It was on the Seventh Sunday of Easter twenty five years that I first presided at the Liturgy of the Word and Eucharist, or in the Catholic vernacular: “said my first Mass”. The previous day, on May 26 1990, the feast of St. Philip Neri, the founder of the Congregation of the Oratory, I stood before the bishop as he asked the candidates for holy orders: Are you resolved to consecrate your life to God for the salvation of his people, and to unite yourself more closely every day to Christ the High Priest, who offered himself for us to the Father as a perfect sacrifice? And, following the script, I said: I am, with the help of God.
A few moments later, I lay prostrate on the floor of the Cathedral sanctuary, my face literally in my hands, as the Litany of Saints washed over us: Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us, Saint Michael, pray for us, St. Peter and St. Paul, St. Perpetua and St. Felicity, St Elizabeth Ann Seton, St Philip Neri – pray for us – and I simultaneously had two thoughts: 1) I cannot do this thing and 2) that through this thing God will somehow change the world. When the bishop laid his hands on my head, and the procession of presbyters did the same, I experienced both comfort and trepidation. Some pressed down firmly, perhaps to remind me of the responsibilities to come. Others barely got their hands on my head and they were off, perhaps to reflect how quickly the Spirit can move and how transient the life of pries can be. At the end, there I was, a newly minted priest – in persona Christi, not for my own benefit but for the good of all souls.
Reflecting on that day 25 years ago, I now understand that whatever else was going on, that consecration was an act by which I was to be reshaped, by dying and rising, dying and rising again in the years to follow.
To say that my first year as a priest was everything I had not expected and was just short of a nightmare would not be an overstatement: No need for details. But as grace works, that experience pushed me to look for a way to frame things differently as a priest – to have a vision for possibility, and to live with joy.
When my ordination date was moved from May 12 to May 26 when someone forgot to book the cathedral for our ordinations, I decided I should get to know something about S. Philip. 16 months after my ordination, following another booking error, when the hotel room I was to have for a wedding in Virginia was not available, I met Fr. Dennis when we both stayed that night sharing the hospitality of mutual friends. He invited me to come and visit the Oratory in Brooklyn. I did.
What impressed me at that time was not the beauty of the church; it was not as it is today. Rather, what caught my eye was a sign that hung in the sacristy that read: The life of a priest has never been easy. It was that day that my Oratorian vocation was truly born. Each time I came to visit the Oratory and took the train to Penn station and stood on the platform to take the A train to downtown Brooklyn, I felt like I was coming home.
By the inspiration of S. Philip, the truth I stand in today, is that when that fruit of the holy Spirit, joy, burns within us, all manner of things are not only able to be endured, but redeemed, sanctified, and transformed.
This is what is at the core of Jesus’ great priestly prayer of today’s gospel by which he consecrates his disciples – in effect, he ordains them – to be his presence in the world.
I speak this in the world so that they may share my joy completely. I gave them your word, and the world hated them, because they do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world but that you keep them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world. Consecrate them in the truth. Your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world. And I consecrate myself for them, so that they also may be consecrated in truth.
Those myriad hands, laid on my head 25 years ago sought to awaken me to what Jesus prays over us in the gospel today. In the end you and I, we don’t really belong to all this, we are transients, pilgrims on the way, given to one another for the journey. We must wrestle with the world as it is and take the knocks that come with it, even the knocks we give one another. The key is to wrap it all in the joy of belonging to Christ, a joy that makes us complete, even as it demands much.
Supported by your prayers, with the love of my Oratorian brothers and with the help of God I am resolved to continue to consecrate my life to God for the salvation of his people, and to unite myself more closely every day to Christ the High Priest, who offered himself for us to the Father as a perfect sacrifice.
I don’t know if I have another 25 years but whatever years God grants me, I will be here, wrestling with the world and praying to understand more fully what it means to live in joy.
When shall we begin to do good?
Homily on the Seventh Sunday of Easter
The Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of Ordination
Michael J. Callaghan, c.o.