Pastoral Center Chapel, Washington
May 17, 2011
Fr. Peter Daly
Acts 11: 19-25
John 10: 22-30
My dear brother priests.
When Msgr. Ranieri invited me to preach at this Mass, I had some fear.
Preaching to preachers is intimidating. Most of you are more advanced in wisdom and grace than I am. But I am honored by the invitation.
My task here today is the same as the task of Barnabas on his arrival at Antioch;
to offer encouragement.
Barnabas offered encouragement to the brethren to “remain firm in their commitment.”
And I want to offer encouragement to us all who have now been in the vineyard of the Lord a long time, to remain “firm in our commitment” made 25, 40, 50 or 60 years ago.
Barnabas was well suited to his task. His name, after all, means, “Son of encouragement.”
I could use his help right now.
Soren Kierkegaard said, “Life is lived looking forward, but only understood looking backward.”
As a way of finding encouragement, I want to take a look backward at my own pilgrimage to and through priesthood. Perhaps it will echo your own experience.
One of my favorite psalms, Ps. 63 provides an outline for this meditation.
It is a hymn of ARDENT LONGING FOR THE PRESENCE OF GOD.
“O God, You are my God, for you I long;
For you my soul is thirsting.
My body pines for you like a dry, weary land without water.
So I gaze on you in the sanctuary,
To see your strength and your glory.”
How did get here?
Why did we become priests in the first place?
I think it began early in life for all of us with an ardent longing for God.
I wanted to know God. I wanted hear His voice.
And I wanted my life to mean something to God.
I think that is what drew me to priesthood.
To many people today our vocation seems strange. They think of us as an artifact from another age. Perhaps a holy relic.
But when we were growing up, the idea of priesthood seemed as natural as breathing.
Growing up on the south side of Chicago in the 1950s and 60s, I was surrounded by priests.
The rectory at my home parish, St. Thomas the Apostle, usually had seven priests assigned. Today there is one.
Our parish was in the shadow of the University of Chicago. Our patron, the doubting apostle Thomas, was the exactly the right patron for a famously skeptical university community.
Aware of the challenge of serving our parish, the Archdiocese sent us their best.
They were men of energy and intellect.
I liked most and feared some, but I admired all of them.
A few, like Fr. Andrew Greely seemed remote and severe. He was busy about his research and writing. But most seemed like the coolest guys I had ever met.
Fr. Cunningham played basketball like a pro.
Fr. Oldershaw was a musician and taught us to sing.
Fr. Taylor taught us to serve mass with the precision of a drill team.
Fr. Vanechko introduced us to social movements and politics.
Fr. Heaney inspired us about civil rights and peace.
Even Fr. Greely was cool from distance. After all he was always on TV or in the newspapers.
Besides the parish priests, I had two uncles who were priests.
Uncle Jim was a Dominican, a cerebral philosopher, an expert on St. Thomas. He talked to me like an adult. He trounced me at chess. He seemed like a brain on stilts.
Uncle Bill was a Jesuit, a man of action. He had been a missionary in India and Nepal and chaplain to the Sherpa guides. In his youth in Canada he was a golden gloves boxer. Handsome and courageous, there was excitement in the air when Bill was around.
And at my high school, there was an army of Jesuits.
In those years of the Vatican Council, so full of excitement and promise, we were challenged with new ideas.
At home, my parents read the council documents. They talked about them with great excitement. My dad read aloud to us the articles published in the New York Times, from a priest in Rome named Xavier Rynne.
Who wouldn’t want to be like those guys? Everybody knew them. Everybody liked them.
More over, they talked to God. They brought us Christ.
So my longing for God became a desire for priesthood.
But youth ended.
I emerged from my Catholic cocoon at Univ. of Va., blinking in the sunlight.
The priesthood was changing.
Over time about half the priests from our parish left the priesthood.
My own uncles left the priesthood for a while.
So who would want to climb onto a sinking ship?
My uncle Bill left the Jesuits, to deal with his alcoholism.
He entered a Trappist monastery in Missouri. Eventually he became a priest of the Diocese of Kansas City, with the help of Bishop Charles Helmsing who met my uncle at the abbey. Uncle Bill corresponded with a young Vicar for clergy, by the name of Msgr. William Baum. Some of you may know him. Cardinal Baum was very kind to my uncle. I am grateful for that.
My uncle Jim left the Dominicans. He was disillusioned with his community and tired of loneliness. He went back to teaching philosophy. Eventually he too became a diocesan priest in the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Bishop Philip Hannon also was very kind to him.
On my bed I remember you.
On you I muse through the night.
For you have been my help
In the shadow of your wings I rejoice.
Your right hand holds me fast.
The question of vocation was always there, but youthful admiration gave way to a deeper appreciation of priestly ministry. In all the upheavals of the 60s and 70s, the Church was always open, the light was always on.
Priests were helpers in time of crisis.
Comforters in times of sorrow.
Mentors in a world of confusion.
In a profane world, they spoke of the sacred.
In a changing world they told us that our lives had eternal significance.
I believe that human beings are hardwired for God.
As Alphonse Lamartine said,
in his nature, infinite in his desires,
Man is a fallen god who remembers heaven.
So we will always need priests to shepherd us along the way.
But, I fled him down the nights and days.
I fled Him down the arches of the years …
And down the labyrinthine ways.
Of my own mind and in the midst of tears.
As much as I tried, I never could shake the hound of heaven.
Even as newly minted lawyer, I was drawn back to thoughts of priesthood.
In Lent, Fr. Ray O’Brien took me to lunch with then Msgr. Bill Curlin.
Bill was ready to sign me up before we got to desert.
On Good Friday, at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, I gave and said yes.
On July 4, 1982, Msgr. Morty Fox called me and said, “Archbishop Hickey wants to see you.”
It was a strange Independence Day with a different sort of fireworks.
But the priesthood I entered was not the priesthood of youthful illusion.
Anyone who has been a priest in the last 20 years has few, if any, illusions about us.
We know our faults. They have been laid bare for all the world to see.
The scandal of recent years has made us realize that we are a priesthood that is often in need of reform and always in need of renewal.
But God enters through our wounds. He uses our weakness.
Both my priest uncles died in 1991.
They had returned to the priesthood, but in some ways they were broken men.
Not the rising stars of their youth.
My uncle Bill, in particular, was an example of Henri Nouwen’s wounded healer.
Never a pastor and never a monsignor, his ministry was to the broken.
To recovering alcoholics like himself.
He was the chaplain of AA.
He gave retreats to prisoners at Leavenworth.
He held AA meetings for the Longshoremen at the docks on the Missouri river.
When Bill died, I went to his funeral in Kansas City.
I was in the sacristy vesting when Bishop Helmsing entered.
Someone told him that I was Bill Daly’s nephew.
He came up to me, put his hands on my shoulders, fixed me in his gaze and said,
“Your Uncle Bill was an alcoholic.”
“I know,” I said.
Then he said, “I wish all my priests were alcoholics. Bill knew how to embrace the cross.”
He walked away.
After the funeral, weathered looking men with tattoos all over their arms came up to me and said, “Your uncle got through 20 years of sobriety.”
“Your uncle got me help me through 10 years hard time in Leavenworth.”
Monks from Conception Abbey came up to me and said, “Your uncle was my confessor. He kept me in the monastery. He understood forgiveness.”
It was an epiphany. I had a better vision of priesthood.
Not the priest as the cool guy.
But the priesthood of the broken guy.
Not the priesthood that boasted of its strength,
But a priesthood that, like St. Paul in 2 Corinthians, admitted its weakness.
For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Cor. 12:10
Not the priesthood of the man who has everything,
But the priesthood of the man who gives everything.
A life poured out like a libation in the service of the faithful. Phil 2:17
This epiphany was a comfort to me.
God had a use for me, despite my sin, my weaknesses, my failings.
It is that image of priesthood that has sustained me over these 25 years.
It still gives me encouragement.
Because God can use all of us, even now, despite our faltering steps and diminished strength.
The priesthood of weak and broken men like Paul and Barnabas has kept the church alive from its earliest days at Antioch to the present day.
This is the priesthood of Jesus Christ, who was broken for us and poured out for our sakes.
So here we are, after 25, 40, 50, or 60 years of service we are still here.
Still in the service of God and the church.
Now we know that there is only one thing that really matters, that our lives point to Christ,
That our voices are meant to be echoes of the voice of the good shepherd.
But like St. Therese said, “All the way to heaven is heaven.”
All along the way there has been love. Oceans of love.
We have come to know and love thousands and thousands of people.
That is the real reward of priesthood, the love of our companions in Christ.
We have unique bonds formed in joy and sorrow with our parishioners and with each other.
We have been present at so many wonderful moments.
Think of all the babies baptized, children instructed, marriages witnessed, heads anointed, sins forgiven, and sufferings eased by the men in this room.
Legions of people have been helped by you. You should take pride in that.
Most of all, how many times have you shared Christ with others in the celebration of the Eucharist? How many people strengthened for their own trials by His Body and Blood?
Our lives are not about buildings built, or funds raised or books written or read, although all these things have importance. Our lives are even more obviously not about what we wear or the titles we have.
Our lives are about lives changed and souls saved.
We are about bread that is broken and blood that is out poured.
Above all, in our sacramental ministry we find our meaning.
“The church,” said Walker Percy, “… confers the highest significance on the ordinary things of this world; water, bread, wine, touch, breath, talking, listening. Sacraments are the holiness of the ordinary made extraordinary.” We priests have been privileged to be instruments of all this.
The life of our priesthood is a life of occasional discouragement but unparalleled joys.
I am grateful for the privilege of sharing that life of priesthood with all of you for the last 25 years. I am proud and humbled to call you brothers.
God has called us to His purpose. He transformed our youthful ardor into mature conviction.
He sustains us by his grace still.
Thanks be to God for this great call. It is the path to our joy.
“For your love is better than life.
My lips will speak your praise.
So I will bless you all my life.
In your name I will lift up my hands.
My soul shall be filled as with a banquet.
My mouth shall praise you with Joy.”