Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The faith of the Precursor.

As promised in the preceding post, here is the text, more or less, of a homily which I gave last night at a Mass in Dahlgren Chapel at Georgetown University. The Mass was the last of three 'official' Masses of Thanksgiving celebrated following my ordination to the priesthood, and it was also offered in memory of Father Thomas M. King, S.J. on the sixth anniversary of his death. The Mass celebrated was that of the Vigil of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, with scripture readings (which admittedly don't figure much in the homily, which is more concerned with the general spirit of the feast) taken from Jeremiah 1:4-10, 1 Peter 1:8-12, and Luke 1:5-17. Though I'm not sure that the text can be fully appreciated outside the particular liturgical context in which it was delivered, I offer it here for the sake of attendees who may want a record of what I said, and for the hopeful edification of others who would like to have attended the Mass but were prevented from doing so by distance or other obligations.


It is a joy for me to be here with you, both to give thanks for my recent ordination and to honor the memory of Father Tom King, who was a friend and mentor to many of those who are here. As a proud Hoya, it is also good for me to come home to the Hilltop, and I feel particularly happy to do so for the first time as a priest. Robert Frost once said that, "if you have to love something, you could do worse than to give your heart to a college." I think those of us who attended Georgetown and know this place can appreciate the sentiment. On the other hand, Robert Frost also said that "home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." I'm grateful to this community for taking me in, and I'll try not to wear out my welcome.

I. Saint John the Precursor

Tonight we celebrate the Vigil of the Birth of St. John the Baptist. The feast of John’s birth, 'the main event,' as it were, takes place tomorrow, and tonight's celebration has an anticipatory character about it. The vigil is a part of the feast, but it has its own special prayers and scripture readings which are different from the ones you would hear if you came to Mass tomorrow. John the Baptist belongs to a very select company of people whom the Church honors with feasts that are preceded by vigils – the others who come immediately to mind are the Apostles Peter and Paul, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Jesus Christ himself, so that should tell you something about John’s place in the communion of saints.

What makes John the Baptist so significant is the way in which he prepared for the coming of Jesus Christ. As some of you know, in the Orthodox tradition, John is most often referred to not as John the Baptist but as "John the Forerunner," placing special emphasis on his role as one who anticipated the coming of Christ. We find a similar thought in the opening prayer of tonight’s Mass, which expresses the hope that, "attentive to what Saint John the Precursor urged, [we] may come safely to the One he foretold, our Lord Jesus Christ."

II. Tom King and Other Precursors

To be a precursor is to point out the way to another greater than oneself, to urge others along the way that leads them to the fulfillment of the vocation to which God has called them. This is what John the Baptist did, but we know others who have done the same. For many of us, Father Tom King was also a precursor; as a teacher and as a priest, as a friend and as a mentor, he helped to move us further along the way to becoming the people God invites us to be. He did not point to himself, but to Jesus Christ.

Even if you didn't know Tom King - and if you did not, you will surely hear stories about him after Mass tonight - I'm sure that you have known someone who played the role of a precursor for you. None of us would be here tonight if we had not been invited and nurtured by others in our journey of faith, and none of us would have found our own particular vocation if others had not pointed out the way for us.

In our own way, each of us is also called to be a precursor. We all have a duty to point out the way to others, even if, like John, we will not share in the same journey to the end. Those of you who are parents do this in raising your children, and those of us who are or who have been teachers do something like this with our students, urging them along the path of knowledge and discovery while knowing that they will ultimately know and discover things which we ourselves will never know and will never discover.

III. Faith

To be a precursor demands great faith. It took great faith for Zechariah and Elizabeth to become the parents of John the Baptist, accepting the gift given to them by God even though human reason would have suggested that they were to remain childless. It took great faith for John to complete his mission as the forerunner, and it takes great faith to fulfill the vocation which God has entrusted to each one of us, knowing that, like John, we will not see the fruit of our labors come to complete and perfect fulfillment. As we give thanks this evening for the gifts God has given us – the gift of faith, and the gift of having been encouraged in that faith by Tom King and others like him – let us also give thanks for the gifts that God continues to give us, as he nourishes us here with his Body and Blood.


Peace and good wishes to all who read these lines. AMDG.

A time of gifts.

Like many other Jesuits and priests, I've told my 'vocation story' innumerable times, identifying people and places that impacted my decision to seek entry to the Society of Jesus and to seek ordination to the priesthood. I will certainly continue to do this, but over time I've also come to realize that trying to offer a comprehensive account of all of the natural and supernatural signs that led me to this point would be (to borrow a line from St. Athanasius) a bit like trying to count the waves of the sea: in grasping after particulars, one inevitably fails to comprehend the whole. In this sense, every vocation is a mystery; twelve days ago, as I lay prostrate on the floor of Queen of All Saints Basilica in Chicago with seven other men about to be ordained priests, a succession of images passed through my consciousness - people, places, and events that figured in my journey to ordination - but at the same time I realized that the complete story of how all these pieces fit together is known only to God.

The days since my ordination have been busy, but nevertheless full of joy and consolation. One highlight of these days was certainly the celebration of my first Mass of Thanksgiving on Sunday, June 14 at Loyola University Chicago. It should not surprise those who know me well that I planned my first Mass very carefully. For starters, I chose nearly all of the music myself - primarily the Gregorian propers for the Sunday and the Mass ordinary provided by the Missa de Angelis, balanced with a Byzantine communion hymn, a venerable English recessional, and - in a nice addition suggested by the director of the schola - Hildegard of Bingen's Laus Trinitati. I recruited the members of the schola from among my friends, and I asked Father Brian Daley, a long-time friend from Notre Dame, to give the homily. The venue was also significant: I chose to celebrate the Mass in the domestic chapel of the main Jesuit residence at Loyola University, not because of any particular link to the school (I have none, aside from the fact that I've visited the Jesuit community there any number of times) but rather to recall an old tradition of the Society of Jesus whereby the newly ordained would celebrate Mass for the first time in the house chapel before venturing out to celebrate in their home parishes or elsewhere.

Like the larger ordination weekend of which it was a part, my first Mass had a bit of a "this is your life" quality about it. The congregation included my immediate family as well as friends I'd made in various places - Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, San Jose, South Bend, Toronto, Washington, and beyond - together with Jesuits from near and far. Though most who attended the Mass were there by invitation, I was particularly grateful for the presence of others whom I hadn't expected to see - of priests like Father Jim McCann and Father Mitch Pacwa, who both approached me at the reception after the ordination and asked whether they could concelebrate at my first Mass the next day, and some Jesuit novices who later told me how much they had appreciated the Mass.

The work of the schola was a particular source of consolation for me over the ordination weekend. Their work did much to dignify the celebration of my first Mass, but I was also deeply gratified by the considerable time and effort they put into rehearsing the music I had chosen, and the experience of camaraderie and commitment that emerged from their collaboration moved me a great deal.

The title of this post was borrowed from a classic travel narrative by Patrick Leigh Fermor; though the experiences Fermor described in that book were very different from the ones I've had over the last couple weeks, the phrase 'a time of gifts' still seems very appropriate. I have been given a number of tangible gifts like vestments and religious icons, signs of love and support from family and friends who wished to honor me on the occasion of my ordination, but I have received even an greater gift in the company of those who gathered for the ordination and the celebratory events that followed. A Jesuit I met the day after my ordination advised me to hold onto the consolation gathered in these days, particularly as a way of getting through the more challenging days that are inevitably a part of any priest's ministry. I hope and pray that the graces of this time remain with me.

Newly-ordained priests typically celebrate a number of Masses of Thanksgiving following their ordination, often in their home parish and in other places that have been particularly meaningful to them. In observance of this venerable custom, I returned to my home parish in Massachusetts to celebrate Mass on the next Sunday following my first Mass in Chicago. In the photo seen here, you can see me in the sacristy after that Mass, joined by the pastor, Father John Sheridan.

Returning to my Hilltop alma mater, I celebrated another Mass of Thanksgiving last night in Dahlgren Chapel on the Georgetown University campus. This Mass was timed to coincide with the sixth anniversary of the passing of Father Tom King, and I offered the Mass in his memory as well as in thanksgiving for my ordination; the homily from that Mass is also posted on this blog for posterity. The Mass provided an opportunity for a reunion of some of my Georgetown contemporaries as well as a gathering of other friends in the Washington area, and in the tradition of Father King's 11:15 pm Mass we gathered afterward for a festive soiree including dessert and drinks. I was also happy to be able to concelebrate the Mass with Jesuit Father Ron Murphy of Georgetown's German Department, who has the distinction of being the first Jesuit who told me that I should think about entering the Society of Jesus.

Rounding out this post and returning to one of the great consolations of the ordination weekend, here is a short video from the final rehearsal of the schola that I assembled to sing at my first Mass. Just after running through the first verse of the recessional hymn, "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," the group finished its work for the day and we all went to a neighborhood restaurant for a small celebratory dinner. As I told the assembled company, it was a perfect way to conclude the day of my ordination to the priesthood. As I look back on the past twelve days, I pray that the memory of that evening and of many other joyful experiences of the past days may sustain me for years to come. AMDG.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Heil sei euch geweihten!

Some reading this post know that I will be ordained to the priesthood later this morning. I both need and seek prayers for myself and my fellow ordinandi as we begin our ministry as Catholic priests. Having wondered from time to time what I might write on this blog to mark the event of the ordination, I can think of nothing better than to share some music, specifically the final chorus from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, a work I've often described as the one thing I would listen to if, for some reason, I were only able to hear one musical work for the rest of my life. As I reflect back on the decade-long process of moving from the novitiate to ordination in the Society of Jesus, some of the words of this chorus seem particularly appropriate. On the day on which the ordained are newly-acclaimed, it is fair to acknowledge that the road to ordination has been long and sometimes difficult - we have all had to "push through night" in some sense, striving with faith and patience to reach this day. Though the cult of Isis and Osiris has been superseded by the revelation of the one true God ("Et antiquum documentum / Novo cedat ritui," as St. Thomas reminds us in the Pange Lingua), I would nonetheless endorse the call to "crown . . . beauty and wisdom with an eternal crown" as being in full harmony with the Christian vocation. As for Sarastro's opening lines about rays of sunlight dispelling the night and so on... well, it all sounds great when he says it.
Die Strahlen der Sonne
Vertreiben die Nacht.
Zernichtet der Heuchler
Erschlichende Macht.

Heil sei euch geweihten!
Heil sei euch geweihten!
Ihr dranget durch Nacht.
Dank! Dank!
Dank sei Dir, Osiris!
Dank! Dank!
Dir, Isis gebracht!
Es siegte die Stärke
Und krönet zum Lohn
Die Schönheit und Weisheit
Mit ewiger Kron!


The rays of the sun
Drive away the night.
Destroyed is the hypocrites'
Surreptitious power.

Hail to you who are consecrated!
Hail to you who are consecrated!
You pushed through night.
Thanks! Thanks!
Thanks be to you, Osiris!
Thanks! Thanks
Be brought to you, Isis!
May power be victorious
And crown as a reward
Beauty and wisdom
With an eternal crown.
Peace and good wishes to all. AMDG.