Tuesday, April 11, 2006

An Unsettling Experience During Stations Of The Cross

Jackie Boy celebrating his most recent birthday.

(Holy Thursday 2006: This homily was given on April 13, 2006, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26; John 13: 1-15.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Holy Thursday 2006]

It was one of the most unsettling experiences I’ve ever had in my life.

It occurred a couple of weeks ago, on a Tuesday night. Some of you were there, although I think it’s safe to say that none of you noticed anything unusual taking place. But I did.

It was 6:05, and I had just finished saying the opening prayer of the Stations of the Cross from this pulpit.

I immediately moved down into the center aisle of the church, and faced the first station.

When the initial verse of “At the Cross Her Station Keeping” was finished, I began in the customary fashion. I said, “The first station, Jesus is condemned to death. We adore you O Christ, and we praise you.”

Those in attendance genuflected and gave the usual response: “Because, by your holy cross, you have redeemed the world.”

I then proceeded to read a brief meditation from the stations’ booklet, recounting how Pontius Pilate “washed his hands” on Good Friday and condemned our Lord to death by crucifixion. When I was finished, the people in the congregation began to recite their prayer of response.

That’s when it happened.

I looked up from my booklet, and all of a sudden I caught sight of little 4-year-old Jack Carey, standing 5 feet away from me in the first pew. Now I know Jack pretty well. His mother, Deb, is my cook. She brings Jack (or, as his friends call him, “Jackie-boy”) to the rectory all the time. He plays in my kitchen quite often. If I have a free moment on a given afternoon, you might even find me playing a game with him, or drawing a picture with him at the kitchen table.

I see Jack several times a week. But I have never, ever seen him like this. When I first spotted him during stations, what struck me was the fact that he was standing perfectly still (that, in and of itself, is pretty unusual for a 4-year-old!). He was facing me, and he wasn’t moving a muscle. He was like a statue!

And he was staring at me such that when I began to look at him, our eyes immediately made contact. Now, under normal circumstances, Jackie-boy would have given me a really quick smile, and then would have turned away. But that’s not what happened on this particular occasion. Even after our eyes had made contact, he continued to stand there without moving, looking at me—looking into my eyes—with an expression that can only be described with one word: AWE!

He was staring at me with a look of AWE in his eyes.

Now I know what some of you are thinking: “Man, you must have loved it, Fr. Ray! That must have stoked the fire of your ego big time!”

No, it did not!

I was serious about what I said at the beginning of my homily: this was a very unsettling experience—one of the most unsettling that I’ve ever had!

Because, as that boy stared into my eyes with awe written all over his face, 3 thoughts went through my head almost simultaneously.

The first concerned the dignity and power of the priesthood. We know how the world has reacted with horror (and rightly so) to the stories of clerical misconduct that have become public, especially since 2002. But, as bad as this situation has been, the world’s reaction to it has been a sign of something positive. It’s been a sign of the fact that even world people—even materialistic, hedonistic unbelievers—implicitly recognize the dignity of the priestly office!

Let’s face it, this type of sinful, evil behavior happens in every segment of our culture; but it’s especially heinous when a priest is involved. That’s because a priest, by virtue of his ordination, is different from everyone else in one very important respect (and even worldly people implicitly recognize it). He is—in the words of Catholic author George Weigel—“a living icon of the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ”.

In the theology of the Eastern Church, an icon is a sacred image through which people encounter the mystery that the image portrays.

By virtue of his ordination, a priest is an icon of Christ because, when he administers the sacraments, he acts “in persona Christ” (“in the person of Christ”). That is to say, Christ works directly through him to touch his people.

Consequently, it is Christ who, through the priest, consecrates bread and wine and changes them into his Body and Blood; it is Christ who absolves you through the priest in the sacrament of Confession; it is Christ who anoints you through the priest before major surgery—or on your deathbed—in the sacrament of Anointing.

That was my first thought: the dignity and power of the priesthood that I am blessed to share in through the sacrament of Holy Orders.

The second thought that came to me that Tuesday night followed directly from this one. I thought of what I am called to be as an ordained priest of Jesus Christ: HOLY!

I am called to love as Christ loved—selflessly;

I am called to serve as Christ served in today’s Gospel and throughout his earthly ministry—by “washing the feet” of others;

I’m called to follow the example of St. Paul and to “hand on to you” the full truth of the Gospel message without compromise, by the way I preach and teach, and by the way I live;

I’m called to be merciful and forgiving and pure of heart.

In a word, I’m called to be perfect as Jesus Christ, the Great High Priest, was perfect!

But I’m not.

And that was my third and final thought as I looked into young Jack’s eyes that night: I am called to be perfect—but I’m not.

And that’s why it was such an unsettling experience!

I do take some consolation in the fact that after several seconds of staring at me with a look of awe, little Jackie-boy finally turned his head a little, gave me that impish grin of his, and then went back to being his normal self.

That took the pressure off—at least for the moment.

But my real consolation comes from the fact that he prayed for me that night.

How do I know that?

Because his parents have told me that he prays for me every night. In fact, I have the privilege of being the very first person on his prayer list—every single evening. I even beat mom and dad!

I’m honored. Perhaps through his prayers—and through yours—I will move a little bit closer than I am right now to the priestly ideal of perfection.

And this, incidentally, is not only the best thing you can do for me; it’s also the best thing you can do for yourselves and for the universal Church.

That’s because, as our own St. Pius X said so many years ago, “A holy priest makes holy people.”

Do you want to be holy? Do you want to be saints? Then pray for me and for all priests. Every day. Like Jackie-boy.