By Katherine Long | Editor
Msgr. Eugene Yennock began his homily with a story that drew both laughter and some tears from the congregation filling St. Daniel Church in Syracuse June 13.
“On my 80th birthday, I went into the fourth grade in our school to teach religion,” Msgr. Yennock, now 95, recalled. “One of the kids said to me, ‘Monsignor, can I ask you a question?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ He said, ‘Monsignor, are you over the hill?’”
Laughing with the parishioners, family, and friends gathered, he continued: “And I said, ‘Yes, I guess I am.’ And I said, ‘Do you know what that means?’ He said, ‘I think it means that you reached the top and now you don’t have to climb anymore.’ Pretty good description of over the hill. Bishop Lucia, thank you for giving me permission to stop climbing. I’m over the hill.”
Bishop Douglas J. Lucia, joined by retired Bishop Robert J. Cunningham and several priests of the diocese, celebrated the Mass of Thanksgiving to mark Msgr. Yennock’s 71 years of priesthood and his upcoming retirement. After 40 years as pastor of St. Daniel, Msgr. Yennock will become pastor emeritus July 1.
In a stirring and wide-ranging homily, Msgr. Yennock reflected on the spiritual soul, the history and future of the Church, and the ministry of the priest. (Watch the recorded livestream Mass in full at stdaniel.com.)
“I was 7 years old when I first heard about the soul,” he recalled. “Franciscan sisters at Our Lady of Pompei School taught us the words of Jesus: ‘What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his soul in the process?’ I took those words very seriously.”
“Every human being who walks the face of the earth has to face the dilemma of balancing this life with the next life,” Msgr. Yennock said. “That’s why it is so important to understand the inside of a man and woman. A contemporary French poet said, ‘They tell me that I am flesh and blood. I am astonished at that. I thought that I was something more.’
“What is that something more that the poet is talking about? What is that something more that has stretched the minds of philosophers for centuries? What is that something more that inspires a family to kneel down and worship? What is that something more that lifts men and women from the trivial pursuits to great accomplishments for humanity? What is that something more that inspired men and women to sing on their way to the Colosseum, where they would be eaten by lions? What is that something more that allows a conversation between the inside of a human being and his God? What is that something more that allows us to hear a call and to respond to it? The something more that we are talking about is the spirit in God and the spirit in every human being.”
The prophets knew there was something more, Msgr. Yennock said. “When God gets your attention, it’s not like anything else in the whole universe. You know He is there. You know that you are not alone. You know that you must do something. When you are aware of spirit, the dimensions of life explode. Your capacity for God expands. When you are aware of spirit, your vision of life soars beyond the limits of this world. When that awareness happens to you, then you are ready to hear the call to mission.”
Msgr. Yennock said he knows there are young men today who are willing to answer the call to priesthood. “Human nature has not changed. There is still an enduring hole for God in the human heart. The burning desire for God in the soul of man is just as powerful today as it was 4,000 years ago, when God called Abraham and Moses and the prophets.”
The faithful expect their priest to be a living sacrament of Jesus and a credible sign of God’s presence in their midst, Msgr. Yennock said. “The people of God say to their priest, ‘Tell us about your celibacy, that you are a space for God in the secular city. Show us by your chastity that you really have found in your priesthood the pearl of great price, the treasure buried in the field, the city on a mountaintop. Be a witness to us that spirit is worth more than silver and gold. Prove to us that it does profit us more to save our souls than to gain the whole world. Help us to believe that the things of the spirit must have first place in our lives.’”
“Eighty years ago, I entered the seminary to save my soul,” Msgr. Yennock said in closing. “Little did I realize that the salvation of my soul depended on the salvation of the souls entrusted to my care. I can only hope that with His help, I accomplished what I was sent to do. Jesus, I trust in You.”
On behalf of the entire diocese, Bishop Lucia offered gratitude for Msgr. Yennock’s years of service and his example. “In one way, I’m glad that I can help you to stop climbing,” the bishop said. “But in another way, it was with fear and trepidation I knew this day would come, because you have done so marvelous a job. But I do think there does come a time where you need to be able to coast. And I know particularly that since you are familiar with bikes — especially the motorized kind — that hopefully in the days and months and years to come, you’ll coast. You’ll coast with the Lord and keep us all in prayer.”