Monday, October 16, 2006

Back to Square One

Today's Word of the Day in Gotham is "Priesthood."

At this hour, five days since the release of the anonymous letter calling for a vote of "no confidence" in Cardinal Edward Egan, the archbishop of New York remains in an emergency meeting of his Presbyteral Council. Called in response to the circulation of the text which has rocked the US' most visible and influential local church, the summit is taking place behind the walls of Manhattan's storied Archbishop's Residence on Madison Avenue.

Elsewhere in the archdiocese, a sizable crowd of clergy gathered this morning in Westchester to bid a final farewell to one of their most respected confreres, Msgr Charles Kelly, who succumbed to a sudden heart attack last week.

Among attendees, not many may have been talking, but all were buzzing.

As we await the outcome of the much-anticipated meeting and an expected statement at its close, here's something from the archives to hold you all over....

Egan's installation, held in St Patrick's Cathedral over two days in June 2000, provided a window for both the new archbishop and his priests to check their prior conceptions of each other at the door in the hope of an optimal new beginning. Given at the Evening Prayer service where he formally took canonical possession of the archdiocese, the first of Egan's two homilies pivoted on priesthood, and one priest in particular -- Fr Jon Bokron, a young man who the then-auxiliary had met in New York, and was ordained for the diocese of Bridgeport in the time when Egan served as bishop there.

For what he lacks with the press, Egan's long-acknowledged strength has been the pulpit, and the "Jon Bokron homily" stands in the first rank of examples cited.

Until the silence breaks, and as the topic fits the day, here's the fulltext. Stay tuned for further updates.


My dear friends in Jesus Christ, 15 years ago I came to the Archdiocese of New York to serve as one of its auxiliary bishops. Throughout the three and a half years that followed, I was continually captivated by the wonder and the goodness of this great archdiocese. From Dutchess and Ulster Counties on the north to Staten Island on the south, I witnessed the body of Jesus Christ, his mystical body, the church, living a holiness that might escape the casual onlooker but never failed to impress this new auxiliary bishop. There was hardly a day in which I did not thank the Lord for the blessing of being a part of the people of God of the Archdiocese of New York. There was hardly a day in which I was not genuinely inspired.

This afternoon, here in the Cathedral of St. Patrick, on the occasion of this ceremony of canonical possession, I would like to tell you a story about just one day in that three and a half years. It will perhaps explain why I consider returning to the archdiocese as your bishop to be an immensely wonderful grace.

It was a hot Saturday afternoon. I made my way to the Highbridge area of the South Bronx to ordain five young men as deacons for the Religious Congregation of Men founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Mother Teresa had established a residence for her future deacons in one of the nine buildings that formed the parish plant of Sacred Heart parish in Highbridge. Those of you who know New York would understand why Mother Teresa chose Highbridge, for it is one of the most distressed communities in the city.

Immediately after my homily on the Gospel passage, we had the ceremony of ordination. I then went to the altar to begin the offertory of the Mass. The heat was intense. All the doors of the old Gothic church stood wide open, straining to catch any errant breeze. Suddenly, from the rear of the church came a series of shouts. All turned to watch a man of perhaps 30 years of age come lunging up the aisle. His face was covered with blood. He waved a bloody T-shirt in the air, and all the while he begged for help amid shouts and sobs. At the end of the aisle, he tripped, fell and struck his head against the first step leading into the sanctuary. Mother Teresa and two of her sisters rose in their places, and with the help of the two men who were assisting me at the altar, picked the man up and carried him gently into the sacristy.

I stalled the Mass as best I could until the shouting and sobbing subsided. In due course, Mother Teresa and her two sisters came back to their places and we went on as though nothing had happened.

At the end of the ceremony, I gathered up my belongings and went into the sacristy to congratulate the new deacons, to greet Mother Teresa and to thank the pastor of the parish for his kind assistance and that of the two men who had helped me at the altar.

A young man came up behind me as I was leaving, away toward a church side door.

''Do you have a ride?'' he asked.

''No,'' I answered, ''I came on the subway.''

''Where do you live?'' he continued.

''On First Avenue at 34th Street,'' I replied.

''Can I drive you home?''

''You certainly can,'' I shot back. ''This heat is tremendous.''

When we arrived in front of the place where I lived, the young man asked if we might chat.

''I have got to talk to someone,'' he told me. ''I was in the sacristy when the bloodied man was carried in. He had been beaten badly, and his language was terrible. But never in my life had I seen anything like the way he was treated. Mother and her two sisters and the pastor and his two laymen were wonderful. They calmed the man. They washed the blood off him. They found him a clean shirt, and they arranged a place for him that night. It was everything that Jesus Christ had ever taught. It was everything, Father, that Jesus Christ had ever taught.''

He paused to gain control of his emotions and went on. ''I'm making a pile of money in the market,'' he said. ''But I need to be part of what I witnessed in that sacristy. The money isn't doing it. I need something more.''

I invited him into the retired priests' residence in which I lived, and we talked and talked. I told him of the need in the archdiocese for catechists in our parishes, for teachers' aides in our schools, for volunteers in the programs of Catholic Charities, for eucharistic ministers in hospitals and nursing homes. He wrote down some of my suggestions, and in due course he took his leave. I never expected to see him again.

Some years later, I was transferred to the Diocese of Bridgeport. And one day, the young man who had driven me home after the ordination appeared in my office. He had not been able to forget what he had seen in the sacristy of Sacred Heart parish in the Bronx. He still needed to be a part of the reality. He had witnessed a reality of Christlike compassion, tolerance and understanding.

We met several times. Finally, I sent him on to the seminary and I ordained him -- a priest for the Diocese of Bridgeport. A priest who was led to the altar of God by the kindness and holiness at which he had marveled in a parish of the Archdiocese of New York.

This is the community of faith I came to know during my brief three and a half years here in your midst: a people whose achievements might not make the front pages of the morning papers or the opening reports of evening television, but all the same, a people of immense, quiet, humble goodness.

And this is what I am coming to join: a community of faith whose compassion and sacrificial self-giving can melt the heart of a young man making a fortune on Wall Street; a community of faith that struggles at great cost to educate its children not only in matters academic but also and especially in matters spiritual; a community of faith that pours out its resources in money and personnel to assist the needy of every kind; a community of faith that holds on to the teachings of the Son of God with trust and tenacity; a community of faith that stands up against immensely powerful forces and heroically defends the child in the womb, the elderly in the nursing home, the sick and the disabled; a community of faith that sees every human being as an image of divinity and rejects all forms of discrimination, mistreatment or cruelty; a community of faith that comes together around 413 altars in its parish churches to adore our God, to thank him for our blessings, to seek his care, to beg his forgiveness; in short, a noble people, a holy church.

I am tempted to believe that St. Paul had you in mind when he penned the words from our reading this afternoon. You are indeed persevering in a splendid unity. You are indeed one body founded upon one hope in one Lord, one faith, one God and Father of us all. And I, I am immensely privileged to join you in all of this.

Small wonder that my heart is filled with gratitude to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit for the great grace of coming to serve in the Archdiocese of New York. Small wonder that I seize the opportunity whenever I can to thank our holy father Pope John Paul II for this assignment. Small wonder that I humbly stand before each and every priest, deacon, religious and member of the laity at this beautiful service to announce that I come only to serve you, and all of the community in the three boroughs and seven counties of the Archdiocese of New York. I come with joy to serve to the best of my ability. I have seen your wonderful works. I am honored to become a part of you in Christ Jesus, our Lord.

Permit me a brief footnote. The young man I ordained for the Diocese of Bridgeport under the inspiration of the Archdiocese of New York was one of the healthiest individuals I have ever known. Nonetheless, within a year after ordination, he was stricken with leukemia, and after months of suffering, went to his God. I sat with him for hours in a New Haven hospital during his final days, and I felt his loss intensely. A year later, the seminarians of the Diocese of Bridgeport gave me this pectoral cross as an anniversary gift. They had fitted into the back of it a relic of the true cross of Jesus Christ. It had belonged to the young priest, and he wanted me to have it.

I wear this [pectoral] cross only for the most important liturgical ceremonies in my life. It reminds me of the young man who a few years ago decided with the grace of God to choose a life of holiness and compassion. But even more, it reminds me of another young man, who, almost 2,000 years ago, made such choices possible by his life, death and resurrection. It is my inspiration. It is my strength. It is, above all, what I bring with me to the Archdiocese of New York.

Catholic New York