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Called to be 'friends of Jesus'

Archbishop's homily at St. John Vianney Seminary's 2019 graduation

Archbishop Thomas Wenski preached this homily during the graduation Mass for students of St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami. The Mass was celebrated May 8, 2019.

In the today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear how “those who had been scattered went about preaching the word. Thus, Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Christ to them.”

The martyrdom of Stephen was followed by a savage persecution, thus the “scattering” of those first Christians. Those early Christians could be driven out of Jerusalem, but they could not be driven away from Christ, and so they “went about preaching the word.”

A commencement — which brings to conclusion the academic year and the conferral of degrees on those who graduate from this college seminary — might be seen by some as a scattering – albeit not one like the scattering that led the deacon Philip to the city of Samaria. Our graduates leave on a happier note than Philip left Jerusalem. At least, we hope so. If Philip survived the persecution in Jerusalem, you have survived Father Bob Vallee and his rigorous courses in philosophy. 

Philosophy has been called many things – not all complementary to be sure. But hopefully your courses have given you insight into the “lived wisdom” of the ages and also have equipped you now to engage that wisdom that spoke through the prophets and through the Word Incarnate, in your future studies in theology.

However, even as tonight we recognize your academic achievement, we do well to remember that your being here at St. John Vianney was not solely about academics. Certainly, as you have heard many times, your formation is built on four pillars: intellectual, human, spiritual and pastoral. And while scholarship is certainly demanded here, St. John Vianney is not simply about producing scholars but rather it is about preparing you to be missionary disciples imbued with the joy of the Gospel, missionaries who see the Gospel not as a burden to be endured but as a gift to be shared.

“Missionary disciples,” Pope Francis tells us, are not turned in on themselves — “self-referential Church”; rather they look outward — and with apostolic courage and passion — they are not afraid of being bruised, not afraid of making mistakes, not afraid of acquiring the stench of the sheep whom they encounter on the existential peripheries of our post-modern world. This is no easy task: It requires serene discernment and prudent decision making. And hopefully, your years at St. John Vianney have done just that, formed you as better “disciples and missionaries of Christ so that our people will have life in Him,”  “discipulos y misioneros de Jesucristo para que nuestros pueblos en Él tengan vida.”

To be a missionary to the people of our times — as the deacon Philip was to the city of Samaria — requires rigorous preparation in any number of disciplines. We need to grow in our understanding of the joys and hopes, the sorrows and anxieties of the people of our times; we need to acquire competencies and skills to engage the world of today in dialogue. But more importantly, if we are to be effective missionaries of the Word of God, if our witness is to be convincing, then we must first be committed disciples. And, whether or not, all of you will continue in your discernment for the priesthood at St. Vincent de Paul Seminary, we pray that your days here at St. John Vianney — with the integration of the four pillars of priestly formation into your own lives — has helped you grow in your relationship to Christ. Only to the extent that we are committed disciples can we be effective missionaries and witnesses of the Lord.

For this reason, today I commend all of you to the priestly intercession of this seminary’s patron saint, St. John Marie Vianney, the Cure d’Ars. He often gave this advice to those who sought his counsel: Do only what can be offered to the Lord.

The life of this humble parish priest continues to inspire priests and future priests. This saint, at a time of great religious indifference in post-revolutionary France, single-handedly initiated a spiritual revival in his country. Up until the day of his death, thousands of pilgrims would arrive daily at the rural outpost of Ars so that they could confess their sins to him. 

He moved sinners to conversion not through sophisticated schemes or eloquent words. (He was a rather dull student and was not thought of as being very intelligent). Nor did he win people over by his good looks (the old sepia photos of him reveal a rather homely man). 

What won people over was his holiness — people knew he was the real thing. You know the story well: When he had first set out for Ars – on foot – to take up his assignment, he quickly realized he was lost and asked a young boy whom he encountered on his path if he knew the way to Ars. When the youngster said yes, Père Jean Marie Vianney told him: “You show me the way to Ars and I’ll show you the way to heaven.” And, when he arrived in Ars, he set about to do just that.

On the day of your ordinations, God willing, your names will be called and when called you will answer “present.” In this way you express your willingness to put yourself at the disposal of the Lord who “died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him…” (cf. IV Eucharistic Prayer, II Cor. 5: 15) But until then, your continued formation helps prepare for that day – and for your generous response of saying, “Adsum,” present.

At a Chrism Mass some years ago, Pope Benedict XVI said: “Being a priest means becoming an ever closer friend of Jesus Christ with the whole of our existence. The world needs God — not just any god but the God of Jesus Christ, the God who made himself flesh and blood, who loved us to the point of dying for us, who rose and created within himself room for man. This God must live in us and we in him. This is our priestly call: only in this way can our action as priests bear fruit.” 

Our priests respond “present” every day, and in so many ways, through their ministry to the people of God. Here in the Province of Florida and in the dioceses, who sponsor you here, we are served by priests from every inhabited continent. They may speak in many different accents but thanks to their dedication and to their extraordinary love for the Lord they are here for their people. Called to be “friends of Jesus,” these men have given their lives to show us the way to heaven — to be disciples and missionaries of Jesus Christ so that in him our people have life.

Let ask that, through the intercession of St. John Marie Vianney, we all will continue to grow in holiness — and, in this way, take Christ and his Gospel to the men and women of our times. As the Deacon Philip did in his time and St. John Vianney did in his times, we too must go about “preaching the Word.”

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