TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 4, 2014
I’m thankful to Msgr. Reilly and the Priests of Immaculate Conception Seminary for the invitation to celebrate the Eucharist with you; and even more for their and all of your hospitality and support for Mr. Matthew Higgins and myself with the Vocations Office’s move here a few months ago. I know that Matt and I feel blessed to have our office and ministry which is focused on Priestly vocations here, where those vocations are nurtured and formed. And I just want to add what a blessing it is to celebrate here in this beautifully renovated Chapel. So again, thank you for this opportunity.
When the vice rector, Fr. Suszko, sent me the Priest’s Celebrant Mass Schedule, at first I didn’t pay very close attention to the date – that I’d be celebrating Mass on February 4th. When I finally went to put it on my calendar, though, I was even more grateful for this opportunity – because Feb 4th is one of those personal days that stand out in my mental calendar. It was 30 years ago today, as a fourth grader at St. Agnes Church in Clark, when I served as an altar server at Mass for the very first time. While I’d like to tell you the reason I remember that fact is because I had some great vision or indication of God’s call in my life during that Mass, what really makes February 4th stand out in such a dramatic way is while I was nervously getting vested before Mass in an alb for the first time, one of our parish priests, Fr. Charlie, came into the Sacristy and said to me and the other server: “Boys, I have some sad news… Fr. Whelan died this morning.”
Fr. Whelan was the founding pastor of St. Agnes, the parish Fr. Suszko and I call ‘home’. And what struck me that morning was seeing the shock, the grief that parishioners had at the beginning of Mass when they heard the news. Even my father who had driven me there at 6:30 am for 7 am Mass on a Saturday morning was uncharacteristically shook up as we drove home. I saw the genuine sadness on my mother’s face as the “celebratory breakfast” she had prepared for us that morning to mark my first time serving at Mass was deflated very quickly by the news (funny, there wasn’t any way she was getting up at 6 am on a Saturday to come to a daily Mass – but she did make breakfast).
The entire experience has obviously stayed with me ever since. Fr. Whelan, 30 years after his death, is still loved and remembered by a great many parishioners as if he died only recently. Not because he did anything extraordinary in the eyes of the world – but because he truly was in persona Christi to the people of the neighborhood that he was called to lead, to serve, to form this new parish.
He knew his people… he loved his people…
Two short personal memories stand out for me. The first was when I was in Kindergarten and my family was coming home from Sunday afternoon dinner at my grandparents. We had missed Fr. Whelan stopping by as he was doing the “Parish Census” (where officially, the parish priest used to stop by parishioners homes to make sure the Sacramental records were updated – but more importantly just to make a personal, one-to-one connection with the families that made up his parish). I can still remember my parents reading us the short note he left, “Dear Jo Ann and George – Sorry I missed you and the boys. Make sure little Jimmy gets to Mass every Sunday. God Bless, Fr. Whelan.” As a 5 year old, it stunned me that the priest even knew who I was.
The other moment I recall is Fr. Whelan hearing my first confession. The little screen on the old confessional opened and I was crying. Fr. Whelan very gently and fatherly said, “Hey, hey – it’s okay, don’t be nervous…”
Through my tears I just said, “I’m not scared – Mrs. Damiano, my CCD teacher, just threw me in here because she blamed me for making noise on line and it wasn’t me.” I’ll never forget how hearing him laughing and seeing his silhouette in the screen shaking from his laughter how quickly and completely that calmed me down.
Not exactly earth-shattering, dramatic things – although to a young, impressionable boy, they are life-long memories – even foundational memories in being able to recognize my vocation to the priesthood - and some of the qualities of what makes a good priest. I think that’s why for many parishioners of St. Agnes – even in this somewhat vapid age we live in where people are forgotten as soon as they are out of sight, out of mind, he is still remembered. Parishioners can recall how when they were sick, Fr. Whelan was there. When they were dealing with crises he was there. Births, deaths, marriages, divorces, celebrations, crises…Fr. Whelan was there. And because He loved Jesus, he loved these people that the Lord had sent him to lead—because people knew that, his caring, consistent, prayerful presence is still remembered.
To celebrate the Sacraments prayerfully, reverence is essential. Knowing your theology, being able to articulate the Catholic Faith to a culture that for the most part hasn’t heard it accurately or fully expressed is important. But when I think about Fr. Whelan – I can’t remember a single Mass he celebrated, or a homily he preached. But I do remember those two memories I shared with you. I remember him caring about me personally, and calming my fears more than anything that I shared in my first confession.
Isn’t that one of the essential things that Jesus does throughout the Gospels? Being attentive to His people’s needs and being a part of their daily lives? Think about how the miracles of Jesus were never meant to be “showy” or call attention to himself (like the devil had suggested Jesus do after returning from his 40 days in the desert: Throw yourself from the temple –or, you’re hungry, turn these stones into bread!) Jesus’ miracles are always responding to the daily life, the daily needs of the people – a wedding feast that would have been spoiled by lack of wine; crowds who had been following Jesus and all of a sudden realized they have no food and are hungry… In those instances, he was attentive to their daily, human needs.
In today’s Gospel, there’s an even greater urgency: look at the things that were troubling, the things that were pressing, the things that were most important: Someone is seriously ill (and has been for years) – a child is dying.
Yes, Jesus being Jesus He is able to do some amazing things in all of those moments that were incredibly memorable: turning water into wine, feeding the multitudes with a few loaves and fishes, and in today’s Gospel, just touching his cloak instantly heals the woman with the hemorrhage. And, even more amazing, His word and touch raises the child from the dead. Even after raising the little girl from the dead, he tells those gathered “she’s hungry… give her something to eat…” (It’s examples like this that makes those of us who are Italian think that Jesus must have been Italian.) At the heart all of those examples and countless more is the essence of being a good priest:
Jesus knows His people… He loves His people
May we who have received this tremendous call to be a priest of Jesus Christ be inspired by the example of good holy priests like Fr. Whelan who demonstrated how we are to do this in our own day so effectively. We will be sent to people, who, were it not for Jesus putting them into our lives, they would be mere strangers to us. His expectation is that we will come to know and come to love them simply because they are His people. As we bring them His comfort, His consolation, His Healing, may they come to believe, come to know how they are truly noticed, truly remembered and indeed, truly loved by the same God who loves us this much to entrust so precious a gift: His people, to us His priests.