By Lia Paolucci, Jesuit Volunteer Corps
Editor’s note: Lia’s story is a notable entry to our RESPONSE 2021 Volunteer Story Contest. Each year, Catholic Volunteer Network shares notable entries like this one to our Stories of Service blog – where volunteers reflect on daily life to share and celebrate their experiences of faith-based service.
How do you explain grace to fourteen-year-olds? I spent more time than I’d like to admit staring at my laptop trying to answer this question while lesson planning last week. It didn’t help that it was nearing midnight, and I had just returned from a ten-hour work day. In this new and ever-changing season of life brought on by COVID-19, I’m searching for grace more than ever. Since August, when I began my year as a Jesuit Volunteer at Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School, all I’ve had to do to find grace is go to work. It’s easy to find God’s presence wrapped up in the gift that is teaching a subject I love and being a campus minister to students who are endlessly resilient and full of joy. In my other line of work, on the other hand, I often have to look a little harder.
In addition to being a JV, I’m also an officer in the Maryland National Guard. Usually, this means that one weekend each month, I put on my uniform and attend drill, or training, with my unit. In the midst of a pandemic, though, it means I’m wearing that uniform five days a week. In Maryland, and across the country, the National Guard has been activated to provide healthcare support and humanitarian assistance. In the span of a few short weeks, my typical work day marked by class, conversations with students, and planning prayer services and retreats, is now spent coordinating missions like screening and testing sites, nursing home assessments, medical supply delivery, and community food distribution.
This transition has felt like a whirlwind, and the moments where I am able to stop and reflect are few and far between. Each of those moments, though, have shared something in common, and that something is grace. The first time I really understood what grace was, I was talking to one of my favorite theology professors about my post-grad plans a few weeks before graduating from college. She had asked how I had come to be a Peace & Justice Studies minor as an ROTC cadet, and I explained my complicated relationship with the military, my anxieties about what my future career in the National Guard would look like, and my desire to navigate that future in a way that wouldn’t compromise the values I’d come to hold most important after four years at a Jesuit institution, one of which being a commitment to social justice.
I shared my plans to dive head-first into that commitment by spending my first year out of college as a Jesuit Volunteer, and went on to ramble about how I didn’t know what I’d do after that, or how I’d be able to balance my responsibilities in the Guard with those that would come with my full time job. “Slow down,” she said, “and look at the grace.” She then shared the story behind those words of wisdom, words that had been spoken to her by one of her favorite theology professors during a time when she felt uncertain about what the future would hold. I had been so caught up in thinking about the countless unknowns, the possible challenges, the uncertain future, that I had missed the grace of the present. JVC was something I had dreamed of doing since freshman year, and it was only made possible by a delay in my initial training for the Army. This was a gift, as was my placement that felt like a perfect fit, my upcoming graduation and commissioning after four incredible years at an amazing school. Grace was all around, I just needed to open my eyes.
My JV year wasn’t what I expected it to be in so many ways. Community was harder than I could have imagined, my time at Cristo Rey was cut short because of a pandemic, and I’m working full time in the National Guard when I thought I’d be planning for final exams and Kairos retreats. Everywhere I look, my world seems to have changed, from Zoom meetings and virtual classes to empty streets and crowded grocery stores full of people wearing masks.
If I slow down, though, the grace that surrounds me each day remains the same. I see it in conversations with fellow soldiers in the Guard, ones that allow me to see all we share in common once I move past political and ideological differences. I see it in the smiles, relief, and pure gratitude of people receiving food, tests, and medical supplies from those fellow soldiers each day. I see it in the gift of having not one, but two jobs where I get to do meaningful work each day in a time where so many people are without a job. When I let go of the sadness for the way my JV year came to an end, when I move past the grief of everything lost, I can rest in the grace of the present. I can wake up each day and accept the gift of this opportunity to live out my commitment to the National Guard while also living out my commitment to social justice, to service, to peace in a broken world. I can accept that gift with a smile, with relief, and with gratitude, that I don’t have to worry about an uncertain future that is out of my control. I just have to remember to slow down, and look at the grace.
By Lia Paolucci, Jesuit Volunteer Corps (2019-2020)
This story also appears in Shared Visions – the newsletter for full-time volunteers. The Shared Visions newsletter is made possible through the partnership of Catholic Volunteer Network and Catholic Apostolate Center. To find more Resources for Current Volunteer, please click here.