“Spiritual ac­companiment must lead others ever closer to God… to accompany them would be counterproductive if it became a sort of therapy supporting their self-absorption and ceased to be a pilgrimage with Christ to the Father.”

– Pope Francis

I like to say I’m the “smart one” among my siblings. In truth, it’s more accurate to say that I’m the "unathletic one.” Growing up with Division One athletes as older siblings made it hard to find my place as I entered high school. Around Christmas during my freshman year, I saw a bunch of kids walking into a room filled with toys. I stood by the door and just watched, not sure what was going on, not sure if I could join - just watching. Suddenly, I felt a pat on my shoulder. A jolly round man dressed in clerics asked if I was there for the toy drive. I said I was just passing by, and the priest asked, “Well, can you be here? Baby Jesus and Santa Claus need some help.” It’s hard to believe that almost 30 years ago, Catholic Leadership Institute’s co-founder, Fr. Chuck Pfeffer, introduced me to a few other students and a toy drive – an event that would inevitably introduce me not only to my career, but to my lovely wife. At the time, Fr. Chuck was finishing his tenure as director of the archdiocesan youth office. That service project, that office, and the people I met allowed me to find myself and, more importantly, hear God’s call for my life.

Fr. Chuck’s next assignment was Chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Pennsylvania. While I was in Virginia for college, Fr. Chuck was pulling in another young man, Brian McCarthy, helping to create the environment where he also would meet his wife, deepen his love of the Catholic Church, and particularly the Church of Philadelphia. As a college student, Brian attended a CLI program and stayed connected to the friends he made from the Newman Center. He and his Philly-native wife moved to Boston for a few years before eventually making Philadelphia their home. Brian went on to become wildly successful in his entrepreneurial career.

A few days before Christmas in 2004, Fr. Chuck died unexpectedly at the young age of 53. One of my first jobs at CLI was to create the newsletter celebrating his legacy to our ministry. Over the past 20 years since his death, Brian and I only met once, but we both set out on the path God was calling us to - a path illuminated by Fr. Chuck.

Some twenty years later, I met with my archbishop about an ambitious project. We agreed that he needed a leader to work with him in the diocese to support the endeavor. We discussed the mindsets and skillsets this person would require. We laughed and said that we might be describing a unicorn. I left my meeting with the archbishop to have lunch with two CLI partner priests and Brian McCarthy. The priests wanted me to connect with Brian over lunch. Brian’s business had just been sold and he was discerning what to do next with his life. Once Brian and I started chatting, our poor priest friends realized they might as well enjoy their salads because they wouldn’t be doing the talking. We both had dreams and hopes for our local Church, and competing and aligning thoughts about how it could happen. Both of us have four children (3 boys and girl for him, 3 girls and boy for me). I knew Brian was successful, but when I heard that he was a 38-year-old man who chose to teach 7th grade confirmation prep without having his own child involved, I said, “Brian, boy do I have an opportunity for you.” I texted the archbishop and said that unicorns did exist. A year later, Brian is the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s first Chief Strategy Officer, and we get to collaborate on supporting the future of this Church for our children.

Fr. Chuck was a visionary, but he never could have known when he invited me to help Santa or introduced Brian to his wife that either one of our paths would lead us to where we are today or connect us to each other in mission. What Fr. Chuck knew for certain, though, was that as a disciple and a priest, he was the Lord’s instrument. He never passed up an opportunity to take the first step toward connection, toward encounter. In my life and leadership do I understand my call the same way? Do I respond as Fr. Chuck did?

The toy drive and the office no longer exist the way they did in high school. Chief Strategy Officers will come and go. But the paths that God charts through us to help Him intersect with others at pivotal points in life will continue for generations. While we will never fully know it in this life, let’s pray that in the next we can celebrate the countless intersections we collaborated with the Lord to create.

by Daniel Cellucci

May 20, 2024

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