ROME – Where I grew up on the high plains of western Kansas, my small town was a largely Catholic island in a vast Protestant sea, served by the Capuchin Franciscans since the 19th century when they arrived alongside Volga German farmers who had been kicked out of Russia under Catherine the Great.

When you’re a kid you tend to think the adults around you are immortal, so it’s always a bit of a shock these days when I run into one of those Capuchins and see them as elderly, frail and sometimes ailing. Mostly it makes me feel guilty for having been such a precocious jerk back in the day, wishing I’d been conscious at the time of how lucky I was to be getting an education from these guys that a kid growing up in a trailer park in rural Kansas otherwise couldn’t have imagined.

As a small token of my belated gratitude, I’ll be flying to the States next month to keynote the annual “Brown Robe Benefit” in support of the Capuchins on Oct. 12 at the Hyatt Regency in Denver. My aim is to find an artful way to say now what I should have said then, which is, basically, “Thank you.”

That familiar sense of not having been grateful enough at the time, and not wanting to blow it now, returned to me this week following an annual gathering for elderly and sick priests staged at the Sanctuary of Santa Maria del Fonte in Lombardy, the northern Italian region that includes the city of Milan.

The event is sponsored by Unitalsi, the “National Italian Union for Transporting the Sick to Lourdes and International Shrines.” It was founded in 1903 when a young man consigned to a wheelchair decided to go to Lourdes to demand a miracle and, if he didn’t get it, he vowed to kill himself at the grotto.

Upon arriving, however, he was so impressed by the spirit of care that, even without the miracle, he decided to live on to serve people like himself. When he came back to Rome, the young man, named Giovanni Battista Tomassi, turned the pistol he was planning to use to commit suicide over to a young priest from Bergamo who’d accompanied his group to Lourdes.

That young priest was Don Angelo Roncalli, the future St. Pope John XXIII, and thus Unitalsi was born.

The annual event for sick and elderly priests is one of Unitalsi’s signature initiatives, and this year 131 such priests turned up at the Marian shrine located in the town of Caravaggio – and yes, that’s where the famous painter got his name. About 100 volunteers from Unitalsi put the day together, which featured prayer, reflection and lunch, but it was mostly a chance for these veteran priests to hang out and catch up with each other – no doubt, this being Italy, swapping a fair bit of ecclesiastical gossip along the way.

We live in a time when the failures of some priests make headlines, and rightfully so. The Catholic Church can never stop apologizing for the clerical sexual abuse scandals, and never stop striving to do justice to its victims.

However, just as the rain falls on the just and unjust alike, too many decent priests are ending their careers today under a cloud, seen as suspect for the mere fact of wearing a Roman collar. While it’s always a good idea to thank anyone who’s served you well over many years, it’s probably especially important now to find creative ways of making such gratitude for elderly and ailing priests manifest.

One hopes, therefore, that the Unitalsi initiative in Lombardy won’t be an isolated case, but a model for similar happenings in other dioceses or groupings of dioceses around the world.

In the meantime, it’s worth quoting the sentiment expressed by Pope Francis in a message to the priests in Lombardy, which accompanied a gift of a crucifix that he gave to each one of them: “May the weight of years and sickness not obscure the good perfume of the anointing you’ve received, but may your awareness grow that such suffering renders the perfume more intense and effective.”

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Now for three quick Crux notes.

First, this week I’ll be in South Bend for a Wednesday, Sept. 25, event at the University of Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Performing Arts Center at 7:00 p.m. Eastern. It’s called “The Church Crisis: Where Are We Now?” and will feature veteran Catholic journalist Peter Steinfels; Kathleen McChesney, former director of the US bishops’ Office for Child Protection; Juan Carlos Cruz, a survivor of Chile’s most notorious pedophile priest and a leading advocate for victims; and Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore.

For those who can’t be physically present, the event will be livestreamed on the UND website and also on Crux. I’ll be moderating the evening’s discussion.

Second, this fall is exceptionally busy for the Church and therefore for Crux. Soon we’ll be launching a special section on the site devoted to rolling coverage of the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon, a stretch of time that begins with a consistory for the creation of 13 new cardinals on Oct. 5 and also includes the canonization of John Henry Newman on Oct. 13.

As always, Crux will be on top of all the breaking news, so stay tuned.

Third, I’m pleased to announce that I’ve joined the Word on Fire Institute of Bishop Robert Barron as a fellow. Barron is among the premier Catholic evangelists of our time, and he’s also deeply supportive of smart, wired and independent journalism as an essential tool for probing the legitimate questions people have about the Church. I’m honored to be associated with his institute, and, to quote Barron, I think Crux and Word on Fire “will make beautiful music together.”

You can check out my debut podcast for Word on Fire here.

Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr

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