Listening to and Obeying the Voice of Jesus, James La Grutta Professes Solemn Vows at Church on 31st Street

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James La Grutta, OFM, was all smiles when the congregation erupted into applause, led by (l.-r.) Joseph Rosansky, OFM, Kevin Mullen, OFM, and Lawrence Hayes, OFM, during the Rite of Solemn Profession Mass.

In the presence of more than 150 friars, family members, friends and congregants at the historic Church of St. Francis of Assisi on West 31st Street in New York City, James La Grutta, OFM, made his solemn profession of vows in the Order of Friars Minor. Outside, the morning sun splashed down on the church spire, while inside, the joyful and exuberant liturgy was highlighted by James’ emphatic commitment to following the life of St. Francis in obedience and with nothing of his own, pledging to serve others as a lesser brother. The celebration of the Rite of Solemn Profession took place last Saturday, Aug. 27, at an 11 a.m. Mass that was also livestreamed on the St. Francis of Assisi Church Facebook page for those who could not attend in person.

“In general, I have stage fright in these situations. But I felt a reaffirming peace. It was the power of the Holy Spirit telling me to relax and just be in the moment. I just wanted to be there with God, my brothers, and my family,” James said in a phone interview this week.

“It was a great day, very much like a wedding day. It was the inevitable becoming a reality,” said James, who spent the weeks leading up to the Mass carefully and thoughtfully planning the music and scripture selections for the liturgy – a worship that was immersed in Franciscan tradition and faith-evoking passion, and even laughter, courtesy of a story told by Kevin Mullen, OFM, provincial minister, who was presider and homilist at the one-and-a-half-hour Mass.

James La Grutta faces the altar at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi during the Mass of his solemn profession.

“I meet most candidates for the Order on a piece of paper – their name and a brief biography – provided by our vocation director. But with James, it was quite different,” explained Kevin, who was president of Siena College when James was a student. “College presidents meet students [in one of two ways] – either they’re outstanding in their scholarship, or they have partied a little too hardy. James was neither. He was a very good student, but he came to my attention because he was a friendly person and because of the New York Mets gear he wore. [As a fellow Mets fan], we connected right away!”

On a more serious note, Kevin said the readings that James selected were intertwined by the common theme of listening to and obeying the voice of Jesus Christ.

“When I met with James a week ago to discuss his scripture selections, what stood out for him in the first reading (Deuteronomy 28:1-6) was that he needs to listen, and obey the voice of the Lord. The second reading (Philippians 2:6-11) says that to be a disciple, one must adopt the attitude of Jesus – characterized by the process of emptying oneself of your own agenda and issues and, like Jesus, living your life for others. That enables you to become a servant, willing to extend yourself for the good of others,” said Kevin.

Joseph Rozansky, OFM, HNP’s director of post-novitiate formation, presented the Gospel reading.

“James’ formators told me that one of his great skills is his ability to listen to people who oftentimes are not heard – people on the periphery, people on the margins. While others might shy away, James moves towards [them]. He’s able not to tell them things, but to listen to their experience – and that’s a tremendous attribute as a friar minor,” continued Kevin.

“I suspect that many of you have come to know James as an all-around good guy – someone you can trust, someone you want to be with, and someone who knows what it is to be a friend and what it is to be a brother,” added Kevin, who was joined on the altar by concelebrants Lawrence Hayes, OFM, provincial vicar, and Joseph Rozansky, OFM, HNP’s director of post-novitiate formation, who presented the Gospel reading (Matthew 16:24-28).

Focusing on the Gospel and speaking directly to James, who listened intently while seated in the center of the altar, Kevin said, “The Gospel of Matthew very clearly tells the baptized what it means to be a disciple – you empty yourself, you deny yourself, and – Matthew adds very explicitly – you pick up the cross and embrace the suffering in your own life, the suffering in the world, and of your sisters and brothers. With that cross, you follow Jesus. That is what the disciple is called to do; that is what you will pledge by taking your solemn vows this day – that you will follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.”

He added, “That phrase, ‘the footsteps,’ was a favorite of Francis and Clare. They saw and interpreted their lives as following in the footsteps of Jesus. Interestingly, in our profession ritual today, in this liturgy, six different times you will hear the phrase, ‘footsteps of Jesus Christ,’ to show the significance of following in [His] footsteps as Francis and Clare did. Both of them molded, preserved and shaped the way of life that we call Franciscan. We are here today to support you and to validate your listening to God’s Word, and obediently following his voice.”

James was deeply moved by Kevin’s words of encouragement and counsel. “It was a homily that I didn’t want to end. It reminded me of the gifts I bring to the Order and what I can do moving forward – focusing on obedience, living the Gospel, and giving a voice to those who go unheard,” he said.

James La Grutta carries out one of the many Franciscan traditions of the Rite of Solemn Profession as he lay prone at the foot of the altar in the center aisle of the church during the chant of the Litany of Saints.

At the conclusion of the homily, James lay prone at the foot of the altar in the center aisle of the church during the chant of the Litany of Saints. Afterwards, he then knelt before the provincial minister and professed his solemn vows, followed by two Franciscan traditions – signing the Book of Solemn Profession of the Order of Friars Minor, and the single-file procession of friars greeting James with a fraternal embrace and sign of peace.

“I was overcome with joy. Professing solemn vows reaffirmed my commitment and desire to live the life to which God has called me – a life of fraternity and service to our brothers and sisters,” said James.

Many friars played roles in the Mass and festivities, among them Thomas Gallagher, OFM, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi, who served as master of ceremonies; Steven Kuehn, OFM, who served as deacon, and David Convertino, OFM, the Province’s director of development and guardian of St. Francis Friary, who hosted the preprandium and dinner on the eve of the Mass. After the Gospel was read, Lawrence proceeded with the tradition of the calling of the candidate and request for profession.

James La Grutta responds to Kevin Mullen’s (left) request for profession as Joseph Rozansky (2nd left) and Lawrence Hayes (2nd right) look on.

The altar ministers were Edgar Alberto, OFM, Joshua Richter, OFM (of St. John the Baptist Province), Jason Damon, OFM, and Domingo Martinez, OFM, the latter two with whom James entered the postulancy program and were his brothers in novitiate and post-novitiate formation. The invitation to the church and the celebratory reception at San Damiano Hall that followed the Mass was coordinated by Michael Harlan, OFM. 

Altar ministers during the processional hymn, a rousing rendition of Canticle of the Sun.

Several people in James’ circle of family and friends participated in the liturgy, including Anthony La Grutta, his uncle, who presented the first reading; Edgar Alberto, who presented the second reading in Spanish; and George and Christine McLean, his godparents and aunt and uncle, who presented the gifts. James worked with church music director Meredith Augustin in the hymn selections, with some of the hymns and prayers sung bilingually in English and Spanish – among them the Responsorial Psalm (Cantare Eternamente) and Holy, Holy, Holy. The Mass began with the processional hymn, a rousing rendition of Canticle of the Sun.

Among other family and friends at the church were his mother, Jeanette, who expressed her joy and how proud she was when he professed his solemn vows, and her future husband Bill Bilyou; his uncle, Fr. George La Gutta, a diocesan priest with the Archdiocese of New York; housemates from his years as a volunteer minister, and others whom he met during his yearlong internship at St. Anthony Shrine who took the train from Boston to witness this glorious day.

At the end of the Mass, Kevin thanked James’ family for “the gift” they have given to the Order. As is his custom, the provincial minister also expressed his gratitude to the fraternity and lay ministries at 31st Street, the friars and laypersons who helped get James to this point in his Franciscan vocation, and all of the brothers who served at the Mass – as well as friars from other US-6 provinces in attendance.

This Saturday, James will begin the next chapter of his ministry, joining the friar fraternity at St. Francis Inn soup kitchen in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – bringing him back to where a spontaneous weekend visit began the first steps of his Franciscan journey. A chance meeting with the director of the Franciscan Volunteer Ministry led to two years of service as a volunteer minister at a parish in Camden, New Jersey – a poor, intercultural community where he was a teacher’s aide at the parish school, assisted with youth religious education at the church, and worked in HIV AIDS ministry.

Earning a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Siena College and a master’s degree in public policy from George Mason University, James abandoned his pursuit of a career in government and, instead, entered the Order’s postulancy program at Holy Name College in Silver Spring, Maryland, three years after that weekend at the Inn. He was received into the Order in August 2017 as a novice at the Interprovincial Novitiate at Old Mission Santa Barbara in Southern California, where he made his first profession of vows in August 2018.

James continued his formation for the next three years at the Franciscan Interprovincial Post-Novitiate in Chicago, Illinois – studying theology at the Catholic Theological Union, where he received his master of divinity in May 2021. He served in several pastoral and outreach ministries, including home visits with senior citizens, working at a food pantry and youth center, and a ministry of encounter and accompaniment at a mental health residence – the latter which has him contemplating the possibility of a ministry in mental health pastoral care and policy. In preparation of solemn profession, James spent his year of internship at the Shrine, where he worked in the food center and outreach ministry to the homeless, as well as campus ministry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In his homily, the provincial minister told James that the Lord doesn’t call just once, or only at our baptism or profession of vows.

“The opportunity to listen to the voice of the Lord presents itself every day. You will have ample opportunities at St. Francis Inn to join with the brothers and sisters as they listen, reflect, and act upon the Word of the Lord – reaching out to those who come for comfort, food, and human respect. You will be an instrument of God’s healing and peace,” Kevin said.

(For James, one of those opportunities presented itself when he returned to Arch Street this week, changing into his habit and making it just in time for the Shrine’s monthly veterans appreciation luncheon for those who served in the country’s military. James said he was blessed with the opportunity to listen to the fascinating life story of one of the guests.)

“As you continue to listen each day to the Word of God, many of your brothers gathered here today will join you in a new venture as we collectively listen to God’s voice and form a new province. We form a new way of living Franciscan life in these United States. Where the voice of the Lord is leading us, we don’t have an exact roadmap. But we are confident that the voice that has brought us this far will continue to lead and point out the opportunities to experience God’s grace by caring for his sisters and brothers in this world,” Kevin said.

“As you go forth today, draw upon these strengths that have helped you get to this point. Most of all, draw upon the love and support of your family and friends. They have given you to the Order and have molded and helped to shape you. Your brothers in the Order are here to support and validate what you are doing. The countless people you have not yet met – the men and women you will listen to – will help to form you as a friar minor. Empty yourself, be humble, pick up your cross, and follow the voice of the Lord – and it will lead you to union with Christ and union in the fullness of God’s Kingdom. May that Lord who brought you this far complete the journey,” the provincial minister concluded.