Triumph of the Cross . . . and the retirement of a priest
Michael C. Barber, SJ
On Sunday, Sept. 15, the Feast of the Holy Cross, Father Brian Joyce retired as pastor of Christ the King Parish in Pleasant Hill. I'm passing on to you some thoughts I shared with the congregation that day.
I knew a man who was going to retire and his wife urged him to get a medical checkup. She drove him to the doctor's office, and stayed in the waiting room. When he was finished with his exam, the doctor asked to speak with the wife privately. "I'm sorry to inform you that your husband has a rare ailment. Unless you follow my instructions carefully, I can't guarantee he'll live very long. You must prepare only his favorite foods — all the time. He cannot endure stress, so no more chores around the house. You must let him watch all his favorite shows and sports on TV. Just surrender the TV remote to him exclusively. Unless you do these things, he may not survive."
"Very well," the wife said. As they were driving home, the man anxiously asked his wife, "What did the doctor tell you?" His wife responded, "Honey . . . doctor says you're gonna die."
Today is the Feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross. It is like having a little bit of Good Friday in September. It is the day St. Helen discovered the True Cross of Christ in Jerusalem in the year 326. She found lots of crosses, as it was a common form of execution. They knew which one was Christ's when they touched it to sick and dying people and they were cured instantly.
As Catholics we are surrounded by the Cross. My mother taught me to make the Sign of the Cross at my bedside. On entering a church we make the Sign of the Cross with holy water. We begin and end every prayer and every Mass with The Sign. We place crosses on the walls of our homes, churches and schools. We even wear crosses around our necks.
How is the cross the means of our salvation?
Jesus said, "Unless you take up your cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple." St. Paul said that "Christ humbled himself, even to accepting death, death on a cross. Therefore God highly exalted him . . ." Is this sadomasochism? Are we supposed to seek torture and death?
Father Matteo Ricci and the Jesuit missionaries in China deliberately hid the cross from the Chinese as they were so appalled by the sight of the tortured Christ. We are used to it — maybe even numb to it.
The cross is the expression of Jesus' total gift of himself. He didn't come on earth to live for himself, but "to do the will of the Father." He surrendered himself to his Father out of love.
We see a reflection of this in the exchange of vows couples make at their marriage. True love is sacrificial love. In observance of this, the pope this morning witnessed the marriage of 20 couples in St. Peter's. Priests and nuns in their ordination and solemn vow ceremonies make a similar gift of themselves through the vow of obedience. They surrender themselves to the will of God, through the hands of their bishop or religious superior.
This sounds great in theory, but is hard to practice. When I asked some priests: "What is your greatest cross?" They answered, "That's easy. The bishop!"
I know what it's like to be in a happy assignment, you love the place and the people. They love you. Then you get a call out of the blue. "You're transferred!" This has happened to me a number of times in my Jesuit life.
Once I went to confession at Lourdes and told the priest I was resentful to my superiors for transferring me. The priest heard the self-pity in my voice and gave me my penance. "Go outside. Find someone worse off than you are. Offer five Hail Marys for them." I went outside the chapel and, it being Lourdes, there were numerous sick and handicapped children in wheelchairs, gurneys and stretchers who had come to beg Our Lady for healing. I saw how bravely they were taking up their crosses and following Christ . . . and how much I was whining.
Since then I have visited many wounded Marines and soldiers in VA hospitals. One Marine had lost both his legs in an explosion. They were making prosthetic legs for him. I asked him what he was going to do when he got discharged. "Learn to play golf," he answered, pointing to a brand new set of golf clubs someone had given him. When you look at a crucifix you can no longer say, "No one loves me." Christ's arms are open and extended in an embrace of love for all who look at him. That is the reason Moses put a serpent on a pole and held it up, and all who looked at it were healed. It was a prefigurement of the saving Cross of Christ (John 3:14).
Father Brian, I know this is not an easy day for you. Fifty-one years of active priestly ministry; 26 years as pastor of Christ the King. You may be retiring, but you will always be a priest.
On your ordination day you were told "Tu es sacerdos in aeternum." ("You are a priest forever") (Psalm 110. Heb. 7:17). It is the very duty of a priest to offer gift and sacrifice (Heb. 8:3). You must continue to pray for all the people in this parish — and in all the parishes in which you have served. The priest lives for God — and his people.
As long as you live, you are a living sign that "God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not die, but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him." (John 3).
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