By Father Marion Nguyen
Benedictine Father Marion Nguyen is working on doctoral studies on monastic spirituality at the Pontifical Atheneum of Sant'Anselmo in Rome. Father Marion, a member of Saint Martin's Abbey in Lacey and a graduate of O'Dea High School, was a priest for the Archdiocese of Seattle priest before becoming a Benedictine.
Going back to school at 40 is a privilege and a challenge, especially when classes are conducted in a foreign language. So, while most monks went home or traveled during the Christmas break, I decided to stay at Sant'Anselmo Abbey and prepare for exams, which were set to begin immediately after Christmas break. I was beginning to feel sorry for myself until one of my brother monks suggested that I request permission to concelebrate Mass with the Holy Father on the first day of the new year. After consulting Google Translate for Italian assistance, I managed to send off a semi-coherent request to the pontifical liturgy office. On Dec. 30, I received a confirmation that my request had been granted; I was going to concelebrate Mass with Pope Francis on Jan. 1 in St. Peter's Basilica.
Wanting simply to share this happy news with my friends, I posted a picture of the "biglietto" to concelebrate the Papal Mass on Dec. 31 on Facebook and asked if anyone wanted their intentions brought to this liturgy. I didn't think it was going to garner much attention until the requests started to come in – 145 to be exact. Not only was I astounded by the number but I was also deeply humbled by the depths of these intentions, which ranged from prayers for world peace, to clarity in spiritual discernment, to healing of cancer, to reconciliation of broken marriages. It felt like two weeks' worth of spiritual direction were compounded into 24 hours. This serendipitously grace-filled experience reminded me of the immense power of the priesthood.
The confiding of personal and sensitive prayers on this occasion brought me back to June 12, 2004, when I first experienced what it meant to be a priest. Before this date, I had been a seminarian for nine years. Everyone that I met during those years encouraged my vocation, and most people showed this by promising me their prayers. I assumed this generous disposition would continue even after ordination; boy was I wrong! Immediately after ordination Mass, I was swarmed by family, friends, and faithful. But instead of reassuring me of their prayers, they were requesting me to pray for them. I remember one elderly woman who grabbed me by both elbows and with tears in her eyes, asked me to pray for her daughter who had begun to emotionally and physically separate herself from her family and the Sacraments. She then kissed my hands and gave me a hug, thanking me for my priesthood. I was in utter stupor by the sanctity of the moment. With this simple gesture, she had succinctly summarized all nine years of formation into 10 seconds. God was especially good to me at this instant.
Dostoyevsky once said, "You must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood, of home. People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education." My sacred memory from childhood took place not at 5 but when I was 27 years old on my ordination day. And it happened again at 40. Recent Facebook posts may suggest that I was the one ministering to many by offering to bring their intentions to a Papal Mass, but God knows the truth.
So what was it like to serve Mass with the Pope?
Among the concelebrants with me at the Jan. 1 Mass with Pope Francis were my fellow Benedictine Fathers Gregorio de Oliveira Ferreira from Brazil and Willibrord Driever from Germany.
Before Mass, the emcee asked everyone at the beginning not to clap as the Holy Father entered (done in four or five languages) so as to preserve the sacredness of the liturgy. We also prayed all five decades of the rosary before Mass started. I think this helped to create the prayerful atmosphere.
The Pope looked a little tired at the beginning of Mass. But as we continued through, he seemed to have more energy. When he preached, he was animated and I could see that he really wanted to connect with each individual to give them a message that would help them to appreciate the gift of good mothers and especially Mary.
During the Eucharistic prayer, we concelebrants, who would later distribute holy Communion, were standing on each side of the altar. We were quite close to the main altar. The three of us monks were talking on our walk back about how we felt taken by the Holy Spirit and united together in the sacrifice of the Mass. I could feel the presence of the soul of Christ in our midst.
It was a beautiful and peaceful experience and conducive for me to pray as well as remember all the intentions that I brought with me.