Priest learns Order's motto has meaning
"Playing Mass," with himself as celebrant and his two younger sisters as servers, is among Father Xavier Colavechio's earliest - and happiest - childhood memories. "When I was in the fourth grade, my heart almost exploded when Sister Annette told me to begin learning how to serve Mass at my home parish of St. Gabriel in South Philadelphia. And learn I did, volunteering to take the earliest Masses (5:30 a.m.)."
Who knows the mysterious ways in which God calls someone to be a priest?
"It is, in my experience, hindsight that makes clear where God's lead has taken me. An excited altar boy; my father's early death; my maternal uncle, a priest of the diocese who took dad's place in my life; my older brother going away to the seminary; and my Irish mother whose faith and devotion - daily family rosary, daily Mass most days, ‘God willing' attached to almost every sentence - were ever present in my young life."
All these influences came into focus during high school at Southeast Catholic High School where Father Xave encountered his first Norbertine. "There were thirty or more on the faculty of the school, mostly young and energetic. They played basketball on Saturday mornings, inviting us to join them after we served their Masses and ate the breakfast they served us. They went to movies and talked to us about the plots and the characters. They shepherded us into homerooms and taught us in classrooms. They took an interest in our problems, never laughing at our teen age naivete."
Looking back, he remembers many "who made the priesthood, and the Norbertines in particular, look like a happy and holy bunch of ‘guys'." Those men "got under my skin" and when the newly elected Abbot Sylvester Killeen visited the school during Father Xave's senior year, the boy asked if he could be one of them. "I had decided that all I ever wanted to do with my life was become a high school priest/teacher in Philadelphia."
In June 1948, Father Xave and six others boarded the train for summer school in the "wilds of Wisconsin" before becoming Norbertines. "My vision was a few years of study, lots of basketball and laughter, and then ordination and teaching. I didn't even know such a thing as a novitiate existed, and the word "formation" meant what soldiers did when they lined up."
The train trip was the first for most of the seven. "...What a thrill to ride a train all night and most of the next day. And what a surprise it was when we got off the train in Green Bay and found paved streets and automobiles. The priests at school talked of ‘out west' and that meant cowboys, horses and false-fronted saloons to me."
Getting over the culture-shock was the first of many horizon-expanding experiences. Among them: Father Xave had never seen the Pacific Ocean. Would Father Peter Wagner drive him and the other newcomers to see it? They'd go next day, Father Wagner promised. "In two cars, Father Charlie Killeen and five of us eastern hicks drove all the way to the edge of Green Bay, where ‘Black Pete' pointed out the Pacific (the waters of Green bay which flows into Lake Michigan). Wow! That day, the eastern provincials learned just how provincial we were: the U.S. was more than the East Coast, a small strip of land containing the rest of the country, and then the Pacific ocean. In time, we learned...that novitiates are demanding and that formation is ongoing."
Father Xave, who graduated with a philosophy degree from St. Norbert College in 1952, even learned other languages when he was sent, unwillingly, to study in Rome after teaching for a year at St. Norbert High School. He remained in Rome for four years, was ordained in La Storta, Italy (1955), and earned a licentiate degree in theology in 1957. His education included an awareness that the Order was larger than the De Pere Abbey, "that Norbertines loved, prayed and ministered in a variety of ways much more extensive than my American experience had led me to believe," all from visiting other abbeys during vacation time.
By the time he finished his studies in Rome and Washington, D. C., where he attended Catholic University for a doctorate in Sacred Theology, Father Xave discovered that he had moved beyond his goal of a life teaching in high school and playing basketball. For the next 26 years, beginning in 1959, he taught at St. Norbert College, studied at Columbia, Oxford, and Berkeley Universities, served as college chaplain at St. Nobert, as well as divisional chair for humanities, assistant to the college dean, faculty chair, advisor to two college fraternities, sat on a multitude of campus committees, and also found time to publish and present papers at symposiums and conferences across the country. (He also managed to earn the rank of First Lieutenant in the U. S. Army Reserves as a chaplain.)
The St. Norbert College chapter ended with an invitation to become rector of the Norbertine College in Rome and superior of the Order's house there. Within a year, however, Father Xave discovered that this was not his calling. "Ill and disappointed, I returned to De Pere, where I discovered God had other plans for me.
Father Richard Chiles asked Father Xave about volunteering for the proposed foundation in Jackson, Mississippi, to work among African-Americans. The prospect struck him strange at the time because he had never worked in a parish other than weekend help and had no experience with African-Americans. Still, he couldn't get the idea out of his mind.
Father Xave talked to the Abbot about it and they agreed to a three months experiment among African-Americans in Chicago. Three months became nine. "The experience was exhilarating and life giving." There followed more study, more experience, until June 23, 1989, when he "arrived lock, stock and barrel in Mississippi. I found new life working in a parish, looking forward to the challenges of a new foundation, and once again, learning a new culture."
He is the first to admit the road was not always smooth. "But God was there, and more of my brothers came. Community life began, and we attracted vocations. After my time as pastor, I learned what it means to be a vocation director, how to handle the finances of the house and make reports, and how to work with the diocesan Marriage Tribunal. I learned over a lifetime that the Order motto has meaning: "Prepared for Every Good Work."
He returned to De Pere where, in January 2003, he was named director of the Norbertine Center for Spirituality.
More recently, Fr. Xave was appointed twice by Abbot General Handgrätinger to serve on the committee to prepare the General Chapter of the Order. Abbot General also asked him to travel to a small community of religious living at Sant'Antimo near Siena, Italy. The small group asked about the possibility of being accepted into the Norbertine Order. Fr. Xave visited the ancient house (the church was begun during the time of Charlemagne, but the community was of the 21st century), with the task during his five visits to teach Norbertine history, customs, spirituality and the Constitution to the men living there. Hopefully, before the next General Chapter (to be held in De Pere in 2012), the community of Sant'Antimo will become the newest Norbertine Abbey.
Living in De Pere, in Rome, in Mississippi, time spent at other abbeys in other cultures, "experiencing a world beyond the borders of Philadelphia, praying the hours in many languages, living through the excitement and difficulties of Vatican II..., moving to Jackson - all this was painful, troubling, confusing, but with hindsight, also exciting, deepening and challenging."
Along the way, his knowledge and learning embraced more than theology and languages. "I learned that clinging to the past was not helpful; that uncritical acceptance of the new is harmful; that being is more important than doing; that the vows are not about avoiding things, but about becoming more Christlike; that poverty, chastity and obedience are means, not ends; that continuing conversion of life is the most important aspect of our vowed life; that community takes precedence over apostolate, ie., that our first ministry is to each other, to building up who we are as the local Church of our abbey, and then sharing that with those we are called to serve.
"I learned the importance of charity, of genuin love, and that being right is not half as important as being loving. And none of this happened overnight, or alone. It was a joint project of my brothers; it was their example and their prayers and their patience that made it possible, even easier, to listen more attentively to God speaking through them and through so many others. I look forward to learning much more on this journey of faith."