I’ve known Fr. Jeffrey Keyes for almost 25 years; in the providence of God we were both ordained in 1991. Fr. Keyes graciously preached at my Jubilee Mass last June, and it is my privilege to return the favor today here at beautiful St. Margaret Mary in Oakland, California.
St. Margaret Mary: kindness and patience
Fr. Keyes has chosen to offer the first of his two Jubilee Masses at St. Margaret Mary Parish (if you are a key Keyes fan you will not want to miss his other Jubilee Mass in Santa Rosa this coming Saturday). We offer this Jubilee Mass today, again by God’s good providence, on the very the patronal feast of this dear parish. St. Margaret Mary was born Margaret Alacoque in 1647 in the Duchy of Burgundy, at a time when the Eldest Daughter of the Church (France) still enjoyed a robust Christian faith. May it be so again! At age nine our little saint contracted rheumatic fever, which confined her to bed for four years. After consecrating herself to Our Lady, she was immediately cured and it was then she added “Mary” to her name. She entered the Visitation Sisters in Paray-le-Monial at age 23, working hard but “not very skilled at her tasks,” as some sisters testified at her process. Above all, they said, she was kind and patient.
She needed a lot of patience, because when Jesus began urging her to spread devotion to his Sacred Heart, precious few believed her. Over the next 17 years, until her death in 1690, she seemed “not very skilled” at her task of promoting devotion to the Sacred Heart. By the time of her death she had only one small chapel to show for it all, but she remained patient and kind. It wasn’t until 1765—75 years after her death—that the Church approved devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. And not a moment too soon, for France was in the throes of two nefarious movements—the Jansenism of the 17th Century and the liberal reaction to extreme French piety, which would lead to the French Revolution of 1789. One could say that the worldwide revolutions of the past two centuries, from Russia to China to our own American brand of socialism, are only the aftershocks of the madness and despair that gripped France in the 1780s. St. Margaret Mary would not be beatified for another hundred years (1864) and not canonized until 1920, even though Jesus had given her the most powerful antidote to the misery born of secularism. How patient and kind is the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and his servant, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque.
St. John Paul: serviam
Which brings us to the priesthood and another saint, whose feast we celebrated yesterday. St. John Paul II too was patient and kind under the godless revolutions of his time—Hitler’s fascism and Lenin’s communism. Both dictatorships sprung from the same liberalism, which seeks to order society without God’s help. Most Americans enjoy hearing Frank Sinatra sing “I did it my way,” but is it not only another way of saying non serviam, Lucifer’s famous “I would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven.” Rejection of true religion, refusal to be subjects in the Kingdom of the Sacred Heart, has indeed turned much of our last century into a living hell.
In 1992 Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy defended Planned Parenthood with these words: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Last year the same man indeed “defined his own concept” of marriage, willfully denying the clear laws of nature. It is this liberalism that the priest, above all, seeks to remedy, patiently and kindly insisting on the natural law of God. No king, and no government, can silence the priest. To Satan’s non serviam, the priest says serviam. “I will serve.”
Fr. Karol Woytila offered his first Mass in 1946 at the tomb of the martyr bishop St. Stanislaus, who died at the hands of king Boleslaw in 1079 because he refused to concede absolute power to the king. “I am the king’s good servant,” St. Thomas More would say 500 years later, “but God’s first.” On October 22, 1978, the newly-made Pontiff John Paul II reassured the world that we have nothing to fear from earthly powers, even those that seem unstoppable. He himself had seen both Nazi and Soviet divisions storming Poland, and he had seen their demise. Non abbiate paura rang out over the cobblestones of St. Peter’s Square that day: “Do not be afraid.” God is with us; the Kingdom of His Sacred Heart is ever triumphant. Love conquers all.
It is this serene courage, born of faith and reason, that must motivate the priest. When he was ordained 25 years ago, Fr. Keyes entered a Catholic priesthood that was respected and esteemed in society. That is hardly the case today, and yet we must continue to do our job. If Fr. Woytila could face Soviet tanks, we can face today’s persecutions as well. Any man ordained in the past 25 years looks to St. John Paul for courage that we can and must remain confident in the Reign of Christ’s Sacred Heart.
We must be patient and kind, and anyone who knows Fr. Keyes’ journey over these 25 years knows how God perfects his priests in patience and kindness. “Come to me,” Christ says in today’s gospel.” Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.” Yes, God has a yoke for us to bear, and his priests in particular. But this burden is incomparably lighter than the burdens of this world. To most of his children He offers the yoke of marriage. In fact, matrimony is described as conjugal, literally “yoked together.” Husband and wife are harnessed side by side, like two patient oxen, cultivating their particular piece of ground. They conceive and educate children who themselves will bring in their own harvest in years to come.
But there is another state in life, in which God joins a man in spousal fidelity not to one wife and one family, but as a father to all humanity. The priest too wears a yoke, a Roman collar, under whose sweet weight he labors to bring in harvests of souls. A good father to many children, the priest works long hours, tosses and turns through many a sleepless night, and struggles to be serene when his children do not accept him. Sometimes his superiors do not understand him, and at those times he must turn to the Blessed Sacrament. His Divine Master, incarnate in the sacraments to which he was ordained, will never fail him, but he must pray. Nothing can touch a man of prayer.
The fruitfulness of a priestly vocation is in direct proportion to how willingly we take that yoke upon our shoulders. “I kneel before the Father,” St. Paul writes, “from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.” We call our priests “father” because God makes them alter Christi, other Christs who reveal the Fatherhood of God. Last week I offered Mass at the Missionaries of Charity. “Father,” one sister said to me afterwards, “I have never spoken to you in all the time you have been coming to our convent. I will tell you that I didn’t have a father growing up. But simply seeing you reassures me that I do have a father. Thank you for being our priest, for being our father.”
Twenty-five years ago Our Divine Lord spoke to Fr. Jeffrey Keyes on the eve of his ordination. He repeated the words he had said to him before he entered the seminary: “Come to me.” St. Margaret Mary had heard those words in 1671; Mother Teresa had heard those words in 1946, and they were mothers because they were first spouses. So it is with Christ’s priests. We are first spouses; that is, men of prayer. “Bear my yoke,” Jesus asks him. Bear it with me. Together we will carry humanity to heaven. Twenty-five years ago Christ called out to Fr. Keyes: come to me, to my altar, and offer yourself, with me, upon it.
There are young men in this church today to whom God is saying: Come to me. There are young women to whom Christ wishes to espouse himself in mystical union. We marvel at this, and we praise Him for the vocation. May Our Lady, mother of priests and virgin of virgins, intercede for those so called. May she show them how to bear this yoke with her Divine Son, espoused to the Holy Spirit, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.