A Priest's Perspective -- Sabbatical: A spiritual reflection of the priesthood
By Father Melvin L. Dornak
Entering my 24th year in the priesthood, I was accepted at the lnstitute for Continuing Theological Education (ICTE) at Vatican City State, a three-month program of study, prayer, rest and reflection. A sabbatical is a period to let go of one’s ministries back home and make plans with God for the continued care of the soul and to take a blessed rest. Thus I journeyed to Rome, and visited many a basilica and church in the heart of Vatican City and passed its ancient walls.
Adjusting to the seven-hour time difference took at least a week, but my arrival in Rome on Jan. 16 was memorable, beginning with the hospitality of Dominican Father Jim Sullivan, director of ICTE. He gave us 34 priests our room numbers followed by the evening Mass and Orientation at Casa O’Toole located on the North American College Campus. Our gathering included the evening meal at 7 p.m. where we could plainly see St. Peter’s Basilica, just an 18-minute walk (for seminarians, about 12 minutes!). Our weekdays were structured beginning with breakfast at 7 a.m., morning prayer, classes on various topics in theology or a tour, lunch, with free afternoons and concluding with evening prayer and a meal.
With free weekends, a number of us would team together and make various walking tours, covering many a path. On Sundays, I attended Mass at 9:30 a.m. at the NAC Chapel followed by brunch. Here, I was joined by three seminarians of our diocese who are currently studying in Rome: Chris Smith, Zach Rodriguez and Transitional Deacon Paul-Michael Piega.
I attended Pope Francis’ Angelus Prayer from his plaza window where he delivered his short message. Some Sundays, I joined some of our brethren at the Vatican Mass for concelebration in Latin. I was emotionally touched by the crowds attending Mass. In the recessional, we passed many people. Occasionally, I would reach out and bless a little child waving as we headed toward the sacristy.
Throughout my sabbatical, I maintained a daily journal with the inscription: “‘I can do all things through Christ that strengthens me’ –– Philippians 4:13.” On nearly every day of the time I spent in Rome, I was able to follow God seeing the rich history of a growing church in a landscape that blended the past with the present. Our group took part in Masses in the papal basilicas: St. Peter (by his tomb underground), St. Mary Major, St. Paul Outside the Walls and St. John Lateran. At St. Lawrence Outside the Walls, we concelebrated Mass and spent some time in quiet devotion of a well-regarded martyr, St. Lawrence, a deacon, whose “grill plate” offered a reflection of that difficult period that was so real.
Our sabbatical retreat was held in Assisi and we traveled by bus for a five-day schedule of conferences, spiritual direction, confession, adoration, Mass, daily prayer and various walking trips to nearby Basilicas of St. Francis and St. Clare. I took a personal walk to the “environmental preserve” of Assisi with its small church –– Santa Croce. Here, much care is taken along the hillsides and clear water stream beds. Those were peaceful prayer periods during which I reveled in the beauty of the land and its richly fertile vineyards.
It was particularly inspiring to experience Lent while on sabbatical. During those six weeks we began with 7 a.m. Mass at one of the·Station Churches, beginning with Santa Sabina on Ash Wednesday. I attended two other Station Churches for Mass –– St. Anastasia and St. Mary Across the Tiber. When I first visited St. Anastasia, I prayed in the Adoremus Chapel where history records St. Jerome prayerfully came by; his altar remains here. At St. Mary, I noted the beautiful ceiling that, of course, adorned almost every basilica or church. The magnificent impression it left was that we indeed will see everlasting beauty, arrayed in the glory of God. Such reflections stirred me even further when I prayed in many a Station Church memorializing saints and their relics exposed in glass cases. For more information on the Station Churches, I recommend reading “Roman Pilgrimage, Station Churches by George Weigel and Elizabeth Lev published by Basic Books in 2013.
In April, we attended a General Audience with Pope Francis and Palm Sunday Mass at the Vatican, during which we were honored to distribute the Eucharist to the vast crowd. As Pope Francis came slowly to where we stood, a young boy was next to me who could not see much. I urged him to go and meet him. He quickly made his move and there was the pope to pick him up and kiss him on the cheek, whereupon he returned with my blessing of “Good boy!”
During these months after my sabbatical, I have had many fond reflections as I prayed for our diocese in those peaceful churches. God is very near us and with us in history past and in our history today. May God bless our priests, particularly those considering a sabbatical.