When Bishop Fulton Sheen received an Emmy award for his television program in the 1950s, he ended his acceptance speech with "And I'd like to thank my writers... Matthew, Mark, Luke and John."
Tonight I also want to thank my "writers." They aren't as impressive as the four Evangelists, but they are a Cardinal and an Archbishop, which isn't a bad team.
First, the Cardinal. Cardinal Albert Vanhoye takes us back to the first Holy Thursday with his commentary on tonight's liturgy (Il Pane Quotidiana della Parola, 149-151).
The Cardinal is a great biblical scholar, but he doesn't tell us to open our Bibles this evening; he invites us to open our hearts.
"Tonight let us relive the Last Supper of the Lord Jesus—let us go into the Upper Room together with the Apostles, ready and prepared to receive the final gifts of the One who loves us: ready to listen to his last words and to observe his final actions."
"Let us fill our eyes and hearts with his presence in our midst."
In John's Gospel we see Jesus humbly at our feet, in the posture and attitude of a slave; in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians we recall the institution of the Eucharist, and then—in accordance with the Lord's wishes—we repeat his actions and say again his words, "This is my Body, this is the cup of my Blood."
What does it mean to "fill our eyes and hearts with his presence in our midst"?
Three things come to my mind. The first, of course, is to strive always to have eyes and hearts that are not clouded by sin. We know there was one at the table who was neither ready nor prepared to receive what Jesus wanted to give. Not only tonight but at every Mass we should prepare ourselves to receive the gift of the Eucharist. Sometimes that means an act of sorrow, other times a sacramental confession.
The second way we recognize Jesus present is by what can be called reverence—an attitude of gratitude. Reverence is shown in many ways: arriving on time, how we conduct ourselves in church, the way we receive the Lord in Holy Communion, and so on.
And finally, we fill our eyes and hearts with his presence among us by prayer—prayer before Communion, prayer after Communion, and ideally quiet time before Mass (since quiet time after Mass seems quite impossible in our church, though not tonight, when a total silence will envelop the building after Mass so that those who wish may pray at the altar of repose). Jesus is present at Mass; we know it 'up here' in our heads. But prayer is our way of becoming aware of Him 'right here' in our hearts.
I mentioned a second writer—that's Archbishop Miller, whose wonderful homily at the Chrism Mass last night underscored for me that Holy Thursday is not only about the institution of the Eucharist but about the institution of the priesthood as well.
Archbishop Miller quoted Jesus' words: "No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you" (Jn 15:15).
Being a priest, the Archbishop reminded us, means to be engaged in becoming an ever closer friend of Jesus Christ with the whole of one's existence, of trusting him with every fibre of one's being.
Quoting Pope Benedict—the Archbishop too has some help writing his homilies!—he said "To be a priest pleasing to the heart of God (cf. Jer 3:15), both the mind and the will should be deeply rooted in a living friendship with Christ. ... For this reason, at the root of our pastoral ministry is a personal encounter with the Lord, a knowledge of him that can be acquired only by being firmly rooted in prayer and immersed or soaked in the Word of God. (Benedict XVI, General Audience, 26 May 2010).
"Friendship with Christ, the Archbishop said, "must ground all that we say and do as his priests."
Inspired as I am by these words addressed to priests, the more I thought about them the more I understood that they are meant no less for you than for me. Tonight we are reminded that Christ is our friend—that we are called to a joyful friendship with our Lord.
But that's not all. Archbishop Miller continued by saying that this call to friendship is coupled with the call to service. "Serving" must also be decisive for us: we are servants. And serving means not doing what I propose for myself, not doing what I like best. To be a "servant of Christ and steward of God's mysteries" (cf. 1 Cor 4:1) entails putting on the Lord's yoke (cf. Mt 11:29-30) and bearing one another's burdens (cf. Gal 6:2).
Serving means not being led by my own preferences or my own priorities, but letting myself truly be of service to others. This is what priests promised on the day of their Ordination – but it is also the call each of us received at baptism.
At the end of his homily, the archbishop told us: "Remember that you are held up by the faithful who pray not only with you but for you." These past few days since my father's death have, of course, brought those words home to me in a powerful way.
As we enter together tonight into the Upper Room, I express in a very special way my gratitude for the gift of my twenty-five years of priesthood and for the privilege of sharing it here with you.