Why am I thinking about numbers? Because this week will mark the twentieth anniversary of my priestly ordination, and while it doesn’t seem like nearly as long a time as it sounds, there is some evidence that may be a sizeable slice of history.
Since my ordination, I have served under three Popes, being in the historically strange position of having two at the same timesince before my fifteenth anniversary. I am blessed to have been with both Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI very often, and in many circumstances, some of them quite intimate. Pope Francis and I did spend some time together once, but he was still Cardinal Bergoglio then.
I have also had three Archbishops, receiving my third before I finished my eighth year as a priest, when Cardinal Wuerl took over as Archbishop. Because I have had the privilege to know well not only him and Cardinal McCarrick before him, but also Cardinal Hickey and Cardinal Baum, that stretches my intimacy with the excellent Archbishops of Washington back to 1973.
The recent death of Bishop Foley similarly left me reflective about history. He was the second Pastor of Saint Bernadette; I am the sixth, and the only one now living. I will finish my twelfth year as Pastor here right around Independence Day. Only Msgr. Stricker, at 27 years, was Pastor longer.
I have always enjoyed history and biography, and it has unfailingly helped me understand and deal with everything current or new. I cannot help but notice a loss not only of the experience of these people and actions that have shaped our day, but a lack of interest in what is past. It is a loss indeed, and one I strive to stanch and even remedy.
When I arrived here, people spoke intimately and often not only of recent pastors, but also of Msgr. Stricker (1948-1975) and “Msgr.” Foley (1975-1983). The stories they told me helped me understand the parish, its history and culture, and filled me with admiration for the priests and people who founded and built it. That living connection within the parish has faded. A lot of those folks have moved on over the intervening time, and the people who have arrived since do not recall even my immediate predecessor, Fr. Thompson (1997-2006).
Similarly, among the priests of Washington, fewer and fewer can speak with any familiarity of Cardinal Hickey (1980-2000) much less Cardinal Baum (1973-1980) or the historical giant Cardinal O’Boyle (1948-1973). This shocks me, despite its manifest logic, and I find myself having to explain to these younger brethren how these lives that to them are merely names made enormous impacts on the local church, and therefore their young priestly lives and all that they now have and enjoy.
Stricker and O’Boyle, Foley and Baum; all these names represent lives of fidelity and grace, gifts of great impact enduring into our own time. Popes have biographers, and saints leave devoted disciples; but these more ordinary workers in the vineyard fade too soon into the distance. As you may wish your daughters could have known your grandmother, or your sons could have camped with your dad, so I would want to bridge the gap of time and experience to bring together the future of this community with the lives that breathed life into it.
The co-eternal Son of God leapt down from His celestial throne one winter night, and entered history, our history. Leaving the eternal Now for the constrictions of Time, He made Time itself the condition of our encounter with Him, and made even the time that separates us from him, these two thousand years, serve also as a bridge that brings us into contact with Him. What unites us now to God is history, and the people who are in it with us.
The priesthood I received reaches back to Cardinal Hickey and John Paul II, but also hand over hand all the way to the Upper Room in Jerusalem, so many moons ago. Each of the human hands that passed the gift was different and indispensable, and I should be glad to know each one of them, that I might kiss it. For I handed on to you what I also first received,says Saint Paul (1 Cor 15) and its precious value is indispensably identified by the faithful handing on.
Twenty years as a priest is pretty good, and my twelve years as pastor have been great. But my mom and dad will be celebrating their 55thanniversary this September, so clearly, I still have room to go. The days and years we all mark connect our future to our past and give us the best part of what we will give to those to come. To mark the time is to find our place in history, and to look at history is to be made grateful.