Following Jesus: Peter, Tom Wells, and Picking Up the Cross, Friday of 7th Week of Easter (B), June 9, 2000

Fr. Roger J. Landry
North American College
Immaculate Conception Chapel
Friday of the Seventh Week of Easter
June 9, 2000
Acts 25:13-21; Jn 21:15-19

Follow me! Our Lord was always very simple with Peter. He always had one simple message, one straightforward vocation for the man on whom he would build his Church: Follow me! How many times Jesus must have said this to Peter! The evangelists record Jesus saying it 21 times. At the seashore of Galilee: “Follow me and I will make you a fisher of men.” A few miles from the Sea: “Follow me and let the dead bury their dead.” In Caesarea Philippi, after he had just called the Rock Satan: “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.” In the Upper Room: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am my servant will be.” Finally in today’s Gospel: after the Lord asked Peter three times if he loved him; after the Lord had prophesied to Peter that he would be dragged to a place he didn’t want to go and crucified, Jesus said to him one more time, “Follow me!”

And Peter followed. He followed the Lord until the Way led him to … Rome. Here in Rome he continued in the Lord’s footsteps until his own feet were bloodied and hammered to the top of a two-by-four in Nero’s circus. This 60-something year old man — of retirement age by today’s standards — was still following the Lord, while he stretched out his hands as they were tied by a belt to his definitive papal cathedra, on which he gave his finest and most glorious testimony of all.

Decades ago the Lord was at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and a called a young man to follow him. And Tommy Wells did. Wells followed him into the seminary and then to the altar where he was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Washington in 1971. He followed him to Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary several years ago where he, with great wit, proclaimed the joys of the priesthood of Christ in a memorable day of recollection to a house full of seminarians, myself included, who likewise were trying to follow the Lord. On Wednesday night, this 56-year old Monsignor continued to follow the Lord as he brought Him in Communion to a sick parishioner at a hospital. And then, as he returned to his Germantown rectory about 10 pm, he followed the Lord all the way, usque ad finem, usque ad crucem. Little did this priest know that the viaticum he brought to another — his last recorded priestly deed — was to be his own viaticum. Upon returning to Mother Seton Rectory, a burglar, who had just ransacked parts of the rectory, attacked him. The assailant dragged Tom Wells against his will into the living room amidst a copious trail of blood, and there killed him. And it was in this way that the Lord indicated to all of us, on the front page of the Washington Post, the style of death by which Tom Wells would glorify God. Wells followed the Lord all the way until he himself, who bore the title Monsignor — My Lord — was united with that Lord in a torturous, brutal death. We pray now he is united with him in the Resurrection.

But the story is not over. Many years ago, Our Lord was in, of all places, California, Michigan, Iowa, Spokane and even Massachusetts and said, “Follow me!” And each of us did. We picked up whatever crosses he gave us and began the journey that led each of us to enter the seminary. We followed the Lord here to Rome where he nourishes us just a stone’s throw from the place where the Rock glorified God by his death. We have or will follow the Lord to our knees in front of the altar, where we will hear from a successor of the Apostles — as Derek Lappe, Tim MacDonald and Tom LaHood will hear tomorrow, and as Tom Wells heard 29 years ago — “Conform your life to the mystery of the Lord’s Cross!” The mystery of the Lord’s Cross! St. Peter lived that gift and mystery. He carried that Cross until he was killed on it. But he had raised up others for the Lord to lift high and carry that Cross after him. Tom Wells was one of those who picked it up, and lived that gift and mystery of the Cross until he was conformed to Christ on it two days ago. But he had raised up others, like our own Greg Coan, to lift it up high after him. Now it’s our turn. The Lord is waiting for us, so that he might pass on that glorious, mysterious Cross to us like a baton on the pilgrimage of the Church toward the parousia. And he calls us to be his disciples and apostles by taking up this Cross and following Him wherever it may take us. This Cross is not ignominious; it’s glorious. It’s not a sign so much of suffering, but of the love that makes that suffering bearable and meaningful. And this is the Gospel of Love we’re called to proclaim.

The priesthood is a vocation of love. Christ asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Christ asks each of us that question too. And he asked it to Tom Wells. In the articles in today’s Washington Post, several parishioners interviewed talked about just how their pastor responded. They described how deeply Tom Wells loved the Lord, how he loved the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament every day before Mass, how he loved the Lord in the priesthood raising up several after him to take his place, how he loved the Lord in all those who came to him, including those who made his life difficult, and how he preached this love in season and out of season. And in perhaps the greatest tribute a parishioner could have possibly given him, Scott Wight, a chemist from Gaithersburg, said that Wells would always urge his parishioners to love even their enemies and always to forgive. “Such a horrible thing like his death,” Wight told the Post, “is bound to elicit hatred, for lack of a better word. But Msgr Wells wouldn’t have wanted any part of that hatred. Love, he would tell us. Forgive. He would be that pillar, proclaiming that Gospel for us if he were here.” The Church has lost a great priest, who now proclaims the Gospel even in death. May we proclaim that same Gospel usque ad finem, no matter what Crosses come our way, so that, when we come to the end of our earthly pilgrimage, others may say of us, as priests and faithful are today saying admidst tears in the nation’s capitol: Ecce, sacerdos magnus, qui in diebus illis placuit Deo! Amen.