The Gift & Mystery of Your Priestly Vocation, First Mass of Fr. Gerard O’Connor (C), July 23, 2000

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Mary’s Church, New Bedford, MA
First Mass of Thanksgiving, Fr. Gerard O’Connor
16th Sunday in OT, Year B
July 23, 2000
Jer 23:1-6; Eph 2:13-18; Mk 6:30-34

Monsignor Oliveira, my brother priests, friends and family of our newly ordained priest, dear parishioners of St. Mary’s in New Bedford, Father O’Connor

1) In November of 1996, about two-and-a-half months after the now-Father O’Connor arrived in Rome to begin his theological studies in preparation for the priesthood, there was a great celebration at St. Peter’s Basilica, which Father O’Connor, several of the young priests in this sanctuary today and I had the privilege to attend. Thousands of priests celebrating their 50th anniversaries had come to Rome to celebrate the priesthood with the most famous member of their ordination class, Pope John Paul II. For the occasion, at the request of countless faithful and priests throughout the world, the Holy Father agreed to write a book describing his five decades of priestly ministry, the joys, the hardships, and the meaning of the priesthood. The book turned out to be one-hundred pages long, but the theme of every one of those pages, His Holiness tells us early in the reflections, was captured concisely and appropriately in the title of the book: Gift and Mystery. The priesthood is a gift and a mystery.

2) The priesthood is first a gift and a mystery that a man receives. With the appreciation and the wonder of 50 years, the Pope says that the story of his priestly vocation is known above all to God. “At its deepest level, every vocation to the priesthood is a great mystery; it is a gift which infinitely transcends the individual. Every priest experiences this clearly throughout the course of his life. Faced with the greatness of the gift, we sense our own inadequacy. A vocation is a mystery of divine election: ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.’ … ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’ These inspired words cannot fail to move deeply the heart of every priest. … Human words are insufficient to do justice to the mystery which the priesthood involves.” The Holy Father said it was “essential” to state this at the outset, so that what he wrote about his own path to the priesthood could be properly understood. It is likewise essential to state it at the beginning of this homiletic reflection on the priesthood, and essential to say it at the beginning of Father O’Connor’s priestly life.

3) The priesthood is a gift and a mystery that a man receives. It is a gift of God, to the Church as a whole and to a man in particular. As such, it is something that immediately evokes — or should evoke — our gratitude. The whole Church of Fall River rejoices, Father O’Connor, to have you as a priest of our Diocese and thanks God for calling you. But it is a great gift of God to you personally and a mystery that neither you nor anyone will ever be able to fully figure out or exhaust its depths. Just as assuredly as Jesus walked by the lakeshore and called Peter, Andrew, James and John to follow him 2000 years ago, he called you. Just as he sent them out to their contemporaries in Palestine to preach the Gospel and baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, so he sends you out to yours here in southeastern Massachusetts. Just as he breathed on them and gave them the power to bind and loose on heaven and earth, so he breathes on you and gives you that same mission and responsibility in the sacrament of confession. He gave you the same mandate to feed his sheep and tend his lambs and he gave you the same command to bring his presence down on earth by doing the Eucharist in memory of him. You are now part of that succession of priests that stretches its roots all the way back to that first ordination in the Upper Room. Your holy card says so beautifully from St. John’s Gospel and football stadiums across the country, “Sic enim dilexit Deus mundum,” God so loved the world that he sent his only son that whoever believes in him may not die but have eternal life. But God continued to so love the world that he has called and sent you in the person of His Son to continue his saving work. Sic Deus dilexit mundum ut nobis daret te. What a gift and a mystery this is!

4) But the priesthood is more than a gift and a mystery you receive. It is also a gift and mystery you have become. You changed yesterday, changed completely. In fact, you died yesterday. When you lay on the floor, Gerard O’Connor died and you rose, after the laying on of hands and the invocation of the Holy Spirit, as one configured to Christ the High Priest and Head of the Church forever. In the old Benedictine priestly ordination rite, as you know, they used to cover the candidates lying on the floor with a funeral pall to signify the very real death to self that happens in a priest’s very essence. Then you rose again, or better yet, Christ himself rose in you, so that you would be able to say with your fellow priest St. Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me!” In the mystery you are now privileged to celebrate at the altar, the Lord takes simple bread and wine and transubstantiates them into His Body and Blood. Yesterday, the Lord took you and transubstantiated you so that you would be His presence among us in the sacraments.

5) You have now been given a dignity that exceeds all imagination. The patron saint of parish priests, St. Jean-Marie Vianney, affectionately known as the Curé of Ars, used to express his wonder aloud in his Catecheses about the dignity of the priesthood. He used to say to his parishioners, “If you had committed a mortal sin, not even all the angels and saints in heaven together would be able to forgive you in Christ’s name. That only a priest can do for God. Even if the Blessed Mother were to come down in Church right now, she could not herself give the real presence of the Lord. Only a priest can.” You have been changed by God into the only man in all of creation who can forgive sins in God’s name, the only person who can give the people the living, real presence of Jesus. You are now an intimate part of this greatest gift ever to the world and the greatest mystery the world has ever known. You have become an alter Christus, another Christ, here in our midst. You have become a gift and mystery, which likewise provokes our gratitude and wonder.

6) But as exalted as the priestly dignity is, no man ever merits it. It is a pure gift. And so the question eventually arises in the heart of every man chosen for this mission of missions, “Why did God choose me?” This side of heaven, we can never exhaust this mystery, but we can, in a certain sense, understand something of the divine logic when we reflect on those whom he called to be his first priests, the apostles. The message Jesus sent them out to preach to the world was one of repentance and conversion of sins. It’s no surprise, therefore, that to preach this message, he chose a bunch of sinners to be his apostles, because they could be credible witnesses of the fact that Jesus forgives sins and that conversion is possible. He chose Peter, whose first words to the Lord were “Depart from me for I am a sinful man.” He chose Matthew, a hated public tax collector, who surrounded himself with those the Pharisees thought were the greatest sinners of the day. He chose Paul who — we can never forget, because he never did — used to kill Christians for a living. But they were credible witnesses that the Lord came to call sinners, because they could testify in their very own lives that they were sinners whom he called to a life of love with Him and that such conversion was indeed possible. Now he’s called you, Fr. O’Connor, just like he’s called your brother priests here in this sanctuary. He’s called you not just because of your obvious talents, your great sense of humor, intelligence, care and concern for others, and love of him, but because you, like all your brother priests, are a converted sinner. You are able to proclaim in your own life personally what the whole Church proclaims in the Exsultet at the Easter Vigil, O Felix Culpa, O Happy Fault of Adam that brought such a great redeemer. You can make that you own, O Felix Culpa Mea (with the stress on “mea” and not on “felix”!) , O Happy Fault of mine that brought me personally such a great redeemer. These faults, these sins, which you recognize as forgiven, as well as your continuing struggles like everyone here to fight sin, are, too, a gift that will help to make you a good, humble and patient confessor.

7) The priesthood is a gift and mystery you’ve received and a gift and mystery you’ve become. But it is also meant to be a gift and mystery you generously share. What you have freely received, the Lord calls you now freely to give. The Lord has called you to himself only to send you out for the salvation of the world. We can paraphrase what St. Teresa of Avila once said to priests: The Lord has no feet on earth now but yours to go hunt down his lost sheep and bring them back to the fold. He has no hands on earth now but to anoint people and send them to God. He has no voice on earth but yours to proclaim his Gospel, to whisper those words “your sins are forgiven, go and sin no more.” The priesthood is about “going out”, “going out to all the world,” going out to the whole diocese, going out to the whole of whatever parish you’re ever assigned to and “proclaiming the good news.” It’s not about staying in a rectory waiting for people to come by. The Lord has called you to bring the gifts and mysteries he’s given you and you now treasure out to a world that needs them as much now as they did when Jesus first came. The Holy Father has been losing his voice proclaiming the need for a new evangelization, and you are now an even greater part of that mission. Take your lead from the great patrons of the missions, St. Francis Xavier and St. Therese Lisieux. Labor here in the Diocese of Fall River with the same zeal they did to spread the Gospel, as St. Francis did in the Indies and St. Therese did in her Carmel, being love in the heart of the Church. The Diocese of Fall River is your Indies and your vocation, like St. Therese’s, is to be love in the heart of this particular Church. As we read in today’s Gospel, Jesus looked on the crowd with pity for they were like sheep without a shepherd. Jesus looks with pity upon the vast multitudes in our own day who are wandering, lost, some without even recognizing it, going from one talk show host to the next, from sports stars to movie stars, from advice columnists to horoscopes, from rock singers to politicians. But there’s only one Shepherd who leads to the fullness of human life in this life or the next and that is Jesus, the Good Shepherd. And he has called you to go gather His flock, bring back his sheep whom he knows by name to his fold, and to give them a Shepherd’s care. The Pastor Bonus, the Good Shepherd, is sending you out as his bonus pastor. May he give you his heart with which to love those you will serve.

8) Finally, we turn to the very human reality of this gift and mystery you have received, become and are called to share. As great as the dignity of the priesthood is, it doesn’t change the fact that a priest remains a frail human being. The day after that first ordination in the upper room, every member of the first ordination class abandoned the Lord save one. The only one to stay faithful was St. John. As you, likewise, celebrate this Mass on the day after your ordination, we can reflect for a minute on what was his secret to stay faithful to the Lord when all of the others abandoned him so soon after their ordination. He stayed faithful because he stood by Mary at the foot of the Cross of the Lord. The Cross and Mary are both absolutely essential elements to your priesthood.

9) First the Cross. You’ve already learned a great deal about the Cross from the preparation God gave you for your priesthood. As a 14 year old, you lost your father, John. At 33, you lost your mother Catherine. So many of the priests who have taught you the joys, hopes and sorrows of the priesthood have died before this day as well, Fr. Gerry Bucke, Canon Plunkett, among them. And we’ve talked privately about several of the other crosses the Lord has asked you to carry along the way. The Lord will ask more of you. You have been ordained to a life, as the Bishop instructed you yesterday, modelled on the “mystery of the Lord’s Cross.” Stay close to the Cross like St. John. So many people, including many priests today, run away from the Cross when the Cross finally becomes real, heavy and painful for them. Rather than cling to it knowing that Christ is still attached to the other end of it, they run away from it in one way or another. It cannot be that way with you if you want to have a fruitful, long and holy priesthood. God will send you Crosses in your priesthood because he loves you and wants to conform you ever more to the mystery of his Son. Accept them and lift them high. I’ve always been extremely edified personally, Gerard, that during Lent every night you would go to the chapel at the North American College to pray the Stations of the Cross. Every night! And I saw you on nights you were exhausted, on evenings when you had exams the following day, on days when it was really supremely inconvenient for you to go, but you still went to that chapel faithfully. The Lord is asking you to do that Via Crucis, in one way or another, every day of your priesthood. Enter into that mystery so that you may, through it, experience the great joy that comes in the radical gift of self, in the love, that embracing the Cross will bring to you.

10) Now Mary. St. John, the day after his ordination, stood with Mary at the foot of the Cross as together they beheld the enormous sufferings Christ bore on that Cross. As a priest, you will witness extraordinary sufferings and grief from families who have just lost a newborn, who have suffered great violence, who live in unbelievable poverty, famine, war, hatred, malice. Like so many of our contemporaries, you may too have your faith shaken, asking yourself how a God who is Love can allow such suffering to happen. On those occasions, when you witness such difficult hardships, stand aside the Blessed Mother at the foot of the Cross and behold Christ’s sufferings, and then understand the sufferings you witness within the context of the suffering and death of the Lord, which destroyed death and gave suffering meaning. Contemplate those sufferings in your heart, as Mary still contemplates them in her pierced one. While Jesus hung upon the Cross for you, Fr. O’Connor, and for all those he sent you to help him save, he said to that faithful priest there with his own mother, “Behold your mother!” And he said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son!” The same Lord said that yesterday to you: “Behold your mother!” And to her in heaven, “Behold your Son.” Mary is now your special mother in the priesthood. Like St. John, take her into your home and learn from her for she will always lead you to her Son.

11) In the Lord, there are no coincidences and hence it was part of God’s plan for you that you would be ordained at her Cathedral in Fall River and celebrate your Mass of Thanksgiving here at the Church in her honor in New Bedford. At the ordination yesterday, Bishop O’Malley layed hands on you for one minute and 17 seconds. 77 seconds! (At my ordination last year, he only layed hands on me for 28….) Bishop Sean lays hands on the head of a man longer than any bishop I’ve ever seen. I once asked him what he does during that time. And he told me. He said he consecrates that man’s vocation to the Blessed Mother. Yesterday you could see his lips moving slightly as he pile-drived you into the Cathedral floor. He consecrated you and your vocation to the Blessed Mother. Today, at this Mass, the first First Mass celebrated in the new St. Mary’s, renew that consecration. Mary, your mother in the priesthood, will raise you as a priest in the same way that she helped to raise her Son, Jesus, the High Priest. And she will help you to enter into the mysteries of the priesthood in ways only she can.

12) In the great mystery of the Incarnation, the Angel Gabriel was sent by God not to just “any young virgin,” but sent to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a particular 14-year-old girl engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. “Greetings, O Highly Favored Daughter!,” the angel said, “the Lord is with you. … Do not be afraid. You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. … The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and the child to be born will be holy, the Son of God.” And that young girl replied with great faith, entering into the gift and mystery of her vocation, “I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to thy word.” The Word of God was then made flesh and dwelled among us. In a similar way, God the Father didn’t send his angels and messengers saying, “Find me any warm blooded young man,” but came to a town in England called Kingston-Upon-Hull to a particular 14-year-old boy at Marist College, the son of John and Catherine O’Connor, and that boy’s name was Gerard. Your response wasn’t as ready as Mary’s, but God came again and visited you in Boston. That same Lord is now with you and tells you not to be afraid. In this very Mass you’re about to celebrate, when Christ will speak his words from the Upper Room with your Hull accent, the Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you and this altar. You will conceive in your hands and give birth to the Son of God here in our midst, the Word of God made flesh, the very same Word that took flesh from the Virgin, 2000 years ago (as we celebrate) this year. This is God’s plan for you! With Mary, who will help you and intercede with the Lord for the graces you need, say, every day of your priesthood, “Fiat!,” “I am the servant of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word!” And the Lord will do great things in you, just as he did in her.

The priesthood. What a gift! What a mystery! All of us here today rejoice and with great gratitude, wonder and praise thank the Lord for the gift of your priesthood, Father O’Connor. Treasure this gifted mysterious life always, ad multos gloriososque annos, for IT IS YOURS, O priest of God!