In a few days I will observe 55 years as a priest. The ordination in my seminary in those years took place on Feb. 2, 1957, the day the Church commemorates that moment when Mary brought her Child to the temple in observance of the Jewish law.
I am struck about how I remember almost every moment of that cold and snowy day. After a lifetime it remains so clear, etched in my memory forever. My parents. My sisters. The Cathedral of the Holy Cross. My brother priests who prostrated themselves on the sanctuary floor as a sign of offering everything.
I have never felt worthy of the gift of the priesthood, but still I reflect on the years with profound joy and gratitude.
More and more these days my prayer is turning to thanksgiving, thanksgiving to God for what happened that day through the laying on of hands by the unforgettable Cardinal Cushing. Thanksgiving also for the gift of Episcopal orders, which took place on another Feast of Our Lady — Feb. 11, the commemoration of Our Lady of Lourdes.
As the anniversary approaches, I find coming to mind the words of two extraordinary popes, with whom I have served. The first expression clarifies the priestly vocation, and the second gives light for the future.
The great day for the pope
While at lunch with Pope John Paul II and other bishops at our “ad limina” visit, I said to him, “Holy Father, do you have a word for our priests?” His response was immediate.
“Tell your priests,” he said, “the great day for the pope was not the day when he became a bishop or a pope, but the day he was ordained a priest and could say Mass for the people.”
“… could say Mass for the people.” This expression is filled with light and grace and theological content. It is also marked by humility, for it makes clear the gift of Holy Orders is not primarily for the priest himself, but for the people.
The priest, acting in the person of Christ, is fittingly called to make the only life that he will ever live as a gift for the people, who through his words — which are the words of Christ — are joined to the sacrifice of Christ.
This truth is expressed repeatedly during the ritual of ordination; for example, when the bishop hands the candidate the chalice filled with wine and the paten, he says: “understand what you are doing, imitate what you handle and model your life on the Lord’s cross.”
Only in this context can we begin to understand why the Church has for hundreds of years required the gift of celibacy for the priest. It is fitting that before the priest can offer the Eucharist, he must offer himself — body and soul.
Pope Benedict XVI
I also find myself considering these words of “the Professor Pope,” as he once called himself, an extraordinary theologian and pastor — Pope Benedict XVI.
On his pilgrimage to this country, he was interviewed on the airplane. In answer to a question about the great scandal that had fallen on the Church, he said, “It is more important to have good priests than to have many priests.” As he has done many times during his pontificate; for example, in his homily at the conclusion of the Year for Priests, with 15,000 priests concelebrating with him in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Benedict XVI made clear that the future must be marked by careful discernment before a man is ordained to the priesthood. In my years as bishop, I prayed every day for an increase to the priesthood and consecrated life. Many years ago, I began to add to this prayer asking God to send more candidates for the priesthood and that only men of good quality be accepted and ordained. This reflects the teaching of the Church for centuries.
“The life of the celibate priest, which engages the whole man so totally and so delicately, excludes in fact those of insufficient psycho-physical and moral balance. Nor should anyone pretend that grace supplies for the defects of nature in such a man.” — Pope Paul VI Encyclical Letter on Priestly Celibacy, 1967.
Retirement, like any stage of life, is an invitation to closer union with Christ. I have been helping on weekdays and Sundays in parishes in both offering Mass “for the people,” as John Paul II would say, and also hearing confessions with my brother priests. What has caught my eye especially is the fidelity of those priests with whom I have worked these past 26 years. They have served with humility and courage through the dark days. May God bless them all.
I will give thanks on my anniversary for many things — for my parents, the main instrument of my vocation; my three dear sisters; for the gift of priesthood and I will give thanks for the 26 years I have been privileged to spend with you.
Please pray for me that I may live out these years with increased fidelity and increased devotion to Christ our Savior and to His people.
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