A special agent for Christ

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Father Mark E. Moretti, pastor of St. Thomas à Becket Parish in Reston, was just 9 years old when he received the first inclination that he should become a priest.

The oldest of three children of John and Jean Moretti, Father Moretti was born on March 28, 1958, in Washington, D.C. - one of the rare natives of the transient area. Under the direction of his "devout" parents and grandmother, he attended regular Mass and Holy Hours.

Also assisting in his faith formation was his Catholic education from St. Rita Parish in Alexandria, where he would later be assigned as a parochial vicar; Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria; and Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales (now DeSales University) in Pennsylvania. This exposure to his faith formed him from an early age, especially the example of the Sisters of St. Joseph at St. Rita, weekly charismatic renewal prayer meetings at Ireton, and the example of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales in Allentown.

But though his faith was high in life priorities, Father Moretti chose a different path after graduating from college in 1980. With a degree in politics, Father Moretti was recruited by the U.S. Department of State as a special agent for what is now called the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS), which, according to its Web site, is a "global law enforcement agency."

"It was so easy that I just assumed that was the direction God wanted me to go in," he said. "It just seemed like everything fell into place."

Though conflicted and concerned that he was turning his back on his true vocation, "God can take all kinds of experiences and make them work out for the good," he said. "The Lord just kind of led me in the right direction. He wanted me to have all those experiences in the government."

In his position as special agent, Father Moretti traveled to 42 countries - all over Europe, the Middle East, Asia and parts of South America - in 10 years. He learned management, finance and how to deal with personnel - a lot of skills he would use later while running a parish. He learned the importance of listening to others and how to use the information he gleaned for the promotion of good. His time traveling alone gave him the opportunity to enhance his prayer life - a factor that led him to finally follow through on his dream of becoming a priest.

"I used that time to pray and make my decision," he said.

In 1988, Father Moretti spoke to Father James R. Gould, then-vocations director, about entering the seminary that fall. At the last minute, however, Father Moretti decided to complete one last assignment to Tunisia before entering Mount St. Mary Seminary in Emmitsburg in 1990. Leaving his position with the DSS, one that he loved, was a difficult decision.

"But ultimately I knew that it was the truth with a capital T, so that's what made it comfortable to make the jump to the priesthood," he said. And now "I couldn't be happier. It's a wonderful life and I thank God for the priesthood every day, unworthy as I am."

Father Moretti's years at Mount St. Mary's Seminary were "the five happiest years of my life" - even though he was bunking with then-seminarian Father Richard Mullins (lower bunk) in a construction park trailer for part of the time.

"I had been 10 years in the foreign service up to that point, which had been rigorous and tough," he said. After studying political science as an undergrad, "here suddenly I'm allowed to study theology, philosophy. It was like left bain, right brain. I became like a renaissance man."

The seminary introduced Father Moretti to a "tremendous sense of brotherhood.

"Our class was very tight with each other," he said. "We've created friendships that have endured" - ones that he continues to rely on.

"When you're a parish priest you have to stay in touch with other parish priests so you can continue to pray together, go to confession together and recreate," he said. "It's a big help. It's that kind of priestly fraternity that keeps you going strong."

Since being ordained in 1995, Father Moretti has served as parochial vicar of St. Mark Parish in Vienna (a paving ground where he began his ministry), St. Rita (a return to his old home and a reconnection with those who had nurtured him) and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Lake Ridge (where he was exposed to a larger parish environment and eventually began his first tasks as administrator). In 2008, he was appointed pastor of St. Thomas à Becket.

Though now a priest for longer than he was in government service, Father Moretti still remains connected with the State Department. In his spare time, the priest serves as chaplain for the DSS. Because of his intimate understanding with the nature of the work, he is able to reach out to agents in a special way.

"It's a hand in the glove," he said. "We all speak the same language. The agents feel very comfortable coming to see me. We've all had similar experiences. There's no learning curve when they come to see me."

The constancy of Father Moretti's home life - his parents have lived in the same house with the same phone number for more than 50 years - has provided Father Moretti with an example of stability, one that he values and tries to live out in his own ministry.

"It's the greatest gift of all to have that kind of stability - family life that you can fall back on," he said. "It gives you such a sense of peace."

When Father Moretti told his parents he would be studying for the priesthood, their response was manifested in "tears of joy.

"They knew I'd worked hard for that decision, that I'd prayed hard," he said.

His prayer was, and still is, a constant dialogue with God.

"You can't stop praying," he said. "You have the structured prayer of the Church, but then in addition to that you have to have a conversation with God all the time. I don't do it perfectly. I keep trying every day."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2009