On Sunday, May 26, I celebrated Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on the occasion of my 50th anniversary of ordination to the priesthood and the 10th anniversary as the Bishop of Syracuse. I am profoundly grateful to those who planned the celebration, to my family and friends who traveled from near and far for the occasion, to Cardinal Dolan who honored us with his presence, and to my brother bishops and priests who concelebrated the liturgy. It was a joyous occasion overflowing with sentiments of gratitude to God who called me to the priesthood and continues to sustain me with His grace. The homily I preached on that occasion is printed below.
My first words today are words of gratitude to Almighty God for permitting me to share in the gift and mystery of the priesthood for 50 years and the added blessing of serving as your bishop for the past ten years. Thank you for being here to celebrate with me and to give praise to God for his benevolence. And thank you to family and friends all for the love and support with which you have accompanied me on the journey of life and faith.
Anniversaries provoke memories. They invite us to look at the past… not just as a trip down memory lane but as an act of faith and gratitude. They are a reminder that grace is everywhere and that everything is a grace. In The Joy of the Gospel Pope Francis tells us, “The believer is essentially one who remembers.” A person of faith remembers the numerous ways God has acted in his or her life, the blessings received, the challenges met, the opportunities to find God in all things, and the parade of countless witnesses who have been companions on the journey. Allow me to remember some of the ways God has blessed my life.
In May 1968, I was ordained a deacon and a week later, I was asked by my pastor, Msgr. Charles Klauder, to be the deacon at the 50th anniversary of his ordination. At the age of 24, I remember thinking how old he was. In recent days, I have been asking myself how I got that old this quickly.
Twenty-four of us were ordained for the Diocese of Buffalo on May 24, 1969. Those early years as a priest were very exciting. The Second Vatican Council took place during my years in the major seminary and its implementation and the changes it brought were apparent in the Church during the late 1960s and 1970s.
Within a few weeks of our ordination, we were assigned to various parishes. I was assigned as the third assistant in a parish of 1,600 families. To us parishes seemed vibrant; our schools were filled; young parents were very much taken up with changes in the Church and in the world. There were, of course, many controversies in the Church as well as in the country in the late 1960s. There was a vibrancy, however, that the challenges could not squelch.
As my contemporaries and I enjoyed our newfound freedom from the seminary, older pastors tried to tame our enthusiasm. Meeting weekly for lunch, we analyzed and digested the latest changes in the Church. Throughout it all, however, we did what was expected of an assistant pastor at the time — celebrating daily Mass and multiple funeral liturgies; teaching religion in the Catholic school and parish religious education programs; visiting the sick in hospitals and homes; being chaplain or moderator of parish societies. Oh yes, lest we forget, the youngest priest was always the moderator of youth activities.
What a wonderful life it was. Do not think for a moment that there were no challenges and difficulties. There were but, speaking for myself, they helped me to grow. I may not have recognized it at the time but in retrospect, I do. How blessed I felt and how happy I was to serve in parish communities. Parish priests were then and remain today my heroes. Serving quietly and often in hidden ways, they bring the joy of the Gospel to their parishioners on a daily basis. They are witnesses to fidelity, self-denial, and holiness. We are blessed here in the Diocese of Syracuse by so many wonderful priests — many of whom are here this afternoon.
Five years after my ordination, my life changed in surprising ways. My bishop asked me to serve as his secretary for a three-year term. This appointment led to graduate studies in Canon Law at Catholic University of America followed by work in various capacities in the Buffalo Chancery including Chancellor and Vicar General. Although my youthful desire was to be a parish priest, God had other plans that spanned 30 years. Finally, in 2002 I received the assignment to be the pastor at St. Louis Church in Buffalo — a great joy and blessing.
This assignment did not last long. There was another surprise. One Monday morning in March 2004, I received the call from the pope’s representative in this country, the papal nuncio, informing me that I had been named Bishop of Ogdensburg. What a joy it was for me to be ordained and installed as the 13th Bishop of Ogdensburg to serve the wonderful people and priests in the North Country. How I loved the beauty of that area and the warm and loving people who welcomed me, supported me, prayed for me, and worked with me as we all served the needs of God’s holy people.
Five years later, on still another Monday morning, a call from the papal nuncio brought me to you. Ten years ago today I was installed as your tenth bishop. During this time, we have tried to carry on the work of the Church — to preach the love of God and the joy of the Gospel to all who would listen and to some who would not. We celebrated the Year of Faith and the Year of the Family; continued the reconfiguration of our parishes; strengthened our schools; and restored our Cathedral. We reminded all of their baptismal call to holiness of life; supported Christian marriage and family life; fostered a culture of vocations that encouraged vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life.
There have been abundant blessings but also enormous pain — the greatest, of course, the pain of knowing and acknowledging the horrendous abuse that has taken place in the Church and in our diocese in years past and the lifelong harm that has come to victims. We have listened to their stories, pray for them daily, and tried in other ways to help them find peace. In dark moments, we remember the words of St. Ambrose concerning the Church: “She is holy and spotless, even though in her earthly journey, she is made up of men tainted with sin.” Last year Pope Francis reminded us, “All the sins, failings and evil committed by some children of the Church will never be able to mar the beauty of her face.”
As I look at the Church in the Diocese of Syracuse, as I look at the Church I have known and loved throughout the world, I am reminded of the many good and life-giving things that happen in the Church each day. I find consolation in the words of St. Ambrose: “The church’s foundation is unshakable and firm against the assaults of the raging sea. Waves lash at the church but do not shatter it. Although the elements of the world constantly batter and crash against her, she offers the safest harbor of salvation for all in distress.”
Almost every day for the past 50 years, I have been privileged to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. I have listened to the Lord’s word and been nourished by His Body and Blood. During all of these years, I have considered the Church a mother — “The mother of love at its most lovely, of healthy fear, of divine knowledge and holy hope” (The Splendor of the Church, Henri de Lubac).
A few days ago, a journalist asked me the question, “What would you like people to remember about you and your time here in Syracuse?” My response, “I hope people will say, ‘He cared.’” When Pope Benedict XVI sent me to you, he could have sent a better preacher or better teacher, a better theologian or a better administrator, but he could not have sent anyone who tried to care and love you more than I have.
“Grace is everywhere.” These words from George Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest are a fitting description of my life. I have found God’s grace in so many places and among so many people. As Pope Francis said, “The believer is essentially one who remembers.” Let me add that a believer prays as Mary did, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord… he has looked with favor on his lowly servant…. The Almighty has done great things for me.” May Mary continue to wrap her protective mantle around all of us in the Diocese of Syracuse and continue to intercede for us with Her Divine Son.
If you have a prayer intention you would like me to consider during the weeks ahead, please mail it to my attention at 240 E. Onondaga St., Syracuse, N.Y. 13202.