For you reading this on Sunday April 23, this is my 40th anniversary as a Priest of Jesus Christ. On April 23, 1977 in the little church of St. Gerard Majella in Hollis, Queens, Bishop Francis Mugavero ordained me to be a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn. I had gone through some 12 years of training for this moment. For four years, I went to Cathedral Prep (Brooklyn); four years at Cathedral College in Douglaston; and for 3 and-a-half years at the Major Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington. After being ordained a transitional deacon in January of 1976, I was sent for one year and some months to St. Gerard’s. At that time, we each were ordained in our deaconate parishes individually (12 of them that year). In June of 1977, I was sent to my first assignment at St. John the Evangelist in Brooklyn.
One can get the mistaken impression, however, that once I was ordained my training was over; but the truth of it is that my training had just begun. I had entered the great Seminary of the People of God. The Seminary in Huntington had given me the theological tools that I needed. It had also helped form me spiritually so that I could profit by the next stage of my training, the most important one: on-the-job training that can only happen with direct and continual contact with service to the Body of Christ, the Church.
Over the past 40 years, I have learned many things by experience. When I entered the school of the Lord’s service, I thought I had it all, that there was nothing left to learn. However, that attitude was just part of my immaturity. Luckily, I was open enough that I could perceive how little I actually knew and how I had to admire and emulate the great priests that surrounded me, since they had already submitted to the program of life-long learning which the priestly life is.
For instance, there was once an old Italian woman who struggled to walk. She walked with a pronounced disability, teetering and veering, holding onto her cane and on anything else that could help support her. Her walking-up for Communion looked painfully difficult. One day I saw her after Mass and offered to bring Communion home for her so that she did not have to struggle to come for Mass. She paused and looked me straight in the eye and said: “As long as I have strength in my body it is I who come to my Lord and not my Lord to me.” There was so much power in her words that I understood the greatness of the Eucharistic Presence and how small we are in comparison: a very valuable lesson told to me by a truly great teacher.
Over and over again the people of the parish taught me how to be a good priest. One day I was hearing confessions when I was very tired because I was not taking good care of myself. I had been overworking, which is a real danger for priests. We begin to think you can measure a priest’s worth by how many hours he works. That day, while a penitent was confessing to me face-to-face, I drifted off into a deep sleep. I woke up as the penitent gently touched me on my knee and said, “Father, you need to get more rest.” Embarrassed, I struggled to give some excuse for my drifting off, but I knew deep down that the Lord, through the penitent, was teaching me that rest and sleep are not just add-ons, that I could sin by pride and arrogance if I thought that I had no limits and could work all the time. The encounter was capped by a humorous remark when the gentleman smiled at the door of the confessional and said, “Next time I will try to make my confession more interesting!” I laughed and realized what a big person this was to be able to minister to me with such good humor. The instructions would often come from the most unlikely places.
For instance, when I teach in a classroom of very young children. Their questions often caused me to think more deeply about my faith. Here at Immac I have often had to go back to the Lord to ask Him about a problem or an issue that was brought up by one of the first graders I call my “young theologians.”
I have had to, over the past 40 years, go back to my past understandings of the things of God to reappraise and re-think something based on an encounter with one of the members of the congregation in which I was serving. Needless to say, I am still learning. I am in good company when I reflect how Jesus warned us not to call anyone on earth our teacher. He said we are all learners.
I am still in the Seminary learning how to be a priest. God continues to patiently teach me though my work. I am comforted to know that I am in good company, since we are all being taught: we are all learners.
I thank the Lord for this great seminary of the People of God!