On Pilgrimage

As you read this, I’m on pilgrimage in Italy. One of my favorite parts of my job is leading trips to places in important to our Catholic faith. While you might assume it’s my favorite because it means traveling to Europe, seeing the Pope, and eating good food, it’s actually my favorite for a different reason.

I get to experience people experiencing. I get to pray with people as they climb the Holy Stairs on their knees for the first time. I get to see people reach out to touch the Pope as he drives by. I get to witness the joy of people praying in front of the Crib of Our Lord and weep as they see the relics of the Passion.

Each time I take a group over to Rome, I’m shaken out of my own jadedness towards the Eternal City. Anyone who knows me knows I can’t express my love for Rome enough. But familiarity breeds complacency. As the trip approaches, I calm the jitters and answer the questions from people who have never traveled abroad. Both their excitement and concern reminds me of the importance of pilgrimage – something that I fear I take for granted.  Packing for Rome is little different than packing for the East Coast for me, and I can almost do it in my sleep.  I need the reminders of the pilgrims in my charge to awaken me.

That is why I love to experience people experiencing Rome. This is my tenth time hopping on an airplane to Rome (and two of those trips were extended stays for studies), and although each trip has always involved seeing something new, mostly I will revisit places I have been dozens and dozens of times. But I will go there anew – because I will go there with people seeing it for the first time.  I will be at Mass with permanent deacons who have never set foot in Europe – and now are assisting at Mass in the great basilicas of Rome.  I will witness people praying at the tombs of their confirmation saints. I will see people gaze at the Sistine Chapel for the first time.

These experiences are an important part of one’s faith formation. As director of adult formation, I offer speaker series, write bible studies, and film catechetical videos for social media. But these pilgrimages provide formation in a way sitting in a classroom or listening to a podcast never can.  Touching the Catholic faith as one does on pilgrimage is life-changing.  I was abundantly blessed to have parents who realized importance of this, even to the point of taking me out of school for two weeks so that I could travel to France and Italy.  At only fifteen years old, I stepped into St. Peter’s Square for the first time. And although I didn’t know it then, my life would never be the same, thanks to that piazza.

Not everyone has the chance to travel to Europe, and I know that for many, something like seeing the Pope or praying at these sites might always remain on the bucket list. That is why I must never, ever take it for granted. I must never become jaded at the sight of Michelangelo’s dome, rising over the rooftops of Rome.  I must never tire of walking through the Forum on Via Sacra, my steps tracing the steps of our first Pope and St. Paul.  I must never lose the joy I had that very first time I walked into the loving embrace of Bernini’s colonnade.

That is why I bring others. Because I have to experience it for the first time – again.

Pray for my group, as we begin our pilgrimage, and pray for our diocesan seminarian Anthony, who will be ordained on September 28 to the diaconate in St. Peter’s Basilica with his classmates from the North American College.

(And if you’ve never considered a pilgrimage, pray about that, too. You won’t regret it. Especially if you go with my friend Mountain.)

Thank you, Bishop Choby.

“Are you Joan Watson?” asked the man sitting near me in the pew when I sat down.  After I affirmed his suspicions, he told me he enjoyed my blogs and the work I’ve been doing. Then he said what will (hopefully) stay with me for a long time:

“I know you’re able to do what you’re doing because of him.”

He looked ahead at the bishop, lying in repose in the front of the Cathedral.

I nodded. And then I cried.

There is much that can be said about Bishop Choby. This week has been full of reminiscing and memories, and everyone has a story to tell about him. I spoke to one of his brother bishops on the phone yesterday and he told me what I think most of us took for granted for many years: Bishop Choby was a great bishop. “He’s leaving behind shoes enormous to fill.”

There are many things to be thankful to Bishop Choby for, but for me, it boils down to one important thing: Bishop Choby believed in me. Little Joannie Watson.  A girl, only 30 years old, with a dream and a love for the same people he loved: the people of Nashville. How many Church leaders would listen to a young lay woman sitting in front of them, who had just come to them with the wild idea to create a brand new position at the diocese for adult formation, and trust them enough to put them totally in charge of the new office? How many leaders would listen to a young lay woman, not in a habit, with no initials behind her name except a little “MA”, only armed with some Church documents and a mere six years of teaching experience, and support her crazy dream? I’ll tell you a secret: not many.

But that’s exactly what he did on February 20, 2014. He encouraged me and supported me then, and again on July 3, when he formally offered me a position at the diocese. And again every time he met with me after I began working for him on October 13. He never failed to show his support and his trust in me.  In fact, that was one of the last things he said to me when I had the chance to see him in the hospital on May 26, a week before he died. He repeated his support for me and the Office of Adult Formation. For a young lay woman in the Church, to have that trust and respect was the greatest gift Bishop David Choby could have given me.

He was a shepherd who loved his flock.  He was a priest who never wanted to be bishop, who laughed when he was told he had been elected diocesan administrator. He was happiest when he was with his people.

I remember going out to breakfast with him on July 3, when we were meeting to discuss the possibility of me coming to the diocese. We met at the Cathedral and he drove me over to Loew’s Vanderbilt hotel to eat breakfast. Every single person working there knew him by name, but what’s more impressive… he knew them. He greeted everyone, stopped to talk to all them, even the doorman. Towards the end of our breakfast, he pulled the waiter into our conversation, introducing the two of us. After we chatted for awhile, the waiter asked the bishop if he would baptize his firstborn son.

Imagine that. Asking the bishop of a diocese to baptize your baby. Maybe not the thing most of us would presume to ask a bishop. But he did presume… why? Because that’s the way Bishop Choby treated us all. He just wanted to be a pastor, and everyone felt like he was theirs. And you know what? The bishop didn’t think twice. He said it would be his honor to baptize the man’s son.

For Bishop Choby, it was all about the people. Everything he did, right or wrong, prudent or imprudent, whether we agree with his decisions or not – was because he loved people. And that was one of the last things he reminded me, as I stood by his bedside at St. Thomas Hospital. “Never let your work get in the way of your time with your family and relationships.” The way he looked me in the eye as he said it, with such clarity and honestly, made me want to record the moment. “I don’t mean you can goof off all the time,” he added with a sparkle in his eye. But it was clear he wanted me to remember: people are most important.

That is why I made the very difficult decision to miss his funeral. I was already scheduled to be in Kansas at the baptism of a dear friend’s daughter. I know it’s not necessary to be present at a baptism to be a baby’s godmother, but I thought back to the message Bishop Choby chose to give me that afternoon. What would he want me to do? It wasn’t an easy decision. But I think it’s the right one, so I’m boarding a plane today.

Last night, I knelt at the Cathedral and watched the people stream up to his casket to kneel down, whisper their thank yous, and pay their respect to a man who gave so much to so many. I couldn’t help but think of the quip he often gave when I told him it was good to see him, particularly after he was gone from the office on trips or due to sickness.  “Better be seen than viewed, Joannie.” The man joked about his death and his funeral a lot. We just never wanted it to become a reality.

You will be missed, Bishop Choby. I am not missing your funeral because I don’t love you, but because I’m obeying that last piece of advice you gave me.

Thank you for trusting me. Thank you for supporting me. And thank you for your love for the people of Nashville.