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Merry Christmas – and checking in

Merry Christmas to all, wherever you are in the world, and whether you are celebrating today, or waiting until the Julian calendar comes around.

I am in a reflective mood, and it has been a very long time since I wrote anything on the blog.

In recent years, a lot of my free writing energy has been spent over on Quora, which was introduced to me by a physicist friend as a place where experts could answer questions directly, but has devolved somewhat to a more popular site. Nevertheless, a lot of quality writing can be found there, and I have done my best over the years to provide quality answers to questions on ecumenism, theology, church history and canon law, as well as occasionally weigh in on cultural, geographic, or personality perspectives.

You can peruse some of that here:

Since June 2017, I have answered about 5000 questions, and my contributions have been read by over 6 million people, at a rate of between 50,000 and 90,000 per week – so the impact is significantly higher than any academic writing I have done, or even this blog, which, when active (October 2009 to June 2016), had about 3000 subscribers and never more than 8,000 views in a month.

As I write, I am sitting in my childhood home in the foothills of the Cascades, outside of Seattle, and it has finally started snowing for the first time (for more than a few minutes) this winter. It is a quiet Christmas afternoon, my mother and one brother in the house, at opposite ends.

I have been home from Rome, rather unexpectedly, since August. The pandemic wiped out much of international higher education and study abroad programs in Rome, summer programs, and basically all the work that kept me busy teaching the City, and teaching in the City. I have muddled through with translations and editing, and have turned into more of a couch potato than I should be comfortable with, having gained back all the weight I lost when I moved to Rome all those years ago.

Rome has been home for a dozen years (2009-2021), and nearly tied with my childhood in North Bend (1981-1994) as the longest anywhere. It is not clear at the moment how or when I’ll be back, or where my next place will be, but I was reflecting on some of the numbers of my Roman experience.

Despite the long time calling Rome home, it has hardly been easy or settled. I have had to pack up and move no fewer than 23 times in that period, and considering I was blessed with the stability of one apartment from April 2018 to July 2021, most of that was condensed into even less time. (And each of those moves were for at least a month somewhere, not counting vacations and visits and the like, of course). Moving is exhausting, even when it is only across town or to pack up everything for a summer and have to find lodging outside the academic year.

I have taught 61 university classes since 2013, and helped with two others, for six different universities and higher education institutions. More than most professors by the time they get tenure. But, as with nearly everyone in Rome, remain perpetually adjunct and frequently forgotten about by the main campus, or, as a non-ordained person, not even eligible for permanent positions in some institutions. I have also worked in administrative roles for three different institutions, completed two degrees/diplomas, tackled the doctorate with two different universities and advisors, and studied, researched, or had fellowships at a total of eight different institutions in six different countries.

My average income has been about 21,200 Euro per year (about $24,000), since moving to Rome – including in-kind provisions for room and board at times – which is less than I made as an interim parish youth minster in my first year of ministry almost 20 years ago, not even considering inflation.

I, and my colleagues, received one raise from one university since 2013, and it was not even enough to account for the inflation since I started teaching there – though it was more generous than anyone else has offered. Teaching a class for a university or seminary in Rome can, and has, paid between about 800 euro and 4500 euro per class. The average has been 3000 Euro (gross) per class, meaning about 1900 Euro after taxes, typically. (Which is a rather complicated other subject…)

I have also, because of the lack of funding, support, and stability, had to start and stop and start again a doctorate at two different universities with two different advisors, all of which being done in between the average working more than full time for multiple employers part time and temporarily, often without stability. That looks to be finally finishing up in this coming year, as, in the words of my current advisor, I’ve been “trying to write the entire Oxford Encyclopedia on the Diaconate, rather than a modest 180 page book. Stop trying to change the world and just get your degree.”

I have delivered 43 academic presentations or conference papers, planned and/or staffed 27 academic conferences, participated in 25 additional conferences or symposia, edited one anthology, translated two books and more than 150 articles for six different institutions, and done a terrible job of turning most of that into peer-reviewed publications except for a few book reviews.

I have consulted with Hollywood over a Netflix show (cancelled, unfortunately) and with a couple novelists about their books. I have met two popes, two archbishops of Canterbury, the ecumenical patriarch, and more cardinals than I can shake a stick at. I participated in most of the major papal liturgies of a decade, including the canonizations of some of my heros of the faith: Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa, John XXIII and Paul VI, Kateri Tekakwitha, Andre Bessette, and others.

I have travelled to about 30 countries, spent a semester in Jerusalem, a month or more in Cyprus, Wales, and Greece, met friends from all over the world, and am deeply indebted to the kindness, generosity, and care of a few special people, (C and E, especially, who know who they are, I hope!). Despite challenges, I have had many blessings and many opportunities, and met people I never could have otherwise – and I deeply appreciate the international, intercultural, and interreligious perspective I have benefited from.

Depression and poverty have been the most persistent and overwhelming challenges, though Italian bureaucracy and clericalism both make good showing – I may have to write on those another time. The last year was really one of my hardest, and even those closest and kindest to me were burdened with too much, so I’ve landed home for a spell, and an opportunity to look for new directions or come to terms with the way things are. Keep me in prayer, and especially any of those who I have hurt, failed, or disappointed on the way.

After having consecrated my life to the Church more than 25 years ago and rather naively believing I would therefore have the Church’s support for my vocation, at least enough to not be constantly scrambling for scraps or relying overmuch on friends, family, and relationships just to survive, I am also at a vocational turning point. When I would have been ordained, my bishop then told me I had to choose between presbyterate – and therefore being only a parish pastor – or ecumenism and academic theology, there therefore not being ordained. Ironically, in Rome, I have been told my not being ordained is the main reason I have no position in the Pontifical Councils for Christian Unity or Interreligious Dialogue, or stability in my work, or even that lay people should not study theology, as if we had any brains we would do medicine or law or tech instead to make money.

A friend asked if I was still doing ecumenism anymore. It has literally been a lifetime pursuit and vocation, but after a lifetime of being shunted aside for being lay, or for dedicating first and foremost to this and not something else, and often not even able to receive a basic living from this dedication to the Church, even as much as a simple priest would have, I have begun to question what my direction should be. It is unsettling, and your prayers and ideas and support are welcome.

I welcomed the Francis pontificate with joy, and the hope for reform and forward momentum was rekindled, but the hatred and bile, the dissent and schism that his light has aroused among those who loved the darkness, and seeing something of a parallel in response to the pandemic and the rise of Trump’s cult in the US has also been dismaying. It is hard to hold on to hope, faith, or feel love, in such a climate, even when those closest to me have tried, far above and beyond what is expected.

And yet, all these changes and challenges have brought me home, unexpectedly, with only a little work online, to spend more time with my family, especially my niece and nephews than I have ever had in their young lives. The first time I was ever home for my nieces birthday, or my youngest nephew’s and the first for my oldest nephew (now 14) since he turned one. The first Halloween, Thanksgiving, or St. Nicholas Day with family, in their lives. And while it came at a cost, it was apparently needed, and therefore I thank God.

I ask your prayers as I learn what this all means, as I rediscover graciousness and gratitude and perspective, and for forgiving others even as others work to forgive me. And, in the midst of that, a meaningful way to fulfil my vocation!

Perhaps appropriate then, that we celebrate the Nativity, the Incarnation, the humble birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus called Christ, as the snow falls here amidst the evergreen trees, and we are reminded that death and sin are conquered, that even the darkest hours merely precede the coming of the Light of the World.

I saw this Madonna today, and have yet to find the source to give proper credit, but will as soon as I can. Merry Christmas!


1 Comment

  1. Eveline says:

    Happy you’re back AJ. Already looking forward to reading what next is on your mind!

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