June 6, 2002

Serving in the Priesthood of Christ

On May 18, 2002, in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, six young men were ordained to the priesthood by His Eminence, Edward Cardinal Egan. What follows are themes from the cardinal’s homily at the Ordination Mass.

My dear friends in the Lord:

In the 1940s poliomyelitis, commonly known then as “infantile paralysis,” was a much feared disease. It was highly contagious, and the homes in which its victims resided bore quarantine signs on all exterior doors, warning the public to stay away.

My older brother and I contracted the disease. I was nine years old and taken immediately to the county hospital for contagious diseases for a few weeks, after which time I returned home for months and months of treatment with hot packs in accord with the medical science of the time. The purpose of the packs was to ease the tightened muscles in my back and legs in the hope of preventing permanent damage.

Relatives, friends and neighbors were all keeping their distance, and rightly so. Scores telephoned and sent notes to assure us of their prayers and support, but all were afraid. Whole dinners would be left on our front-porch with a note attached indicating that we were not to return the dishes or casseroles.

Thus, there were no visitors but one, the youngest curate in our parish. Twice a week he arrived with the Eucharist for my brother, my family, and me. When the brief “Communion for the Sick” liturgy was concluded, he would sit down to chat, kidding us and providing us with the only real laughter in our week. To this day I can recall how my mother would seem so much more at peace after his visit. Our priest had brought us the Lord and hope; and we were immensely grateful for his compassion and courage.

No one can say with any measure of certitude from whence a vocation to the priesthood or religious life comes. Mine is no exception. Still, I have always felt that I would probably not have become a priest had I not experienced the goodness and heroism of our beloved parish curate during the most trying period in our family’s life. In him I saw an ideal toward which I might strive. In him I saw an embodiment of priesthood that both inspired and captivated.

Small wonder, then, that this morning I am truly overjoyed with the privilege of ordaining six wonderful young men who will walk in the footsteps of the Eternal High Priest and millions of other dedicated priests down through the centuries, just like the curate of my boyhood parish. This is the high point of my year, the liturgical celebration that most holds me in awe. The readings and Gospel of the Mass do much to explain why.

ur first reading is taken from the Prophecy of Jeremias. It is one of the most poignant passages in the Old Testament. The event it narrates took place over 650 years before the Birth of Christ and never ceases to touch a chord in my heart.

Jeremias is a young man who has been called by the Lord to lead the Chosen People away from alliances that might involve them in all manner of immorality, including idolatry. He is frightened. He tries to beg off. “Ah, ah, ah, Lord,” he cries, “behold, I cannot speak, for I am but a child.”

The Lord replies in no uncertain terms. Jeremias is not a child. He is to go where he is being sent, and he is to speak what the Lord tells him to speak. He is not to be afraid. “For I am with you to deliver you,” the Lord proclaims, “and behold, I have given My words in your mouth.”

Our six young ordinands are called to a similar mission. They are to announce all that the Almighty has revealed without hesitation, without additions and without adjustments. They are to declare the mind and will of God to the People of God in the pulpit, in instruction classes, in catechetical lessons and in all that they speak and write. And they are to trust that they will never be alone. The Savior will be with them even when their message is not welcome. He will strengthen them. He will inspire them. He will place His words on their lips. How blessed they are to have heard and accepted such a challenge!

The Gospel of our Mass makes the vocation of our six young men even more wondrous. Four times in the New Testament the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper is reported in detail. St. Luke’s account, however, is for me particularly powerful. For it is introduced by a touching statement from the Lord about how earnestly he wished to have his Apostles with Him to share in that Passover celebration which gave the world the Eucharist. He is likewise anxious to be with our ordinands this morning, empowering them to transform bread and wine into the Body and Blood of the Redeemer, just as he empowered the Apostles on the night before He died.

He will be with our new priests at the altar each time they offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. He will be with them when they baptize, when they absolve from sin, when they join couples in Holy Matrimony, when they administer the Sacrament of the Sick, and as well, when they lead their people in prayers and devotions the faith of the Church has developed down through the ages – the Rosary, the Stations of the Cross, novenas and so much more.

Proclaimers of revealed truth like Jeremias and channels of sacramental grace like the Apostles: how privileged are these young men to have been called to be priests of Jesus Christ!

Our second reading from the First Letter of St. Peter completes the picture. The Prince of the Apostles in his direct and unpretentious style tells those who would lead in the Church that they must be constant in charity, generous and ever willing to serve others. “Put your gifts at the service of one another,” he writes, “each in the measure he has received.”

An extraordinary assignment, so out of keeping with the inclinations of our fallen nature and so unacceptable to so many in our world and culture today. This, nevertheless, is what the Son of God asks and expects of His priests – charity toward all, concern for all, and – most especially – service to all.

Our young ordinands are called to all of this in a period of great upset, hurt and shock in the Church. Immense harm has been done to innocent people. There is disappointment on every side along with deep anxiety about what the future holds.

With unlimited trust in our God, we need to rebuild; and the rebuilding will be the work of many years. All the same, here at this Ordination Mass we make an important step forward, a step that gives us hope – hope rooted in the promises of the Savior and in the splendid examples of so many holy priests of the Archdiocese of New York.

I point to priests of this archdiocese who continue to serve well beyond the age of retirement in parishes, schools and charitable institutions with total self-giving and incredible strength of soul. I point to priests who are quietly and effectively covering two or more assignments without so much as a word of complaint. I point to priests laboring in the most distressed neighborhoods of our teeming city, struggling to pay the bills and all the while adjusting to ever-changing languages and cultures.

Today’s ordinands join the ranks of such men of God. By the grace of the Lord and with our prayers to accompany them along the way, I have no doubt that they will meet the demands of their calling with wisdom and dedication. Alongside their brother priests in this beloved archdiocese, they will be a blessing and source of hope for all whose lives they touch. Such is our expectation, and such, too, is our prayer.

Let me end this way.

A few months ago I celebrated a Funeral Mass in the auditorium of one of our archdiocesan high schools. The deceased was a priest whose life was exemplary in every way. Afflicted with diabetes, losing his eyesight and having difficulty in walking, he nonetheless worked every day as a wise and respected counselor of the high school students. The homily that was delivered by one of his priest-friends was a moving tribute to priestly holiness and self-sacrifice. From my place on the auditorium stage, I could see mourners in every row with tears in their eyes.

As I was processing out of the auditorium, an elderly man took hold of my arm and drew me close to him. “The Lord gave us a wonderful priest,” he whispered. Removing my vestments afterwards in the sacristy, my mind was brought back almost 30 years to another Funeral Mass, that of the curate who had taken such good care of my family and me. As I helped my mother into the car to go to the cemetery, she took hold of my arm and drew me close to her. “The Lord gave us a wonderful priest,” she whispered. Those words had been in my mind and heart for years. I was deeply touched to hear them again.

This morning, my dear friends, we rejoice in the host of “wonderful priests” who are serving and have served the People of God of the Archdiocese of New York; and for the precious gift of six more we devoutly thank the Triune God.

Edward Cardinal Egan

Archbishop of New York