Fr. Bart preached the following homily at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, 2020. He also wishes to acknowledge the inspiration he drew from an article by Fr. Charles Fox in Detroit Catholic, https://detroitcatholic.com/voices/fr-charles-fox/may-this-time-without-the-mass-increase-our-hunger-and-love-for-god.
Of all of the celebrations of our Church Year, only once does the Roman Missal actually instruct the priest about the content of the Homily. Tonight, at this Evening Mass of the Lord’s Last Supper, the priest is instructed to give a homily shedding light on three things: 1) The Institution of the Holy Eucharist; 2) The Ordained Priesthood; and 3) The Lord’s command to love one another. The Holy Eucharist, the Priesthood, and the great mandate to love as He loves- These are the three gifts Jesus gives us at the Last Supper and tonight we renew our love and desire for these gifts in our lives.
For me personally, this night is bitter sweet. Bitter in the pain I feel for missing all of you and not being able to join in person in this Eucharist. Sweet in the celebration of the Mass, one of the most beautiful liturgies of the whole year. Thank you for joining in and praying along with our live stream. I do want to say to you tonight, that I love you, I miss you, and I am so blessed to be your pastor.
Back in February, as a parish family we had the joy of celebrating together with Fr. Lawrence Oparaji, his Ordination and his Frist Mass of Thanksgiving. I was so honored to have been asked by Fr. Lawrence to vest him during the Ordination Mass and to offer the homily at his First Mass. To prepare for the homily, I read a book by Pope Francis that was given to me by two sisters who are parishioners here at STA. It was a book with a collection of speeches that Pope Francis has given to priests, seminarians, and bishops over the years. It is a beautiful book and it brought tears to my eyes as the Holy Father spoke from his heart about the gift of the priesthood. One aspect of the priesthood that the book speaks of and is also the title of the book, is he asks the priests to have the “Smell of the sheep.”
Of course this is Pope Francis’ way of asking priests to be close to the people they are sent to serve. The priest is to be close, available, and even ready to die for his people. To be close to the people in order to share with people in their lives, their struggles, their joys, their sorrows. When the priest is close to the people, he can then share God’s love and mercy with them as they journey together. The Pope asks that the priest make sure to include everyone and make everyone feel welcome. The priest is to seek out the lost, especially those who are most distant.
But then there is this funny mystery that I notice that has happened to me, as your priest, as pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas. As I try to be close to you, in a mysterious way, it has been you who the Lord is working through to save me. This time of separation, of staying safer at home, has become a time when I realized just how much I love you and how much you have done for me. I keep thanking Jesus because He always saves me, through you, the flock. All of the people like you, who make up our parish family. I have been entrusted to care for you, but it is really you who have taken care of me. You are the real blessing of my life. Thank you.
This is the mystery of the relationship between the pastor and the people he is sent to serve. The priesthood is a gift to us and together we care for that gift. A gift I am not worthy of for sure, but a gift that we are so grateful for in these days. A gift that I will strive to live out to the best of my abilities and with the help of God.
The next gift that we celebrate tonight is the gift of the Eucharist. This is a difficult one to talk about tonight, when so many of us now find ourselves unable to attend Holy Mass and receive our Holy Communion and how I wish I could distribute Communion to all of you tonight. Mass is truly the greatest gift we have from God in this life. So this time of no public Masses, is an extremely difficult time for Catholics who love and depend on the Mass, which is the source and summit of our lives as followers of Christ and members of His Church. But good fruit can come from such heavy crosses, perhaps especially from our heaviest crosses. And one kind of good fruit we can cultivate tonight is a renewed love for the Sacrifice of the Mass and a hunger for the Sacrament of Holy Communion.
A story is told of the time during the English occupation of Ireland, when the celebration of Mass was strictly forbidden. The penalty for those caught attending Mass was the seizure of their food vouchers. The vouchers were government-issued tickets redeemable for what was the only food available in Ireland at the time. Lose the vouchers, and your family lost its food: a very simple, and very severe, penalty. But the people of this village, like so many people throughout Ireland, were good enough to treasure spiritual food more than physical food. And so they built the wheelbarrow chapel, a wooden frame chapel mounted on a platform of about 4 feet by 8 feet, with wheels and handles more or less like those of a wheelbarrow. Late at night, the people would pull the chapel down the to the seaside- the only place that offered even a reasonable degree of secrecy. There, under the cover of darkness, a local priest would step up into the cramped chapel and celebrate the Mass in a voice so low as to approach a whisper, for the villagers huddled around their tiny new parish church.
We can only imagine the contrast between the intensity of the prayers of the Mass as they welled up in the hearts of those people and the soft murmuring of their actual voices. And we can only imagine the devotion with which they received the Bread of Life, knowing it was at the risk of losing their only earthly bread.
Today, in an age when many people are tempted to prefer flashy church services with very obvious emotional outreach, now is a good time for us to see with fresh eyes the beauty and the genius of the Mass, in which the most powerful mysteries of God are communicated to mere mortals, by means of a ritual beautiful enough to be fittingly celebrated in the majesty of St. Peter’s Basilica, but also simple enough to be celebrated in a wooden chapel mounted on a wheelbarrow on the beaches of Ireland; a ritual grand enough to be celebrated by hundreds of thousands of people at every World Youth Day, but also brief enough to be memorized, so that devout priests could write the prayers down from memory and celebrate with only a few huddled prisoners in a Soviet labor camp; a ritual contemporary enough to be celebrated in each of our parish churches, in situations normally free of any palpable tension, but also traditional enough that we do — in substance — the very same thing done 2,000 years ago by Our Lord, on that night of unspeakable tension, when He would be betrayed by one of His best friends, the night before He would die for us.
“Do this in memory of me,” Jesus told His apostles that night. And the gift, mystery, and the duty of the Mass first entrusted to the apostles has been handed down from generation to generation of Catholics ever since, down to our own day. Each Sunday, we have the immeasurable privilege to gather not merely to remember what Jesus did, but to do what He did. And we “do this” in the kind of remembrance of Him that makes Him present to us once again — present in a way that is more perfect, more complete than any other way we find Jesus present in our world. It is what Pope St. John Paul II has called the presence of Jesus par excellence in our world.
In our time, of course, we face, not the swords or guns of persecutors, not the fear of capture or starvation, but only a little inconvenience, the need to give up just a little time: sacrifices so small that those who have been persecuted would certainly pray, and perhaps would even weep, for us if they knew how easily our generation is distracted from what is essential.
Yet now we face an acute suffering, a deprivation the likes of which none of us who are lifelong Americans have ever known. Public Masses have been suspended, and we are invited to fast, and pray, and to discover once again the riches of divine grace we have too often taken for granted.
And so, may we who under the ordinary circumstances of our lives enjoy the privilege of celebrating Holy Mass in peace and freedom never be tempted to use words like “boring” to describe it! May we never again think of other things as more important, but, rather, may our hearts burn with thanksgiving for the awesome gift of celebrating Mass, of receiving Jesus’ Body and Blood, and, to use the words of St. Paul, of proclaiming the death of the Lord until he comes, the death that, at every Catholic altar, brings us new life.
A life that we are called to share with the whole world through the words of Jesus: “As I have done for you, now you must do for one another.”