My husband-the-deacon and I traveled to Puglia, Italy last month. While we were there, Mike and I never concerned ourselves with where we were. We toured with a small group and followed a full itinerary. Our guides led us through lovely and quaint towns which I’d never heard of before this trip. I found each one to be uniquely welcoming. What a pleasure it was to discover them with little effort on our parts! All the while, the only choices Mike and I had to make were how much to eat and which beverages to enjoy with our meals. Though Mike has planned many wonderful trips for us in the past, it was a relief not to have planned this time around. When the tour concluded, Mike and I flew on to Palermo. We continued this adventure by exploring Mike’s grandparents’ birthplace in nearby Altofonte.
The truth is that we were exhausted when we landed in Palermo and we questioned the wisdom of this venture into Sicily. Fortunately, our friends Francesco and Pietro had planned an itinerary to guide us along the way. Somehow, these two managed to get us to exactly where we needed to be with the most unexpectedly amazing results. This began when Francesco met us at the airport, drove us to our hotel and then on to Altofonte. Mike’s grandparents’ church was hosting a festival which we were to attend. Though we knew a week earlier that Mike was assisting as deacon at the evening Mass, we didn’t know that Palermo’s cardinal would be there to celebrate the parish’s two hundred fiftieth birthday. We also didn’t expect the thousands of people who filled the village square. As soon as we arrived, Pietro and his girlfriend Simona met us to introduce Mike to the parish priest. Father Vincenzo ushered Mike to the sacristy where he was outfitted in an alb and stole. The cardinal’s arrival was my cue to join the congregation with Francesco, Pietro and Simona.
Because all of the seats were taken, we stood on the sidelines as the drama unfolded. During the opening hymn, Pietro tapped me on the shoulder. His parents who live on the square insisted that we watch from their balcony. I found my place above the crowd just as Father welcomed the cardinal and the congregation. Though he spoke Italian, my ears perked up when I heard a familiar name. Francesco excitedly translated as Father acknowledged this Deacon Michael Penich who had come all the way from the United States to visit his grandparents’ village and to celebrate that special day. Though I was a distance away, I couldn’t miss the deacon’s smile. Mike had hoped forever that he’d attend his grandparents’ church festival some year, but he never expected to be a part of this remarkable anniversary celebration.
In spite of his non-existent Italian vocabulary, Mike assisted the cardinal throughout the Mass. Afterward, the elderly cardinal departed while the remainder of the clergy, servers, choir and local dignitaries assembled for the procession. Mike and the others led the way for the portable shrine of Mary. It took twenty-four men to carry the beautifully encased painting of Mary which had adorned the church for more than two centuries. As I watched, I prayed that those men would hold tight. One slip and the good deacon would have been crushed! As my friends and I followed along, Francesco determined that we would see more of the mile-long procession if we ducked up and down side streets. With that, he led Simona and me every which way. Every time we stopped, we saw another portion of the thousand-person procession. While Francesco documented it all with some amazing photos, I caught my breath until he led Simona and me up another hill. Did I tell you that Altofonte rests on a mountainside? The celebration ended with a flourish of fireworks in the square. Mike and I watched while enjoying a wonderful meal with Pietro’s family.
I reference our tour and our first day in Altofonte with you because both couldn’t have unfolded more beautifully for Mike and me. We didn’t worry about a thing because we trusted our friends who took care of us. In today’s gospel (Mark 10:35-45), Mark tells us that two of Jesus’ disciples weren’t as trusting of Jesus. James and John concerned themselves with their places among Jesus’ followers. Apparently, the two brothers felt smugly certain of their ranking among the disciples. They considered themselves to be at the top of Jesus’ list. Rather than leaving the planning to Jesus, they insisted upon choosing their own places at his side. I don’t think James and John realized how fortunate they were to be in Jesus’ company. If they’d stopped to enjoy their good fortune, they would have realized that Jesus was already making all of the difference in the world for them. As for Mike and me, we wouldn’t have experienced the fullness of Puglia or Altofonte if we hadn’t relied on the good will of so many others.
In the end, James and John looked beyond their own plans to what Jesus had in store for them. I think they’d tell you today that everything ended well for them. Today, God invites you and me to do the same. Rather than fretting and wringing our hands in the midst of our plans gone awry, God asks us to open our eyes and our hearts to what the moment at hand has in store. Though we can do our best to prepare, sometimes simply embracing the moment that God has prepared for us is enough.
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