Day of Prayer and Gratitude for Priests – September 14, 2020
Evening Prayer – Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Philippians 2:6-11

Brothers and sisters, thank you for joining with me on this day of prayer and gratitude for our priests.  Your presence – even in a virtual way – speaks to the depth of our faith in Jesus that has given us all hope in these difficult days.

I’d like to begin by acknowledging the presence of a few of our brother priests who are with me in the Cathedral for this time of prayer.  In addition to some of the priests who work in diocesan administration, I’m pleased to welcome the newest members of our presbyterate, ordained just over two months ago:  Fathers Jonathan Kuhar, Kevin Miller and Shawn Simchock.  I’m also honored by the presence of those priests of our diocese who are celebrating significant anniversaries this year:  completing 25 years of priestly ministry are Fathers John Chmil, Vincent Dang and Glenn McCreary; celebrating 50 years of service are Father Martin Gaiardo and my predecessor, Bishop Joseph Martino; and commemorating the 60th anniversary of his priestly ordination is Father William Culnane.  Congratulations brothers.  Thank you for your service.  Ad multos annos!

In a letter that I sent to our priests on Monday of Holy Week, I expressed the hope that when this health crisis finally subsided and we were able to once again gather together in prayer, we would do so in order to celebrate the Chrism Mass and the Priesthood of Jesus that we are blessed to share one with another.

That hope obviously didn’t come to pass.  With the current health regulations in place, this great cathedral simply would not have been able to accommodate all of our priests for the celebration of the Mass of Holy Chrism.  And I could not conceive of celebrating a Mass that speaks so singularly to our lives as priests while at the same time possibly having to exclude some of you because limitations due to social distancing.

Yet, I have the need to speak with you, brothers, about the ministry we share.  …  As priests, we have the need to acknowledge in prayer the fraternity that we share as disciples of Jesus Christ.  …  And our good people have a need to support and pray for you, their priests, who, through the power of God, impart to them the Church’s life-giving sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, for their life and salvation.  …  We need this moment more than ever!

A few weeks ago, I received a text from one of our priests that came out of the blue at a time when I needed it the most.  Here’s what it said, “Been praying for you lately.  I was just thinking that you became bishop at a challenging time.  You brought us together and led us through a most difficult time when the Grand Jury report was released.  And now you continue to lead us during this pandemic.  Just a word of appreciation for what you are doing.  My prayers go with you.”  …  While initially shared with me, I’d like you to see these words of gratitude with their promise of prayer as meant for you – for all that you have done and continue to do and be for me and most of all for the People of God in this local Church.

Brothers, I want you to know that your efforts to respond to your people during the past six months have been nothing less than heroic.  So many of your people have told me of their deep appreciation for the blessings of your priestly ministry.  Thank you for being creative and responsive to their pastoral needs.  Thank you for keeping your people safe when the doors of our Churches finally reopened – even in the face of opposition, fear and anger.  And thank you most especially for placing your own safety and well-being on the line in bringing the sacraments to those who were most in need of their grace.

Yet, for all of the selfless service and love that you have shown to so many, I know that some of you are struggling yourselves, not only to make sense of this moment, but as you face your own health concerns and vulnerabilities.  …  These are also days that can be spiritually challenging and prompt us to question and wonder about our future.  …  Where is God?  …  How long is this going to last?  …  Will our ministry still be relevant?  …  Will our people return to our parishes like they did before COVID-19 crashed into our world?

And as if living in a world immersed in a pandemic were not enough, our lives as a people – and particularly as priests – seem to be confronted on a daily basis with realities that generate far more pain, uncertainty and upheaval than even what we’ve experienced from the effects of the coronavirus.  …  We continue to grieve and suffer with all those burdened by abuse in our Church and the consequences of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report released over two years ago.  …  We sadly recognize in the face of hatred and discrimination that we have yet to begin to treat one another with the equality and justice demanded by the Gospel.  …  And the bitter polarization that is engulfing our country and even our Church risks tearing apart the very unity of our land and of the Body of Christ, as forces outside – and yes, within our own Diocese – promote lies born of hatred, self-righteousness and personal brokenness.

Brothers, like the people we serve, we are dealing with so much.  Please take care of yourselves.  The trauma – yes, trauma – that barrages us on an almost daily basis can wear us down and lead the best of us to places we’d rather not be.  Don’t be afraid to ask someone for help if you need it.  We are all in this together.

The words of the 13th Psalm seem particularly relevant to this moment in our lives, “How long, Lord?  Will you utterly forget me?  How long will you hide your face from me?”  …  Familiar words?  …  Probably.  …  But brothers, let me assure you that as desperate as this time may appear to be, it is miraculously in the acceptance of the many crosses that have made their way into our lives that God’s plan for our salvation begins to take shape and our deepest hopes are realized.

Providentially, the second reading from today’s Mass on this Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and that was just proclaimed again, captures the essence of our struggles and provides the only way forward for us as Christians during these challenging days.

The great hymn of Saint Paul found in his letter to the Church at Philippi, for all of its soaring tone and content, was actually used by Paul to address a pastoral crisis, not unlike so much of what we are experiencing today.  The nature of the crisis that moved Paul to make his eloquent appeal was the danger of division in the Church due to dissension.  As such, his purpose in writing the passage was a practical one: to maintain unity in the Philippian Church.

The unity and peace of the members of the Philippian community, quite simply, would only grow and flourish through their embrace and modeling the life of Jesus in their own lives.  It would come through their renunciation of self-centeredness, their humility and their self-giving.

For us – just as for the Church of Philippi – our ability to be sustained as we confront the pain and suffering – uncertainty and fear – bitterness and anger – of this present moment in our lives will only be realized through our surrender to the power of God and the lordship of Jesus.  I read the following in a reflection on this passage, “It is only through chosen acts of self-emptying, only through looking to others’ welfare as well as our own that we are brought into the sphere of Jesus, his life and power.  …  When, through self-giving, Christians place themselves in his hands, they are delivered from all that can ultimately destroy.”

I don’t know what else to share with you, brothers, but what we always seem to conclude when we confront the presence of the cross in our lives.  We have no hope until we are humble enough to acknowledge our powerlessness and place our lives in the hands of God.  Recall other words from Saint Paul taken from his second letter to the Church at Corinth, “I willingly boast of my weakness, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  Therefore I am content with weakness, with mistreatment, with distress, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ; for when I am powerless, it is then that I am strong.”

A hundred years ago, our world was turned upside down by another pandemic:  the Spanish flu.  It is estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected with this virus. The number of deaths was somewhere around 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States.  Churches were closed.  People wore masks.  If you’re my age or older, perhaps you recall talking with your grandparents about those difficult days.  I do.  My own grandmother’s first husband died in that flu.

Yet, for all of the pain that enveloped our world a hundred years ago, our ancestors survived, didn’t they?  They survived despite the fact that health care was not nearly as advanced as it is today.  They survived not because they ascribed to a particular political or ideological theory or another.  They survived pain and suffering – and so will we – because they were humble enough to acknowledge their weakness and their dependence upon God for their life and well-being.

In reflecting upon the Philippian hymn earlier this year, Pope Francis shared these thoughts upon Jesus’ kenosis – his self-emptying – and his exaltation as Lord:

“Why did all this take place? Once again, it was done for our sake, to serve us. So that when we have our back to the wall, when we find ourselves at a dead end, with no light and no way of escape, when it seems that God himself is not responding, we should remember that we are not alone. Jesus experienced total abandonment in a situation he had never before experienced in order to be one with us in everything. …  Today, in the tragedy of a pandemic, in the face of the many false securities that have now crumbled, in the sense of abandonment that weighs upon our hearts, Jesus says to each one of us: ‘Courage, open your heart to my love.’  …  The tragedy we are now experiencing summons us to take seriously the things that are serious, and not to be caught up in those that matter less; to rediscover that life is of no use if not used to serve others. For life is measured by love.”

During our last Chrism Mass over a year ago, I shared these words that I continue to believe with all my heart, “Brothers, I implore you:  do not let the darkness of this moment prevail!  Sometimes we can be so overwhelmed by the brokenness of our lives and our world that we underestimate God’s power to transform us.  Never forget for an instant that God’s love can turn everything upside down.  Jesus’ cross and resurrection are more than proof of this fact.”    

Brothers, may each of you find consolation and peace in the selfless service that you offer to so many.  In the face of suffering, may you simply trust in the mercy and love of God.  And may you come to believe with all your hearts that such trust and love bind you to Jesus, the only source of our hope and salvation.  

On behalf of the Church of Scranton, thank you, Brothers.  Know of our prayers and our love.