The following Homily was preached on the occasion of my 40th Anniversary of Ordination to the Priesthood. In 2014, May 25th fell on the Sixth Sunday of Easter. With my 43rd anniversary approaching this week, I hope my readers will enjoy these reflections.
I was a bit of a precocious child in the second grade at St. John Baptist de la Salle School in the San Fernando Valley. Surprised? Sr. Dorothy Ann would often conclude Religion class asking, “Now, are there any questions?” and I would invariably start raising and waving my hand. With an ever so slight tinge of irritation in her voice she would say, “Yes, Arthur,” and I would launch into something like this, “Sister (Ster), can you explain to me how Jesus is in Holy Communion?” She would pause, ever so slightly and then say, “Arthur, that’s a mystery. Next question?”
Reflecting back on 40 years of priesthood, I cannot help but think that the seeds of my own seduction by the mystery of God’s presence in our world, in the reality of the Church, in the enchanting beauty of its liturgy, and in those mysterious men in black, well maybe a little purple too, began in that second-grade class. Sister’s response, that “it’s a mystery” was far less a theological cop out and far more the gracious acknowledgement that the heights and depth and breadth of our faith and the essence of those who are entrusted as priests to share such good news can never really be captured in words alone. As bearers of the “mysteries of God” all of us but especially we priests are called to put a human face and a gentle human touch on the God who lives in unapproachable light and yet has embraced each one of us in the unfailing mercy of his beloved Son, Jesus the Christ.
Providentially, this 40th Anniversary of my Ordination to the priesthood that began in old St. Vibiana’s Cathedral in downtown Los Angeles at the hands of the saintly Cardinal Timothy Manning on May 25th, 1974, falls precisely on this Sixth Sunday of the Easter Season. Easter gives our liturgical year its deepest meaning. The Feast of the Resurrection holds such rich meaning for us as Christians that it takes 50 days of celebrating to truly begin to unpack its meaning for us as followers of the Risen Lord.
God’s holy word continues to dynamically convey the fact that those first trusted companions of the Lord, the Apostles, were dramatically changed by their personal witness and experience of the Risen Jesus in their midst. They were empowered to go forth and, like the Apostle Philip, in our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, boldly proclaimed the Lordship of the Risen Christ. St. Luke tells us of the effect of Philip's preaching, “…unclean spirits cried out in a loud voice (and) they came out of many possessed people…” Having been a pastor now for 26 years, I wish that I could have had such a gift with a few of the more cantankerous parishioners that have come my way over these year! Just kidding. However, that passage ends with this beautiful line, “There was great joy in that city.”
Amid the inevitable challenges and frustrations, moments of heartache and disappointment that have been encountered over these years – something that can be said for all of us no matter what vocation may be ours - “There was and continues to be great joy” that powerfully sustains me and so many of my brothers in priestly ministry. A joy that one writer describes as the infallible sign of God’s presence in our lives.
No wonder that our Holy Father, Pope Francis, penned his first Apostolic Exhortation with the title, “The Joy of the Gospel.” If there is one overriding reality that should pulse boldly and brightly in the heart of any true follower of the Risen Lord Jesus, but especially in the life of his priestly ministers, it is that we are called to help people delight with joy in the presence of the Lord in their life.
In one of his daily homilies, Pope Francis said this about the indispensable place that joy must have in our lives: We Christians are not so accustomed to speak with joy, of happiness. I think often we prefer to complain. Without joy, we Christians cannot become free, we become slaves to our sorrows. The great Pope Paul VI said that you cannot advance the gospel with sad, hopeless, discouraged Christians, You cannot.
My sisters and brothers, no wonder then that we speak of joy as one of the gifts or fruits of the Holy Spirit. And it is precisely that gift that Jesus prays will be ours through the outpouring of His life-giving spirit in our hearts and in the life of the Church.
Over the last 40 years, I have been privileged to witness that life-giving Spirit invigorate our local Church of Orange, from its inception in June of 1976 to this present moment. It has been my joy to have served under our founding Bishop, William Johnson – to be named Rector of the Cathedral under his successor, Norman McFarland – or as he was affectionately known, “stormin Norman!” appointed Pastor and Rector of this Jewel of the California Missions by his successor, Tod Brown, whose presence with us this day brings special joy, and finally, to be able to minister in close collaboration and friendship with his successor, our present Bishop, Kevin Vann, who honors us all with his presence today. You know that the years are advancing when you are older than your bishop!
Jesus reminds us in the Gospel that “I will not leave you orphans, I will come to you.” For every priest, it can be truly said that the comforting presence of the Lord of life more often than not comes to us in the people whom we have been privileged to not only serve but befriend over the years. On an occasion such as this, as I look out at the faces of friends who gather with me today from the parishes where I have served, that joy that the Lord wants for us all overflows in my heart with gratitude. Thank you all for your presence with me this day. May we go forth renewed by the joy of the Gospel and the gift of the spirit that is the reason for our hope, now and always.