2016 Pilgrimage Recap

This was published in the diocesan newspaper this week – I thought I’d share it here, since it’s hard to link to the print edition of the paper.


When I began work as Director of Adult Formation for the diocese, I knew I wanted to take people on pilgrimage.  My own time spent in Rome had a deep impact on my spiritual life and the discernment of my vocation, and I knew that no amount of study or reading could replicate what happens on a pilgrimage.  To walk in the footsteps of saints, to experience Catholic culture lived out, to see the Holy Father, and to pray and celebrate Mass with fellow pilgrims are formative experiences that cannot be taught, but lived.

Before the trip even began, our group experienced sorrows and joys.  One of the couples planning on coming with us had to cancel their trip after the husband was diagnosed with cancer, and he passed away two weeks before we left.  He and his family were remembered along every step of our pilgrimage, and we offered Mass for the repose of his soul in Assisi.  Two of our pilgrims were united in Holy Matrimony on the feast of Pope John Paul II just a few days before we left, and on our trip Father John Hammond blessed their marriage before Mass in St. Peter’s basilica, directly in front of Pope John Paul’s tomb.

The high point for everyone was the chance to see the Holy Father.  Months before we left, we found out that both the Wednesday General Audience the Pope holds weekly and the special Papal Mass that is held every year for All Soul’s Day had been cancelled.  Francis was traveling to Sweden right when we were arriving in Rome.  Since these were the only opportunities our pilgrims were going to get to see the Pope, I had to break the hard news to everyone.  They weren’t going to get to see Francis.

Behind the scenes, I worked with my fellow tour leader, Mountain Butorac, who lives in Rome with his family, to see what we could do.  Since we were familiar with the Pope’s routine, we knew there was a good chance that he would stop at the Basilica of Saint Mary Major after returning to Rome from Sweden.  He usually goes to pray in front of a famous icon of the Blessed Mother before and after his trips.  We planned our visit of St. Mary Major for Tuesday afternoon and prayed, not daring to tell any of the pilgrims about the possibility so as to avoid getting hopes up.  I entrusted the intention to St. Jude, patron of hopeless causes!

God – and St. Jude – were certainly smiling on our pilgrimage.  Not only were we in the basilica when the Pope arrived, we were in the front row along the temporary barricade that had been set up.  The Nashville pilgrims were less than 20 feet away when Pope Francis quietly came to the basilica to lay flowers at the altar and silently pray at the icon.  We joined him in singing the Salve Regina, and then as he left, he gave a small wave to us.  To see the surprise and happiness on the faces of our Nashville group, a group that had thought their chance to see the Pope had been taken away months ago, was well-worth keeping the secret under wraps for so long!

To top it off, the Papal Mass that had been cancelled was rescheduled, and so our group joined a small gathering of mostly Italians for Mass in a Roman cemetery outside the city of Rome.  There were only about 1,500 in attendance, and our group was a mere 60 yards away from the makeshift altar that had been set up amongst the mausoleums and graves. I have been to dozens of Papal Masses, but this one certainly took the prize for most unusual!

Besides our times with the Holy Father, the trip was marked with beautiful liturgies celebrated by our own Father Bulso and Father Hammond, prayer in front of the tombs of saints like St. Francis, St. Clare, and St. Paul, and the traditional climbing of the Holy Stairs on our knees.  We saw the Sistine Chapel, relics of the Passion, the wood of the crib of Our Lord, and the table of the Last Supper.  We were able to go under St. Peter’s Basilica and see the very bones of our first Pope. We walked through the Holy Doors of all four major Roman basilicas, making our Jubilee pilgrimage complete.

New friendships were forged as people from various parishes journeyed together.  Gelato and pasta were consumed, memories were made, and prayer intentions were lifted up.  Most of all, a group from Nashville, TN, touched the heart of the Church in the footsteps of saints, and brought you with us.




Wednesday morning thoughts

I need to be finishing up a talk I’m giving this weekend, but I’m having trouble hunkering down and concentrating, so I thought writing here would give me some momentum.

I’m in my new office now. A little more than half of us from the old building are now in the new building, and everyone is at various stages of settling in.  Phones and internet are still in limbo for some people, so I’m pretty lucky that I have both.  Nothing is hung up on my walls yet, but all of my furniture is in place and I’m completely unpacked.  I suppose that’s one of the perks of only being on the job for 8 months – I didn’t really have that much to pack and unpack.

The previous occupants of the building left a lot behind, so a few of us spent a few hours wandering around and seeing what goodies could be claimed.  The leftover office furniture has been parcelled out to various rooms, so I went to the “chair room” yesterday to look for a new desk chair.  I also had laid claim to a rocking chair that we found in one of the nursery classrooms, but I returned it once I realized I wouldn’t be able to sit and read in it for long amounts of time.

My commute hasn’t been terrible, mostly because I’m going the opposite direction from pretty much the entire rest of the city.  So while I’m going to be filling up the gas tank a lot more often, I’m still making it to work under 30 minutes. We’ll see if that changes after school starts.  I do feel a little isolated out here – no more meeting friends for lunch or dashing over to Aquinas College for Mass – but I suppose I’ll get used to that.  Jesus hasn’t moved to the new building yet, and I’m ready for that to happen too – I’ve worked with Jesus in the building for the last seven years, and you just get used to being able to pop in to say hello.

I guess that’s all for now.  Maybe I’ll post pictures eventually – my favorite room so far is the big auditorium that seats 800 (but doesn’t have built-in seats, so we can clear it out and set up tables for dinners, etc) and I’m antsy to have a class in there.  I guess I shouldn’t expect to fill it the first time I have an evening bible study out here, though, huh?  Start small…

A quick catch up, plus a new writing gig

It’s always a good rule of thumb to blog when sleep-deprived.  You get the craziests posts that way. I actually just typed Hello, royal leaders! instead of loyal readers… and then ended up scrapping the whole paragraph I wrote.  Let’s try this again…

So we missed Easter and the entire Easter season, huh?  Now I’m back and it’s mid-June and I have a phone full of food pictures and a head full of blog posts, none of which have been written.  So here’s a quick rundown of what’s been happening.

I just got back from San Francisco, which deserves its own post.  The trip was incredible, even though the trip home was more eventful than it should have been.  (After being delayed out of San Francisco for no apparent reason, our connecting flight at O’Hare then left 5 minutes early…which turned into 12 hours of airport fun, as we tried to get home through weather delays, air traffic control messes, and a variety of standby flights.)

This summer I’m a regular blogger for a great site called Integrated Catholic Life. Check out my posts every Friday.

We had a little mini bourbon retreat last month, because that seems to be our Pentecost weekend tradition now. We hit up Barton’s, home of one of my favorites (1792) and Willet. Someday soon we want to visit Buffalo Trace, because I haven’t tasted much out of Buffalo Trace that I didn’t like. (Anyone have an extra bottle of William Larue they want to give me?)

May was also filled with fun events like Steeplechase and even a Rennaissance festival.  One week I was cheering on thoroughbreds while wearing a fascinator on my head, the next week I was watching jousting surrounded by people in costumes. Life is never dull unless you choose for it to be.

At work, we are the in the process of moving to a new building — hundreds of people in four locations moving to one single enormous complex on the other side of town. If it sounds eventful and crazy, it is.  Most of my stuff is over at the new place, but I’m staying in my old office for another week.  I’ll probably head over there next Monday and begin to make the new place home.  I’m grateful for the opportunities that the new complex will give us- like the 800 seat auditorium that is right next to my office.  The commute will take awhile to get used to (which is why I’m still working here for now!) but I think the future is exciting.

That’s it for now.

Earthen Vessels

I had a humbling and terrifying experience the other day. Someone gave me a great compliment on one of the talks I’ve given. I can’t remember if she actually said my talk changed her life, but it was along those lines.

It was humbling for obvious reasons.  But it was terrifying for less obvious ones.

The talk to which she was referring was a talk I was proud of, in the best sense.  But it wasn’t my talk.  That is, after all, why I can be proud of it.  It wasn’t the talk I thought I was going to write. I was definitely being used by the Holy Spirit.

The topic I had been given was fairly broad, but I had an idea of the direction I would take with it.  A few months before the conference, I started reading and reading.  And the more I read, the more ideas I had about the talk.  And the more helpless I began feeling.  So many possible directions… What was really the purpose of this talk?  I continued reading, still pretty committed to my original thoughts and ideas.

Then one day I was sitting in the chapel before daily Mass.  And the answer was given to me.  Something in a certain paragraph or something I had been praying about, I can’t remember which, jumped out at me.  And I felt like Jesus had handed my talk to me.  Forget what you had orginally thought, what you had wanted, what you thought was best. Go in this direction with it instead.

Now, I still had to craft the talk, of course – it hadn’t been dictated or anything – and so the talk isn’t perfect by any means.  But I remember coming out of the chapel after Mass and wanting to tell the whole world my exciting news. I knew what I was going to talk about!  Granted, this was only a few days before the conference, so everyone probably thought I was a little nuts. (And perhaps I am).  But I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.  Now I just needed to write the thing.  And give it.

Fast forward seven months, and here someone was telling me that my talk had impacted their prayer life and healing process.  I am still sort of reeling.  It wasn’t me.  It was the Holy Spirit.  That day in the chapel could have been entirely for her.  That talk might have been entirely for her. He knew that, even if I had no clue.

What if I had said no?

Sure, He is not limited by our weakness or incompetence.  But it’s still rather terrifying.  God, help me to always listen.  To always be open.

Anything I do well… is Him.  Anything I mess up… is all me.

Breaking news

I mentioned before that while the blog has been quiet this summer, my life hasn’t. I suppose at the time it sounded like it was busy with eating and traveling and hanging out with friends and goofing off.  And it has been that, but it’s also been busy with other important things.

Like an exciting new development in my professional life. Read all about it here…

Joan Watson hired to revitalize adult education in the diocese

It feels good to share it!

Blue Hole

Just a few pictures from the weekend.  We were teaching in the Tri-Cities, which is a far piece – well, the farthest we travel to teach.  After a day of teaching in Johnson City (cue Wagon Wheel, because it was in my head every time someone said Johnson City…) we decided to take advantage of the beautiful weather to find some mountain beauty.

We ended up taking a chance on a waterfall that Sister had found in a brochure and I had found online.  It was a good risk.

IMG_7655You take pictures like this before you realize what’s coming next.  This waterfall, “Blue Hole,” is really four waterfalls.  This isn’t one of those four.  But it’s the first thing we saw, and it was beautiful.  But then we kept walking down the hill…

IMG_7661These pictures don’t really do the whole thing justice.  It was magic hour, so the sunlight was perfect.  It was off the beaten bath (and there wasn’t a single sign announcing the waterfall’s presence), so there was no one else to be seen for about a mile.  After a long day of teaching, it was exactly what we needed.

IMG_7664The more we walked, the neater the waterfalls became.



That waterfall required some additional, off-the-path climbing, but once Sister and I made our way down (roots make the best foot holds), we were rewarded with a significant temperature drop (it was stunning to feel the cool air pouring from the falls) and a beautiful view.

Then the last fall…


This is the “blue hole” that gives the whole waterfall complex it’s name.  After making it’s way down the mountain, this waterfall pours right into a deep, blue hole. : )


This view was much more majestic in real life.  I took this from the top of one of the falls, looking down at Sister Mary Sharon, who was sitting by the Blue Hole.  Behind her is a giant rock face that is much higher and more stunning in person.

It was definitely worth the trip.  Then we rewarded ourselves with pizza and calzones back in Johnson City.

On Saturday we taught in Kingsport, then headed back across the state home.  In two more weeks, the spring travel schedule will be over.  Just to give you an idea of the life of a traveling catechist – I will have slept in my own bed one Friday night between March 7 and April 25.  But I’m not complaining.  Have Bible, will travel. It’s an honor to preach His Word.






I’m humbled and honored to be part of two great conferences this summer.  Honestly, I don’t deserve to be on the same website as these people.


In May I’ll be speaking here in Nashville at the Glory Conference.  My name follows “Mike Aquilina,” which I definitely don’t deserve.  Is there a nicer, classier, humbler guy than Mike Aquilina?  It’s an honor to be at Glory with him.  Yours truly will be speaking about Pope Benedict and Beauty in the New Evangelization.



In July, I’m joining the dream team.  Not just Mike, but Scott Hahn, John Bergsma, Brant Pitre, Curtis Mitch, Jeff Cavins, Michael Barber, Matt Leonard… and more.  I know, right?  I nearly hyperventilated when I saw my picture was even close to these guys.  I.am.not.worthy.  I’m going to be working with the St. Paul Center again (so excited) and teaching in the Journey Through Scripture Presenter Training Track.  Honestly, I wasn’t expecting to make it on the website, and I’m still picking myself off the floor over it. I’m not presenting, but I’m doing what I love most- teaching.  And again, it’s just an honor to have my picture under the same URL as these guys.

I’m overwhelmed with gratitude.