This is the full text of the homily preached at the Chrism Mass at St. Joseph’s Co-Cathedral, Brooklyn, on March 30.
My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
This year, as I celebrate my 50th Anniversary of Priestly Ordination, I share with you my brother priests, especially my fellow Jubilarians, some insights that perhaps I have gathered over these many years of priesthood. There is a certain parallel, or dichotomy in some ways, between two concepts of priesthood.
One I might characterize using the word “presbyter” to describe the work of the priest in concert with the phrase more common today “in persona Christi capitis” in which the priest acts in the person of Christ. The emphasis of the presbyter is on community and service, as well as the celebration of the Liturgy.
When I was Ordained in 1970, there was another concept more common, characterized by the words “sacerdos” and capsulated in the phrase “alter Christus”, another Christ. The priest offered cultic sacrifice and made Christ present in the Liturgy. I do not call one liberal and the other conservative, because these are two different ways of observing the same reality of priesthood. There is a tension between the two concepts. And I see today a certain drift back towards sacerdos, whereas the presbyter after the Second Vatican Council was more common.
A certain balance is needed, however. How we live our priesthood is most important. How we conceptualize it is not so important. In some ways, an extreme characterization of sacerdos might be those priests today who prefer saying Mass in Latin, and not necessarily having a real congregation, because the priest makes the sacrifice and who is present is not so relevant. Whereas the presbyter today also can be extremely characterized by some who feel, “well, anyone can do it.” The presbyter is chosen by the community to act in their place. Either of these extremes must be avoided.
First Mass homily
In preparation for this homily today, I have reviewed specific important homilies I have given in the past. The first one being my First Mass at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Newark, New Jersey, where I preached my own First Mass which was not so common in those days. In fact, I chose as my motto, characterized by a First Mass banner, which was common in those days, highlighting the words from the Epistle to the Hebrews 5, “A Man Among Men”. The banner replicated a hymn book very common at that time, The People’s Hymnal, where there were five stick figures on the cover. The one figure in the middle is a different color than the other four figures, mostly to represent the priest. Yes, the priest is chosen from among men, appointed by God, and appointed to conduct the things of God. “No one takes this honor on upon himself, but only when called by God.” (Hebrews 5:4)
When I preached the homily at my First Mass, I said that a man was taken, not separated, from his people. The priest was a sign of God in the midst of the community making Jesus alive, and bringing His message to all men. And that the priest was most important in directing Christians’ relationship to God. The priest’s work is exactly that; to renew the Covenant made by Jesus Christ in the daily and weekly celebration of the Eucharist.
As I look back on that homily, I realize that I was most likely describing more the presbyter than the sacerdos. In those days, at a First Mass Tu es sacerdos in aeternam was sung, a beautiful hymn reminding us that we are priests forever according to Order of Melchizedek. There were 27 in my seminary graduating class, and 5 left the priesthood. There was always some caution to be made in counting priests. Eight of my classmates have died and 14 remain in ministry, mostly retired. I remember the words of my seminary spiritual director who told us, “Many priests / ‘sacerdos’” enter into eternal rest on the day of their Ordination. Because for them celebrating the Mass once a day is all that they ever do.”
25th Anniversary of Priesthood Ordination
I also found the homily I gave on my 25th Anniversary of Priesthood Ordination in 1995 given at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church in Newark, New Jersey, just a little over a year before I was Ordained a Bishop in October of 1996. In that homily, already was seen the seeds of the sex abuse scandal in the Church. I emphasized, as I did at my First Mass, that the priest is a man among men and that the Second Vatican Council made it clear that the role of the priest was to enhance the priesthood of the faithful in which we all participate. As we know, when we were Ordained in 1970, and some classmates are here tonight, the Second Vatican Council had recently concluded and we had its wind in our sails. We were ready to conquer the world. The Church had come of age. The Church was a light in the world. Today, unfortunately, that light has been dimmed by the circumstances of scandal, not allowing us to truly implement the Second Vatican Council in its fullness. We understand from history that the Councils are never implemented until long after their work has been concluded.
I turn to another document I have in my files in that of my ordination retreat in preparation for the Episcopacy. In this piece, I saw the words that remind me about the role of the bishop. Bishops are the source of unity in a diocese. In the presbyterate, the Bishop must be father, brother, and friend. His primary responsibility, however, is his relationship to the priests as they relate to him with the faithful. My meditation at that time was the Sermon on the Mount which recognizes that discipleship means that we have to enter through the narrow gate. It is not easy to follow the Lord Jesus, especially in the role as bishop. Little did I know then what lay before me.
Bishop of Camden
Another homily that was an important one in my ministry was on the day of my installation as Bishop of Camden on July 22, 1999. In the procession on that day was carried an icon of Mary Magdalene, since it was her feast day. The icon was carried by three important women in my life who had worked with me so well. Joanne Weiss, my secretary now for 27 years, and two others who are now deceased; all who were close collaborators at Catholic Charities in Newark. I preached on the fact that the Bishop must be the servant of the Gospel and the hope of the world, as there was a current document reminding Bishops of their responsibilities.
It was the age of John Paul II, who in his Encyclical “Faith and Reason”, reminded us all that we must “know ourselves” as the Greek saying goes. He told us that the Bishops must live first the evangelical councels which are so critical to the life of priests and bishops; poverty, chastity and obedience. How important these are to us. The most difficult of the three, obviously, is obedience because when we have to give up our will to the will of another, to a Bishop or to a personnel board, we bristle. Unless we have that intention of obedience, however, we never can live poverty with detachment from things. And chastity can become all the more difficult, because we are attached to ourselves. Tonight, you will renew that commitment.
I take this time to remind everyone of the three characteristics that were important in the relationship between the priest and bishops. The first is honesty. The ability to speak truth to power is so important. As we find in the Gospel, Jesus tells us that among us it should not be like the great ones whose power is felt. No, we must be able to be honest with one another.
The second is loyalty. Loyalty is a top down, and bottom up, a quality of relationship so necessary. There should be no idols. Neither bishop, nor priest, are perfect. If we are not loyal to one another, how can we tell one another what we truly believe? We cannot live dialogue, which Saint Paul VI described as the “New Name” for charity.
And finally charity itself, which characterizes the communion and collaboration among priests and bishops. How important these thoughts are both then and now.
Bishop of Brooklyn
At my installation as Bishop of Brooklyn on October 3, 2003 at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, my homily concentrated on understanding the Gospel of Luke and that great scene where Jesus tells His disciples to “Put out into the deep”. I am sure that by now after 17 plus years, you are tied of hearing those words which somehow end up at the conclusion of each of my weekly columns. But in essence, what do these words mean? They mean that we must go beyond the limitations we see, because we are tired in so many different ways and we have lost imagination. And we are relying on the same old methods when perhaps a new look at the New Evangelization is what we need?
My entire ministry here as Bishop of Brooklyn in one way or another has been emphasizing the work of the New Evangelization. And you my brother priests have been my first collaborators. I wish to take the time today to thank you for all that you have done to make my ministry here in Brooklyn and Queens viable and useful to the Church.
40th Anniversary of Ordination
When I celebrated the 40th Anniversary of my Priestly Ordination, the theme of “A Man Among Men” came to be the center of my homily that day. The context of that homily was the sex abuse crisis that was at its height, and how we as a Church were suffering. How our victims suffered. How our priests suffered. How the perpetrators also suffered realizing their sin. There was great suffering that perhaps we failed to appreciate and understand completely. Now, ten years later, we do have a better understanding of the abuse crisis. In that homily, I spoke about the priest as a man, a product of his relationships with other people. And how the priests also are limited, how they are sinful, and how priests live a human life; a life in which they come to know their need for God. Priests are appointed to assist others to develop their relationship with God. Yet, we cannot forget that people need priests, as well as we priests need people in order to fulfill our responsibilities.
A Bishop’s ordination does not somehow cancel our priesthood, it builds upon that priesthood. And I have been with you as Bishop now for almost 18 years. I have ordained over 100 of you to the priesthood myself. I have come to know you and love you. And I have come to know the vibrancy, loyalty and the honesty of this presbyterate of Brooklyn and Queens.
As you now prepare to welcome a new Bishop, make sure that you keep in mind some of the things that I tried to teach over the last almost 18 years; that working together is the only way the Church can go forward, and that our communion and collaboration make the presbyterate strong around the Bishop, whose primary responsibility is to foster the unity of the Church in a particular place.
Tonight, we gather to bless the life blood of our ministry as the People of God. The oil we bless and consecrate allows us to make Christ present to the sick. I must take this time to thank our front-line COVID-19 responders — our 30 hospital chaplains — for the wonderful work they have done during this past year. Each has put themselves at risk for God’s people. The oil of catechumens and the Chrism that we bless allows the Church to grow from initiation to ordination. Tonight, we anticipate the growth to come through our celebration.
I ask our people of Brooklyn and Queens today, as they listen to these words, to remember and recognize how much your priests love you, and support you in so many different ways. Yes, the people criticize their priests today perhaps more than ever because of the world in which we live. But deep down, the criticism only comes from their respect and love which they have for the work of their priests, and for what their priests do for them each and every day. Whether you see it in the “sacedotal” or in a “presbyteral” way, it is the same priesthood you live, not for yourself but for others because you represent to others Jesus Christ, Our Lord and God.
May the Lord keep you under His wings and give you the strength needed to face the future here in Brooklyn and Queens.