“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)
Two weeks ago, our Holy Father Pope Francis ordained 19 men to the priesthood at St. Peter’s Basilica. As he began his homily, he looked out at these men and in an uncharacteristically soft voice said: “These our sons have been called to the dignity of the priesthood.” Today we gather in this beautiful church of St. Agatha because this morning one of her sons was ordained and elevated to the dignity of the priesthood. Father Michael did not seek this honor by himself, for the Lord reminds us in today’s gospel: “it was not you who chose me, but I who chose you.” From this parish, from one of our beloved families, this son of ours was called by Christ the Good Shepherd to lay down his life for his friends. He was called because Christ in his loving kindness listened to your prayers. This parish has always prayed fervently for vocations especially under the leadership of one of Father Marco’s predecessors, Bishop Felipe Estevez. Fifteen years ago, I came to this parish as a seminarian and met the Garcia family. Father Estevez had a great love for them because this family lived that love that Jesus describes in the gospel. Deacon Carlos led our Post-Confirmation youth group who did so many great things for this community, and it is there that I met an 11 year old Michael: quiet, reserved, faithful to his service at the altar and to his prayers. He was too young to join the vocation prayer groups that Father Estevez would convene. These groups yielded many religious vocations. Not coincidentally, but providentially, during that time, this parish began Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. It was Father Estevez’s fervent belief that a parish dedicated to adoration of the Lord would yield vocations, as Jesus tells us “so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you.” Our God listened to our prayers and the future bishop’s hopes have been realized because today the garden of prayer that he planted has yielded the great fruit of a priest.
Allow me if you will, to draw a parallel between an experience I had during my pastoral year here and an experience that I had with Father Michael when he was doing his pastoral year in St. Gregory’s. Father Estevez would always instill in us the vital importance of spending time before the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament even if that meant carving out a portion of your daily schedule to do this. Regularly you would find him around 3pm deep in prayer in the chapel. Back at the priest’s house, Father Estevez and I would regularly meet late at night after a long day’s work in the chapel. No words were exchanged, but the bonds of priestly fraternity were strengthened there before the Blessed Sacrament. Three years ago, Michael was assigned to me at St. Gregory’s where we also had a chapel in our residence. One evening after some event, I was sitting in the chapel reciting my night prayers when Michael walked in to do the same. I forget how much time went by, but again not a word was spoken. We walked out of the chapel at different times, and later that evening Michael texted me to say how great it was to pray together as brothers in Christ. He felt what I felt with Father Estevez all those years ago. Our ministry, our priestly fraternity that you experienced this morning when your brother priests offered you the kiss of peace, our brotherhood is strengthened when you spend time on your knees before the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Wear out you shoes by kneeling in prayer. My father is probably as demanding as your father, and for as long as I can remember he has always needled me about how worn out the tips of my shoes are. It wasn’t until recently that he noticed an old religious priest whose shoes looked similar to mine. He pointed this out to this old, wise priest and the priest responded, “this is a sign that your son spends time in prayer.” Be faithful to your prayers, be faithful to the Divine Office, be faithful to the prayers you offer at Mass, but be faithful to your personal time with Jesus. Without this, a priest cannot succeed much less be holy which is what the people you were ordained to serve deserve. Like Bishop Estevez, never be ashamed to let your people see you in prayer because the people of God want their priests to have their time alone with Christ the Good Shepherd. Pope Benedict XVI, who I know is a spiritual hero to Father Michael, once said: “So I would urge you sincerely to regard this as the fundamental task [of your priestly life]: to be with him, to learn to keep your gaze on him, to practice listening to him, and to get to know the Lord more and in prayer and in the patient reading of Holy Scripture.”
This morning was filled with emotion for all of us who have seen you grow up. The Ordination Rite is ripe with symbols, but I want to focus on one aspect which ties into today’s gospel of laying down your life for your friends. We saw this tangibly when you prostrated yourself along with your brothers on the marble floor of the cathedral, but the sign I want to focus on is the anointing of your hands and your reception of the chalice. You were anointed for God’s people just as Aaron was anointed and as Pope Francis points out, the people long to be anointed as you were and when you can’t give it to them they will take from you the very last drop. But going back to Pope Benedict, this moment of the Ordination Rite of anointing has always moved him. Back when he was ordained, the new priest’s hands were bound after they were anointed and they received the chalice with the hands still bound. The Pope Emeritus recalls: “The chalice—that recalled to mind Jesus’s question to the brothers James and John: `Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?’ (Mk 10:38). The Eucharistic chalice, core of the priestly life always recalls this saying. And then the hands bound together, anointed with the Messianic ointment of the chrism…The hands bound together are an expression of powerlessness, of the renunciation of power. They are placed in his hands; they are placed on the chalice. One could say that this shows simply that the Eucharist is the core of the priestly life. But the Eucharist is more than a rite, than liturgy. It is a form of life. The hands are bound together; I no longer belong to myself. I belong to him and through him to others.”
There is no greater love. You have laid down your life for your friends just as our Lord did. You no longer belong to yourself, to your family, or even to this parish. You now belong to him and through him to all the people you will serve in St. Louis and beyond. To all the lives you will touch. To all the mouths you will feed from this altar. To all the souls you will absolve. To all the sick you will anoint. You belong to Christ and to them. There is no greater love than what we witnessed this morning and what we are about to witness in a few moments when Father Michael acting in person Christi capitis will offer up the Divine Sacrifice for the very first time and in so doing, as you will do every time you offer this sacrifice: with Christ, you offer up your very self just as the Lord did on Calvary. Live the life of Christ always recalling the words you heard when you received the chalice this morning:
Receive the oblation of the holy people to be offered to God,
understand what you do, imitate what you celebrate,
and conform your life to the mystery of the Lord’s cross.