Twenty-nine years ago this morning, on June 11, 1983, Cardinal Humberto Medeiros ordained our class of eleven to the service of Christ’s Church as priests. It is, as one might expect, difficult to believe that almost three decades have passed since that day. Those years have been chock-full of many moments of blessing, of deep friendships forged, of unforeseen moments of profound learning at the depth level of the heart.
Not surprisingly, that span of time also embraces difficult moments, hard decisions, and changes that wouldn’t have been even considered on that ordination day.
Including service as a deacon, I have been privileged to serve communities full-time in six places stretching from Edinburgh, Scotland to my hometown of Lynn, Massachusetts, and onward to Brooklyn Heights, New York. In addition I have served weekends or part-time in three other parishes. Every one of these have been communities of real faith where real people live lives open to the Gospel of Jesus and the grace of God. I haven’t met anybody perfect yet – nor have they in meeting me! But I have had the inestimable privilege of coming to know so many men and women of kindness, faith, sincerity, and love. I have received the astounding gift of being invited into their lives, to share life with them, often at moments of the most intense pain and in seasons of joy and accomplishment.
For six years I had the onus and the honor of helping prepare others for priesthood at Saint John’s, the archdiocesan seminary in Brighton, Massachusetts. This is the place where I first found nurture, support, wisdom and love in my own search to find the way I am called to serve. The years have flown. Some of the significant characters – and there were characters – from my first years in Brighton have left this world and look on us (if they care to!) from the perspective only God’s love can perfect. Others are still here, still working, still ministering, and all of them I hold high as exemplars of what it means to live life for others. Again, not perfectly, but truly.
My own years of teaching at Saint John’s were good and challenging years. Good in that they forced me to clarify what I know and believe to the point where I could (I hoped!) share it with others both with clarity and with an edge that could open their own pondering on the questions and the wonders of the faith. Challenging in that I saw in our system a tendency to allow, at the least, some of the good men who came to us to hide those parts of their persons most in need of change, of growth, of transformation. They hid because they feared that admission of imperfection could lead to being unable to continue to follow the call they felt. But again, the system itself was imperfect. So were we all within it. But rarely did we open up widely enough to acknowledge this truth. And to fail to have the strength to do so, a failure I recognized in myself, challenged me profoundly.
We all share a time in the life of the church in which so much has radically changed and continues to change. That change has been the one constant in my entire lived consciousness of church. I refer not only to the changes that grew from the texts and interpretation of the sixteen documents of the second Vatican Council, but in addition all the profound shifts in the society and culture, in the USA and elsewhere around the world, within which the whole church lives and breathes. My entire experience of church, from one perspective, can be viewed as one of diminishment: fewer people in church, fewer priests and sisters, fewer parishes, fewer dollars, fewer resources. But of course that is not the only way it can be seen. Nor is that the whole story. At Sacred Heart in Lynn, thanks to the faithful love and ingenuity of parishioners, we were able to work together looking to find new ways to use the resources we had, and to challenge one another – as needed – to do more with less. From there in Lynn and elsewhere, I can close my eyes and see the faces and hear the voices of disciples of Jesus of every living generation who committed themselves to being the church.
The rich blessing and experience of sabbatical at Glenstal Abbey in County Limerick, Ireland in 2005 and of the long Ignatian retreat at Eastern Point, Gloucester, Massachusetts in 2007 combined to move me further than I ever would have conceived possible, never mind likely. The three months of prayer and community life with the Benedictines at Glenstal will remain until the end of my days as one of the most profound experiences of a lifetime. A constant intention to remain entirely open to the voice and will of God led me, like the meandering roads of Limerick and Tipperary that I walked that summer, to the difficult decision to leave the pastorate at Sacred Heart in Lynn and to seek a leave from active ministry. Two summers later, the surprises of grace on the beautiful border of land and sea at Eastern Point gave me strength to decide to move back toward ministry in another part of God’s vineyard.
Between those two moments, and stretching beyond the latter of them for three years, I was profoundly blessed to be able to work at Boston College, first at the Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry, and then at The Church in the 21st Century Center. I have lasting deep respect and love for those two pieces of that great university on the Heights, and for the whole of B.C. and its people. I feel gratitude to that institution and to its leadership for inviting me to come on-board, to contribute to the life of the church in a new way, and to feel untried capabilities in myself begin to open up and to grow during those years. The Ignatian and Jesuit way is one of greatest gifts to the entire church that we have been given by God in the past five hundred years.
As happy as I was there at Chestnut Hill, there lingered in me – and not only lingered but sang out within me – the desire to answer again the original and first call to priestly ministry. Cardinal Sean O’Malley was generous and open in allowing me to begin to minister on weekends at an archdiocesan parish. There again I found joy in the people of that place, in serving them, in the preaching task, and in the experience of that lively juncture where the sacraments touch life. But something also wasn’t right. I knew, almost from the beginning, that I could not stay, that it didn’t feel right.
It is to this moment not easy to express what did not seem right. It has to do with the change that is ongoing in the life of Christ’s Church. In the Catholic Church of my childhood and youth I was happy to experience a community of hope, of confidence in God even among diverse problems, engaged with the world. I experienced it as outward-looking, oriented toward the world with the gift and the treasure of Jesus Christ. Under the impact of the abuse scandals whose revelations began this millennium, a further change began to be apparent. With a concern that ranged from Vatican II’s seen as being misunderstood, to Vatican II being seen as an aberration and the seat of all present problems, for me an ecclesiological difficulty asserted itself.
In the aftermath of the abuse crisis it was both logical and necessary that the church expend some energy attending to itself, to healing its wounds, to addressing what went wrong. But in its essence no reality worthy of the name of ‘church’ is called to remain focused inwardly. Our structures are developed and in-place in the service of the church’s mission. By its nature the church is as Jesus of Nazareth was when he walked among us: oriented to others, to their needs, to their healing, to their hearing God’s freeing and saving Word.
In conversation with the Cardinal Archbishop of Boston last year, I shared my perception that we are at risk in our time of misinterpreting the words of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians: “. . . we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves” (4:7). The treasure is not we ourselves. The treasure is not even the church, as precious as it is. The treasure is the gracious presence of God made flesh in Jesus Christ, his Word, and his invitation to real life.
If we make the ‘earthen vessel’ to be the treasure; if our tender care and our stalwart energies are given more to the vessel than to the precious gift it carries to the world, then we have missed the mark. Yes, we are responsible in every generation to assure that the vessel is sound and able. It is our duty to repair cracks in its structure, precisely to assure that the vessel can continue to accomplish the mission of carrying the treasure within. But the treasure is the treasure and the vessel is the vessel. One is more primary than the other.
For me the Christian tradition that flows from that Christic treasure is of inestimable value. Precisely because this is so, it is painful to see the tradition mistaken for the treasure itself. It too is part of that which carries the treasure to the world. Tradition is the current that carries the vessel through the seas of time. The worst thing we can do to tradition, living thing that it is, is to petrify it, to turn this living pathway into concrete.
An appeal to tradition is an appeal to the living, loving, believing, thinking church throughout the centuries. It is not simply an appeal to what others in the past have said. It is an appeal to the same faithfulness, the same liveliness, the same application of the treasure of Christ’s Gospel to our era and circumstances that they applied to theirs. To do any less, to simply say: this is the way it was and therefore this is the way it always will be, is ultimately to betray the tradition and those who have lived it before us.
In ways inchoate and mysterious, open to misunderstanding and certainly to disagreement by good people, these are the ways that have led me to continue ministry in another branch of what I have come to see and love and praise God for as the one church. I have experienced here a welcome as warm as God’s own love and a renewed call from the community to service. My gratitude to the Episcopal Church, to the Diocese of Long Island, to its Bishop and people, and to the Rector and people of Grace Church in Brooklyn Heights is real and living, and entirely inadequate to their goodness in embracing this stranger. This branch of the church has more than its own share of problems, like and unlike those I have known before. The whole church in this era, I have come to believe, is called to a radical willingness to let go of anything we have held onto until now, if we must for the sake of the original mission: bringing the treasure to the people of the world. That we all hold in common.
For twenty-nine years today, I have been richly blessed by God to work with others to do just that. I have done it imperfectly. I have done it quite badly, actually. There are those who would say that I have betrayed the original calling from God. Perhaps they see more clearly than I do. My call, on this day as on any other, is not to my own defense. Even if I am wrong in the paths my life has taken thus far, I hear a call to value the treasure of Christ above all else and to share it gently with everyone God brings me to meet.
To all of you who have shared any part of these years: loving thanks! God bless and keep you. I look forward with confidence, hope, excitement and faith to the future in your company, and in the Lord’s.
Is this man weak enough to be a priest? Is this man deficient enough so that he cannot ward off significant suffering from his life, so that he lives with a certain amount of failure, so that he feels what it is to be an average man? Is there any history of confusion, of self-doubt, of interior anguish? Has he had to deal with fear, come to terms with frustrations, or accept deflated expectations? These are critical questions and they probe for weakness. Why weakness? Because, according to [the Letter to the] Hebrews, it is in this deficiency, in this interior lack, in this weakness, that the efficacy of the ministry and priesthood of Jesus Christ lies.”
~ Michael J. Buckley, S.J.