Sunday, March 20, 2011

The ‘Transfiguration Experience’ of Mike Rogers, Jr.

Michael (on right) and his brother, Fran and his sister, Mary-Kate at their home in Westerly

(Second Sunday of Lent (A): This homily was given on March 20, 2011 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, RI, by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Matthew 17: 1-9.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Second Sunday of Lent 2011]

Mike Rogers, Jr., our Jesuit seminarian who’s currently studying theology at the Gregorian University in Rome, is turning 30 on March 23 of this year—a fact which makes me feel really, really old!

In preparation for this big event, he decided to write 30 separate reflections on his blog—one on each of the 30 days preceding March 23. These are personal “stories of grace,” as he calls them, which recount his experience of God’s presence and love during the first 3 decades of his life.

Well, the one he wrote on February 28 really hit home with me, and it ties in quite well with the Lord’s message to us today in this gospel passage we just heard from Matthew 17. The title of it was, simply, “The Bus Trip,” and it concerned his first trip to the Steubenville High School Youth Conference in Ohio. (This was back in the mid-1990s, before the days of Steubenville East at LaSalette and U.R.I. Back then, all the conferences took place on the campus of Franciscan University itself.)

Michael’s mom, the former Mary Ellen Sposato, is originally from Westerly, and she and her husband Mike, Sr.—both of whom attended Providence College with me back in the 1970s—used to come to St. Pius when they were here in town. They still do. At the time they were living in Wethersfield, Connecticut. And once when they were here for Mass I remember telling them that they should try to get young Michael to come with us to Steubenville that summer.

So they did. But what they didn’t tell me was that for all practical purposes they tricked him into going!

Michael, Jr. wrote on his blog:

It was a beautiful summer day, and my mother told me to pack my bag because the family was going to the house that she shared with her sisters down in Rhode Island for the weekend. That much was true, the family was going to the house in Rhode Island for the weekend, and I would go to the house in Westerly for a couple of minutes and then get back into the car to go to the church. When we arrived at the parking lot of St. Pius X parish I saw a large coach bus. The lot was filled with a bunch of high school kids, some looked excited, others reluctant, and there was one with a surprised look on his face.

That surprised look on my face came from the fact that I really knew very little about what was going on. I knew that the parish that we used to go to during the summers in my mom’s hometown had an active youth group. I knew that they went on a trip to Ohio every year; I had heard that it was fifteen hours, one way, on a bus. I also knew . . . that I wasn’t sure that I wanted much to do with it. My mother shoved into my hands a small box that had my well under-used rosary in it and a bible that had been bought a week before (which still sits on my desk to this day) and I was off.

Fifteen hours there, on a bus. Connecticut seemed endless, Pennsylvania, infinite. Initially, out of boredom, I began talking with a few of the other kids on the bus. It turned out that one, who subsequently became one of my better friends in high school, was someone I had played with as a child. His family lived across the street from my grandparents. Two others whom I befriended had my opinions about the weekend. . . . [Well] at least there were cute girls along for the ride too. (A thought shared by many 15 year old boys on that bus I am sure.) Very quickly I started noticing that the last names were names that I had heard growing up. It turns out that these were all the children of my mom’s friends… and we were all being shipped off together to Ohio.

Now I wish I could tell you that once Michael arrived at the university everything changed and he immediately began to have a great time, but that would be a lie. The truth is, things got a lot worse for him before they got any better. (At least they got worse in his mind.) As he put it on his blog: “We got off the bus, unrolled our sleeping bags on a racquetball court, and took showers after our long bus ride. Then we all went down under the main circus tent and people were singing about, of all things, Jesus! Almost immediately, I began to be afraid. I called my mother later that night to tell her that I had walked into some kind of cult! I asked what I was doing there, and, more importantly, I told her that I needed to come home—quickly!”

Thankfully, Mike Sr. and Mary Ellen did not get into their car and drive 15 hours to Ohio! They encouraged their son to stick it out, and Michael, Jr. did. He even went to confession for the first time in a long time on Saturday afternoon. As he said on his blog, he knew he’d never see the priest again, so he figured, “Why not go?”

But what really changed him—and his entire life—occurred on Saturday night. This was, for Mike Rogers, Jr., a “transfiguration experience”—akin in many ways to the experience that Peter, James and John had on Mt. Tabor 2,000 years ago when Jesus was transfigured before their eyes.

Here’s how Michael described it:

One of my Christology professors at the Gregorian says that all faith begins in an encounter, and he is right, of course. If faith begins with an encounter, then, in a real sense, my faith began that night. I am not sure if I can explain or describe what happened that night under that tent. There is a famous story that one day St. Augustine was walking along the shore taking a break from writing a book on the Trinity, and he saw a young boy using a shell to pour water from the Mediterranean into a little hole that he had dug in the sand. When Augustine asked the young boy what he was doing, the boy responded, “Trying to empty the sea into this hole.” Augustine smiled and told the boy gently that that was impossible. The boy responded, “So is trying to understand the Trinity.” That Saturday night is much like what this story describes. It would be impossible to really say what happened, other than that for the first time in my life I had an encounter with God. There was Eucharistic adoration and singing, but somehow I just became aware that God was alive, real, and wanted to love me, if I would let him. That moment was a turning point in my life, without which I would not be here. I knew in my heart who the living God was, and, at 15, I wanted to follow Him, whatever the cost.

Have you ever had a “transfiguration experience” in your life?—or a series of such experiences?

Michael’s transfiguration experience was a very positive one, but sometimes these experiences can come in the midst of suffering and tragedy. I have known many people who have experienced God’s strength and consolation after they’ve lost a loved one or after they’ve gone through some other serious trial—and that experience has either led them to faith, or strengthened them in faith, or brought them back to the practice of their faith.

A transfiguration experience is any event (good or bad) which has helped us to recognize what Mike Rogers came to recognize that Saturday night at Steubenville: that God is alive, and real, and wants to infuse our life with his love, if we will let him.

It is possible to have a transfiguration experience and not be aware of it until many months or even many years have passed. But once we become aware of one, it’s important that we never forget it, because there will be difficult times in the future when the memory of that transfiguration experience will give us the strength and the encouragement we need to remain faithful.

Jesus gave his disciples a little glimpse of his glory on Mt. Tabor so that they would have something to hang onto when almost everyone else turned against him on Good Friday. I’m sure that when Mike Rogers is having a difficult or frustrating day as a graduate student at the Gregorian University in Rome, his mind sometimes goes back to that moment of grace at Steubenville all those years ago, and through that memory he gets renewed and re-inspired to continue his preparation to serve God in the priesthood.

That’s the power—the awesome power—of a transfiguration experience when it’s recognized—and remembered—by a person of faith.

May God help us to know that same power in our lives.