By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published April 28, 2005
When Georgia seminarian Justin Ferguson of the Pontifical North American College in Rome learned last Friday that he was selected to proclaim the word of God to some 350,000 gathered at St. Peter’s Square for the installation Mass of Pope Benedict XVI, he felt—to say the least—“very honored.”
He could be seen walking around the NAC with a huge smile of joy on his face, in shock that this was going to take place, and that he’d be reading the good news in English from the Book of Acts. A faculty member at the NAC had asked him to take part, as the Vatican wanted a U.S. seminarian to take part in the service. The day of the Mass, he left the seminary early and arrived at his special seating around 8:30 a.m. While waiting for the Mass to begin, he recited the rosary to calm his heart and was struck with a profound sense of peace and joy.
“I am certain that this peace came from the Holy Spirit and our Blessed Mother Mary,” he wrote in an e-mail reflection from Rome. The rosary “truly gave me that tranquil spirit needed to fulfill this humble ministry of lector. The joys that I felt came from the sounds of the crowds resonating in my ears. Their cries of ‘Benedetto’ still sound in my ears. There was such a great sense of this joy coming from the people that it was impossible for anyone present not to take a part in this jubilation.”
He and other seminarians at the North American College find great assurance in the direction of the church by trusting God’s promise of the Holy Spirit to guide this earthen vessel.
“From St. Peter to our newly elected Supreme Pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI, we can truly see God’s providential hand gently guiding us along the path leading to his heavenly kingdom,” continued the 27-year-old who grew up in Atlanta and is the third of six children. “As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, (Pope Benedict) was so often perceived as the disciplinarian but now as the Servant of Servants and Chief Shepherd of the Church, I am confident that we will see him live out his pontificate as a loving shepherd and a humble servant in the vineyard. During his entire life up to this point, God has prepared him to be this shepherd and now gives him the grace of the Petrine Office to faithfully carry it out for the salvation of the world.”
A member of St. Philip Benizi Church, Jonesboro, Ferguson has found it enriching to attend seminary in Rome under the shadow of the pope. He recalls that it was in the eternal city where he heard his own calling to priesthood during a business trip there in 1998 for the bookstore of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, Conyers, where he worked for two years. The late Father Joachim Tierney of the monastery had been his family’s spiritual director for 17 years until his death in 1999.
Ferguson will always remember the experience of attending the installation Mass and the funeral of Pope John Paul. He had seen the late pontiff in a private audience just last October, and on March 16 he and his two younger brothers saw him when he appeared in his Vatican window and gave a blessing.
Ferguson hopes to carry back to Georgia as a priest that same joy and excitement of God’s hands at work in the church when he ministers for the Diocese of Savannah, where he feels called to serve. He is projected to be ordained in 2006.
Rome “is a place where we receive in a very real sense the universality of the Catholic Church, along with the deep richness of the Church’s history. Personally, I have grown in my faith through my prayer, studies and visits to multiples shrines and tombs of various canonized saints present here in Rome. I have found in my own call to the priesthood a link to that same calling of our Lord to his Apostles and the saints throughout history,” he reflected. “Almost every week, I am blessed to personally lead pilgrims to the tomb of St. Peter, a place that in spring 1998 I decided to act on our Lord’s call to me. And of course, on top of all of this, these past few weeks have been an incredible experience that will definitely enrich my future priesthood.”