Every year during the Easter Triduum, the vocations office of the Archdiocese of New York joins the Dioceses of Brooklyn and Rockville Centre to run a retreat for the men who are considering a vocation to the priesthood. The retreat begins at St. Joseph’s Seminary Holy Thursday with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper and concludes Holy Saturday with Tenebrae. On Good Friday, the men travel to Cathedral Seminary House of Formation in Douglaston, Queens, to join the college seminarians for the 3 p.m. Passion of the Lord service. These days and the Masses and prayers so integral to them are always beautiful and grace-filled, and the men who take part on the retreat speak about how powerful this is in helping them make the decision to apply to seminary.
As beautiful as these prayers and Masses are, the one that has stood out to me most prominently is the Passion Service on Good Friday in Douglaston. Cathedral Seminary House of Formation is part of the Immaculate Conception Center in the Diocese of Brooklyn. Along with the seminarians who live there, it is also the retirement home for the priests of the Brooklyn Diocese. On Good Friday, the retired priests join the seminarians for the Passion. Many of the men who attend are unable to get around by themselves any longer and others are dealing with the difficulties that come with infirmity and old age. As they arrive in the chapel, a red stole is placed over their shoulders as they prepare for the prayers to begin. When the time comes for the Veneration of the Cross, the cross is brought to them, because many of them are unable to get out of their seats. More than one of them do not simply kiss the cross, but grab it and kiss it, perhaps in a gesture indicating the joining of their sufferings to that of the crucified Christ. It is impossible to witness this and not be profoundly affected by it. The men in the retirement home have given almost the entirety of their lives to the service of the Church as priests and they grab the cross to which they promised to conform their lives many years before on the day of their ordination.
At the beginning of the Passion, the priests taking part prostrate themselves on the floor of the sanctuary before the bare altar as a reminder of the Lord who laid down his life for us. Yet, for the priests this has an even deeper level and meaning. Who among us taking part in this does not think back to his priestly ordination when he prostrated himself on the sanctuary floor of the cathedral as the people sang the Litany of the Saints, asking all of heaven to intercede for these men who in this dramatic action are displaying the truth that they are laying down their life for Christ.
On the day of ordination, it is impossible for the man to know just where this road will take him and what the Lord has in store for him as the years pass. Pope St. John Paul II once said that life with Christ is an extraordinary adventure. This certainly is true and is even more so for a priest. But with all of the changes he will experience throughout his ministry and all of the peaks and valleys present in any life, the one constant element is the love of Christ for him manifested perfectly on the cross.
In these Easter days, as we rejoice in the presence of the Risen Christ, we are profoundly grateful for the sacrifice that has redeemed us and set us free. We look to the cross amazed at what God has done for us. This gratitude and amazement was made visible to me as the shaking hands of my older brothers grabbed the cross on Good Friday and showed their love and hope in the cross of the Lord to which they have given their lives.