Places in the Bible can seem distant and remote, separated from us by thousands of miles and years.
But in a new book, a Washington-area priest says Catholics, like the Apostles once did, can encounter Jesus and have their lives transformed forever in the “Upper Room,” wherever they are.
In his book, Meeting God in the Upper Room, Msgr. Peter Vaghi – the pastor of the Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda, Maryland – notes that the Upper Room in Jerusalem “is the most important room in Christendom.” The Upper Room is the place where Jesus held the Last Supper with his Apostles and instituted the sacraments of the Eucharist and Holy Orders.
In that room, Jesus washed the feet of the Apostles, offering what Msgr. Vaghi calls “an icon of Catholic social teaching” – a loving example of service for generations of his disciples to follow.
Also called the Cenacle, it is the place where on the first Easter Sunday night, the risen Christ appeared to the Apostles and disciples and instituted the Sacrament of Penance.
In the Upper Room at Pentecost, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit came upon Mary, the Apostles and disciples, on the day now recognized as the birthdate of the Catholic Church and its evangelical mission. Jesus’s frightened followers who were huddled in that room, were emboldened by the power of the Holy Spirit to open the doors of the Upper Room and go forth to bring Christ’s Good News to the world.
“So much of the fundamentals of our faith are from that one room,” Msgr. Vaghi.
For the past 30 years, the priest has been the chaplain of the John Carroll Society – a group of Catholic professionals who gather together for spiritual and social activities and who are in service to the archbishop of Washington.
During two of the society’s pilgrimages to the Holy Land that were led by Cardinal Pio Laghi, the former apostolic nuncio to the United States who died in 2009, the priest and his fellow pilgrims were able to visit and pray in the actual Upper Room in Jerusalem. Earlier as a seminarian studying at the North American College in Rome, he first visited the Upper Room.
“So much of what I do and who I am comes from that Upper Room,” said Msgr. Vaghi, who was ordained as a priest of the Archdiocese in 1985, and who has been a parish priest for the past 32 years, where his life has centered around celebrating Mass and hearing Confessions for his parishioners.
The pastor said he came to realize that the Upper Room is not only a physical, historical place in Jerusalem.
“It represents so much of who we are today as the Church and God’s holy people,” said Msgr. Vaghi. “Whenever we experience the living presence of God and His Church in our day, that’s an Upper Room experience.”
The priest said each Catholic can find his or her own “Upper Room” – a place where they can seek and encounter Jesus through prayer, by receiving the Eucharist at Mass, by seeking God’s forgiveness in Confession, by reaching out to serve others, and by sharing one’s faith. Msgr. Vaghi added that today's Catholics can pray to the Holy Spirit to guide them, so like Jesus's followers in the Upper Room, they can have the courage to go forth and share their faith with the world as missionary disciples in their everyday lives.
“This is my ‘Upper Room,’” the priest said, pointing to his office in the upstairs of the Little Flower rectory, a room where he says his daily prayers and reads the Bible, and the room where he prayed as he was recovering from cancer.
Meeting God in the Upper Room, published by Servant Books, is Msgr. Vaghi’s sixth book, after earlier books on the four pillars of the Catechism of the Catholic Church – the Creed, the sacraments, the commandments and prayer – and his book, Encountering Jesus in Word, Sacraments and Works of Charity.
In a foreword to the book, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, notes that Msgr. Vaghi gives readers the opportunity to “spiritually visit the Upper Room and draw strength and inspiration from our encounter with God in that sacred space.”
A special inspiration for his latest book came from Pope Francis, who celebrated Mass in the Upper Room during his visit to the Holy Land in 2014. The pope in his homily noted, “How much love and goodness has flowed from the Upper Room! How much charity has gone forth from here, like a river from its source…”
The priest ends each chapter of his book with a section on “preparing your Upper Room,” offering ways that Catholics can find their own Upper Room through things like prayer, the sacraments and service. Noting that the Upper Room was the place where Jesus promised to be with this followers always, and the place where he called them “friends,” Msgr. Vaghi reflects on the meaning of Christian friendship.
The book is divided into three sections about the key events that occurred in the Upper Room – the Last Supper, Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance, and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
Msgr. Vaghi uses classic paintings – Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” Caravaggio’s “The Incredulity of St. Thomas,” and El Greco’s “The Coming of the Holy Spirit” to illustrate how people today can relate to the qualities of those who were in the Upper Room with Jesus – the prayerfulness and steadfastness of Mary, the denial and ultimately the courage of Peter, the doubt of Thomas, the betrayal of Judas and the love of John.
The priest recommends the book for Lenten and post-Easter reflection, and he hopes it helps readers “have a renewed experience of encountering Jesus through prayer, through the sacraments and through works of charity, (that) somehow what took place in the Upper Room will take place in our hearts.”
(Meeting God in the Upper Room can be purchased online at amazon.com or at shop.franciscanmedia.org .)