Hello and welcome!
We were also very pleased to welcome home Deacon Francis Pham who has been on his pastoral year as a deacon and has now returned for his priestly ordination. He will be the 14th priest to be ordained for the Archdiocese of Boston this year — making us easily the diocese that as ordained the most priests in 2019.
We were supposed to have had a picnic outside, but the threat of rain kept us indoors. However, we were able to be outside long enough to take pictures with the students and faculty.
I would like to share with you the message that I delivered to our seminarians for the beginning of the academic year:
Eighteenth century France was partial to gender neutral names like John Marie Vianney and Jean-Louis Anne Madelain Lefebre de Cheverus. They were contemporaries, the Curé of Ars and the first Bishop of Boston, holy priests — one a simple peasant, the other an aristocrat, both Catholic priests, icons of the Good Shepherd. Out of that turbulent period in the history of the Church came great renewal and holiness. The French Revolution revealed the corruption of the Ancien Régime and discarded the Church with the monarchy. The hierarchy and the clergy were discredited, and people abandoned the practice of faith.
There are many parallels between our time and those of the Curé of Ars and Bishop Cheverus. We can only pray that the outcome will be similar. We need new saintly priests who are not overwhelmed by the dominant culture’s hostility or indifference to religion.
This summer, to mark the 160 years since the death of St. Jean Marie Vianney, Pope Francis has sent a powerful letter of encouragement to priests. The Holy Father addresses all the priests who have quietly left all behind to immerse themselves in the daily life of their communities and serve in the trenches. The Holy Father thanks our priests for all they do for the faithful people of God. The Pope wants to encourage priests by urging that we never forget the words that Christ spoke with great love on the day of our ordination. Those words are the source of our joy: “I no longer call you servants… I call you friends.” Our identity, our strength.
The Holy Father opens the letter by acknowledging the great pain caused by the crimes of sexual abuse in the lives of those abused, their families and the entire people of God. The Holy Father affirms the commitment of the Church to carry out the reforms needed to encourage from the outset a culture of pastoral care so that a culture of abuse will have no room to develop, much less continue. We must move forward by personal conversion, transparency, sincerity and solidarity with victims.
The Holy Father acknowledges the great pain inflicted on good priests who now face the discouragement, anger, suspicion brought about by the sins and crimes of others.
The Holy Father states: “I am convinced that to the extent that we remain faithful to God’s will, these times of ecclesial purification will make us more joyful and humble, and prove, in the not so distant future, very fruitful. The Lord is rescuing us from hypocrisy, from the spirituality of appearances. He is breathing forth His Spirit in order to restore the beauty of His Bride, caught in adultery.”
Our tears are the beginning of a renewal of our holiness.
Our Mass of the Holy Spirit to inaugurate a new academic year is our cry to God to stir up within us the gifts and power of the Spirit to propel us on the path to holiness. Seminary formation is to prepare us for priestly ministry. Our success as ministers of the Gospel and dispensers of the sacraments will depend on our personal holiness, not necessarily the heroic holiness of the great martyrs, but the everyday holiness of friendship with the Lord and fidelity to God’s will. The times and the venues for your ministry are challenging. It is not the Bells of St. Mary’s with Bing Crosby singing “dial O for O’Malley.” It is not a world where people are steeped in a Catholic culture and practice. Religious illiteracy and indifference are huge.
The Curé of Ars arrived in his parish and discovered a village with 40 houses and four thriving taverns and one empty church.
The Northeast is one of the most dechristianized parts of the country. People are well educated and sophisticated. Boston is called the New Athens. I am always saying that in Boston being Catholic is a contact sport.
I am consoled by reflecting on St. Paul’s experience of the first Athens. Paul delivered a brilliant discourse at the Areopagus in Athens, right next to the Pantheon and the Acropolis. The Gospel message was met with boredom and skepticism by the well-trained philosophers, the Harvard set of the day. Ars and Athens are big challenges for a zealous priest.
The polemics of the culture wars will do too little to turn people’s hearts to the Lord. Yet, a new apologetic that answers the questions of today’s people is urgently needed. I am so impressed by the efforts of Catholic Answers to defend the faith without raising your voice, as they say.
Part of the tasks of the seminary is to be able to answer people’s questions and direct their longings to their proper object, God. Your intellectual preparation and communication skills are very important, but St. Paul reminds us in the first lesson from today’s Mass: “You are our letter, known and read by all, shown to be a letter of Christ… written not in ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets that are hearts of flesh.”
In Scripture studies we learn about the palimpsests, manuscripts where the parchment has been reused. Your life must be a letter, a palimpsest that allows the Gospel values to shine through.
We need to show the world the joy of living the Gospel, the beauty of a life that is coherent, that reflects the teachings of Christ: his mercy, his love, his capacity to forgive. Our Mass of the Holy Spirit is to implore our God to write the glad tidings of the Gospel on our hearts.
Priests must be a Gospel, a love letter from God, a living witness of the Resurrection, an icon of the Good Shepherd. What will convince the world is not so much our cogent arguments, but our love and fidelity. Only when people feel that we care about them will they believe us. Only if they see the Gospel lived in our lives will they take it seriously.
Today’s Gospel reminds us just how radical our vocation is. Luke’s Gospel is built around the Lord’s journey to Jerusalem, where he is to die and rise again. Luke’s Gospel today says: “When the days for his being taken up were fulfilled, he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.”
The imagery in the passage is often associated with the Elijah cycle. Being taken up implies death, resurrection and ascension.
The Samaritans deny them hospitality precisely because Jesus and his apostles are on their way to Jerusalem. James and John, true to their sobriquet, sons of thunder, want to call down fire and destroy the nasty Samaritans, as Elijah did his enemies. Jesus rejects that attitude. Some of the codices have the phrase: “You do not know of what spirit you are. The Son of Man came not to destroy, but to save.” Samaria, like Ars and Athens, can be a difficult venue for Christ’s priests, but we must never forget that we have come not to destroy, but to save.
Someone in today’s Gospel, without being called, actually volunteers: “I will follow you wherever you go.” These are noble intentions, but Jesus immediately warns the person that to follow Jesus is difficult. “Foxes have dens and the birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus is a homeless itinerant, and in this passage, there is a glimpse of our call to a life of celibacy, which is so central in our vocation, sharing Christ’s homelessness.
When Jesus says to another, “Follow me.” He replies, “Let me first bury my father.” In the ancient world burying the dead was one of the most important social obligations a person could have. This is reflected in the story of Tobias in the Old Testament and in a number of the Greek tragedies like Sophocles’ Antigone, where Creon fails to inter Polyneices.
Jesus’ shocking answer is: “Let the dead bury the dead, but you go and proclaim the Kingdom of God.” This is followed by a second shocker, for when someone says, “I will follow you Lord, but first, let me say farewell to my family.” To him Jesus said, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.”
I am sure that these words are hyperboles. Jesus would have let the disciple bury his father and say good bye to his family. This is probably an allusion to the story of Elisha who is plowing his fields when Elijah calls him. He asks permission to go and kiss his father and mother. He is granted that permission, but Jesus is making a point — that even our most sacred obligations to our family are not as important as the obligations to seek God’s will and fulfill it.
When Cardinal Hickey died, Archbishop Lori gave the funeral homily in which he commented on the ordination card that was printed for Cardinal Hickey’s priestly ordination which the cardinal kept in his breviary. Among other things, there was a phrase from Jean-Jacque Olier, founder of the Sulpicians: “Obeir a Dieu: sans retard, sans reserve, sans retour” to obey God without delay, without reserve, without turning back.
That is what Jesus means by “let the dead bury the dead,” that’s what he means by saying, “you must not put your hand to the plow and look back” — obeir sans reserve, san retard, sans retour.
A vocation is a costly grace. Sometimes our families and friends are supportive, sometimes they are not. There is something very radical about a vocation. It is not a career option, a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. So much is at stake when the Lord invites us to be his priests.
I pray that this new year will be a time of spiritual growth, a deepening of our friendship with Christ and of our fellowship with each other.
The Curé of Ars says that our task is to pray and to love. I hope that your seminary experience will help you to advance in these crucial areas of your priestly vocation so that together we may announce the Gospel with joy and with courage, whether in Ars, in Athens or in Boston. And with a deep sense of our calling, may we respond, sans retard, sans reserve, sans retour.
Without delay, without reserve, without turning back.
Earlier in the week, I also joined the seminary’s Faculty Dinner. It was good to see the members of the faculty and have time to speak with them. We are very grateful for all the work they do to make St. John’s such an extraordinary place to form men for the priesthood.
Saturday morning, I was very happy to be visited by Cardinal Rainer Woelki, who came accompanied by his communications director and his vocations director. Cardinal Woelki is one of the younger cardinals and is also the Archbishop of Cologne, which is the largest diocese in Germany.
We began our time together by concelebrating Mass in our chapel at the cathedral rectory. Afterward, shared a very nice breakfast, during which we had a conversation about various happenings in the Church and around the world.
During his visit, I gave him a tour of our newly renovated cathedral. I was very proud to see that he took out his iPhone and took many pictures — especially when you think that this man is the archbishop of a diocese that has one of the most famous cathedrals in the world!
Since it was his first trip to Boston, following our meeting, he was heading off for a tour of Harvard University. Fortunately, we had lovely weather to offer him.
It was a very pleasant visit, and we are very grateful for his having come to visit us in Boston.
The Assumptionists, of course, run Assumption College in the Diocese of Worcester, but they also have a residence for their religious and graduate students located in Brighton, across the street from St. Columbkille Parish in the former convent.
He was visiting because he has priests studying both here and in New Jersey, so we were very happy to receive him and greet him.
We are now in the process of planning a Eucharistic year. So, on Thursday, I had an initial brainstorming session with members of my staff to begin working towards implementing it, and we are currently in the process of selecting an ordinary committee to help plan the activities.
The Eucharist is the center of our lives as Catholics. We realize that, as Bishop Robert Barron has said in reaction to the alarming Pew Research Center Study, we must teach about the Eucharist with greater clarity and witness greater reverence to the Eucharist as a way of communicating this great truth to our people and to the world.
Until next week,