I. Priestly Love, Self-Giving Love
A. Perhaps you’ve heard about a seminarian who lost his life earlier this summer. His name was Brian Bergkamp, a second year theologian from the Diocese of Wichita studying at Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Together with a group of young people, he was kayaking on the Arkansas River when suddenly the strong current caused one of the kayaks to overturn. A young girl was in distress so Brian came to her rescue. He managed to save her but in the process his own life jacket came loose and he was swept away by the undercurrent, his body not found for weeks. Brian was not yet a priest but already he manifested the kind of love that is at the heart of the priesthood: the self-giving love of our great high priest, Jesus, who laid down his life on the Cross so that we might live eternally with the Father in the peace and joy of that Kingdom where God is all in all.
B. It is Jesus’ gift of priestly love that gathers us together whenever Mass is celebrated but today we see that gift through the lens of Brian Bergkamp, a brother Knight, and more so through the lens of St. John Vianney and the Ven. Fr. Michael McGivney – two great and loving priests who laid down their lives in love for their people. Against formidable odds, St. John Vianney was ordained a priest and in 1818 was sent to the little parish in the town of Ars in France. The parish was in physical and spiritual disrepair, a casualty of the tyranny of the French Revolution and of general human frailty. No one expected much from Fr. John Vianney or from the village church at Ars. Yet, in his hours of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, St. John Vianney’s priestly soul soaked up the love of Jesus for each of us – “greater love no one has than that he lay down his life for his friends.” Possessed by his love, this parish priest utterly spent himself for his parishioners – especially in hearing confessions, hours on end, day after day. He proved to anyone who was fortunate enough to go to him for confession, that “God proves his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Indeed, he plucked those drowning in their sins from raging currents of this world… and only the Lord knows how many souls St. John Vianney pulled to safety. Thanks to God’s love shining in the heart of St. John Vianney, the little parish of Ars became a light to the nations, a true center of spiritual renewal, and St. John Vianney himself became a model for every priest. C. In the same breath, we remember the self-giving love of our beloved founder, the venerable Servant of God Father Michael J. McGivney. Father McGivney gave of himself endlessly to his parishioners, whether at St. Mary’s in New Haven or St. Thomas in Thomaston, CT. We, the Knights of Columbus, are the fruit of his pastoral labors labors that embraced families, the sick and dying, the poor and the outcast. To one and all Father McGivney provided a “life vest”, a haven of safety, constructed from his priestly love and natural leadership… By our reckoning this good priest died far too young, at only 38 years of age, having spent himself completely in the service of his people. Yes, he laid down his life for others after the example of Christ, the High Priest and so he continues to exert a profound influence on all of us, thank God. So too, those priests and bishops, our brother knights, who are numbered among the Mexican martyrs. They served their people with extraordinary love and, in the end, died for the faith they taught from pulpit, celebrated on the altar, and bore witness to in the streets. These holy priests challenge me and I daresay they challenge my fellow chaplains to lead holy lives of priestly service, laying aside our own comfort and convenience in service to others, especially those most in need and those alienated from the faith.
II. The Goal of Priestly Love
A. Every priest knows that his own salvation is linked to his mission of service to others. Indeed the priest is a friend of Jesus to the extent that he loves his people like Jesus, even to the point of being ready to lay down his life for them, for it is in losing our lives for others that we find them. Yet the goal of a priest is not merely to save his own soul – no, his goal is “to save a thousand souls”, as the title of a well-known book puts it. And saving souls means helping those we serve to discover, accept, and live, with joy and generosity, that gift of love that Jesus has given us in Baptism. More specifically, the role of a Knights of Columbus chaplain is to assist fellow Knights and their families in living our first principle, viz., Charity, and we do this by preaching the Word of God, by celebrating the Sacraments, and by walking with our Knights of Columbus families through thick and thin. Charity is the heart of Christian morality and it is the heart of our Order. It refers in the first place to God’s love for us revealed in Jesus; and then to the charity we are show to one another within the Order, and then to a love that overflows in a special way to the needy, the vulnerable, the outcast.
B. So, dear friends, we, your chaplains are called to be both servants and friends of Jesus by whom the love of God is poured into your hearts by the Holy Spirit. And, as you know, this love is not merely a nice thought or a momentary feeling. No, God’s love imparted to thru Word and Sacrament is powerful and beautiful. It has the power to penetrate into the deepest recesses of our hearts, the power to overcome everything in our lives contrary to God’s goodness and therefore contrary to our happiness. God’s love has the power to save us from becoming mired in our sins and absorbed by our own worries, wants, and needs. This love poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit enables us to become like Jesus, to think like Jesus, to value what Jesus values, to love as Jesus loves. For when the charity of Christ defines us, then we are a light to the nations: united in joyful witness to the faith, united in generous service to those in need, and in the process, we become fit for the happiness of the Kingdom of heaven. Isn’t this why Fr. McGivney made charity the first principle of the Order … because he was a good shepherd intent on leading us to live the love of Christ? Friends, we are all deeply committed to the Order and seek to grow it – because we are convinced that the Order is an important way of following in the footsteps of Christ by laying down our lives for others – especially through works of charity and mercy – in our parishes, in times of disaster, on behalf the vulnerable, the list goes on. And how proud and inspired we are by brother Knights who put themselves in harm’s way for others and even laid down their own lives. With what respect and gratitude do we remember them!
C. This morning, as we give thanks for the holiness of St. John Vianney and devoutly pray for Father McGivney’s beatification, we shall remember with ardent faith, unshakeable hope, and unfailing love – those members of the Order who have died during the past fraternal year. We shall listen as their names are solemnly read and pray earnestly for the eternal salvation of these friends and loved ones who have gone before us in faith. Let us recall the many ways they lived the principle of charity, and let us give thanks for the bonds of charity, fraternity, and unity we still share with our deceased brother knights and their loved ones, for in the love of Christ these bonds are not broken by death; rather, they grow stronger and more wondrous.
In that faith we have entered heart and soul into this Mass, this holy sacrifice of love — the source and summit of our charity — our bond of unity and fraternity with the deceased members of the K of C family. We commend them to the Lord of mercy with confident hope, even as we ask those who have died to pray for us and for our loved ones, …pray that, in our time, we might be a light to the nations, united in that charity poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who with the Father and the Son lives and reigns forever and ever! Amen.