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Novices pray together, watch Sunday game

NCR Staff
Wilmington, Del.

In 1996, Russell Petrocelli worked in Penn Station for New Jersey Transit and was looking for somewhere to go to Mass. He found St. Francis Parish.

Today, at 34, he’s one of eight novices among the 16 Franciscans crammed into the gray stone rectory alongside St. Paul’s Church here. Not a neighborhood where you wander around alone at night. The novices -- just back from studying Spanish in Bolivia -- live in community, work in schools, visit prisons and hospitals, and help the poor.

The hardest part of becoming a friar, Petrocelli said, was “being 31 years old, a career established, and explaining to my family and friends, ‘This is what I’m called to.’

“When I moved to the Bronx,” he said, “they all wanted to come over, see what my room looked like. Fascinated.”

The South Bronx is where Franciscan candidates live and work -- currently five of them -- before Wilmington and the watchful eye of novice master and guardian, Fr. Tom Gallagher. Then they take their vows.

“The only time I had any doubts,” said Zachary Elliott, at 43 the oldest novice, “was on the plane going back home, sitting there with the actual paperwork in my hand, ready to be filled out. Making the commitment. After that, leaving the job, selling my home, that was the easy part.”

Is becoming a friar more countercultural than two decades ago? Petrocelli says not. “I think it’s more accepted to make a decision later in life.”

Elliott had considered the priesthood for some time. When the New Jersey native moved to North Carolina and lived for the first time in an area where Catholics are a tiny minority, he hunted for a church and found the Franciscan parish in Raleigh.

“I loved it -- the liturgies, the hospitality. Yes, I could do this, this was something I wanted to pursue,” he said. Both Petrocelli and Elliott are heading toward ordination.

Community living is “really very normal. That took me by surprise,” said Petrocelli, who thought there’d be more piety. “We pray together, do all those things, but we also sit down on a Sunday afternoon and watch the game. The challenge, living with 16 people you didn’t pick to live with, is in somehow making it work.”

The candidates attend 7 a.m. prayer, take time out mid-morning for chapel, reflecting on the readings, and twice a week attend Mass together.

And amid an affluent, self-indulgent and hypersexed world, they take the vows: poverty, chastity and obedience.

“We can’t be sexually active,” Elliott said, “but we can still maintain and develop our own intimacies. There’s a lot to be gained. I see the celibacy, the chaste life, as almost sort of freeing, too.” The workshops the novices have, said Petrocelli, stress that in “choosing celibacy you never lose your sexuality as a person.”

Obedience? “We just do what Fr. Tom tells us,” Petrocelli said. Gallagher laughed loudest of all. Then Petrocelli added, “We’re treated like adults and expected to act accordingly.”

As for poverty, they’re adjusting. Friars get pocket money for toothpaste and such. Elliott admits he was a free spender, misses going out to dinner, taking vacations.

And oh, how Petrocelli misses his car.

National Catholic Reporter, June 16, 2000