Janna Reynolds, The Catholic Virginian
“Do what is needed, and it leads you to do the impossible.”
Around the age of 13, Father Thomas Ianucci made that his motto after reading as many books as he could about St. Francis of Assisi — the saint who said, “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”
The saying has come to represent his 25 years of priesthood, the anniversary of which Father Ianucci marked with the Feast of Pentecost.
“It comes when you look back on your life and you go, ‘Wow, God is really leading me because look at what I’m doing in life,’” explained Father Ianucci.
A member of Church of the Ascension, Virginia Beach, while growing up, Father Ianucci started Youth of Ascension, the parish youth group, while he was a student at Old Dominion University. He was then elected to serve on a council formed by Bishop Walter F. Sullivan to help make decisions about youth in the Diocese of Richmond.
Father Ianucci’s strong connection with the Church was formed with his work at Ascension, a parish of which his parents were founding members, and the influence of Father Bob French, parish pastor, whose example of developing the church as a community gave Father Ianucci a “model of how to live my ministry and called me to ministry.”
However, Father Ianucci didn’t think about pursuing a vocation until after he graduated from college in 1988 with a degree in business administration and a marketing concentration.
“I was thinking in my head that priesthood was an option. I said, ‘I need to get this “what if” out of my mind,’” he recalled.
Father Ianucci entered St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore and planned to stay for a year to “try it out.”
“Honestly, I didn’t like it. But then they put me in my first summer assignment at St. Jude in Radford. I spent a summer there working with youth and college kids in the parish, and I tell you what – I fell in love,” said the priest. “I wasn’t meant to be ordained a seminarian. I was meant to be ordained a priest who works in parishes.”
Ironically, Father Ianucci had only two parish assignments – St. Anne, Bristol, 1995-2001, and Church of the Holy Spirit, Virginia Beach, 2001- 2003 – before he entered the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps.
Father Ianucci’s interest in becoming a Navy chaplain stemmed from his father’s 30-year naval career and his own attendance to Chaplain Candidate School at Camp Pendleton during the summer of 1993.
Father Ianucci was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Richmond on May 21, 1994. He kept his commission and hoped that he would be released for military duty by the bishop.
Serving the Navy
In 2003, while serving as pastor at Church of the Holy Spirit, he was granted permission to enter the Chaplain Corps and asked his father to commission him to the Navy.
“A tear kind of came down, and he was overwhelmed and overjoyed,” the priest said.
Father Ianucci received a permanent extension after three years of service. He explained that the extension gives the Navy the security to have him for as long as he wants to stay, provided he continues to promote and remains viable to the military.
As a Navy chaplain, Commander Thomas Ianucci, CHC, USN, is on loan from the Diocese of Richmond to the Archdiocese of the Military Services – USA and works with active duty sailors, marines and coasties whose average age is 18-26.
“That’s my love and my work. I love working with that age group, electrifying them with the love of God,” he said. “Letting them know that God loves them, that through their faith they can make change and build up the Body of Christ.”
Where he needs to be
The service men and women to whom Father Ianucci ministers come from all faith backgrounds. He encourages each person to be the best they can be, whether they are a Christian, Jew or Muslim.
“I think it’s my approachability and understanding the young people that makes me effective. I think I’ve got a welcoming attitude that allows people to want to come to me for advice and guidance,” he said.
Father Ianucci said he was amazed at how much need for ministry there is in the military, likening his work to that of a missionary priest because many of the people he meets are “unchurched” and “still question faith in their lives.”
“I see the presence of God working with all the people I encounter, and it’s phenomenal. It really fills my heart as I look back,” he said. “If I never went and answered that ‘what if,’ my life would have taken me in such a different direction, and that would have been a haunting thing in my life.”
The parishes and military assignments Father Ianucci served have given him amazing experiences to share with others.
“God, I feel, put me in places where I needed to be,” he said.
To celebrate his silver jubilee — the first celebration he has had due to being away from home — Father Ianucci spent time with his family in Virginia Beach, celebrating Mass at his father’s house before everyone went to dinner.
He also spent five days in Bristol with the community that has been a family-like support system for him since the beginning of his vocation and where he was instrumental in establishing Bristol Faith in Action in 2001, an outreach center that has flourished in its mission to serve the poor.
“They taught me how to be a priest, how to be a minister. It was the greatest gift that they could give me as a person,” he said.
Reflecting on a vocation that has taken him around the world four times, Father Ianucci said priesthood “blew (his expectations) out of the water” by allowing him to see and do things he never imagined.
“It’s a blessing to see that whole experience of Pentecost for me came to life. I understand bringing the Word of God to the four corners of the world,” he said.
In 2001, Father Ianucci preached about a new Pentecost coming to the Church with an “explosive, awesome, wonderful” Spirit, but cautioned that sometimes we have to allow pain to guide us to the good that’s coming.
“With everything that’s happened with the Church with all the issues surrounding abuse, I feel there is still a holiness in the Church and my ministry,” he said. “I still believe we are moving in an amazing direction.”