Father Geoffrey Brooke was in a college Bible study at St. Thomas More Newman Center in Columbia when a fellow student confided, “I think I’m being called to be a sister.”
“That’s great! I think I’m being called to be a priest,” he said.
Sister Elizabeth Doyle wound up professing first vows in the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in 2015, the same summer Fr. Brooke was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Jefferson City.
Ten years to the day after their first discussion, they were both in the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome for the beatification of Blessed Clelia Merloni, foundress of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart.
A long-time admirer of Blessed Clelia and her theology of the heart of Christ, wounded out of love for His people, Fr. Brooke concelebrated her Nov. 3 Beatification Mass. Sr. Elizabeth gave commentary of the celebration over EWTN.
The Liturgy was in Italian but included music reflecting the international character of the institute, which has more than 1,000 sisters serving in 15 countries, including the United States.
Right after the Decree of Promulgation was read, declaring Mother Clelia “blessed,” the bells rang out and a giant image of her was unfurled inside the basilica.
“It made many of the sisters cry with joy, and understandably so,” said Fr. Brooke.
For him, it was almost overwhelming — “a sign of the universal Church recognizing a gift I’ve already known, a gift the sisters have known for many years. To see that was such a great grace.”
A long-awaited day
Blessed Clelia (1861-1930) founded the women’s religious institute of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in 1894 and promoted making reparation for the suffering of Jesus, specifically His heart wounded by love for sinful and ungrateful people.
“She had such an impact on my personal spiritual life, my relationship with Christ, my understanding of God, the world and the Church,” said Fr. Brooke. “All of that played an important role in my priestly vocation.”
As a student at the University of Missouri, he attended a retreat organized by the Missouri Association of Catholic College Students. Sister Virginia Herbers of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus gave a talk on the spirituality of the Sacred Heart through the lens of Mother Clelia.
“That tied a lot of things together for me,” said Fr. Brooke.
He began forging spiritual ties to Mother Clelia, relying on her intercession before God’s throne in heaven, and growing in knowledge and understanding of her insight and worldview.
He spent four years in Rome as a seminarian and one year there as a priest. He got to work with and learn from members of Blessed Clelia’s community there and during a summer internship in Albania.
He was finishing his licentiate in fundamental theology in Rome this past January when Pope Francis authorized the decree calling for Mother Clelia to be beatified, an important step toward being declared a saint.
That day, the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus invited Fr. Brooke to their generalate to help lead the prayers of thanksgiving.
Ten months later, they invited him back to help celebrate the beatification.
“I still can’t believe I got to be there,” he said. “It was a moment I wished for, prayed for and dreamed about for many years. To have it actually happen was just incredible.”
Offer it up!
Fr. Brooke believes Pope Francis’ description of Blessed Clelia sums up her life and work: “Zealous in charity, patient in adversity, heroic in forgiveness.”
“I think Mother Clelia by her witness and the example of her life gives us a great lesson in how we understand our own suffering in relationship to Christ’s suffering, particularly His Sacred Heart,” said Fr. Brooke.
“We all go through our personal struggles — everyone, not just priests and sisters but everybody — we all go through struggles and suffering in our lives,” he said. “The question is: how do you respond to that?”
Blessed Clelia believed the best response to suffering and injustice in the world is to offer up one’s one pain, difficulties, frustrations and disappointments, united in reparation for the wounded heart of Jesus, “in our spiritual life, in our sacramental life, particularly before the Blessed Sacrament, and in our works of charity.”
He believes that if Blessed Clelia were in the world today, “she would tell us to cling faithfully to the Heart of Christ. And then as we look to others who are suffering, she would have us show them God’s merciful love, particularly as understood through the Sacred Heart of Jesus.”
While visiting Rome, Fr. Brooke got to catch up with several members of Blessed Clelia’s congregation, some of whom he hadn’t seen in years.
On Nov. 2, All Souls Day, he planned to offer Mass in English in a chapel of St. Peter’s Basilica, assisted by Rev. Mr. Brad Berhorst, a transitional deacon and seminarian for the Jefferson City diocese.
Walking up the basilica steps, they caught sight of a group of sisters from Brazil, including one who studied in Rome during her temporary vows while Fr. Brooke was in the seminary.
“I hadn’t seen her since 2013,” he said. “I presumed they had a Portuguese-speaking priest to say Mass for them. It turns out, they didn’t.”
Fr. Brooke offered Mass in Italian for them, and Rev. Mr. Berhorst got to assist at Mass in that language for the first time.
“We went down for a simple Mass in English, and it instead turned into a Mass with like 20 sisters,” said Fr. Brooke. “It shows the beauty of the Universal Church and the beauty of the relationship I have been privileged to have with Mother Clelia and her community.”
Renewed and energized by his time in Rome, he’s confident that all the grace and excitement he experienced there will overflow into his priestly ministry.
He’s counting on Blessed Clelia’s continued intercession in heaven — particularly for him to remain faithful to Christ in times of suffering, and in using every aspect of his Priesthood, especially the Eucharist and reconciliation, to bring about reparation to the Sacred Heart of Christ.
“In short, I just ask her for help!” he said. “Help me to be a better priest! ... who follows Christ in the way I have come to know and understand Him through the ‘Clelia lens.’”