A Homily at My High School 50th

Regis mottoCambridge, MA. I have been preaching regularly for over 40 year, since I was ordained a deacon in 1977 and a priest in 1978. We were urged in seminary to speak without a written text and ideally without notes, and so only very rarely have I written out a homily. I can think of three times, when after a homily, I wrote it out.

In any case, the preceding paragraph is just the lead-up to explaining why I am posting below the homily I gave on Saturday, June 16. I gave it at Regis High School, which is on East 84th Street just off Park Avenue, in New York City. Regis was and is an excellent school, a scholarship school for boys of the New York City area, founded in 1914 with a gift from an anonymous donor. (I commuted, 1964-1968, from Staten Island, 90 minutes each way.) The occasion was my class's golden jubilee (1968-2018). I was there together with about 60 of my surviving classmates, many with spouses. I was honored to be able to preside and preach at the Eucharist. I thereafter wrote up the homily, for the sake of classmates unable to attend.

The written version is quite a bit longer than the version I actually gave, but on the whole the same. Particularly in our day, there was still a strong commitment to the study of Greek and Latin. A few of us had read the whole of Homer’s Iliad in Greek during our junior and senior years; hence the concluding reference to Achilles and Priam, in the homily to follow. But a lot of it, hopefully attentive to the three readings and to the occasion, is more elemental: looking back on one’s youth when one is getting old, making sense of a lifetime, uncertain about how many years remain, but moving ahead even as we look back.

I hope it all makes some sense to you!

Remembering Regis, Our Class, and the Grace That Is Our Lives

(A written version of the homily given by Francis X. Clooney, SJ (’68) in the Regis High School Chapel on the occasion of our Golden Jubilee, June 16, 2018. This was at the Mass before the jubilee drinks and dinner.)

Book of Wisdom, 7:7-14

St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, 12:4-13)

The Holy Gospel accord to Mark, 4:26-32

It is well-known (among Jesuits at least) that preaching within the hearing of another Jesuit can be a daunting challenge — we keep out-talking, out-thinking, out-guessing one other — so I’ve come up here in front the altar and right up close to you — by these front pews which Catholics leave empty — in hopes that Fr. Lahart won’t hear everything I say. (laughter)

But it is also daunting to preach before you - a crowd of Regis grads, so smart, alert, gifted, graced – especially my own classmates, as the class of ’68 (or at least a large number of us) gathers here at Mass — for eucharist, thanksgiving — on our 50th anniversary.

Big days seem to demand weighty thoughts, and so I was thinking all week about how to make this homily eloquent enough, lofty enough, to fit the occasion. I thought of the great panorama of history, and of 1968, that most momentous of years: the student protests in Paris in May of that year, then spreading to campuses everywhere; the Vietnam war; the tumultuous Democratic convention and the election of Richard Nixon; the assassinations of Martin Luther King and of Robert F. Kennedy (just a few days before our graduation), and even the accidental death of Thomas Merton at the year’s end. We graduated in a most memorable year, of passions and aches. But you know all that already!

I thought too of quoting from the many books we read here at Regis — Euripides or Xenophon or Horace or Cicero, Jonson or Shakespeare, Hardy or Dostoevsky, Hemingway or Fitzgerald — but this is hardly the day to get into learned exegesis. Or perhaps a passing reference to the Lord of the Rings, to the Frodo within us? A secret Gandalf among us? Or more darkly, a reference to the Lord of the Flies, those boys uncomfortably just a little younger than ourselves, and on the edge of chaos? Or maybe a film – perhaps allusion to time immemorial and futures not yet imagined in 2001: A Space Odyssey, or that 6-hour (or was it 9-hour?) movie version of War and Peace?

But in the end (luckily for you!) I found wisdom closer to home — in the valedictory address given here at Regis just two weeks ago today by Trevor Wertheimer ’18. You can find his eloquent words online at regis.org, but here is the part that struck me most:

And so I guess the only thing I want to leave you with is just not to forget: the laughs, the memories, the stories. Don’t forget these last four years. Because ultimately, we all are a reminder that in the race to mature, be older, and “set the world on fire,” holding onto our youth, our humor, our humility is itself a virtue. And it’s one that we didn’t learn from the teachers or the upperclassmen, but instead found in ourselves in shared experience.

Don’t forget. Keep the experience alive. Hold on to youth, humor, and humility — and still set the world on fire. Such good advice, and I am confident that by God’s grace Trevor will show up at his jubilee in 2068 and remember a long-ago 2018.

50 years ago, didn’t one of us give a valedictory address just like this Trevor’s? Then we were the young ones, filled with joys and fears and hopes and dreams, just starting out and promising not to forget where we came from. It is always surprising and always true, that remembering helps us to face our future. Indeed, recollecting 1968 helps us to live and flourish in 2018 and beyond.

Back then we were also like young Solomon whose prayer is heard in today’s first reading:

I loved her more than health and beauty, and I chose to have her rather than light, because her radiance never ceases. (Wisdom 7:10)

A wisdom radiant and beautiful, shining within — and bright enough to guide our steps and give us a push now and then, to get on with life.

Of course, the path from youth to old age is hardly predictable. Perhaps we are also like the tougher, darker Solomon of I and II Kings, that best and worst of kings. We too may have thought ourselves in very good shape, 50 years ago today — but couldn’t anticipate then the twists and turns of the whole long life that was beginning to stretch out before us. Yet by our efforts, and mainly through the love and care of our families, our classmates, and our many wise and unforgettable teachers here at Regis, the seeds of wisdom and compassion were planted in our lives, foundations for all that has followed. As Trevor advises us, we just need to remember. We will be at our best now, if we have stayed in touch with where we started.

And see what 50 years have done to us! (I’ll leave aside the photographic evidence – so young! so old!) We all have had our ups and downs — like our country, our world, our Church —and some of us have surely had very hard times indeed. But it is amazing still how we have been blessed, found our way in life, and have been able to show up here today, a little worse for wear, but not entirely different from those boys from so long ago.

Last night at the reception and already again this afternoon, we’ve been mingling, chatting, catching up just a bit on what’s happened, leading with that casual, impossible question, “So what have you been up to — since 1968?” We’ve found ourselves to be both the same and yet become much more ourselves over time, each by his own path – with so much in common, amazingly different in the details. This is how today’s second reading put us:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. (I Corinthians 12:4-11)

We Catholics love to speak of sacraments, for birth and death, for marrying, for sinning and repenting, for returning to the Lord’s table and there sharing the gifts of the Lord. We mark the times of our lives by sacramental things and acts and times, and rightly so. But on this day, we are the sacraments, indwelled by the Spirit of God, mysteriously infusing our lives with gifts beyond our imagining. Not that we are saints (you’ll see no halo above my head!) — but God’s life and love and creative power have shaped us as we are, amazing even to ourselves.

How this works, we can hardly say, we may have hardly noticed what was happening as the years flew by. But wasn’t this what Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel?

The kingdom of God is as if someone were to scatter seed on the ground, and then go away, to sleep and rise night and day. The seed would sprout and grow, but how he does not know. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come. (Mark 4:26-29)

Somehow, even when we are looking the other way, the miracle still happens, good things even in bad times, and suddenly we have lives and histories that make more sense as we look back on them than they did at the start. Where is God? Look around – we are God’s good work in this world, on this day. The gift is given, the seed grows, the smallest bits of faith, hope, and love become havens and hospitality for many:

To what can we compare the kingdom of God? What parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed. When sown upon the ground, it is the smallest of all the seeds on earth. Yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade. (Mark 4:30-32)

So much promise, so many gifts, so much to be thankful for!

But after 50 years, we are also getting “a little bit” old. We need to look into the mysterious time remaining to us: not that we can know it fully, but only that we can live honestly in between our past and our future. So let me indulge for a moment in one of the great loves of my Regis years, the Iliad. (At last, a reference truly worthy of a Regian.) The epic, full of scenes of battle, captivated many of us in our teens, especially when we figured out how to read the Greek. Who among those of us who studied Homer can forget the monumental and destructive wrath of Achilles? Potent in the raw materials of human nature, this boy-man sulks in his tent at perceived slights, neglects the welfare of those around him —and rises up only when his lover Patroclus is killed by Hector. Then there is no stopping him. He wreaks terrible havoc on the Trojans: raw, hard, bright passions, sharp actions, hardly a nuance in sight. A climax in the killing of Hector. Such is the Iliad, or so we thought.

But the passage that has come to me all these years later not the battle, but a brief moment of reconciliation — fragile, brief — that comes near the end. Angry, wrathful, Achilles has dishonored Hector’s body, dragging it through the dust, though the gods preserve it from decay. Anger doubling down on anger, no relief for Achilles in all that blood.

But Priam, Hector’s father, can bear it no longer, and comes to Achilles in the night — with the help of gods who guide him safely through the Greek fortifications. Old now and burdened with losses old and new, Priam humbles himself and asks Achilles for compassion. He reminds Achilles of his own father, so far away, near death. Achilles finally listens, and the effect is powerful (in the Robet Fagles translation):

Priam’s words stirred within Achilles a deep desire to grieve for his own father. Taking the old man’s hand he gently moved him back. And overpowered by memory both men gave way to grief. Priam wept freely for man-killing Hector, throbbing, crouching before Achilles’ feet as Achilles wept himself, now for his father, now for Patroclus once again, and their sobbing rose and fell throughout the house. Then, when brilliant Achilles had had his fill of tears and the longing for it had left his mind and body, he rose from his seat, and raised the old man by the hand and filled with pity now for his gray head and gray beard…

Achilles gains a kind of new wisdom, and finally outgrows his wrath:

Poor man, how much you've borne — pain to break the spirit! What daring brought you down to the ships, all alone, to face the glance of the man who killed your sons, so many fine brave boys? You have a heart of iron. Come, please, sit down on this chair here... Let us put our griefs to rest in our own hearts, rake them up no more, raw as we are with mourning. What good's to be won from tears that chill the spirit?

And so he invites Priam, old and sad, to share a meal:

So come — we too, old king, must think of food and drink. Later you can mourn your beloved son once more, when you bear him home to Troy, and there you’ll weep many tears. But now, let us eat and drink.

They eat, and then they rest. In the morning Priam takes home with him the body of his son, for a proper funeral, before the fighting inevitably resumes. Peace, after death, before death.

Most of us have not fought in wars, but neither are we strangers to loss, partings, deaths. We have lost parents, and dear friends, and perhaps siblings, perhaps even spouses. Indeed, we cannot forget our classmates who have gone before us — Tom Baldwin, Steve Bogacki, Dennis Fagan, Tom Fleischer, Jeff Flood, Morgan Hardiman, Bob Hilbert, Gerry Jeromski, Phil Kehl, Tom Langon, Jim McCarthy, Thomas McGann, Tim McGinn, Dennis McLaughlin, Ron Poepplein, Bob Rimmer, Jeff Roche, John Suozzo, Tom Tedesco, Ray Vogel, Ray Wong. They are with God; it is a grace that we are still alive, even if we cannot say how many more Regis anniversaries any of us will have. The fires of youth have dimmed a bit at least. Like Priam, more of our lives is behind us than before us.

But if we did receive a spark of wisdom so many years ago, we too can find our way to a peace to live and to die by. We can grow a bit quieter — like Hindus who in their older years ideally step back, letting the world stand at a distance. We find ways to put aside the wraths and lusts and pride that keep us from the table. We find a common humanity that leaves no one a stranger, an outsider. We can break bread together, and so let us do that, right now.

We share a meal today, the Lord’s Supper, and hopefully we will meet again around this table. For Christ’s meal is a meal of memory, already an ancient Jewish tradition long before his day. It is the Spirit that gave us wisdom at the beginning, after all, who gathers us at this table:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (I Corinthians 12:12-13)

Let us then continue our Mass, and let us realize that the Spirit will be with us in festivities to follow as well.