Homily of Archbishop Hebda at Farewell Mass

I consider it providential that we gather this evening on the feast of St. Catherine of Siena. She’s the heavenly patroness of the first parish to which I was ever assigned, as a lowly seminarian, and I developed a great respect for this great Doctor of the Church, who serves as a wonderful reminder of how the Lord blesses His Church through strong and holy women … I know that there are more than a few of you here tonight.

When I first started my seminary studies in Rome, I found everything to be quite challenging … the only Italian I knew was “spaghetti” and “lasagna.” On the route between the university and the seminary where I resided, was the tomb of St. Catherine — she’s buried under the high altar at the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva — and I’d often pour out my heart to her. On her feast day, the Dominicans in charge of the Church would allow those of us of my height or smaller to enter into the glass enclosed space under the altar to pray. If you can imagine an aquarium filled with Roman widows clothed in black and one desperately claustrophobic seminarian, you get the picture. 

On my first venture, one of the widows who had muscled her way into the fishbowl turned to me and said: Che peccato che manca la testa e la dita – What a shame she’s missing her head and a finger. They’re in the church of St. Dominic in Siena.

I eventually made my way to Siena to venerate those relics … not a trip for those with weak stomachs. The head I could understand, given that Catherine was a great thinker, a great doctor of the Church, but the finger was a little confusing. When I asked the Dominican who was the custodian of those relics, he opined that it was with that finger that she had pointed the pope back to Rome from Avignon. Can you imagine travelling from Tuscany to Avignon and telling the pope to get back where he belongs? And yet that’s what she and her finger did. She saw that as her mission. She left behind the wines and ribolito for which Siena was famous, left behind her two dozen older sisters and brothers, and she set on a journey … and the Lord blessed it. 

Our first reading this evening speaks of others who were sent on a mission: Paul and Barnabas. For them, like Catherine, being obedient to the church and the Holy Spirit meant that they would be “sent on a journey.” They trusted in the Church’s discernment and embarked on that mission, that journey to Antioch, and the Lord brought blessings through them. He engages us in His mission, loving us — as we heard in tonight’s gospel — as friends and not simply as the servants that we deserve to be.

Like Paul and Barnabas and Catherine, all of us are called to go where we are sent. For some of us, that means at home in Hoboken or Ho-Ho-Kus — for others it means the Northland … We go where the Lord wants us and we trust that He will bring blessings to His Church through our willingness to trust and to give witness.

Archbishop Myers knows that well. There aren’t a whole lot of similarities between Peoria and Newark — and yet he accepted the mission, gladly made the transition and the Lord brought blessings. He arrived here in 2001 before the dust settled at the site of the World Trade Center. I’ve read and re-read the homilies he gave and the prayers that he composed at that critical time and know that they were just the balm that the Lord desired to extend to this local Church, so deeply affected by that tragic event. Sometimes the finger points and sometimes it anoints, but if it’s doing what the Lord wants it to, it brings fruit.

I’m so grateful to Archbishop for all that he has taught me in the past two and a half years, about accepting the mission that God gives to us, about leading even when it is difficult, about trusting that the Lord takes care of His Church.

Granted, Archbishop Myers has been building on a firm foundation. How wonderful to have Archbishop Gerety with us this evening, and so many of our priests, deacons and lay leaders — not to mention the religious of who so consistently give witness to Christ, exemplifying the joy of the gospel as they pour themselves out in service to others — for them, the spiritual and corporal works of mercy are bread and butter. 

I’m certainly grateful to all of your for opening your hearts to me and sharing your lives with me. If I hadn’t come here, I would have never had a pastel de nata, or kimche, or pancit. I would have never heard of Our Lady of Libera or San Ciro or waved a white handkerchief at Our Lady of Fatima. I would have never processed through the streets behind a pick-up replete with an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe and bearded rapping friars — or appreciated the power of St. Gerard as a prayerful intercessor. (I loved the festa of S. Gerardo, by the way, because he grows in girth faster than I did — and much more profitably, I might add). Had the Lord not brought me to Newark, I would have never begun my Ash Wednesday in a blustery Liberty State Park or spent the days leading up to Christmas with line-dancing Filipinos celebrating Simbang Gabi.

Not long after I came to the Archdiocese I visited one of our Blue Ribbon Schools and was greeted by a young boy full of potential and joy. As I told him that we were lucky to have such a fine school, he reluctantly corrected me … we’re not lucky, Archbishop, we’re blessed. 

Tonight as we gather in this beautiful Basilica among so many friends and colleagues, I realize that I’m not lucky. I’ve been blessed. I’ve been blessed to rub shoulders with you and learn from you, you who are those living stones recognized by a twentieth century saint who sat just where Archbishop Myers is sitting, Saint John Paul. As we together embrace the mission that the Lord gives us, as we go where we’re sent like Catherine and Paul and Barnabas, let us be sure to keep one another in prayer, praising the merciful God who knows just what we need.  

The words of our responsorial psalm are in my heart:

I will give thanks to you among the peoples, O LORD,
I will chant your praise among the nations.
For your mercy towers to the heavens,
and your faithfulness to the skies.
Be exalted above the heavens, O God;
above all the earth be your glory!

Pictures from the Mass and Reception can be seen here.