In every travel guide, in every list, in every guided tour related to the city of Rome, the Pantheon is bound to appear. Along with the Colosseum, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Trevi Fountain, and other assorted landmarks, it always falls within the top ten places to visit when you are in the Eternal City. To be honest, it should—it is an architectural marvel with a history of two thousand years, and it certainly deserves our respect and admiration. I would recommend a visit to the Pantheon to just about anyone.
What often fails to make it in to those guide books, however, is if you take a right turn just as soon as you leave the Pantheon. Take another at the next street, and to your left you’ll come across another very special basilica: Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Built over the ruins of a temple to the goddess Minerva, it is Rome’s only Gothic church—a precious few pointy arches in a sea of round. Inside you’ll find the tombs of Catherine of Siena and Fra Angelico, and just to the left of the altar stands Christ the Redeemer, a statue by no one less than Michelangelo himself. To be sure, all of Rome is awash in Christian history and priceless artwork, but just off the beaten path lies this special gift, better known by art historians than by the majority of visitors and pilgrims. And the only reason I know about that gift is because I wasn’t paying attention.
I was in high school when I first began thinking about the priesthood. Although I was a Navy Brat, and have lived on both coasts, two islands, and a desert, Kansas was the home of my adolescence (and therefore my life, because, as anyone who is now or has been 15 will tell you, everything before that is just stuff to put in the scrapbook). In a small town in the southeast corner of the first square state, at St. Ignatius Parish on 8th Street, where you had to approach the intersection just right or else you'd bottom out and probably lose a muffler, in the fourth pew back on the right side as you enter the church, where I always sat, next to the Newlands, unless I was in the choir loft that week, where I'd sing the melody in bass because I wasn't talented enough to harmonize on my own and wasn't motivated enough to actually learn how to read music, one Sunday, although which I'll never recall, I knew that someday, I'd be a priest.
Of course, I had things to do first--pass my classes, try not to look ridiculous in gym (never happened), find a job, attempt a social life (moderate success there)--you know, teenagery things. There were lots of other kids my age at St. Ignatius, Catholic kids from Catholic families who, in hindsight, were probably as interested in God as I was, but were humble enough not to throw it in everyone's faces, as I wasn't. I wasn't just devout, oftentimes I was cocky. Of course I had little reason to be, but in a town of 2000ish, where you do, honestly know just about everyone, you had to have your own identity. I can still go back through the yearbook and point out the Supreme Computer Geek (who remains a good friend of mine), the Homecoming Queen (who usually became the Prom Queen too, thereby solidifying her power), the Loner (I should have talked to him more), and the Catholic Crusader (me). I roll my eyes when I think of how many times I bragged, "I know that prayer in Latin!" Oy.
Looking back, St. Ignatius was a very good parish with a lot to offer, but when you're 15, you look at the congregation, who are in their early 80's, and at the priest, who is in his early 100's, and if there's not a big, loud, boisterous, vibrant youth program, chances are your interest will wane. So, shortly after I was Confirmed, on a hot summer day in a stadium in Wichita, because our bishop was older than our pastor and just couldn't make it out to every parish anymore, I realized that it was not necessarily the Church that I was seeking in life, it was God.
This is a good thing, even if the road is a little off-center.
Down the road in Independence, KS, several friends of mine attended a church that possessed that youth program I described, so, despite the fact that it was a Nazarene church, I started going there. It was full of teenagers who were excited (both outwardly and inwardly) about their faith, and I was hooked. I spent the next two years driving the 14 miles to that church regularly, and the experience was worth every gallon of gas I poured into my 1984 Ford F-150. I learned so much about Scripture and faith that I never had at St. Ignatius--because, dummy that I was, I never asked.
After graduation, it only made sense to go to the Nazarene college in Kansas City. It was two hours away (just close enough to bring emergency laundry home, but far enough away to keep the parents from visiting constantly), clean, friendly, Christian, and (importantly) gracious enough to offer me a pretty sweet academic scholarship. I began my studies toward a degree in Bible and Theology, went to chapel twice a week, and tried unsuccessfully to eat the abysmal food (I lost weight my Freshman year).
When I got there, the Bible and Theology program didn't actually exist. All of the majors until that point were on a ministry track, and although I was very much interested in theology, I had no desire to be a minister. In fact, specifically, I didn't want to take Preaching. Funny how God makes us remember silly things like that. Anyway, I asked the Academic Dean, who is a friend of mine, to do something about it, and miraculously, he did--they created a new course of studies that, from what I hear, has become rather popular. I got to learn all kinds of interesting dead languages and, most importantly, didn't have to take Preaching.
It was while I was studying all that theology and history, however, that I began to feel a... a tug. Here were all these guys--Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp--guys who actually knew the Apostles, and a lot of the stuff they were writing about reminded me of the Catholic Church. None of my professors or friends were of the rabid anti-Catholic stock you often imagine Evangelicals to be, but still--we had the Reformation because this stuff was wrong, right?
I began to investigate further--often with the help and blessing of my Protestant friends and teachers. I slowly started going back to Mass, praying the familiar prayers and calisthening the familiar calisthenics. For having been such an experience-driven Protestant, I was really rather academic and sterile about the whole thing, but over time that over-scrupulosity disappeared as well (for example, I would avoid churches named for the Blessed Virgin at the beginning, hung up as I was on not wanting to give "undue attention" to the Theotokos). I read and I thought and I prayed and I discussed and I waffled, and by the time I put on a blue cap and gown with a crimson tassel in early May of 2004, I was Catholic once again.
And I was thinking about the priesthood.
Richard M. Romero, Accepted Candidate for the Novitiate Class of 2010/2011, Central Province of St. Albert the Great