THE MOST IMPORTANT PARISH IN THE WORLD?

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Is there such a place? Could we single out one lone parish that could deserve the title? To the consternation of many and my bemusement, I believe I have found and will here expound that I have discovered my candidate for, the most important parish in the world. Furthermore, my nominee is Catholic and English.  I know this title may appear a hyperbolic exclamation and stir forth indignation from others who would, most correctly and with more excellent erudition, advance their particular selection as most deserved of this venerable designation.  Notwithstanding the slings and arrows that one would receive for making such a bold statement, I shall herein press my case for and by manner of this encomium encourage others to imitate or correct me with their nominees.

With such an august introduction, a more earthen declaration of experiences and prejudices should follow before I present my candidate.  My experience is quite broad, not by design or intent, mind you.  In my life, as an old song rang, “I’ve been halfway around the world and halfway back again, from Paris, Maine to Paris, France.”  I have never viewed myself as a cultic voyeur or self-appointed student/critic of liturgies.  My experience and “research” have always been happenstance though not altogether haphazard.  Most, if not always, I was a fellow pilgrim or grateful guest. 

There is extant no official journal or diary of my liturgical loitering. In retrospect, I can claim to have worshipped or attended services on six continents witnessing many possible venues of worship.[1]  I stood agog with Snake Handlers in the Appalachians, gazed dumbfounded at “King James Only” Screechers in the American South, sat solemnly with Covenanters, Reformed, psalm (only) singers, of several nations and cowered in the basements of modern-day Huguenots in rural France as local thugs threw tomatoes.  Turkey has long been a “difficult” place, to say the very least, to be a Christian. I was serving in the military at the time and under orders not to display any public symbol of Christianity. The time was 1982, and the concern was not political correctness or fear of offense, but rather our safety.  One visit was cut short due to attacks on local Christians in Izmir, old Smyrna. 

I have frequent a growing number of Cathedrals in Europe and the Americas, north, and south. Visiting seven nations in South America, the devotion of the common Catholic of that continent remains an enigmatic exemplar and fascination after 25 years.  The above overview does not even begin to scratch the patchwork quilt of American Protestantism and its various cultures that I continue to encounter.  I know Mennonites, Amish, Plymouth Brethren, and more.  I resided for many years in northern Bucks County, PA.  My large grocer, until recently, was closed on the Lord’s Day as is a good part of another shopping center close by, run by good Mennonites who still carry an important Anabaptist heritage, not descended from 19th century Evangelicalism. 

The most attractive churches in my old area, in order, are; Lutheran, Methodist, and old Mennonite Meeting houses with their one-room schoolhouse simplicity. The ugliest buildings in northern Bucks and Montgomery Counties are Catholic. There is the obtuse, inverted mothership with golden egg tabernacle and the “ski lodge” of others.  A variety of German Christian heritages are still present and interactive with this culture.  I utilize the library of the Moravian Seminary in the Lehigh Valley.[2]  Another small early Reformation body, the Schwenkfelder church, is headquartered no more than a twenty-minute drive. 

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A local Byzantine parish

Of course, some of my worst experiences have been in the western Catholic Church (a collective groan arises from various readers).  Thankfully, I have witnessed great acts of true and overt piety as penitents on two knees with one rosary advanced far up hard aisles under the soft eyes of an Icon of a Dark Madonna.  I have been amid large Eucharistic Processions by candlelight that stretched on for more than a mile. Lost in a vast sea of worshippers at twilight, I did not seem to walk on earthly feet or expend energy as we glided behind the Blessed Sacrament.  Long I have stood in small churches of the Russian Church in Exile (ROCOR), filled with ancient Icons smuggled over by the pious and poor who still stand in long watches and enrich the small and scattered Old Calendar parishes that so pleasantly soaked in the redolence of incense and prayer.  I infrequently attended Vespers at an Orthodox Churches close by and stood with the many converts to chant in English, following reverent Byzantine Modes. Currently, I live a short drive from Byzantine Catholic Nuns and attend Services nearly daily.

With different encounters as described above (there are more), one witnesses the radiant glory of God in humble circumstances while being made “small” and contrite in spirit when part of a large and glorious pilgrimage event. All have some reflection of Christ and leave a different impression in the soul that draws us to the Heart of Trinitarian Life and gives us a foretaste of the great Banquet to come.  Though all these experiences admittedly lead one to a certain point of view and hopefully afford some qualification as to make bold the above provocative claim. We must remember that we are looking for a parish church, the very backbone of the Body of Christ. While shrines, holy wells, and pilgrimage resonate with ennobling grace, it is truly the search for a parish, the place of ordinary communion that unites Heaven and Earth, where Joseph and Mary Catholic absorb their spirituality and pass it on to the world.  The median temperature of a parish’s large and mostly usually median membership is the true heritage it passes on to the neighborhood wherein it dwells. The expectation naturally exists to raise the average soul of the average parishioner to an above-average place that transcends the culture and challenge it to change.          

The desire of all, at the very least, a good parish, if not a great one.  What lamb of the flock does desire a greener pasture or brighter mornings?  What Christian does not pine for true, authentic, and consistent Liturgy that ascends, transcends, and amends our lives?

I should also declare, by way of confession, my prejudices.  I am a Yank of Black Irish extraction from the Northeast section of the United States.  Certainly, I have made the ethnically required and delightful pilgrimage to the Holy Sod of the Island of Saints and assisted at many excellent parish and cathedral Masses in the Realm of Ss. Patrick, Bridget, Columba, etc.  Hibernian Hybrid that he remains, the author carries a warm spot for his Celtic heritage.   Yet, to my own consternation and perplexity, I did not find the parish church of my desire in the rare and somewhat clammy clime of the Emerald Isle.  My wife is a French-Acadian, raised in her own Catholic Culture of extreme northern Maine, the St. John Valley.  While being greatly enriched by this part of the church and visiting the many unique and singularly blessed parishes of this heritage, in my travels and misadventures, I am still surprised to find one that could be called “The Parish.”

I stumbled upon the most important parish in the world, as it always happens in stories, by sheer accident.  Some have even described its physical architecture, exterior and sanctuary, as somewhat accidental. A posting on the internet describes the interior as such; “The lack of homogeneity makes it one of the more interesting churches to look around,”  which is the polite manner of declaring that the church has a hodgepodge of sacred architectural forms and articles, due to donations I am sure, from various persons at different times.  Yet for all its “lack of homogeneity” inside, its space is still sacred and has a natural, tangible inducement to prayer.  The seemingly odd assortment of images and furniture strangely works together and elevates.  This parish church, described in a well-known biography of one of her more renowned literary sons, as “an unlovely edifice.”[3]  But as I came to know her and her essence, not her accidents, my perception of her beauty and my grasp of her unique standing changed my perception of “a parish.”  I was changed by several visits to this parish church, deeply struck by the people, the priests, the place, and, therefore, her overall position in the world.  Of course, I mean the Oratory Church of St. Aloysius Gonzaga situated somewhat uncomfortably, appearing a bit squashed to some, in the Woodstock Road, amidst the ancient city of dreaming spires, Oxford, England.[4]

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The Oratory Church of St. Aloysius Gonzaga situated somewhat uncomfortably, appearing a bit squashed to some, in the Woodstock Road, Oxford

People

Immediately struck by the practical holiness of the parishioners of the Oratory, their attendance at the Liturgy and private devotions were neither overly pious or under attentive, dressed for all occasions, in a varied manner, all for one purpose, the ONE purpose of the Church.  All present, at various ministrations and services, seemed to “press on” in that peculiar English manner that all Americans believe is developed by habitual tolerance to the peculiarities of English food and weather.  For the children of this Oratory Church, this “steady on” spirit derives from another food source and environment. 

As I looked at them, they looked at Him.  Another striking quality, the types of people in attendance caused me to take note, truly Anglophile rather than straight English, a microcosm of the world was present. As some are surprised to discover, Oxford is an international city, and so you will find those who sidle silently into the well-worn pews at the Oratory from all over the globe.  The microcosm of the world was present, praying in English and all drawing the eyes of their souls in the same direction.  I noted and hopefully absorbed a certain “casual piety” that develops from consistent devotion to God in this place.  It was at this point that I began to see the critical and unique importance of this congregation.  It appeared that an unusual intersection of incidentals had constructed this critical parish, certainly not what I expected to find in my first visit to an English parish church.  As with all such churches, congregations, or religious communities, the people who pass through her portals are the ultimate missionaries constantly taking a message of the Risen Lord to a falling world. 

The daily, common commerce of her children is the water from Ezekiel’s new Temple running out to the desert lands.   How clearly and cogently that message is dispersed by the congregants, remains for the Church, largely dependent not only on her laity, and several other ingredients we shall consider later.   

Those attending the Oxford Oratory seem to possess a certain “cool medium” setting or cruising speed that, in my estimation, climbs a fair few pegs higher than many Catholics in the West.  They sang well, responded in attentive unison, and were truly interacting with the Ultimate Object of the Liturgy.  Assisting with them was not an intense experience or otherwise effectually stimulating.  Yet I was different when I departed, even after one visit. I could, I believe, pick out the local regulars, migratory students/scholar, or vagabond tourists such as myself.  Yet there was a communion of people, place and posterity.  As with the mixed architecture, so with the living furniture of the church. The unique mix of persons that come and go through the doors of St. Aloysius, their individual, and corporate destiny, began to intrigue me.

I was warmly received; perhaps it was good manners and some pity.  The English all take courtesy as seriously as they do their sense of humor.  I stood out like a sore thumb.  My first attendance at the Oxford Oratory was for the ordination of Fr. John Saward to the Priesthood on the Feast of St. Lucy, 2003.[5]  It was a large event for Catholic Oxford.  Privileged to read the Epistle for the Ordination, the only “Foreigner” from directly across the Pond in the whole place and there I was with my Philadelphia, slightly “Rocky Balboa” accent.  I was most nervous concerning my lector duties before such a congregation.   After the ordination, I was joyfully pulled aside by many who wished to “meet the Yank” and was able to absorb a good deal of parish thought through her various and varied children. 

The caption of this painting reads, "The vicar of the parish receiving his tithes."

I met strong people who were quietly aware of the power of a parish, their parish.  Therein lay the bemusement on my part.  Most Catholics in America do not associate Catholicism with England. In America, the Catholic experience, at best and worst, is Irish, Italian, German, Polish, or of eastern/Byzantine extractions.  Due to Modern aberrations in the States (I almost said abominations), we tend to look elsewhere for exemplars of how a longstanding parish should present itself; England is usually not one of them.  English Christianity to the average American contains images of Jane Austen’s various vicars or C.S. Lewis’ Fr. Spike, a polite religion that fits comfortably between tea time, long walks, and endless readings of Byron or Gerard Manley Hopkins.  My prejudice believed I would find more politeness than power.  I was quickly and pleasantly dis-abused of this view.   

On this first visit was witness to a church filled with English priests, Dominicans from Blackfriars, Franciscans from Greyfriars, and several parish priests in soutanes.  As out of compass as I appeared, my status as obtuse stranger and alien was silently erased by the genuine welcome of the parishioners.  I was rather quickly and outside of my immediate awareness made most comfortable, became quite edified, and suddenly sensed I was…, at home.  At home, as I had never been with other people in another place, not in any church in Ireland, the States, or any place I have ever visited since. 

I am careful concerning romanticism.  It is easy to have a rather quixotic view of Oxford.  Walking about and having several visits does not necessarily allay this dream-like feel.  I had arrived early and was able to pray in the back pews with the parish regulars long before the varied visitors arrived.  During the Mass and afterward, the same spirit remained in the church that I had first noted.  Visits that followed for daily Mass and Sunday Eucharist only strengthened a bond and conviction concerning the people of this parish.  My later visits and interviews of others attending have assured me that I had not romanticized my first visit.  The gentle and steady rivulet running out of the congregation that I met caused me to investigate its obvious source.

Priests

St. Philip Neri is no ordinary priest, nor are his sons who still labor under his unique and far-sighted vision.  I found the clergy there to be balanced, diverse in their manner, and focused on their ministry.  The liturgy of Oxford’s Oratory is always beautifully planned and celebrated.  As with the people of the parish, not with great pomp and overt piety, yet with an unmistakable grace, focus and desire to be well-pleasing was what mattered.  I was immediately aware that the priests in the Mass, with the people, were addressing God.  The Liturgy was plainly (and pleasantly for a change) directed to the LORD not his disciples and their needs or feelings.  There was casual ease to their deliberate manner that made their piety all the more intense. The Oratory has a strong tradition of sacred Liturgy, which these priests uphold with care and pleasant custom.

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Newman the Oratorian

The Priests of the Oratory in Oxford have not only the burden of its founder’s reputation and vision to uphold and advance but also that of John Henry Newman.  For the visitor who comes to Oxford and attends Mass, or encounters Oratorians in their unique split collar cassocks walking in St. Giles Street with the background of ivy-covered colleges and chapels, there is an immediate expectation for them to be very “Newmanish.”  Not only are they expected to be great priests but priests of an expected mold.  These expectations are as varied as are opinions on Newman himself, not always fully informed or fair.   I sensed from visitors I conversed with, and those who willingly volunteered to opine that their expectations of the priests of the Oratory are very high.  Friends I know, who have never been to Oxford or St. Aloysius, have a certain expectation of how the Oxford Oratorians should conduct themselves and how this parish should operate. The regular, devout Catholic tourist, bodily or virtual, doesn’t hesitate ever so politely to voice his comments to all and sundry.  Again, not very informed or fair.  The expectations are easy to cultivate.

One needs only to take a Newman-Tractarian Tour of Oxford.   The usual visit to St. Mary the Virgin’s Pulpit, Trinity, and Oriel College is a bare minimum. This tour could include a walk, as Newman did out of necessity, from the heart of Oxford to Littlemore, where the Sisters of The Work preserve and advance his memory.[6] Visit, kneel and pray in his small and seemingly insignificant chapel. In doing so, you may start to inherit “Newman’s Dream,” the desire of an Oratorian Church in Oxford.  If you read Newman’s letters and his longing for an Oratory in His beloved Oxford where, even in his youth, he wished to be a snapdragon clinging to college cloister walls, you will yourself imbibe some of his spirit.  You will then naturally travel to his Oratory and worship in his parish church and help advance his dream.  You too, will have expectations of these priests and their ministry.  That almost unspoken constant weight is upon them, a burden borne rather well.

  At this point, a second impression hit me concerning this most singular place.  Its priests are unique, fostering the spirit of Ss. Philip and John Henry Newman and their English Oratorian heritage that is larger than Oxford or Newman himself.  The Oratory is not a large body in a worldly sense, though she continues to witness solid, steady growth in England, the larger Anglosphere, and the Church at large.[7]  They have had a slow, silent, and I would argue a pivotal influence in the heart of the Church.  The Oratory habitually produces good priests who are good confessors, prayerfully learned, solid, and sure-footed.  These men have a variety of weighty expectations and pressures upon them, handled with grace and devotion.  Deep down inside, though no person has ever spoken it aloud, this place is special.  Indeed, some of its people whispered it so to me, as their eyes looked gratefully upon their priests.

Place

The Eagle and Child is a pub in Oxford which is best known for its two most famous members J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis

As I prayed before the Blessed Sacrament at the Oratory and considered the meaning of the meditation above, I had forgotten another great Catholic who did regularly attend St. Aloysius and was changed.  At my leisure, I strolled down St. Giles’ Street and made a quick and delightful pit stop in the pub under the sign of The Eagle and Child.  I did the normal tourist thing, ordered a pint of ale and found the little room dedicated to the Inklings, took a deep breath and deeper draft of ale.  As I peered over my slowly draining glass and considered the famous pictures and plaque, I then appreciated that I was not only drinking in his seat but had just prayed in his pew. I could not help but reflect on this church’s most famous son, J.R.R. Tolkien.[8]  Having loved Tolkien from the age of 11, long before I knew anything of the celebrity and attention that the Lord of the Rings brought, I had an attraction to this man.  I had inhaled, deeply as a hobbit would good pipeweed from the South Farthing, something of Tolkien’s life and thought in my adolescence that still brings out the best of me in the narrowest of situations. 

Image result for tolkien with tree

Long before I read any biography or began to discover him in his letters over 25 years later, I wanted to meet this man and learn from him, especially his sense of friendship, fellowship, and fidelity. So there I sat in the “Bird and Babe,” pondering the church of Newman’s Dream and contemplating the heart of Tolkien. While being in love with Middle-earth most of my known life and cherishing his writings, it is his letters that remain the most striking.  For some, Tolkien’s letters are the most profound and touching literature to come from his pen and heart, especially his letter on the Eucharist.[9]  I realized that I was sitting in Tolkien’s Church, a church he loved, the place that fed him the true Lembas.[10]  Only now did I realize how much the Faith and a great love for the Blessed Sacrament had changed him.  Though Tolkien attended St. Aloysius before the Oratory staffed it, he was deeply influenced by the Oratory charism through his beloved guardian and patron, Fr. Francis Morgan, a man who knew Newman himself.[11]  Indeed, one could easily argue that Tolkien’s ideals of friendship, fellowship, and fidelity, so essential to his writings, are inherited Oratorian gifts. 

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The departure of the Fellowship of the Ring

The discussion of fellowship needing no vows to secure its fidelity between Elrond and Gimli as the Ring and Fellowship heads south is a true reflection of Oratorian spirituality and remains a bulwark of the Oratory’s most basic tenants.  After their conversion and reception of Holy Orders, Newman and Ambrose St. John looked hard and long before they became Oratorians.  Newman wanted the Oratory for England based in ideals of friendship and unspoken loyalty he learned in his snapdragon days as he longed for enclosure in college cloister.[12]

            Later as I sat amid Newman’s Dream and the place of Tolkien’s adoration, quite suddenly surrounded by the good people and priests described above, I suddenly realized I was in a nexus.  Oxford is still such a Catholic city in architecture and design. It is not unusual to see Dominicans, Franciscans and cassocked priests about her streets on common days.  The world is largely and increasingly English speaking.  People from all over the world, many who were and shall be leaders in their fields along with casual tourists, pass through Oxford and Oratorian doors daily. How many casual observers, distracted tourists, students, and other temporary residents pass through here are affected and take the Gospel of Christ through the spirit of Neri, Newman, and Tolkien to the utter ends of the earth?  They will incorporate some of the spirit bequeathed and enjoined by Newman and Tolkien.  Or they will be fed by other children of the Oxford Movement yet unborn or under published that have filled their hearts in this place and shall, in turn, fill others.  Many proceed through the doors of The Oxford Oratory who will eventually shoulder important yokes and places of leadership in the world, not only England. 

            My admiration for this parish should in no way distract from other great Catholic ministries in Oxford.  The Oratory is far from a voice in the wilderness in this medieval University City.  Though my efforts in writing stress the place of a parish, the normal font of sacramental life, Oxford is made great by the services of its clergy and the chapels of the various Houses of Study.  The work of individual Catholics and the Halls of Blackfriars, Greyfriars, Campion Hall, and certainly not forgetting the Oxford Catholic Chaplaincy at the Old Palace near Christ Church College and Old Tom are in no way inconsequential to the work of the Faith in Oxford.[13]  While all these ministries are an integral part of Oxford life, they are nonetheless not a parish. 

In the end, as wonderful as the Oratory of Oxford is she must come to Second Place in my final vote. Yes, second and a distant second, to my own parish.  The name and location of my parish have recently changed, but no matter.  As wonderful as any other place can be your parish needs be viewed as the most important parish in the world.  Who knows how many souls have and shall pass through your doors? What visitor from nearby or afar may encounter Christ in your pews? The weight of every human soul equally lays heavy in the balance. Yes, your parish, with all her sores, wounds, and liturgical aberrations, must become akin to Newman’s Dream. Perhaps you attend the type of parish Uncle Screwtape loves and describes in his second Letter to Wormwood.

[T]he half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he (the new or visiting Christian) goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather in oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew.[14] 

 Our parishes are lamps set on a basket, the salt of our local society.  Many would settle, I have at times, for “good” or even mediocre.  But we are called higher, if only by small Newman like degrees, “…one step enough for me.”  I believe The Oxford Oratory has accomplished some deserved notoriety with a priesthood and people dedicated to the parish being many things, but essentially the House of God centered on the Liturgy and Eucharist, knowing its unique purpose in its assigned place and time in the Kingdom. If our parishes seem lackluster, we must strive to make it the place we dream of attending. We need to bring all that is Good, True, and Beautiful to our parish.  If our thirst or dream of a better parish needs to be refreshed from a visit to another well, please search, visit and imbibe deeply.  But return committed to bringing that better Icon to your local church. Laying hidden in our parishes is a dwelling hostile to Screwtape, a place he fears.

An outpost of the Kingdom of God upon the earth

[T]he Church as we see her spread through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes I our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately, it is quite invisible to these humans.[15]

Your parish, the outpost of the Kingdom of God upon the earth, perhaps likened to a seemingly unimportant outpost of the Dúnedain  in the forgotten realm of Arnor, is the most important in the world and must become visible and incarnated and seen “for the life of the world.”

 

ENDNOTES


[1]              I came within the legal confines of the sea of Antarctica, and attended services on that ship. I have not traveled to Australia (yet).

[2]              The Moravian Library in Bethlehem, PA carries a great deal of John Henry Newman’s writings, including a collection of his letters and diaries.

[3]              Carpenter, Henry, Tolkien, A Biography, (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Publishing, 1977). Pg. 115.

[4]              http://www.oxfordoratory.org.uk

[5]              Father John Saward ,now Priest in Charge up the Woodstock Road at Ss. Gregory and Augustine as well as a Senior Research Fellow of Blackfriars, adjured me to write this encomium.

[6]              http://www.newmanfriendsinternational.org/

[7]              https://catholicherald.co.uk/magazine/the-rise-and-rise-of-the-oratorians/

[8]              Carpenter, Henry, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Publishing, 2000). Pg. 7, Letter # 1.  Tolkien began attending St. Aloysius when first at Oxford before WWI.  He would attend Ss. Gregory and Augustine as well as St. Aloysius after his return to Oxford in 1925.  While Ss. Gregory and Augustine was close to his home in the Northmoor Road and his parish de jure, St. Aloysius was close to work and a short bicycle ride away.

[9]              Carpenter, The Letters, op. cit. Pg. 99-102, Letter # 89 and 336-340, Letter # 250.  Letter # 89 takes place at Ss. Gregory and Augustine but Tolkien spent many hours in both churches.

[10]             Carpenter, Biography, op. cit.  Pg. 115.  Of course, Tolkien communicated often at Ss. Gregory and Augustine.  It is worthy of note that in Carpenter’s constructed description of a common (mythological) day in the life of Tolkien, the biographer shows him biking ¾ of a mile with his sons to St. Aloysius for daily Mass.

[11]             https://www.birminghamoratory.org.uk/francis-morgan/

                A recent biography of Fr. Francis Morgan was releaded in 2018. https://www.josemanuelferrandez.com/unclecurro/index.html

[12]             Trevor, Meriol, Newman’s Journey, (Collins/Fontana, 1974) Pg. 123-125.  Also cf. 

Ward, Wilfrid, The Life of John Henry Cardinal Newman Vol. 1, (London: Longmans, Green and Co. 1912) Pg. 176-190.  For extracts of the Newman’s and St. John’s letters on this matter.

[13]             http://www.catholicoxford.com

[14]            Lewis, C S. The Screwtape Letters, 1943. Letter 2.

[15]             Lewis, op.cit.

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About Mark J. Kelly

Mark J. Kelly, KM is a veteran, senior non-Commissioned Officer. In over 30 years of military service (20 Active, 10 as a drilling Reservist) he has instructed civilians and military, both foreign and domestic, on five continents. He earned a Masters of Theology from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, studied Divinity at Reformed Episcopal Seminary and completed a BA from Regents College USNY (now Excelsior College). He has taught and chaired a department in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia Secondary School System. Mr. Kelly has published numerous print articles and media content concerning history, culture, biblical typology and theology. Mr. Kelly remains a congenital autodidact and an active member of the Order of Malta.

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