By Joan Forde
Special to The CS&T

Listening to God’s Whispers: A Personal Journey
Rev. Domenic Rossi, O. Praem.
© 2009 Domenic Rossi
Daylesford Abbey, 220 South Valley Rd. Paoli, PA 19301

Father Domenic Rossi, O. Praem., is a man who knows how to listen. Pastor of St. Norbert Parish in Paoli for the past 12 years, this 60-year-old Italian-American Norbertine priest has written an account of his life and ministry in a lively and engaging book, “Listening to God’s Whispers: A Personal Journey.”

He describes these pages as a “communion of soul.” With a series of images – from the old Sicilian woman whose face reflects the suffering Christ, to a mural of St. Francis and the leper in Mexico City – he sets forth his challenges, struggles and insights “to those who would wish to share in my faith journey.” And what a journey it is.

With frankness, passion and humor, he zeroes in on the “steppingstones” or particular moments, persons, Scripture passages, dreams and metaphors with which God has led him from wide-eyed, youthful enthusiasm as a young priest, through some moments of profound inner turmoil, to a place where “the jigsaw puzzle” of his life has begun to show much of its final form.

Father Rossi grew up in South Philadelphia in a family from Southern Italy whose faith was simple, but profound. His mother was not above hollering at St. Anthony at times for “laying down on the job,” so much were the saints part of everyday life. A weekend at Daylesford Priory in high school convinced him that he wanted to join the Norbertines.

In the novitiate, his spiritual and intellectual life deepening, the young man was gripped by the power and beauty of the words in the Gospel of John 17:21: “May they all be one. Father, may they be one in us as you are in me and I am in you, so that the world may believe that you sent me.” The deep resonance he felt at these words, “as if the Lord Jesus took them and wrote them on my heart,” oriented his future life.

It was Father Rossi’s brush with the exuberant, joyful worship and focused attention to God’s word that he found in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement that led him to begin The Body of Christ Prayer Group at Daylesford Abbey in Paoli. Eventually, the group discerned its call to work with the homeless in Philadelphia.

In a moment of prayerful searching for God’s will for them, several members had coincidentally opened their Bibles to Isaiah, chapter 58. The words leapt out: “The fast I desire … is sharing your bread with the hungry … sheltering the homeless ….”

Those words were the seeds of the founding of the Bethesda Project under Father Rossi’s leadership. A series of uncanny coincidences – such as unexpected grants and auspicious Zoning Board decisions – helped launch the project in a space above a pub at 12th and Samson Sts. Bethesda (“house of mercy” in Hebrew) now operates 12 facilities and serves thousands of homeless persons in Philadelphia every year.

Faces, voices and rumpled presences, as observed by the usually risk-averse priest on the harsh Philadelphia streets, come to life on the pages of his book. Father Rossi learns from them all. What do they have to teach him – even in their compassion for one another? How could he have served them better? How can it be that the voice of God sometimes speaks with a slur?

A new assignment in 1991 took the author to a Norbertine community in Albuquerque, N.M., where, after much discernment as pastor of Holy Rosary Parish, he began an outreach to immigrant Hispanics. Father Rossi’s Southern Italian heritage put him right at home with the immigrants, with their down-to-earth faith and love of spicy food.

He compares his way of judiciously listening for God’s call in this matter to that of the body surfers he used to see on South Jersey beaches. Before you throw yourself into anything you have to wait for the right “wave” – the movement of grace – the invitation from God which will carry you along with God’s power and direction, not your own agenda.

Also key to this priest’s learning to listen to God’s gentle whispers is inspiration from the Focolare movement, begun in the besieged bomb shelters of the Italian city of Trento during World War II. There, a group of terrified people, including Chiara Lubich, its founder, had only a copy of the Bible with them to read as bombs from both sides screamed overhead day and night. They decided, upon reading each Gospel verse together, to cherish it and to live it immediately. As they did this, it seemed that a subsequent verse was illuminated.

Called back to the Philadelphia area by his order in 1997, Father Rossi assumed the pastorate of St. Norbert Parish in Paoli. He found a set of obstinate challenges quite different from inner city or immigrant concerns. Perplexed as to how to proceed, he and his parish council sought communal discernment in focused prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.

Little by little, the parish grew in discipleship and healing. A youth ministry took off, revenues more than doubled, an outreach to the poor was embraced. Almost miraculously the parishioners began turning into a people desiring to listen to God’s whispers both inspanidually and collectively.

Reading this account by a local “hands-on” parish priest feels like sharing the faith story of a friend. One puts the book down convinced that the details of our inspanidual lives matter terribly to God, not in spite of but because of our brokenness.

Joan Forde is a writer and member of Our Mother of Consolation Parish.