Companions Around the Altar: On the 20th Anniversary of My Priestly Ordination

‘I will take up the chalice of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord!’ (Psalm 116)

“Priesthood” (photo: Shutterstock)

Praised be Jesus Christ! Now and forever.

Seventy-five years ago last All Saints Day, Karol Wojtyła was ordained a priest in this very chapel by Adam Sapieha, the princely archbishop of the long night of Krakow’s occupation, made a cardinal earlier that year by the Venerable Pius XII.

The year 1946 was a very good year for the Church in Poland — St. John Paul the Great ordained a priest, Blessed Stefan Wyszynski consecrated a bishop and Sapieha created a cardinal. May those heavenly intercessors obtain from the Lord the graces the Polish Church needs to remain semper fidelis.

Places and dates, shrines and anniversaries are very important to me. This chapel became an important place for me during the seminar in 1994, when I was a participant discovering my own priestly vocation. In 2002, just weeks before my ordination, I joined the seminar for a few days so that I might pray in preparation in various holy places, including the cell of Maximilian Kolbe at Auschwitz and again in this chapel. 

On my 10th anniversary, the day after the seminar ended in 2012, I returned to this chapel for the Holy Mass with my parents, our seminar leader George Weigel, and a few of the participants. Now for the 20th anniversary, it a blessing to be here again, though this time with the entire seminar. Please make the prayers of this Holy Mass, using the proper formulary for a priest on his anniversary, your prayer for me on my 20th anniversary.

The first reading from Jeremiah is often read at ordinations: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you. I pray on this anniversary in gratitude for my parents and my extended family who were such exemplary models of the faith. I think particularly of my godmother, Blanche de Freitas, whose prayers I am convinced were at the root of my priestly vocation.

The priestly vocation can be intimidating, for Jeremiah is told: To whomever I send you, you shall go; whatever I command you, you shall speak. That can even be a bit frightening, so the Lord God adds those words which St. John Paul made resound all over the world: Have no fear before them, because I am with you

How is the Lord with us? I often feel the Lord’s presence in the companionship of the saints and in the companionship of Christian friends here and now. 

On this anniversary, celebrated in the company of the seminar that was a decisive step on my path to the priesthood, I give thanks to Jesus, our great high priest, for those companions along the way.

I think in particular about men whom I regarded as giants when in 1994 I came to Kraków for the first time. Through this seminar, they became mentors and then friends. Three of them have gone to God — Michael Novak, Father Richard John Neuhaus (who preached at my first Mass) and Father Maciej Zięba — so only George Weigel remains to receive my gratitude. His friendship that has been a blessing in my life for more than the 20 years of my priesthood. That we are together on this anniversary in the house of John Paul II is not something I regard as a small blessing — it is great grace. Thank you, George.

One of the benefits of paying attention to dates and anniversaries is that it helps us to trace the workings of Providence in history, to know that we are not alone, that God sends his saints, both living and dead, to accompany us on the way.

This day is marked in the Roman Martyrology as the feast of Elijah the prophet. It is also the death anniversary of Leo XIII — not declared a saint, but I am sure that he accompanies my work in Catholic social teaching from heaven. A few years ago I invited Cardinal Robert Sarah to Kingston, Ontario, and discovered in preparing for that visit that we share the same ordination date — he was in 1969. And so does Cardinal Peter Turkson (1975). God does not leave us alone in the fraternity of the priesthood and the fellowship of the baptized. We are invited into a great convivium around the altar.

Every time I return to Kraków, I learn something new about this city of saints, this city where the 20th century happened. On Sunday afternoon I stopped in to pray at St. Catherine’s church near Skałka, the monastery of the Polish Augustinian fathers. When Father Karol Wojytła left St. Florian’s church, he transferred his Masses for young people to St. Catherine’s church, so that place has a direct connection to our patron.

There was a pamphlet there about the martyrs of that Augustinian house during the Second World War. The cause for the beatification of four of them — including the provincial of the Augustinians — was opened in 2018. I noted that one of them, Father Edmund Wilucki, was ordained on July 20, 1940. Today is the 82nd anniversary of his ordination. His prison number at Auschwitz was 21863. He died there on Nov. 22, 1941. He was only 16 months a priest. Not even 20 months, let alone 20 years.

I didn’t know about him until a few days ago. But perhaps Father Edmund, martyr of Auschwitz, takes an interest in priests ordained on his anniversary. The Lord gives us companions along the way — even Cracovian companions that we do not know about.

The Gospel speaks to us about the seed that falls upon rich soil and produces a harvest of a hundredfold. It reminds us of that other passage in which Jesus says to Peter: Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life (Mark 10:29-30).

I have not lived all of that. I have not had to leave my family behind and I have not faced persecutions. And I am not yet eligible for eternal life! Yet I have had my share of the hundredfold in so many blessings along the way, especially in the companions the Lord has given to me. The priesthood for me has been that pearl of great price and that full measure, pressed down and overflowing, of both natural and supernatural blessings. 

Amongst the hundredfold that I have received I count this seminar, where I have taught every summer since 2009 after the death of Father Richard. That too was part of the hundredfold, as George and Robert Louis Wilken gave me the great honor of preaching at his funeral Mass.

The assigned saint in the universal calendar for this day is St. Apollinaris, the martyred bishop of Ravenna. In the Office of Readings from the Common of Martyrs, which I used this morning, the text was from St. Augustine, whose sermon on martyrs includes this passage on Psalm 116, most fitting for an anniversary: 

In this psalm man ponders the great things he has received from God, the great gifts of grace from the almighty: God created man, sought him when he was lost, pardoned him when he was found, supported him when he struggled in weakness, did not abandon him when he was in danger, crowned him in victory, and gave himself as the prize. Reflecting on all this man cries out, saying: What shall I give the Lord for all he has given me? I shall take up the cup of salvation.

On an ordination anniversary the priest “ponders the great things he has received from God, the great gifts of grace from the almighty.” And the priestly response can only be the words of that same Psalm: I will take up the chalice of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord!

Those words — Calicem salutaris accipiam et nomen Domini invocabo — are inscribed on the chalice that my parents gave me for my ordination. That same chalice has the wedding rings of my deceased grandmothers placed into the node of the stem. They were my first companions along the way that led to my ordination and now to this 20th anniversary. And there have been many more companions along the way, including on this day in this holy place, this convivium around the altar of the Lord. 

In this place I feel with particular intensity the companionship of St. John Paul. I don’t regard him as only a figure who shaped history, but as a companion in my life now, a guide and mentor and source of inspiration. Surely a large part of my hundredfold was living five years in his shadow in Rome, his presence in Canada just after my ordination for World Youth Day in Toronto, the opportunity to be in Rome for his funeral. 

Now, in the presence of his holy relics, in the chapel of his ordination, we go up to the altar of God, to lift up the chalice of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord!