Holy Thursday Homily

Was going to post this last night, but the 7 church tour went long, and I was exhausted when I finally got home.  The ending here is not the ending I gave, but that’s because I did it spontaneously, and I can’t remember what I said.  For the most part, I followed the text, with only a few variances.  The readings, by the way, can be found here.

I have an issue with the missalette we use.  Not so much about the music; musically, it’s fine, which is why we bought them in the first place.  (I still think it needs more Gregorian chant, though.  The 6th century demographic is woefully under-served.)  But my issue with it is when it tries to provide notes on the liturgy.  For example, tonight, it gave you literally two words from the Collect Prayer.  Two words!  Thanks for nothing!

When it got to the point we’re at now – the homily – it says, “The priest or deacon describes how the good news of Christ’s saving mystery applies to this particular community on this particular day.”  Now, that’s a direct quote from the GIRM – a document called the General Instruction of the Roman Missal.  What the title lacks in imagination it makes up for in functionality: it really is a collection of general instructions on how to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  It governs a lot of different things – from decoration, to music, to vestments, to silence, to how the priest holds his hands and when.

Unlike the USGA rules of golf, this is one rulebook I tend to follow.

On certain liturgical feasts, however, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal gets superceded by specific instructions within the Roman Missal.  Tonight is one of those nights.  Tonight I am given strict orders on what I am to preach on, and I quote:

The Priest gives a homily in which light is shed on the principal mysteries that are commemorated in this Mass, namely, the Institution of the Holy Eucharist and of the priestly order, and the commandment of the Lord concerning fraternal charity.

That’s no small task, and frankly not sure one I’m fully equipped for.  And so tonight I’m going to share with you the stories of three priests that none of us have ever met as a means to shed light on all those mysteries.

I begin with fraternal charity.  In tonight’s Gospel, Jesus washes the feet of the 12, but it might be a bit impractical for us to do that.  (Although I am going to do that in a few minutes.)  More to the point, stay away from my feet.  But what is fraternal charity?  It’s way more than greeting one another with a kind word; it’s way more than not gossiping about someone; it’s way more than yielding to someone at a 4-way stop.  And in fact, if that’s all you think fraternal charity is, then you have no idea.

Fraternal charity involves putting the other so far above yourself that you’re not even in the picture.  It involves emptying yourself of pride and status and honor and serving.  It involves dying to yourself so that you might build the other up.  And sometimes, fraternal charity just means dying.

Father Aloysius Schmitt was a priest of the archdiocese of Dubuque, Iowa.  He was also a chaplain in the United States Navy.  He was immensely popular with the sailors under his care on board of the USS Oklahoma – he was fair, he was kind, he was smart, he was interested in their lives…he was a good priest.  On Sunday morning, December 7th, 1941, as he was preparing to celebrate Sunday Mass below decks, the Oklahoma was struck by multiple torpedoes.  The ship almost immediately began to list severely to one side, and because they were already below the waterline, chances of escape were bleak.  Fr. Schmitt organized the survivors and got them to a porthole, which was their only means of escape.  The only problem was that he was the only one who didn’t fit through it.  He remained in that cabin, helping others escape and ordering them to abandon him, until he breathed his last.

Sometimes fraternal charity requires a lot more than we think we can give.

We’re all called to exercise fraternal charity towards another, but priests are especially.  What sets them apart?  What is about the priestly order that is so significant?  What is it that they do, exactly?  In technical terms, priests are to assistants their bishop in the exercise of his ministry, and bishops are the successors to the apostles.  Priests, then, are to help the bishop in bringing the people of their diocese closer to God and calling them to a new, deeper level of holiness.  They do this through the celebration of the sacraments, the preaching of the word, how they teach, and their very way of life.  And they do it all the time.  Everywhere they are.  Even if it’s a dire situation.

Consider the case of Father Thomas Conway.  No relation.  Fr. Conway was a priest of the diocese of Buffalo, New York.  He was chaplain aboard the USS Indianapolis, which was torpedeod and sunk the night of July 29, 1945.  The first torpedo that hit the Indy destroyed its radio room, and so they were unable to send out a distress call, and the cruiser sank quickly.  Still, many men were able to abandon ship – only to drift helplessly in the Pacific Ocean for the next several days.  In July.  Near the Equator.  Fr. Conway was one of the people.  He swam from one group of survivors to the next, hearing confessions, administering last rites, praying with the men, and just trying to keep their spirits up.  But 70 hours of no food, no water, no rest, and extreme heat can be too much for a man, and Fr. Conway eventually died in service to his men.  His body was never recovered.

The priestly order is one of service to our fellow men.  And it always working for the sanctification of others, in all corners of the world, at all times, and in every circumstance.

Finally we must reflect on the Holy Eucharist, what the second Vatican Council rightly called the source and summit of the Christian life.  No mere symbol, the Eucharist truly is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and is given to us again and again and again so that we might be made more like Him and eventually, one day be happy with Him in the Kingdom of Heaven.  The night before he was to suffer and die he handed this gift over to his apostles that he might remain with them always, and more importantly, that they would have the strength, the courage, the grace to perservere in service to the Gospel.  It would be the greatest gift any of them would ever receive – as it is for us.  The Eucharist is the greatest gift we will ever receive this side of heaven, and our lives must reflect that reality.

The story of Father Anthony Conway – again, no relation – may help illustrate this.  Fr. Tony was a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.  He was considered quiet and bookish, and he also looked like he was barely old enough to shave, but he was wildly popular among both the officers and the enlisted Marines he served.  Here is an excerpt from a letter he wrote home:

            Dear Mom and Dad, this is a pre-invasion letter.  We go into Guam tomorrow.  I am not so much afraid now, but tomorrow morning I will be plenty scared.  If the worst should happen to me, know that it is God’s will, and I gave my life for the Church and the God who rules it.  I took the vow at ordination to obey.  My work here is obedience at its best.  All the good I am going to do in there makes me courageous, for courage is fear that has said its prayers.  And there’s no greater prayer than squaring away souls for God.

This afternoon, in sight of Guam, I will be offering the Holy Sacrifice topside for all our men entering this combat, in the presence of all on board, that we might come through successfully whether dead or alive.  And if I am a victim, I know God will give me enough time to give myself Holy communion so that I will go into Eternity as I went into Guam.

Father Tony’s landing craft was hit by a Japanese shell as it made landfall on Guam.  All of the occupants were killed.

When they recovered his body later that day, he was still clutching his Mass kit tightly to his chest.

The Eucharist is more precious than anything else on this earth.

This Holy Thursday, pray for Fathers Aloysius Schmitt, Thomas Conway, and Anthony Conway.  And pray for Fathers Michael Conway, Tom Sparacino, Ken Oldenski, Steve Neff.  Pray for all priests.  And forgive us, too, for all the times we have failed to serve you as we should.  For the times we have not been what you needed.  Our Lord gives us an example tonight to follow, but in the end, we don’t always live up to the standards that we should.

But we’re going to keep trying.  This morning as we gathered with our bishop at the cathedral, we recommitted ourselves to our priestly promises.  We recommitted ourselves to you, to your service.  We’ve tied our salvation to yours.  Our goal is to get you into heaven one day, and that might mean we miss out on it ourselves.  We’re willing to pay that price, because it’s what Jesus commanded us to do.

So pray for your priests this evening, that we might always be about the work of building up the Kingdom of God.

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