A Jubilee Homily


Cambridge, MA. As I wrote here a few weeks ago, 2018 has been my jubilee year, 50 years a Jesuit. I was honored to preach at the jubilee Mass at Fordham University in New York, on September 16 of this year. About 25 jubilarians gathered, marking anywhere from 25 to 75 years of Jesuit life.

As a last marker of the year - on to the future! - I am posting the homily here (as written up after I gave it 'live' at the Mass):

Remembering, Together

I drove down from Boston today — a trip I taken many times, coming down to visit family in the city (Brooklyn, Staten Island…) Usually it is a bother to caught in traffic, even for tree-trimming on the Merritt Parkway. But today’s crawl gave me more time to reflect on my first fifty years of Jesuit life. Unsurprisingly, myriad memories small and large surfaced (as they have all summer), one by one and in a torrent. I was thinking too of this campus, which I think I first visited in 1967 before novitiate, for that psychological exam we had to take with Fr Bill Bier, I recall, Rorschach test and all. (I never found out if I passed…) I was remembering too my arrival at Murray-Weigel in 1970, to study philosophy and get my BA; sharing in the care for Brandy, the minister’s St Bernard dog; taking this and that philosophy class with various unforgettable Jesuit professors. I remember the day Dan O’Hare, my golden jubilee classmate, and I took vows downstairs in Thomas More chapel — and then there was ordination to the priesthood in this very Church, in June of 1978…

I had driven a long way last month too, on August 25th, which in 1968 was our entrance day. Dan drove up from the city, and I down from Boston (once more caught in traffic…) We met at the Culinary Institute of America, for a meal on the campus of what of course had been St. Andrew on Hudson. We were in the very last batch of novices to enter the Society there. We strolled the grounds, gazed across the river, figured out the rooms in the great house, then and now, and duly visited the grave of Teilhard de Chardin, so peacefully at rest among his American brothers. And most of all we remembered the seventeen of us that entered that day. Dan had a list, and we went through it one by one, figuring out what had become of them over the decades. And we remembered especially our nearest and dearest classmate, John Bucki, who died just after our 49th anniversary — and, it is poignant to remember, his funeral was exactly one year ago today. Memories…

I could go on and on, lost in my own reverie... But I am here now – with you! As I look around at my brothers here in the sanctuary and in the first pews, I realize that we are all remembering, even right now, sifting through the memories of our many years in the Society, be it 25 or 50 or 60 or 70 or more — altogether well over 1600 years of Jesuit life by my rough count! If we could illustrate the scene as a cartoon, we would surely see bubbles of memory arising over the heads of each of us – and indeed, over the heads of all our family and friends here with us today. A day awash in memories.

Stories for each of us — but also for all of us. Today is all the more precious because we are remembering together, right here, gathered for a few hours. For this moment we embody the Society of Jesus, we are blessed to be a kind of Jesuit sacramental presence for one another and all with whom we share this day. What is the Society? Many things, but today it is us, right here, the Society as it is today, successes and accomplishments and failures and limits, made visible in this particular band of brothers getting older by the day, beset with age, ailments, wounds, scars and all.

Each year the Society everywhere in the world celebrates these special moments, a new batch of Jesuits taking our turn on the stage, at the altar. And so too, at other steps along the way: think of the novices’ vows in Syracuse last month, at the very beginning of what we pray will be long Jesuit lives; four Jesuits taking final vows in Chennai, India just a month ago, on August 15; and yesterday, the deaconate ordination up at Boston College. Old and young, we embody the miracle of God’s grace. St. Paul must have been thinking of us too when he wrote in II Corinthians 4: “We hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us.” The marvel of who we are, what we’ve been. Thanks be to God!

Today’s Word

I was in India a month ago when I received Jack Hanwell’s email with the invitation to be the preacher today — and I barely noticed when he added: “We’ll use the readings of the day.” And so we should, praying with the whole Church on this Sunday in ordinary time. But as we all know, the “readings of the day” can indeed be a big challenge, often not fitting any particular occasion. I would have hoped for soothing expressions of vocation and expressions of gratitude: perhaps Mary’s glorious words in the Magnificat, amazed at God’s marvelous work within her? The call of the first apostles on the lakeshore? Simeon’s great cry of praise at seeing mother and child, God’s promise come true in his old age? Or any of the innumerable other passages we might wish for…

But when I looked up the readings for this day in September, Year 2 in the Church’s cycle, things turned out to be a bit more difficult: passages from the prophet Isaiah, the Letter of James, and the Gospel according to Mark. From the start, I found them a bit hard, a little chilly, more a challenge to complacency than a comfort — a rather inconvenient call to examine our consciences once again: after all these years, do we measure up to the graces we have received? Of course we don’t — but perhaps it is good also to have such a reminder today, even as we recognize the triumph of God’s grace.

All three readings ponder the words we use when we venture to speak up in God’s name — brave words for which we suffer, empty words that do nothing, halting words that start but do not finish.

Isaiah 50 (the third of the Servant Songs) gives us a moment to reflect on those blessed moments when we have spoken out bravely, risking ourselves by speaking a truth we have dared to hear and receive, in places where some would prefer our compliant silence:

The Lord God opens my ear that I may hear; and I have not rebelled, have not turned back. I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.

All of us have suffered — in everyday life, in the Church, and yes, even in the Society — for speaking truth when no one wanted to hear it. But today we can also remember that the Lord has stayed with us even when things were not going our way at all:

The Lord God is my help, therefore I am not disgraced… See, the Lord God is my help; who will prove me wrong?

When we really are on mission and been courageous enough to say what needed to be said, God is there to pick us up at the end of it all.

The Letter of James 3 is still less comfortable. James reminds us of the times when we — as individuals, as religious and clergy, as Church and Society — have said all the right things, nice words that cost us little — nothing but a barrage of empty words that make no difference for those who had hoped that we would be there to help them:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say that you have faith but do not have works? Can that faith save you? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and you say to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?

Our famed Jesuit skill with words can become a trap, when words take the place of doing something. James admonishes us: whatever anniversary you’ve reached, start over again, learn to speak in a way that matters, and act according to your word.

And then there is Mark 8, reminding us that our best words — from our halting first words about our vocations until what we say today — are rarely the end of the matter. True speech starts us on a journey into a never completely charted territory:

Then Jesus asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter said to him in reply, ‘You are the Christ.’

Fine start. Peter — you, me, us — sometimes get it very right, responding with love and insight to who Jesus is and has been for us. But getting it right is always only a start. The ever larger story of who Jesus is and what he is doing keeps on unfolding. Not infrequently, we cannot endure what he also has in mind for himself and for us:

Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days. He said all this openly. But Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. At this Jesus turned around and, looking at his disciples, rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.’

A somber prospect: resplendent at our jubilee, we may be tempted to think we are finished, nearly finished (depending surely on which anniversary this is): promises made, vows taken, lives lived, goals reached, the commitments of youth honored. But we may still be stopping short, content with what we’ve already said and done. The good and right words we’ve spoken all these years may get in the way, a din that drowns out the Word, as if we are suddenly dark spirits merely appearing as angels of light. Every time we speak, Mark reminds us, we then need also then to stop and listen and wait: God always has more to say to us, no matter how long we’ve been at this, and we need to be able to keep being surprised by who Jesus is and will be.

What Lies Before Us

Quite enough for one jubilee Mass! And yet I cannot resist looking very briefly to the future. We are not, after all, marking our funerals today, as if it all past, all over with. But God is not done with us yet, we surely will find.

We can mark this blessed yet uncertain future by reading just one verse beyond the end of the Gospel passage given us today:

What does it profit you if you gain the whole world, but lose your soul?

These elemental words of course echo throughout Jesuit history. We all know how Ignatius used to whisper them in the ear of poor Francis Xavier, who just wanted to do his studies, get his degree, and get on with his professional life. Ignatius’ echo of Jesus’ stark reminder bothered and worried and then brought to life his passionate, brilliant, self-centered brother. In the end, Francis lost his world, found his soul, set our world on fire.

We too: as individuals and a community, we’ve done a lot, and now we may well be ready to sit back and rest. But God is always asking us to put aside our first 25 or 50 or 75 years, for the sake of what lies before us, our souls once again recovered and stirred back into life. These are timely words for us at a jubilee, a call once more to resolve to let God shake us up as in the beginning, once more companions of Jesus alive right up to the last day, by a grace still greater than all many years we have lived and served and loved thus far.