I celebrated 50 years as a priest at the 12:00 Mass at St Mary’s Parish in Colts Neck, NJ yesterday. Here’s the homily I preached:
We’re celebrating Mass, which is time to thank God for the blessings we’ve received. You know priests are told they shouldn’t talk about themselves in the homily; they should talk about the scriptural readings for the day. But I know you wont mind if my homily takes a personal turn today as I celebrate with you 50 years as a priest.
I was ordained on the feast of St Juliana Falconieri, June 19, 1959, in St. Michael’s Monastery, Union City, NJ. The bishop ordaining us was Bishop Cuthbert O’Gara, a Passionist bishop who had just been released from a Communist jail in China.
June 19th was a late date for our community to ordain priests. Usually ordinations were in February, or April. June 19 was a very late date.
We didn’t have any particular devotion to St. Juliana Falconieri. Probably, those in charge didn’t want to unlease us on to the world without getting as much as they could into our heads.
There’s not much to tell you about how my vocation to the priesthood came about. I knew a good number of priests and liked them. I liked the Passionists who helped out in our parish in Bayonne and I joined the community in 1950 out of high school, and they took me in.
1950 was also when the Korean War began. China was deeply involved in that war. Our community had priests in China then as missionaries, who worked with the Sisters of Charity from Convent Station, and they were imprisoned, humiliated and finally thrown out of the country by the Communist government after war broke out. They went through awful sufferings. One of them, Bishop Cuthbert O’Gara, bishop of Yuanling in China, ordained me.
As a young student and a young priest I was fortunate to live with many of those men when they came home. They were men of great faith, inspiring, dedicated, zealous– heroes in my mind. Many of them after a little while went to our new missions in the Philippine Islands and Jamaica. They left their mark on me.
I’m grateful for many wonderful priests. One of them died a few weeks ago, Fr. Thomas Berry. He was known throughout the world as a leading religious figure on the environment. He taught me in the early 50’s; I was young, just out of high school. He taught us history, and the first day he came into class he gave us copies of The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx. “You have to study this, because you can’t understand the world we’re in today if you don’t understand this.”
Now remember, this was in the 1950’s, the Cold War was on. We were fighting Communists then, not trying to understand them. Yet he told us to learn as much as we could about the world we were living in. He wanted us to learn Chinese, to read the religious texts of Buddhism and Hinduism. “Asia is going to become more powerful, learn about it.” He was right, 50 years ago.
Because of priests like him, I’ve never felt my life as a priest has been limited. The faith we have in Jesus Christ is not just a package of tightly bound beliefs that you memorize; faith is a way of taking in the world as Jesus takes it in. At Mass, the priest represents the world as it is, in all of its variety and completeness, as Jesus does. Our faith is not meant to make us small-minded.
My community sent me to Rome to study theology in the 1960’s, an interesting time to be there, because the 2nd Vatican Council was taking place. I studied with a great Jesuit theologian, Bernard Lonergan. He wasn’t a good teacher, his classes were disorganized, but he was brilliant.
One thing he said I still remember. “We go to God through questions. You may answer one question, but that opens twenty more, and so it goes.
On the last day of class he said, “ Well, I got this far. If I get any further, and you come back next year, I’ll tell you where I am. But for now, I got this far.” So, at the end of his course, you didn’t know it all. You knew there was always more to come.
That final remark of Lonergan’s “I got this far” is actually very similar to one my mother’s favorite expressions. When things were difficult, someone died, the future was not too clear, when some problem would come up, my mother would sigh and say, “Well, we got this far.”
But think about it. There’s real faith and wisdom and strength in a phrase like that, isn’t there? None of us sails through life, life is a mysterious journey. An old black spiritual I like says we “inch”along. “Keep-a inching along, keep-a inching along, the Lord Jesus comin’ someday. Keep-a inching along like the old inch worm, the Lord Jesus comin’ someday.”
God is there from the beginning, God will be there in the end, God is with us now, but we inch along.
Over the years, my teachers haven’t been just university professors or priests. I’m grateful for those basic schools where we learn so much, for my family into which I was born, for the friends I grew up with. I’m grateful for my years here at St. Mary’s. The priests, sisters and people of this community have taught me a lot about life and faith and God who is present among us. I thank God for all of you.
I was ordained less than five months after Pope John XXIII announced the opening of the Second Vatican Council, and as a priest I’ve seen a changing church and a changing world. I lived through the social revolutions of the 1960’s and 70’ and 80’s. I’ve experienced the liturgical movement, the ecumenical movement, the charismatic movement, the feminist movement, the environmental movement. It’s been a world of change.
Certainly we all have questions about our troubled world and our troubled church. I wonder, for example, will there be priests to come after me? What about the next generation and the next? Will they go to church?
Someone described our times as a revolution that nobody understands. I don’t understand it, but I have an assurance that faith gives that “ all will be well” as we inch along. We have questions, but we go to God through them.
So as we celebrate this sacrament of faith we lift up our hearts and give thanks to the Lord our God. Our great High Priest, Jesus Christ, abides with us. “He is our ultimate teacher and redeemer, he was born for us, died for us, and for us he rose from the dead. He is our shepherd, our leader, our ideal, our comforter and our brother.” (Paul VI)
“Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God.” We’ve got this far.
Victor Hoagland, CP June 28, 2009