The Gospel we just heard is, by design, the same one which was read at my ordination 25 years ago. Despite the Lord’s explicit command, I must confess that I have not, to my knowledge, healed any sick these 25 years. But I do hope at least to have been better about fulfilling the rest of the Lord’s command: whenever you enter a city say “The kingdom of God has come near.” Often enough, I have felt more like Thomas Merton when he prayed; “I have no idea where I am going [and] do not see the road ahead of me.” But, now so many years down that road, I feel closer to Saint Paul, writing to his friends in Philippi: straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
25 years doesn’t seem like such a long time, but it has been long enough to make a lot of difference in our world. Back then, as many of you may remember, we still wrote letters and made phone calls. We read the paper in the morning and watched the news together at the appointed hour in the evening. But that common and shared experience of all living in the same world was sadly not to last. As Pope Francis wrote in his recent encyclical, “we no longer have common horizons that unite us.”
Of course, as the Good Witch said to Dorothy, “It’s always best to start at the beginning.” By October 28, 1995, I had already lived almost two-thirds of the life allotted me so far. I had already lived almost half a century, a pilgrim’s progress of fits and starts that had led me to that day, and has continued to lead me to this day.
Unlike Servant of God Isaac Hecker, I did not know already at an early age that God had “a work for me to do in the world.” I doubt I knew much of anything then. When I did start knowing things, forming ideas, having hopes, dreaming dreams, they were limited by time and space, as are all our ideas, hopes, and dreams – apart from the Good News of God’s kingdom.
But dominating that space, in those foundational early years, there was the great gothic-towered church across the street, that took me out of time and beyond the narrow confines of my limited space and taught me that to go to the altar of God would give joy to one’s youth. That was something I never forgot – both in brief intervals of ephemeral, fleeting success and in times of devastating, frightening failure.
I admit I am easily bored by the parable of the sower. But I have learned to see my time in that story’s space. For, at one time or other, I have been like the thorns or the rocky ground, letting God’s grace be choked or wither. But then at other times, I have flourished in that rich soil seeded by the Church, in which God’s grace and mercy have taken root and produced fruit.
Like the seed, I may have been all over the place. But God never gives up, because that is who God is and how God is. God never gives up on the commitment he has made to each of us. And, despite all obstacles real and imagined, that was something that somehow I always sensed.
I sensed it long before I’d ever studied and been taught by Saint Augustine that God has made us for himself and that our hearts remain restless until they rest in him.
In the 15th century, Nicholas of Cusa, whom I once dressed up as at a Princeton grad students’ Halloween party, sometime in the mid-1970s, prayed this prayer:
Thank you, Jesus, for bringing me this far.
In your light I see the light of my life.
Your persuade us to trust in our heavenly Father.
You command us to love one another.
What is easier?
Well, sometimes certainly it doesn’t seem so easy, does it? So often, in this vale of tears, the Good News that the Kingdom of God is at hand can come across as no news at all, or, even worse, as bad news, or maybe as good news sort of learned once upon a time but long since forgotten. That is why the world so desperately needs the Church – to show the world what Good News the Kingdom of God really is, Good News that is actually at hand for anyone and everyone.
In promoting Servant of God Isaac Hecker for sainthood, New York’s Cardinal Edward Egan called him “a man of the Church.” That indeed he was. That indeed is what any and every priest is challenged to be. Not his own man, purveying the fake news of worldly wealth and creative power, but a man of the Church, tasked to try to show a way for all to see God’s light, to trust God’s love, and to live that love together among God’s people, with whom we share our common home on this poor fragile planet – dangerously overheated in so many frightening ways but desperate for the warmth of God’s grace and mercy.
25 years ago, I made my own this 8th-century prayer of Saint John Damascene:
Now you have called me, Lord, by the hand of your bishop to minister to your people. I do not know why you have done so, for you alone know that. Lord, lighten the heavy burden of my sins through which I have seriously transgressed. Purify my mind and heart. Like a shining lamp, lead me along the path. When I open my mouth, tell me what I should say. By the fiery tongue of your Spirit make my own tongue ready. Stay with me always and keep me in your sight.
I did not know then whether I might make it to this day or what path might take me here, an amazingly grace-filled path, punctuated by thousands of Masses - daily Masses, Sunday Masses, school Masses, Spanish Masses, Italian Masses, Wedding Masses, Funeral Masses - an amazingly grace-filled path from Toronto, Canada, to New York, NY, to Knoxville, Tennessee: singing Christmas carols on Bloor Street and blessing Saint Anthony’s Bread, living through the soul-searing sadness of 9/11 and the welcome comfort of weekly breakfasts with parishioners at the Flame, the spiritual uplift of pilgrimages to famous shrines and a summer spent studying at Windsor Castle, the challenge of walking for miles in the pre-dawn dark at World Youth Day and the adventure of saint-school in Rome, and, then, finally, back to this beautiful and historic Knoxville church, and the amazing adventure of chairing meetings, paying bills, replacing a boiler, restoring the church ceiling and climbing the scaffolding to touch a century-old ceiling painting, blogging and e-mailing and eventually even live-streaming, teaching and learning, preaching, praying for the sick, baptizing babies, burying the dead, caring for the cemetery, then ending up in a global pandemic that has challenged and stretched all of us in ways we had hardly ever expected.
As Pope Francis recently wrote, “having failed to show solidarity in wealth and in the sharing of resources, we have learned to experience solidarity in suffering.”
Until recently, I had never expected to celebrate this anniversary here in this community of Immaculate Conception, Knoxville, whose priest and 24th pastor I have been privileged to be these last 10 years. Paradoxically, I guess I can thank this terrible pandemic for that! In this terrible time, when almost everything we took for granted seemed to have evaporated all at once, this terrible time which has so separated and isolated us, so divided and diminished us, and so shattered all the empty illusions of individualism, national exceptionalism, and personal self-sufficiency, I still cannot heal the sick.
But I am at least still able to witness how God has revealed himself to us in Jesus our Lord who brings us together in his Church, through which we may have hope that the Kingdom of God really is at hand to heal our broken world - that God’s power is greater than the forces that dominate our world, and so can overcome all the obstacles and worries which, if we let them, will threaten to separate us from God and from the salvation he intends for us.
So, yes, thank you, Lord, for bringing me this far.
And, thank you, all of you, for making this journey with me. It has been my great honor and my joy to have been your priest, and I will miss it very much.
And now may all of us together continue to help one another on our ongoing journey into the Kingdom of God, where the news is always good and true for all.