Fr. William DeBiase, OFM
Any journey is composed of two time segments. The first is the path “to.” This is the time of preparation for the journey. This ends. Like all endings, it is the beginning of something new.
Looking in the 20/20 rearview mirror, my first 24 years were the journey “to.” I did not realize it until the panorama of life filled out.
The environment of a warm loving family, the education given by the Dominican Sisters of Amityville, N.Y., and the Marianist Brothers, the experience of the Korean War were all steps on the journey “to.” The decisions that were made, and not made, went to make this part of the journey. During these years, I thought I was on a completely different journey. They were years of unfelt grace.
This part of the journey ended on the evening of Oct. 11, 1955 at approximately 6:45 p.m. It was then, standing on Broadway in lower Manhattan in front of the old downtown Fordham University, that everything came together. A voice said: “I have let you travel other roads, I have let you dream other dreams, now do what you are supposed to do.” The decision was made, no turning back.
It was the God moment. The journey “to” had ended.
On that evening on Broadway, all the tugs and pulls disappeared. This was the dream. The next day, I called the Franciscan Vocation Office on 31st Street in midtown Manhattan.
I spent the next 10 years in the standard formation program of that time — seminary in Callicoon, N.Y., novitiate in Lafayette, N.J., Rye Beach, N.H., for philosophy, and four years at Holy Name College in Washington, D.C. An evolution took place during those years; when the journey began, my goal was to be a priest. Franciscan was the manner in which I would live this priesthood. Slowly, it became clear to me that it was no longer Priest-Franciscan but Franciscan-Priest. I was called to be first a Franciscan and the vocation to the priesthood would be how I lived that call. I was ordained on March 5, 1966. In September of that year, I left for Japan.
My 28 years in Japan were filled with all the things that go to make up life. Plenty of joy, and some disappointment, some success but quite a bit of failure, growth with the necessary means — pain. No matter what the case, the conviction that this was where I should be stayed firm. Thank God my years in Japan were colored by a variety of ministries, including small parishes where the ordinary Sunday congregation was six (no misprint) to a medium parish of 250 families. For the last 18 years of my life in Japan, I was at the Franciscan Chapel Center. The busyness and excitement of the Center was exhilarating. It took care of the foreign community in Tokyo and Japanese people who wished to come.
After nearly three decades in Japan, I asked for, and was granted, a sabbatical year. Part of the year was the fulfillment of a long-held dream, to work with people with leprosy. The original plan was for me to stay for about six months, but unfortunately I contracted some sort of bug. I lost a lot of weight in a short period of time, so my stay was cut short.
I returned to Japan and was given an opportunity to go to the Holy Land. The next two years, from 1994 to 1996, were spent as a pilgrim guide, editor of the Holy Land Review and pastor of a small Filipino parish in Jerusalem.
A little sadness came into my life. For a lot of reasons, I returned to the States in 1996. It was, and still is, difficult to say that I am no longer part of Japan that had been so much a part of my life. In a sense it will always be home.
From 1996 to 2002, I was at Siena College near Albany, N.Y. Once again, God blessed me with many hats. My main ministry was serving at the Wolf Road Chapel in Colonie, N.Y. This assignment was the best of several worlds. The work at the chapel was mainly sacramental, but on campus I was also the friar-in-residence at a dormitory. There is nothing like working with young people to keep you young.
I also served as the chaplain for the Filipino community in Albany. All of these combined to make my almost six years at Siena gloriously joyful.
Finally, my journey has brought me to my present assignment in Philadelphia, working at St. Francis Inn, giving parish missions and retreats, and working as a part-time chaplain at a hospital. All of these are joyful ministries.
Perhaps in God’s plan, all these stops I have made along the way are the continuing journey “to” that exists within the Franciscan journey — a journey within a journey.
I am sure that when I die and get before the Lord, he will say: Bill, you had such a good time while you were on earth, perhaps a few extra days in Purgatory are necessary.
— This essay was written in 2008 when Fr. DeBiase was serving in Philadelphia at St. Francis Inn. It appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of The Anthonian magazine.