Today, I took my last train ride to Grand Central Terminal, on my way to the New York offices of First Things, which has been kind enough to host me for an internship this summer. My contribution to the journal these two months has been meager, but I will treasure the time spent writing and chatting with the staff. I even value the unglamorous hours spent on proofreading and fact-checking. Tomorrow I return to Rome for my final year of theological studies before ordination. I have been privileged to journey between the ancient Caput Mundi and the contemporary Capital of the World.
Although I look forward to the peaceful solitude of my Roman seminary, I have come to appreciate Manhattan’s dynamism. As rushed cars and anxious citizens sped around me on my strolls down Park Avenue, I sometimes reflected on St. Ignatius of Loyola. A cannonball smashed his leg and consigned the ambitious solider to bed. In his boredom, he read the lives of the saints. He was surprised to find that he gained abiding peace from these books, and only passing thrills in the chronicles of his chivalric idols. After the severe mercy of his convalescence, God moved the recovered Spaniard to found what remains the largest and most influential religious congregation in the Catholic Church.
While I do not wish any injury upon the fine people of the Big Apple, I do pray that their ample talents and ambitions may someday be turned toward their Creator. Struggling actors subject themselves to stringent diet and performance schedules to pursue their theatrical dreams, while would-be executives embrace overtime grunt-work to scale the corporate heights. How sad it would be to see some of nation’s most competent members squander their noble energies exclusively on that which will fade. Their motivation to succeed inspires me to follow my own religious and priestly vocation with something of the same determination.
Freedom from my normal academic responsibilities allowed me to plunge again into the daily news dramas of my usually distant homeland. I needn’t provide links to convince the reader of the discontent in our country. Nor do I expect to return to Eden via Italy’s Leonardo da Vinci International Airport. Indeed, life since the third chapter of Genesis has been rather trying. I will leave it to authors more knowledgeable than I to decide whether the darkness that plagues our times is lighter or darker than that of previous generations. When the lies of a politician are again exposed, when another young man is shot in the inner city, when a new law is passed to supersede our binary notions of gender, my reactions have wavered between a desensitized shrug and an exasperated sigh.
In my better moments, I overcome these temptations to indifference and despair by recalling St. John Paul II’s words in a 1979 address to Irish seminarians: “This is a wonderful time to be a priest, to be a religious, to be a missionary for Christ.” These words were not spoken by a naïve young man, but by an experienced shepherd who had studied theology clandestinely in preparation for a priesthood spent under totalitarian regimes.
I depart my country with a more vivid sense of sin’s consequences and a firmer conviction of my countrymen’s need for healing grace. Behind a broken political system are broken men.
My companions in priestly formation come to Rome from all the continents of the globe. No other city can boast of manifesting so visibly the catholicity that brings together every tribe and tongue. We have left family to study theology in the city whose architecture is the most glorious of catechisms. Were it not for the spellbound faces I observe while giving tours of the Eternal City, I fear I would take the richness of the Caput Mundi for granted. Visitors remind me that pilgrims pinch pennies to reach but once in a lifetime the masterpieces that rest a half-hour from my door.
My summer stint in the public square confirmed once again my own limitations and deficiencies. I often wished to penetrate a contemporary topic with greater insight and to articulate the truth more persuasively. Fortunately, there are others who fight for the common good more effectively than I could. I take comfort in knowing that my greatest accomplishments in this life will depend little upon my own efforts. The words of consecration and of absolution I pronounce will, through no merits of my own, cleanse souls and nourish wayfarers with the Bread of Life.
Michael Baggot, LC is a Legion of Christ brother and a summer intern at First Things.