Rich Luongo | ‘Love of God’ Illustration by Grace Gao
Ernie Virgilio was a very obedient boy. He listened to his mother and father. He cleaned his room, made his bed, ate his vegetables, did his homework, and treated his parents with respect. He loved them very much. But more importantly, he was faithful to his God and went to Mass every Sunday.
He was a product of the Catholic school system. He studied hard and diligently and, true to form, he was obedient to the teachers (mostly laypeople these days – there was a shortage of nuns and priests – but they still represented God and the Church and demanded respect). He was graduated from St. Aloysius Prep School with a 4.0 average, a grade that could easily get him into virtually any college of his choice. He wasn’t interested in just any college, though.
He wanted to become a priest, a decision that caused his mother, Erminia, to rejoice and to light candles and to make novenas. His father, Rafael, on the other hand, realized he would never get the grandchildren he wanted and deserved. Since Ernie was an only son, as well as an only child (Erminia was unable to have anymore children after he was born), the prospect of the Virgilio name dying with Rafael was very real.
But the father would honor his son’s decision and wished him well. Inside, though, he wanted so much for his son to change his mind and to get married. Marriage was a vocation, too, just as the priesthood was.
Because the religious life was still something of a mystery to him, something that should be thoroughly explored, Ernie would often consult with Msgr. Bombiglio, the parish pastor.
They met many times in the office of the parish rectory. Ernie spent his childhood as an altar boy and trusted the priest and his counsel. During their last meeting, Ernie looked for the sign that could help him to finally make up his mind.
“Are you sure this is what you want?” the priest asked him.
“I am, Monsignor,” Ernie replied. “This is what I want to do.”
“Tell me again why you want to become a priest.”
“I want to devote my life to God and to the Church. I…have this need in here,” tapping his chest “It’s really something I must do.”
“You feel this is your calling?”
“Yes. I really feel that”
“And what about your family? Tell me again about them.”
Ernie smiled. “My mother has been supportive from the beginning. My father,” a shrug, “wants grandchildren but he understands.”
“Your mother is a saint,” Msgr. Bombiglio said. “She comes to Mass almost everyday. And your father…he’s a good man, but I don’t see him in church very often. Still, I can understand how he feels. My own father had the same misgivings.”
The pastor peered down at the floor of his dark, wood-paneled office, a contemplative look on his face, his jowls overflowing the Roman collar, almost obscuring it. “But, like your father, he, too, finally understood what I needed and must do.” He stared hard into Ernie’s brown eyes, wide with wonder and innocence. His round, boyish face was topped by light brown wavy hair that turned almost blond during the summer. (He loved the beach and spent many hours there roasting under the sun.)
“You must know what it means to be a priest,” said Msgr. Bombiglio. “Once you take your vows, you must be obedient to the Church and to God. You must control all desires of the flesh. You must forsake everything most people consider their God-given right: marriage, children….” a pause, “…sex. Are you willing to give this all up?”
Ernie looked into the cleric’s eyes and, without hesitation, proclaimed, “Yes! All of it. My calling is real and profound.”
Through Msgr. Bombiglio’s influence, Ernie was able to get into one of the best Catholic universities and seminaries in the country. When the time came for his ordination, Rafael and Erminia beamed with pride, especially Rafael. He finally came to terms with his son’s vocation and actually bragged to his cronies at the club that since his son was a priest, “I now have a one-way ticket to heaven.” His wife would reproach him for saying that and, if she were standing near him, she’d give him an elbow in the ribs.
A few days before Ernie was to go to his first parish assignment, he had Sunday dinner with his parents. His mother made rigatoni with brasciole and lamb and an eye-of-the-round roast with three different vegetables as side dishes and fruit for dessert.
When Ernie saw all the food, he shook his head and smiled.
“It’s only the three of us, Mom.”
“But who knows when you’ll get another decent meal?” she responded.
“The rectory will always have a cook, wherever I’m assigned.”
“Yeah,” Rafael cut in, “but can she cook Italian?”
Ernie laughed. “Dad, there are other types of cooking.”
“Are there?” he growled as he dove into his plate of rigatoni.
All during the meal and, later, while they relaxed in the living room, his mother stared at her son, dressed in his black suit and white collar. She was proud of him but there was a void near her heart. She wanted grandchildren, too, just like her husband, but she never said anything to Rafael about this. If the Lord willed that Ernie serve Him, sobeit. There was nothing she could do about it. She would not quarrel with God’s plan.
Still, it would have been nice to have a baby or two running around the house, the way Ernie used to. Apparently it was never meant to be.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” Ernie asked his mother as he sat in an easy chair, sipping a glass of red wine. He stared down at himself. “Is something wrong?”
Erminia smiled. “No. I just can’t believe how grown up you are and that you’re a priest. I’m proud of you, my son,” Then she laughed. “The only thing is I can’t see myself calling you ‘father.'”
Ernie chuckled, “You don’t have to do that,” he said. “That’s just for other people. I’m still Ernie to you and dad.”
Rafael walked into the living room at that moment, dunking a biscotto into a glass of wine. “That’s good to know,” he said as he sat on the sofa next to his wife.
He bit off the soaked end of the long, slender cookie before it could fall back into the glass.
“Calling you ‘Father Virgilio’ doesn’t sit right with me,” he said, smiling, “but I suppose I’ll get used to other people calling you that.” He dunked the rest of the biscotto. “I guess I’ll get used to a lot of things, now that you’re a priest.” He finished the cookie and wine and placed the glass on an end table. He looked at his son.
“I was against this in the beginning,” Rafael said to Ernie. “You know why. But I’ve come to accept it. You’re a priest. A man of God. I suppose I’ll even go to you to confession one day. Not right away, though. I…need time to adjust.”
“You haven’t been to confession since, when? you got married?” Ernie said with a smile. “If I can get you back to confession, then the sacrifices will have been worth it.”
Later, when it was time to leave — a large Tupperware bowl filled with rigatoni and brasciole in his hand — Ernie stood in the doorway of the house of his youth and kissed his parents on the cheeks. He hugged them both.
“I won’t be far,” said Ernie. “I’ll only be a few miles away. I can come to dinner every week if you want me.”
“We want you,” Erminia said and embraced him again. “We want you,” she whispered in his ear.
His father squeezed his shoulders with his massive hands, made strong and powerful by years of labor.
“Good luck,” he said. “You got problems with your work, see your pastor, pray. You got other problems, see me.”
Ernie shook his father’s hand, then went down the steps of the porch into the cool spring air, the bowl held protectively under his arm. His parents watched him climb into the Focus parked at the curb — the one they bought him for his ordination — and drive away. Then slowly, they closed the door and walked quietly into the big, empty, and silent house.
Illustration by: Grace Gao