of the biggest tourist sites in the world, the center of the Christian faith for at least a millennium, the location of the infamous Sistine Chapel ceiling, and it’s the Vatican! In my family, we were Christians – NOT Catholics.
Italy was a dream come true: from the historical sights of Rome, to the artistic treasures of Florence, to the mystery and romance of the canals of Venice, it was more than we had even hoped for. And yet, out of all that Italy had to offer, it was one brief conversation with two strangers that changed our lives.
We were disappointed that we had picked the wrong day to visit the Vatican. It was St. Joseph’s Feast Day (whatever THAT was), and the Sistine Chapel was closed for the occasion. We weren’t going to get to see Michelangelo’s masterpiece, and we were hugely disappointed. We toured St. Peter’s Basilica anyway, wandered among the graves of the former popes below, and stood for a last few minutes in the Square before heading back to the city. I was trying to get my story straight for our video camera, when two young seminarians approached us. They were American, and for all my love of trying to live authentically in foreign lands and exercise my language skills, it was simply nice to meet some Americans after a few days of wrestling with broken Italian. They’d overheard my story and came to correct me. They asked what had brought us to St. Peter’s, and we explained that we were non-denominational Christians, but we appreciated the Catholic Church, and wanted to see the origins of our faith.
After a few more pleasantries, the conversation stalled, and yet, I wasn’t ready to leave. Blunt-and-curious-me decided to just go for it, and ask these young priests-to-be why Catholics are so weird. After all, these guys were intentionally spending their day in the Square to help out English-speaking tourists – I figured they must be prepared for these kinds of things.
“Can I ask you guys some blunt questions about Catholic beliefs?”
“Sure, we’d love to answer them if we can.”
“Why do you pray to saints?”
They grinned. Apparently, my questions were pretty typical – probably boring.
“Well, we don’t actually pray to saints in the sense that we’d pray to God. The Bible says that God is the god of the living, not the dead, so if we believe that those who have persevered in their faith are now with God, and they are even more alive than you or I, and that they are witnessing our lives on Earth, then just like you might ask me to pray for you to God, then we often ask the saints to pray to God for us as well.”
It was a good answer. A very good answer. So were their answers about Mary, the infallibility of the Pope, their approach to Scripture, and on and on. They were patient with us, we had a few laughs, and at the end of it all, they asked if they could pray for us before we left. Of course we said yes. And we prayed for them. And we said goodbye…without getting their last names or any kind of contact info, which we would regret many times over the years to come.
From that moment on, our curiosity regarding Catholicism increased to hunger for knowledge and truth, and eventually, the desire to actually become Catholic. It took 3 years from that day in Rome, and along the way, we met other Catholics that were a strong testament to their faith and love for Christ, and not only that, but their genuine love for one another. The words of Jesus replayed over and over in my head as I witnessed the fellowship of Catholics, “They will know you by your love for one another.”
We researched, prayed, debated with others, and simply remained open to whatever God had for us. In the meantime, those two young men were always a part of our story, our reason for getting interested. They were the fork in the road for us, and we often thought and spoke of them, regretting that we did not get their information, and couldn’t even remember their first names. I remember praying a couple of times that somehow, somehow, God would make a way for us to cross their paths again so we could tell them thank you. Of all the absurd things to actually pray for! But I did, nevertheless.
It was time – time for us to make the leap. We were already Catholic in our hearts, we only lacked the initiation into the Catholic Church. We attended Mass a couple of times in the suburbs because we had friends there, but decided it wasn’t for us. We were city people, and wanted to find a parish in the city. On our first visit to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, we really enjoyed it, and they were offering a pancake breakfast fund-raiser after Mass. We were actually in the car leaving the parking lot, when I decided it would be a lot easier to just feed the girls lunch at the church, so we re-parked the car and went back.
As we sat down next to Chris, the young seminarian from Rome, and told him how our faith journey included two young seminarians from Rome, we never could have expected the results: Chris knew the guy with the handlebar moustache – he didn’t just know him, he had his e-mail address! An amputee could have grown a leg right in front of us and it would have had no more affect on us than the miracle of finding a guy in Rome from three years ago through a guy in Oklahoma City based on a moustache. Had God really just answered one of the most absurd prayers I’d ever prayed (God seems to PREFER answering my absurd prayers more than my legitimate prayers, I’m tellin’ ya!)?
We had one name and e-mail address out of the two, and I immediately went home and wrote an e-mail describing who we were and recounting the event in case the guy (now I knew his name was Father Stephen) had trouble remembering us. I included a picture of myself and Lukus while in Rome. Lukus was worried I was being too forward in my first e-mail, just in case it was the wrong person, or that he wouldn’t remember at all and might think we’re weird. Silly Lukus! Doesn’t he know by now that I don’t give two cents what any stranger thinks of me? I sent it anyway.
This was the response I received the very same day (the second half freaking made me cry, so just wait for the “Holy Cow” to come):
Ellany and Lukus:
“I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.”
I vaguely remember the encounter you describe…I think. The picture helped…I think. We talked to so many people over such a long period of time. It’s hard to tell. Doubtless it was me – the moustache truly was unique. I think I remember having the audacity to correct someone’s video narration, but I fear my mind may be constructing that memory based on your description. Does that footage still exist?
I appreciate you contacting me. It’s very rare that God gives us glimpses of how he can cause the seeds we plant to grow. Your story is remarkable, and I’m glad to have been part of it. I’m also glad that over the years meeting pilgrims and tourists at St. Peter’s, I developed the courage to be able to approach people I’d never met before and witness to our faith. (I say OUR faith, quite deliberately, since we now have it in common, thanks be to God.) I was not always as capable as when I met y’all that day. I dreaded going out there and having to put myself out in front of people. God was definitely planning that meeting between the four of us well in advance, because when I first arrived in Rome, I never ever would have been able to talk to you.
I really can’t be sure of who was working with me that day – we changed up the pairs pretty often. What month and year were you there? I might be able to figure it out. It couldn’t have been any more recent than the spring of 2010, because that was the last semester I was working in the Square. Do you remember what he looked like?
As you know, I’m now a priest in the Archdiocese of Mobile. I was ordained in June of 2011. I live my life completely assured that I am doing what God has called me to do. I love being a priest. I love people. I love the sacraments.
I ask you for your prayers. It is no accident that your email came at this time. After a year of being a priest, the stresses and difficulties have really set in, and it is sometimes a struggle to keep up and keep healthy (though I love it all no less for that). Your email was very uplifting and reaffirming. That God would use me as his instrument, as weak and flawed as I am, is a strange thing to consider. You just happened to go to that pancake breakfast and happened to sit next to Chris, all in time for you to get in touch with me to remind me right now, at this point in time, that what I do matters a great deal – the Lord is in control.
Keep me abreast of your progress through RCIA, and if there are ever any questions you want to shoot my way, we can always continue that conversation we started. Among my favorite ministries last year was teaching RCIA. I ran half of the sessions, and it was a life-giving experience.
And of course, if you ever come down to the Deep South, you’ve got a friend down here.
HOLY COW – it just hit me, and I’m not going to change anything I just wrote above (partly out of laziness, but I guess I just want you to imagine this moment of realization). I remember you now. I remember your names. I used to pray for you BY NAME. (regrettably I stopped, I don’t know why) It’s the name Ellany that sticks out – as unique (in my experience at least) as the moustache I used to wear! We would keep a record of how many people we met each time we went out, what materials we passed out, etc., all to report back to the group, just to see what all was going on. And usually, we’d jot down people’s names in case there was anyone in particular we wanted to pray for. The reason I’ve suddenly recalled is that I remember not knowing how to spell Ellany, in fact, I remember thinking I must have heard you wrong when you said it! Brilliant! But anyway, the point is that there was a period of time where I was praying for Ellany and Lukus everyday. HOW COOL IS THAT!? And now, I’ll pick up where I left off and start praying for you again–sorry I ceased.
Thomas Merton once wrote: “I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
There were times in Rome, particularly in Piazza Navona, that I would ponder those words, look around at the crowds of people and think, “one day, I will see these people in the Kingdom, and I will tell them: I remember being with you that day, seeing your smile, seeing you pass by, wondering what joys or sadness you were then enmeshed in, and I’m glad to be here with you now.” You, Ellany and Lukus – I guess I had the spelling of both your names wrong! – you have just given me a taste of that hope that I have. There are no chance meetings. There is no insignificant part of our lives. There is nothing that God will not use to his advantage. No matter what lies we’ve heard or even the ones we believe, the deck is stacked against Satan. God is in control. With Paul we should all shout: “If God is for us, who can be against us!?”
I’m totally blown away by this. Awestruck before the God who knows me and the two of you and everyone else so completely. He’s so preoccupied by us, thinking of us all the time. He just sits around thinking of new and different ways to remind us that he’s there with us, carrying us all the way.
I’ve really begun to write something substantial…was this what it was like when you were talking to me? I remember your names, and I think your faces, but I still don’t really remember the conversation.
Whatever. It is so providential that we met that day and that we’ve come back into contact. Thanks for writing. I found y’all on facebook, but I couldn’t friend you…
Lukus and I both teared up upon reading this response – okay, I did a little more than just “tear up”. To know that he remembered us, prayed for us by name, and that we were finally able to say “Thank you!” meant so much to us. But those words are so small. What it really felt like was a brief glimpse into eternity – the revelation that time and distance does not separate the family of God. And it reminds me of their answer in Rome as to why they “pray to saints.” Why would we not? When we are all held together in God’s hand, time and distance are not the only obstacles overcome by the Children of God, but death itself cannot even separate us. We are part of something so much bigger than we could ever comprehend, and in the midst of this big, lonely world where we pass in and out of people’s lives every day, we live unaware that we are weaving ourselves together in intricate and purposeful ways. God takes each choice we make, whether to grow a funky moustache, or eat a pancake breakfast; he takes our odd little eccentricities, whether it’s an OCD obsession with doing things “in order”, or an inability to pass by without asking those gnawing awkward questions of someone; he uses the accidents, like feast days that alter your plans, or the story you misheard, or forgetting to get the contact info of some new friends – and He actively responds and maneuvers and works until it all comes together as something our untrained eyes can finally recognize as masterful.
After offering Stephen a description of the other seminarian and the date, he was able to figure out that it was Eric, and he wrote to him. I wrote to him as well, but this time, it took a full seven days to hear back. But it was the best time to receive his response. The nightmare I’d had really shook me up. Fear was overwhelming me, even in the light of morning. But opening up that e-mail instantly reminded me of reality – of HIS reality: that He is with us, that He is actively working for our good, and that we will reap good in the end if we do not lose heart. There is nothing to fear – not even Soviet alligators.
Fr. Stephen did ask me if I remember having met you and this was my reply to him:
Thank you for sharing this. This has made my day! This is truly a prayer answered. Absolutely. I remember them very well and I have thought about them often over the past 3 years. In fact, they are one of the few people I do remember. We went to the square on St. Joseph’s day 2009 and on our part we realized when we got there that it was not strategically the best day to go because the Vatican and St. Peter’s were closed and there were very few people there. You and I were standing there and we saw this couple filming/photographing the Holy Father’s apartment. From what we heard them saying they did not know exactly what they were looking at and I remember you saying something to the effect, “Let’s go and see if we can help them out with what they are seeing.” We had exchanged pleasantries and told them what they were seeing. We told them who we were. They told us they were Non-Denominational Christian and then…I remember like it was yesterday. We were at an awkward pause in the conversation (It seemed like they were about done with us) Ellany was looking at what presumably was the Holy Father’s apartment (or at something across the other side of the piazza) and she said to us, “Can I ask you a few blunt/honest (some word to that effect) about what Catholics believe. I remember you saying something like “Sure, we’d love to.” She proceeded to ask us every single Protestant question about Catholic practices (saints, Mary, Scripture…). By the end of it it was at least 45 minutes if not an hour that we were talking. I remember them being so direct with their questions and open/hungry to hearing our answers. At the end of it all they both proceeded to tell us how they had come to Rome in order to see where the Church was first living. I think (if I am remembering correctly) that Ellany told us that they had left their child (who I think was two) with their parents during their travels. She told us about the conversation that she had with one of their fathers as he was dropping them off at the airport and how he asked why they wanted to go to see the Catholic Churches. At end they thanked us for answering those questions and she even admitted then that she had received some biased/wrong information about what Catholics believe. I remember sensing that we had just been a part of their faith journey in a very real way.
That is so great to hear how they have been so open to the Holy Spirit for so long and are now planning to start RCIA! I would love to send off a hello and let them know that I am praying for them. Perhaps, you can let her know that you found the other guy and let her know that I will be sending an e-mail? (I just want to make sure that when she sees a random e-mail from me she does not think it to be spam mail) If you could reply to this and let me know that you have contacted her I would greatly appreciate it.
It is truly a joy to hear from you again. I am sorry to hear about the loss of your mother. What is her name? As you know there are often people in our life that have influenced our life in some way and we lose touch with them. In being in contact with you again and hearing how God has been working in your and Lukus’ life, God has been so generous! I remember that day we talked very clearly and it has left an impression on me. It is one of the few interactions I remember having in St. Peter’s Square and I believe that the reason I go back to it is that it is one of those instances that I can remember the presence of the Holy Spirit strengthening my faith in Christ and helping me to share that with others who are desiring to know and love the Lord. I am so grateful for you having made the effort to get in touch with me for two reasons. 1) It is a privilege to hear how the Lord has been molding your hearts. How you have come to know Him better and the act of faith you have made in response to His grace. 2) To thank you for being docile to God’s will and asking those questions that day. It was a memorable moment from my time in Rome as it was another moment in which God was shaping my heart to be His servant.
As for me, you already know the big change that God has brought about in my life in making me His priest. I was ordained on June 23rd of this year and I have been in a parish in South Boston since then. I love being a priest and it is an absolute privilege to serve the people of God as a priest of Jesus Christ. There is so much to say about these couple of months but the most present word on my lips is the great devotion that people have to follow Christ. Day after day I am humbled with the opportunity to witness the faith of God’s people, which in turn calls me forth to give more of myself as one of his sons and as a priest to serve Him more perfectly so that His love might be known more present to the world.
I will be going back to Rome in September and will be there till next June. The archbishop has asked me to return to Rome for one more year in order to complete the Licentiate degree (Master’s-like) in moral theology that I starter last year. After June 2013, I will be in Boston full time.
You mentioned that you started RCIA last week. Am I correct in assuming that you and Lukus plan on entering the Church this Easter? Through the intercession of St. Joseph (I am almost positive that it was on his feast day that we met) please be assured of my prayers for both of you as you run this next leg of your pilgrimage here on earth. May you know His love for you through His Church and in knowing this love, through His grace, may you respond with generous hearts. I hope that we can stay in contact and, if it is God’s providence, that we might see one another again in the future. If you have any questions about anything at all, be just as bold as you were that day in 2009 and fire away!
Fr. Eric Bennett
P.S. If you find yourselves in Rome in the next 10 months…I will be there!
Eric’s response was completely different than Stephen’s, but no less amazing and encouraging. Indeed, I agree with Lukus’ response after hearing both e-mails: Is this what the next generation of priests is like? These guys are incredible!
But what’s truly incredible are the extraordinary lengths God will go to to draw us near to Him, to show us that He loves us enough to answer silly prayers and the deepest cries of our hearts alike. The love of God astounds me, and this family He is at work to create – for all it’s flaws and inadequacies in this life– is absolutely beautiful. This is our hope for eternity – that our love for one another would be made complete and perfect, that we would be united in perfect harmony with one another; a family of total acceptance, of joyful interaction, of complete appreciation of how we all fit together, and with strange and fascinating stories to tell. This is the Family of God, and it is miraculous!
Mobile, Alabama: August 2012 – Lukus and I are sitting in an oyster shack sharing fried green tomatoes with Father Stephen, the one who had had the handlebar moustache. There’s no handlebar moustache anymore, but a full beard instead. We were on our way back from a convention in Florida, and the route home just “happened” to go right through Mobile, where Father Stephen now serves as priest. We have never been to Mobile, and have never had a reason to go there. And yet, only a couple of weeks of being back in contact with that seminarian from Rome, and we are driving right through his hometown. As he lays his hands on our shoulders to give us his blessing before we depart, I can’t help but begin to weep at the beauty and the blatant display of God’s hand at work, and the beauty of His family.