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VATICAN LETTER Aug-7-2009 (760 words) xxxi

Pilgrimage priest's checklist: Mass kit, jet fuel price, exchange rate

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Along with a portable Mass kit, the tools of Father Cesare Atuire's trade include the Platts index for tracking the cost of aviation jet fuel and a computer desktop application showing the continually fluctuating euro-dollar exchange rate.

The 42-year-old priest, who was born in Ghana and is a priest of the Diocese of Rome, frequently celebrates Mass in the Holy Land, but first he charters the planes, plans the itineraries and hires the buses to get his pilgrims there.

In lay terms, Father Atuire is the chief executive officer of Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi, the Vatican-related pilgrimage agency that assists pilgrims visiting Rome. It also organizes spiritual journeys to the Holy Land, to the Marian shrines at Lourdes in France and Fatima in Portugal, to Santiago di Compostela in Spain, and to sites in Turkey related to the life and mission of St. Paul.

The agency assists about 300,000 pilgrims a year, taking about 100,000 on trips outside Rome and helping the rest discover the churches and catacombs of the Eternal City, he said.

The big project currently on Father Atuire's mind -- and on his desk -- involves the nitty-gritty organizational details of the International Conference of Priests June 9-11, 2010, in Rome. The conference is the main opportunity the world's priests will have to meet with each other and with Pope Benedict XVI during the Year for Priests.

In fact, Father Atuire's first contact with Opera Romana came in 1997 when he was a Legionaries of Christ seminarian and was asked to be one of the translators for a Vatican-sponsored international gathering of priests in Ivory Coast. He ended up helping with some of the organizational details for that gathering and similar meetings in Mexico, the Holy Land, Rome and Malta.

Sitting in his large, seriously neat office, the tall, thin Ghanaian said he could not have imagined exercising his priestly ministry among pilgrims and spending a third of the year on the road.

But, then, he said he also could not have imagined ever becoming a priest.

Sent to study in England at the age of 16, he said he was not religious at all between the ages of 17 and 21. Then he met a Jesuit priest, "a really, really good guy," who planted the idea of priesthood in his heart and suggested he enter the Legionaries in Dublin, Ireland.

He said he thought the priesthood would be "social suicide, to be quite honest. I was not one of those guys who go into the seminary with a big smile on their faces, but I knew deep down it was the right thing. When I left London to go to Dublin was one of the last times I cried seriously."

Ordained on Christmas Eve 1997, he left the Legionaries in 2002, the same year he began working full time for Opera Romana.

Since then, he has celebrated Mass at Christianity's holiest shrines, in the most humble hotels, "on boats, ships, trains, out in the woods and in the desert, of course."

In fact, he said his favorite place to celebrate is Wadi Kelt, in the desert just outside Jericho, West Bank. If you stand in the right spot and look around, you see absolutely no sign of human intervention: no buildings, no roads, no power poles, he said.

"In the evening, at sunset, you can just imagine the Gospel scene: After he was baptized in the Jordan, Jesus went out into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights," he said.

The desert is a place where there are no obstacles to God speaking to the human heart; "it's just you and God basically," Father Atuire said.

Travelers who choose Opera Romana include people with a surprising diversity of attitudes toward and relationships with the church, he said.

Since the group is traveling together, staying in the same hotels and eating at the same restaurants, "people will ask you questions a priest is not normally asked," he said. And, they have ample opportunity to talk back and argue and disagree and question more deeply.

"At the end of the day, it's your witness as a person of faith that counts and your ability to say 'I don't know' or 'I'm struggling with this, too.' I think it's one of the nearest experiences we can have to what the apostles lived with Jesus just walking around Palestine: They'd talk about everything," he said.

- - -

Editor's Note: Information for priests regarding the 2010 Year for Priests gathering in Rome is available online at: http://www.orpnet.org/Objects/Pagina.asp?ID=344.


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