It wasn’t forty years ago, but sixty (June 4, 1960) when dressed in a little white shirt and a little white tie, little white pants and even little white shoes that I knelt down at the altar rail at Our Lady of Lourdes as Father Rueger gave me my first Holy Communion.
That Church is gone now, long since torn down, although you can still see the stone shell where the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes once stood, right next to Mrs Mack’s Bakery (also gone, I’m afraid). And the good priest who gave me my first communion is gone as well, we buried him last year in this very place. And my mom and dad who witnessed it are also gone, having led the way to the plot in which I will someday lie. (How’s that for an aging maudlin Irish sense).
So much is gone, for but one thing lasts. The Lord who on that day took hold of my heart and gave me Holy Communion, just like Martin, who last year received Jesus in that little white host. And like Martin I became an Altar Boy, and Jesus began to share himself with me, to nourish me, to form and strengthen me, to remake me in the image of his own Body and Blood….A Body offered up for love, immolated for love of the littlest and the least and Blood poured out to wash away my selfishness and sin and make me holy, that I might go to heaven and sing with the angels in one grand chorus of joyous praise forever in God’s sight.
It started on that day, June 4, 1960. As it started once again two decades later, on June 28, 1980 when I knelt right over there before the saintly Bishop Flanagan. And God struck my heart again, filling it with boundless zeal and hope and solutions to every problem (I sometimes wish I could still remember a couple of them), utterly certain that the Lord had lit in me a fire which would consume the earth and lead all things to him.
On that day, God drowned me, immolated me, consumed and transformed me, despite all my weaknesses and fears and foolish ambitions, he implanted in me a share in the Priesthood of Christ Jesus his Son, and empowered me, in his person, to take up the sacrifices of your lives and place them upon that altar, as Christ placed his body upon the Altar of the cross, and join your sacrifices and mine to his, as a perfect offering, a pure victim, a holy and spotless sacrifice.
Forty years ago and yet it seems like yesterday, for Priesthood, like life, is but a series of moments of Kairos, of God reaching into to the mundane passages of time, transforming us, utterly transforming us with his love….It’s a great miracle this priesthood which we share, you in the order of our Baptism and me in a configuration to Christ in the order of the presbyterate.
It’s for me a share in the fullness of the Priesthood which the man in that Cathedra carries for us, this fourth Bishop of my Priesthood who teaches me how to be a Priest and honors me by his presiding today with the renowned prelates in the copes beside him. Bishop McManus has been for me what I always told seminarians a Bishop was supposed to be for a Priest. And I will ever be grateful.
Grateful for the promises I made those forty years ago in this Cathedral Church, six promises which are all about you: promising to preach the Gospel and teach the Catholic Faith to you, celebrate the sacred mysteries for your sanctification, pray for you without ceasing and be united with Christ more closely every day obedient to the Bishop, for your good and the good of all his Holy Church.
But now, as the end of this homily approaches, I fear I have failed. For the last thing I wanted this anniversary to be about about was me. For it has not been about me, but about this God of ours, and his Only-begotten Son, who has done such great things for me, looked upon me in my littleness and even after forty years and sixty years and sixty seven still fills my heart and strengthens my arms, urging me forward to whatever he has in store. It’s a simple as that.
Our God, who washes and anoints us, feeds and seals us in his love. This God who is so much more than our littleness and so much greater than our weakness, who no demon pandemic, ignorance or hate can quell. This God who is the reason for our being from our first breath to the last, and each breath in between.
He is as close as the beating of your heart, and as far above as the farthest star. He is who was at the beginning and he will be there at our end. But he is always right now and right here, and never closer than when we are afraid, never more loving than when we feel unloved and never more merciful than when we have betrayed him.
Which is I guess what a Priest needs to learn, so he can teach other people about him, by his words when he really needs to and by his life most of the rest of the time.
I am the most blessed of men. For not one morning in forty years have I ever regretted the day I laid on that rug. But with a heart overcome with gratitude for his love for me and for you and the countless ones who came before, and the few who may still be yet to come, I give thanks, and I ask God to bless you every day of your lives.