March 3, 2010 // Uncategorized
Homily for Msgr. J. William Lester
Mass of Christian Burial, Feb. 25, 2010
He was the first priest of this diocese whom I met. The first among those beloved priests with whom my life would be intertwined forever in prayer, and pastoral care for our people — priests from whom I would ask so much, whom I would come to love as friends and sons, which the Church calls the relationship between bishop and priests. It could be said of Msgr. Bill Lester in relationship to Christ and to his bishop, what Christ said of His apostles, “You are the ones who stood by me in my trials.”
In those early days working together with the good Monsignor, as our staff sometimes called him, seeing his goodness, his high intelligence, his zest for life, his clear ethical sense, seeing all the people he knew — old and young — often from his days as principal at Central Catholic or from the Cuban boys whom he welcomed and cared for — who came here without parents — for whom he would be father and mother. Seeing his joyfulness and the energy he brought to his ministry and to the sound advice he would give — seeing it all and helped so much by him — I grew easily to trust him, and love him, and early on I had this thought: “Someday, perhaps not too far away, because he is older than I — I will probably speak at the Rite of Christian Burial.” It was a painful thought at the time.
And so it has come, much later than I first expected. We bring him back to the cathedral where he was ordained — and where he led the restoration of this beautiful house of God.
As I began to prepare, the words did not come. So many consultations, so many meetings, such a good friendship — how does one speak of a priest friend? The tears came quickly, tears of mind and heart; the words — slowly and with great difficulty.
What can I say about this sterling priest, a priest for all seasons, for a homily is not a eulogy — but a reflection on the Sacred Mystery, the Mystery of Christ, which is our salvation? A reflection on the One in whom we hope and whom we look forward to meeting, and this Eucharist presents a promise of that meeting. It surely is appropriate to ponder the place of the priest. As Catholics, we are a sacramental Church, the visible is important to us. We see here in this beautiful cathedral the great Catholic Tradition of making the invisible — visible. Msgr. Lester had a clear sense of this. Once, I asked him if in the restoration we were honoring Mary sufficiently. “Bishop,” he said, “the whole cathedral is a song to Our Lady.”
These works of art in this Church are sacramentals. The priest, however, receives a sacrament and is a kind of sacrament. The priest is asked to make present Christ — the Good Shepherd — to make Him visible, to become a kind of stained glass window through which people may see the Good Shepherd.
“I am the Good Shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. A hired man, who is not a shepherd and whose sheep are not his own, sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away. And the wolf catches and scatters them. This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep. I am the Good Shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I will lay down my life for the sheep.” — John 10. The hired man works for pay, Bill Lester was no hired man. He embraced his vocation to make visible the Good Shepherd. Just as we are called to look through the appearance of bread and wine and see the Body and Blood of Christ — we priests cooperating with grace must make it possible for our people to look through us and see Christ the Good Shepherd who laid down His life for the flock.
This kind of love. Total, caring, visible, unselfish even to laying down one’s life must be made visible — and the salvation of souls depends upon it. It is what people hunger for in a priest. The people crave a good shepherd, not a hired man — that is why there is sadness in this cathedral — we have lost a shepherd after the heart of Christ.
I think Jesus Christ has given us this day, the very day after we priests gathered for our regular Lenten Day of Prayer — with Archbishop Hughes as preacher — to hear beautiful truths about two priests: St. Paul and St. John Vianney. We gather one day later to ponder the life of a good shepherd who made present the generous heart of Christ.
And for all of us who knew and loved him, whom he served, we are asked to grasp afresh the beauty of the priesthood of Christ the Good Shepherd, made visible and present to many in a unique and beautiful way by our dear Msgr. Bill Lester.
The priest: Called to make present the love of Christ.
It is a life of love. Pope John Paul II says the following.
“Our priestly life and activity continue the life and activity of Christ, Himself. Here lies our identity, our true dignity, the source of our joy, the very basis of our life.” — John Paul II, “I Will Give You Shepherds.”
Pope John Paul II speaks of the priesthood as an “amoris officium,” an “office of love.” A work of love “the priest, who welcomes the call to ministry, is in a position to make this a loving choice, as a result of which the Church and souls become his first interest, and with this concrete spirituality he becomes capable of loving the universal Church and that part of it entrusted to him with the deep love of a husband for his wife.” St. John Vianney, whose image graces this cathedral, in the year dedicated to him — the Year for Priests — says, and this is quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The priesthood is the love of the heart of Christ.”
We know what the Lord said to Peter before He gave him his mission for souls, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
St. Augustine said of Peter, that Christ asked him about his love and then gave him a work to do. This unselfish love, which we priests and bishops are called to give to our people, is reflected in a beautiful article written by Pope Benedict XVI when he was a young professor of theology at the University of Regensburg in Germany. Here is what he wrote so long ago, and what we have seen lived in his life and the life of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, and what all of us priests are called to and what the people expect of us and rejoice when they find it in us. New Testament ministry “rests on the existential posture of the servant who has learned how to allot second place to his own will in favor of the will of the person to whom he belongs. It is essential to the bearer of this Office that he stands in the service of another’s will.”
How willing Msgr. Lester was to put his own will in second place. How did Christ’s light shine in our own diocese through the priest we bury today? In the painful times, which fell upon the Church and on our diocese, he was filled with compassion and understanding for those who had been hurt while resolved that truth would be served and the priesthood of Jesus Christ in this diocese would be purified.
He was devoid of any smallness or meanness. In the consultations concerning the placement of priests and their transfer, I never heard one hint of advice that was self centered. He always advised what was best for the Church.
He served as principal of Central Catholic when it contained 1,700 students. He worked with grace with the Sisters of Providence and others. He found sisters for St. Jude’s Parish when the Sisters of Providence left. He served two terms as Superintendent of Schools. He formed the first Diocesan School Board 40 or 50 years ago. He told me that in his first assignment at St. Mary’s, Huntington, he was asked to be basketball coach. “Bishop, I went to the library and found books on basketball so I could do it well.”
Msgr. Lester and his beloved White Sox. He loved going to high school football and basketball games, down to Indianapolis with Msgr. Wolf to follow Bishop Luers in their various championship endeavors. But how can I possibly do justice to his role at filling-in in times of need? At a time of the severe shortage of priests, when a parish would be in difficulty: perhaps a beloved priest had died, as in the case St. Matthew’s, South Bend, and Bishop Crowley. Maybe a priest had left the priesthood or had been asked to leave and a parish was divided. In two cases, religious congregations, Franciscans and Missionaries of the Precious Blood, had given up the care of parishes — in one case, after over a hundred years of service. While remaining vicar general, and co-rector of the cathedral, he would be sent by his bishop to a place in pastoral difficulty. Immediately, the hurt would be eased. The people would come together. Many of them knew him from Central Catholic or some other service in the diocese. There would be the feeling the bishop has sent us his best. Christ had sent his best. Financial difficulties would be addressed. People would be greeted. The Parish Council would begin meeting. Sound homilies would be given and things would settle.
Here are the places, leaving aside St. Thomas, Elkhart; and St. Jude’s, Fort Wayne; and St. Mary’s, Huntington, where he served in regular assignments as at this beloved cathedral parish; here are the places where he filled in for a month, or two months, or sometimes over a year, settling the waters, bringing people together, restoring trust in the diocese and the bishop, always putting his own will in second place; a healing, loving, pastoral hand.
• St. Aloysius, Yoder
• St. Michael, Waterloo
• St. Matthew Cathedral Parish, South Bend
• St. Jude, South Bend
• Queen of Angels, Fort Wayne
• St. Joseph, Fort Wayne
• St. Patrick, Fort Wayne
• St. Therese, Fort Wayne
• Queen of Angels, Fort Wayne, for the second time
• St. Joseph, Fort Wayne, for the second time
• St. Adalbert, South Bend
• St. Rose of Lima, Monroeville
• St. Mary, Fort Wayne
• St. Patrick, Fort Wayne, for the second time
• Most Precious Blood, Fort Wayne
• St. Therese, Fort Wayne, for the second time
• St. Vincent, Elkhart
In most of these parishes, he was appointed as administrator, bringing his sharp intelligence and gracious style.
No priest, and I include myself, has done more for this diocese than Msgr. Bill Lester. It could be said of him what St. Paul said of Christ. He was never no — he was always yes. Yes to Christ. Yes to his bishop. Yes to those in need.
As a young seminarian, he was a Basselin Scholar, that is someone chosen by his diocese to spend an extra year at Catholic University and receive a master’s degree in philosophy. But he was happiest in this diocese, totally devoted to his brother priests and to the people. What a joy it was to meet him. His clock always seemed at high noon. His gifts were extraordinary and he used them for others.
You know, in the ceremony for the ordination of a priest, there are places which touch on the sacrifice that a priest is asked to make.
For example, after the priest is called forth by the bishop he stretches out — face down — on the sanctuary, as Msgr. Lester did 65 years ago in this very cathedral. Pope John Paul II used to call that gesture “evocative.” Evocative; namely, it evokes meaning and truth. It expresses the totality of the gift and the Litany of Saints is sung over the priest asking for their intercession before the throne of God.
Also, in the instruction, the priest is told to place first the concerns of Christ and not his own.
A third beautiful moment. When the bishop gives the priest the chalice filled with wine and the paten with the host, symbolic of the privilege of offering Mass, he says to the one being ordained, “Understand what you are doing, imitate what you handle, and model your life on the Lord’s cross.”
All these things signify sacrifice and unselfishness.
Yet, I do not think Msgr. Bill Lester ever thought of his life as a great sacrifice. He loved it. His song was the song of Mary. As he said of the cathedral — it can be said of him — his whole life was a song to Mary, a song of thanksgiving. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. For He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name.”
He was never no — he was always yes.
Walker Percy, writer and philosopher once said to seminarians, “My hero is the parish priest.” Bill Lester is my hero. These priests are my heroes. Yours, too, I think. Let us pray that God gives us more like him and like these priests who are here to pray for their beloved brother.
Safe home, dear Bill, safe home. May the angels lead you into paradise, may the martyrs receive you at your coming.
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