And why an Assumptionnist?

Br. Daniele Caglioni A.A

Until Christ Be Formed in You: A Call to Service and Communion

By: Br. Daniele Caglioni, A.A

What would your life be like if you had not attended Assumption?” A former supervisor asked me this innocent question over coffee this past summer. I’m sure she did not mean to make me catch my breath and feel a chill in my bones. This unconscious reaction, mind you, was not one of fear. I have not stayed connected to Assumption and the Assumptionists for the past 11 years of my life because I’m afraid of what is “out there” in the world. A vocation should never be a form of escapism, of running away from the world. After reflecting on my reaction following that coffee, I know now that I could never imagine my life without the gifts that Assumption has given me, nor do I ever want to do so.

Coming to Assumption was a saving grace for me. Fr. Joseph Jaquin, the former pastor of my home parish in Redding, Connecticut, told me that I should look at Assumption one morning during one of our regular life chats. He had attended Assumption for graduate studies in French, and I thought to myself, “Wow, if Assumption had even a small role in making Fr. Joe into the gentle, caring, and giving man he is today, I wonder what that place can do for me?” So, you could say Fr. Joe, may he rest in peace, was the first Assumption Admissions Counselor I met, even before visiting the campus.

What could Assumption do for me? There was a real desire, a real yearning, in me to find out. For much of life, I had struggled against chains of fear and lack of self-confidence, and I wanted to find the key to unlocking those chains. I wanted to live; I wanted to come out from the shadows and into the light of life.

From the moment I stepped on campus for the first time as a high school junior on a tour, I knew the key that I was looking for was there at Assumption. Even though it was a rainy overcast March day, as we entered the Chapel I felt a warmth wash over me. Honest to God, I think I even had to take off my coat!

Just because I knew my key was somewhere to be found at Assumption, doesn’t mean I found it right away. “God writes straight with crooked lines,” as they say… That first year at Assumption, even though I excelled academically, I was still “hiding” behind my books. I found that an identity built solely on academic excellence is a fragile one at best, and that familiar yearning to truly live only grew. I wanted to be seen; I wanted to belong; I wanted to thrive.

I felt like I belonged to a community with the Assumptionists on campus and Campus Ministry. But Assumption is beautiful because it has so many communities that you can feel like you belong to, communities you can thrive in. Whether it is ALANA, CAB, The Reach Out Center, SGA, or the Social Justice Ambassadors (just to name a few….) these groups will help you to discover your own gifts and how you can use them to make a positive impact in the community. At Assumption, the chance to make a positive impact on the community means that the community becomes yours. To all the young Hounds out there: take a chance and look around; you’ll be surprised by what you find!

For my part, I remember clear as day my first time meeting an Assumptionist: Father Dinh Votran walked up to me during the Tree Lighting my freshman year and introduced himself, in his gentle and joyful way. He invited me to a Vocations Discussion Group at Emmanuel House (where the religious lived, I found out… and where I live now… WOAH!). I came to look forward to our gatherings, not just for the great food and camaraderie, but more for the brothers’ frankness. The Assumptionists were (and are) always honest with me. In our discussions, I was led to look for who I really was, and to live from that. Those first conversations with the Assumptionists showed me that I did have something to offer the world. God had created me with gifts that He meant especially for me. Furthermore, He knew that I would only truly live my life to its fullest if I lived from that giftedness. This, finally, was the key I was looking for.

Br. Daniele and Father Dinh

Where is God calling YOU to share your gifts with the world?

Stephanie McCaffrey, former assistant director of Campus Ministry, was another person at Assumption who saw gifts in me before I realized them myself. I don’t know what brought her to encourage me to apply for a student leader position in Campus Ministry, but I’m so glad she did. I found my “home” on campus in Campus Ministry. I relished the sense of community and I discovered how beautiful it is to serve others.

I came to realize that serving others allowed me to know the person I am serving in a way I never thought possible. Service is fertile ground for real, authentic relationship. Looking back, that’s what I had been yearning for throughout my early life: authentic relationship.

Stephanie asked it best, “Where are you called to love, Daniele?” And by love, she did not mean the Notebook ideal that is splashed around social media and movies. Love is not only a feeling; fundamentally, it is a decision to live, to sacrifice, for another’s good.

So, here’s my question to all of you: where is God calling you to give yourself for the good of others?

My answer is religious life and (one day, please please God) priesthood. The “please, please” is intentional. During my time at Assumption and especially since I began discerning with the Assumptionists upon graduation, there were many moments when I asked God to “call me” again, to renew my sense of purpose. He needed to tell me again, “This is where I need you to be right now.” Finding one’s purpose, one’s vocation, in life does not happen only once and then you’re good. It is a long, long road where God often needs to reassure us, to tell us that, even though sometimes the road ahead is covered in darkness, there will be light eventually.

He did just that when I left Assumption for a semester abroad in Urbino, Italy during my junior year. As an Italian and Classics double major, I saw this semester as a great opportunity for growth. Studying languages has always a way that I meet new people and gain real wisdom as I grow into the citizen of the world that God made me to be.

Even though it technically was a return home, there was still a lot to be apprehensive about. How would I fare living alone at an Italian university for three months, taking courses taught exclusively in Italian? Would I make friends? Would I succeed academically? Would I get homesick? I can remember walking onto the tarmac to take off thinking, “God, I need you to show up right now… I’m in Your hands.” It was a prayer of both surrender and hope.

And He did show up. In a huge way. I ended up meeting a group of students from the University of Texas – San Antonio who welcomed me into their group. They became my home away from home. I felt seen, affirmed, even celebrated for being me…. Once again, I knew I belonged here, I knew this was where God wanted to me to share my gifts.

During my Senior year after returning from Urbino, my vocation began to take concrete shape thanks chiefly to two more experiences of trusting God. Stephanie once again saw something in me before I could see it myself, which lead to me being a co-rector for my class’s Senior Retreat. Me? How could I help my classmates look to the future beyond Assumption? During the retreat, as I saw how so many of my classmates experienced healing, a renewed sense of purpose, and hope, I thought to myself, “I could do this for the rest of my life: setting the table for God’s grace is the life for me.” Whenever I think about this wonderful, life-changing and life-affirming experience, I always smile because my favorite chore growing up was always setting the table for nightly family meals.

Br. Daniele with Stephanie McCaffrey and Senior Retreat co-rector.

But just because I have a vision of my future now does not mean the picture came into focus right away. As many of my classmates applied for graduate studies, I really didn’t want to go back to school. I was tired of studying, and something Fr. Barry Bercier said in his course “The Problem of God” was eating at me: “There’s a difference between someone’s career and that person’s vocation!” His classes were at 8:30 AM, so God must have really wanted to me to remember that!

I wanted my next step after college to be in pursuit of the call to serve others that God had placed on my heart. By a stroke of grace (yes, God knew what He was doing), Fr. John Franck, who served at Assumption during the majority of my undergrad, saw a video of a speech I gave at the President’s Council Dinner. Fr. John was now assigned to our General House in Rome and asked me if I wanted to come to Italy to do some volunteering and further vocational discernment with the Assumptionists, either in Rome or at our parish community in Florence.

Honestly, I had not gone searching for this opportunity, so it truly was grace: unexpected and undeserved. I felt humbled and incredibly grateful; it was like a new lease on life. I could sense a new chapter of my life was beginning….

As St. John Paul II used to say, “Life with Christ is a great adventure,” and that’s what my life has been since joining the Assumptionists: a beautiful adventure. A beautiful adventure always pursuing that thing for which my heart yearns most: authentic relationship with my brothers and sisters in the Lord.

When I went to Florence, Italy to live with my Assumptionist brothers and assist in their campus ministry effort, the first few months were a challenge. I lamented leaving behind my friends in the United States, thinking that God wanted me to choose between them or Him. Father Giuliano Riccadonna, our local superior, told me one day, “Daniele, those who find God lose no one.” In the moment, I thought he was joking, he was fooling himself.

My life, however, has testified to Padre Giuliano’s wisdom. In Florence, I met a group of young people from our parish who were passionate about following Christ and living the joy of the Gospel. My brothers, too, with their warmth and candor, showed me that joy.

With Padre Giuliano and friends in Florence

In case you think I’ve made an idol out of relationships in my life (human connection for connection’s sake), I also want to share with you a quote from the Second Vatican Council, a quote which happens to be St. John Paul II’s favorite: “Man cannot find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” In other words, the deepest meaning of someone’s life is to be found in making it a gift to others.

Where is God calling you to make your life a gift to others?

That gift does not have to be perfect for it to be of use to God. I’ve learned this lesson (a hard one to grasp for a perfectionist like me) over and over again. I learned it when I stayed with a family for ten days in an urban poor settlement in the Philippines. I only knew a few words and phrases of the language and they knew even less English. Yet, over those ten days, listening to their stories, sharing a little about my life, and helping them with their many daily tasks, I came to treasure the witness of Ate Olive and her family. Their generosity, simplicity, and faith had such an impact on me that I invited them to attend my Mass of First Vows in June 2016, when I officially joined the Assumptionists as brother.

On the way to Br. Daniele’s Mass of First Vows in the Philippines, June 2016

Looking back, I don’t know why Ate Olive and her family chose to attend my Vows. I did not preach to them, give them sacraments, or give them food and medicine. I arrived at their village with a backpack of clothes and toiletries. St. Paul reminds us, “By the grace of God, I am what I am.” Looking back on my journey to and in religious life, I think God wants me to live from a place of joy. It is a joy that comes from being given a “second chance” at life, a new vision for the future. It is a joy in knowing that the world needs from me what I have to give. That’s the joy that made Ate Olive and her family attend my Vows.

Another definition of vocation that I’ve learned in recent years comes from Frederick Brueckner, who wrote: Vocation is when your greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need. Your life has a purpose, and God needs you to live out that purpose.

What is my greatest passion? As I have been “seen” anew and loved by God, called out of the shadows into new life through that relationship, I want to invite others to walk with me into that joy. Most recently in Tlilapan, Mexico, I was overwhelmed by a culture, a people who have become mi familia, who seemed to have a fountain of joy that never ran dry. In good times and bad, mis hermanos y hermanas always prayed, celebrated often, and always gave thanks for the blessings in their lives. Yes, their lives were hard. Some families in Tlilapan had lost members who had been killed or kidnapped. Even in the midst of these challenges, my brothers and sisters knew that God’s healing love was always available to them, able to give them hope at all times.

I realized that my brothers and sisters are a people with many raíces, many roots, but the root that runs the deepest is the root that connects them to God, makes them able to rejoice in the Lord. Honestly, this deep, lived trust in the Lord is a common lesson in all of my missionary experiences. My brothers and sisters in Italy, Philippines, and Mexico know that Jesus is God come to live among us. Jesus shares in our joys, our sufferings, our whole lives, and so in Him we can find our deepest hope. As I return to Assumption as a campus minister, my hope is to help students find that root of trust in their own hearts.

Digging to that root is a long process, however. It will take time, prayer, and courage for each of you. Padre Giuliano would often call this journey our “cammino.” He would wish each visitor as they departed from the community, “Buon cammino.” I leave you with the same blessing: Buon cammino, Hounds. Blessed journey!

Br. Daniele with the children of Tzoncolco, Mexico

Author of the blog post: Br. Daniele Caglioni

Editor: Sydney Huckabee