The great 20th century British composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, wrote an exquisite musical masterpiece entitled, “The Lark Ascending.” It was inspired by a poem written by an English poet. Vaughn Williams wrote his violin solo so masterfully that the listener hearing those notes can almost see the lark soaring through the sky. The music is truly uplifting to the listener, and some consider this work as one of the finest ever composed.
I can only imagine what the apostles must have felt when they saw Our Lord ascending so majestically to heaven. The reading from the Acts of the Apostles says that they “were looking intently at the sky as he was going,” but then “suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them” taking them from their mesmerized gaze; and the Gospel of Saint Mark says that the disciples indeed “went forth and preached everywhere,” fulfilling Our Lord’s farewell command to “go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” This applies to all true followers, but especially us priests.
The Great Commission that Jesus gave to the disciples — and their prompt response to carry out His wishes — provides the prototype for our own lives of discipleship: we are not mere spectators watching a religious pageant unfold. We are sharers in the Body of Christ and, at the end of each and every Mass, are sent forth to glorify the Lord by our lives.
In this weekend’s Eucharist, I offer prayers of thanks to God for my 50 years of priesthood, for on Saturday, May 15th, I observed my golden anniversary of ordination as a priest.
I think that my journey in the faith and in the priesthood has been a sort of an “ascension” in itself, starting from the ground up as an altar server, entering high school seminary at the age of sixteen, and resulting in my ordination to the priesthood at twenty-five. Looking back now, I must say that there was much about the priesthood that I didn’t know or really understand, but I’m grateful for the people who have mentored me over these fifty years and helped me to grow in my understanding of the ordained ministerial priesthood which in many ways still remains a mystery that continues to unfold through the grace of God. I would call these people the “pillars” of my priesthood, starting with my parents, my first teachers in the faith. It is through them that I was introduced to a relationship with the Lord and his Church, which impressed me so strongly at a very early age that I wanted to be a priest for as long as I can remember; I even used to “play” priest at an early age.
Several bishops and priests were influential in this attraction to the priesthood, and there were countless others who were not only outstanding role models but who became close friends in the priesthood of Jesus. I’m grateful to the late archbishop, John Cardinal Krol, an outstanding Church leader, who ordained me to the priesthood in Philadelphia and gave me my first pastorate. It was my friend, Vatican Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski, who made me a Canon of his cathedral and invested me with the robes of Monsignor.
Two popes were also significant in helping to form me into the person and the priest that I am today. Pope St. Paul VI was our Holy Father throughout my years as a seminarian, and I was introduced to him by none other than Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, the future Pope St. John Paul II, and began a longtime friendship with him, lasting through his entire twenty-seven year papacy. It was quite an honor afforded me on several occasions to be able to stand right next to and concelebrate Mass with a future canonized saint! Additionally, I was privileged to have met St. Mother Theresa of Kolkata; but since there were no cell-phone cameras then, I unfortunately do not have a selfie with her!
Finally, I’m grateful to our kind bishop, the Most Reverend Gerald Barbarito, who assigned me to be your pastor in October 2005. At that time, he told me that the parish needed a good “sprucing up,” but I was unable to comprehend all that this ‘clean-up’ would entail. I was almost ready to give up after that initial jolt, but so many of you were there to help me through those first turbulent days, and encouraged me to do my very best to fulfill his request. Thank you for all your support during these years!
While it has been a great privilege to serve as your Pastor these past fifteen and one-half years, I must admit that I am reaching for one more goal in life – and, by it, I don’t mean retirement. The upward ascendancy is not quite finished. My true ambition is to be a saint– not necessarily an officially canonized one as those three that I met were but, simply, a saint in the sense of spending eternal life with Our Lord in heaven. That has been my real goal in life. Please pray for me to reach this heavenly goal, as I pray daily for you to reach those same transcendent heights with our Risen and Ascended Lord! Thank you.