NORTH TAMPA — Every morning, he starts the day with prayer.
In a brown robe and sandals, he flips through his prayer book, bound in a black leather case. Here, in the small chapel at the church where he is pastor, his life makes sense.
Anywhere else, the Rev. John Aurilia stands out — for what he wears, for how he lives. "That's the life of the gospel, you know?"
The contrast is visible on the streets of E Linebaugh and Central avenues, near Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church where he is the pastor. When he's not visiting the homebound or parishioners in the hospital, he spends time talking to homeless people, drug addicts and prostitutes, just outside the church's doors.
"So what?" says Aurilia, 69. "These people must be helped, not judged."
He says hello. Asks how they're doing. Invites them to the food pantry.
"We have some good food here," he tells them.
Sometimes, they ignore him or give him dirty looks. But other times, they are among the 200 who show up each week for a free meal.
"Food is something," he said. "But it's not the whole thing. Maybe they can get out of this mess."
Maybe Aurilia can help them. That's why he was sent to Tampa in the first place.
• • •
"My vocation began on a pickup truck," Aurilia said.
It was 1949 and he was 8 or 9 years old, in a little town called Montemarano in Italy. A friar had come to town to preach.
"I did not understand anything he said, but he had a thunderous voice, and a beard, and a pickup truck."
After the sermon, Aurilia remembers, 15 boys hopped into the bed of his truck for a trip to see the high school where he taught. Eleven of them would eventually enter the priesthood, including Aurilia.
Before his ordination in 1966, he was compelled to become a friar as well, modeling his life after St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and ecology.
After he taught at a high school as a young priest in Italy, his provincial — the head of the group of friars Aurilia belongs to — gave him a new assignment.
He would fill in for the secretary to Padre Pio, a Franciscan friar who is now a saint. Pio is famous for miraculous wounds on his hands, feet and side called the stigmata, said to be the wounds of Jesus Christ's crucifixion.
After that, Aurilia planned to continue ministering in Italy.
Instead, he was sent to the United States, where he has served since 1973. His work has included teaching at two colleges in New Jersey and serving in parishes in Virginia and, most recently, North Carolina.
He first set foot in Most Holy Redeemer, he said, at 6:45 p.m. on March 1 this year — he remembers precisely because he didn't really want to come to Florida.
But his wants are not his priority. Going where he is told is part of the friar's vow of obedience.
• • •
Another vow is poverty and, when he moved here, all Aurilia owned fit into one suitcase. He has three brown robes, called habits. A pair of sandals, a pair of shoes and a pair of sneakers.
The car he drives belongs to the church. So does his cell phone.
He lives in a friary with other friars on the church grounds, blocks away from people who live on the street. He likes being close to those he wants to help most.
"Living on Central Avenue makes a lot of sense," he said. "There is a lot of loneliness (in Tampa)," Aurilia said. "Homeless people, addiction, suffering, poverty, misery, unemployment. That's where the church belongs."
His third vow, of chastity, allows him to spend more time helping others than he would if he were married with kids, Aurilia said.
And he doesn't feel like he is missing anything.
"God gave me this gift to live a celibate life as God gave you the gift to live married life. We both have a gift."
Life as a friar and priest has its ups and downs.
"Sometimes, it's very easy," he said. "Sometimes, it's tough. Really tough."
He can't predict how long he'll be in Tampa or where he's headed when his time here is done.
"God's plans are not our plans," he said.
What matters is that, for now, he is where he is needed in Tampa, along Central Avenue.
Arleen Spenceley can be reached at (813) 909-4617 or [email protected]