On Saturday, I had the privilege of ordaining to the priesthood two young men whom I have known for a long time.
St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church in Clearwater, which we have been using for some time while our Cathedral of St. Jude is being remodeled, was packed to the proverbial “gills” with priests, deacons, religious, families and friends of the new priests, and our seminarians and some who are thinking of the seminary. I would estimate that about 1300 people were present when Justin Peter Paskert and Gioan Nguyen Vu Viet answered the call to orders with their “present.”
The ceremony took 135 minutes, but I would be willing to bet the house that no one looked at their watch or wanted to leave at its conclusion. There is something overwhelming about ordinations.
I call it a veritable tsunami of emotion and feeling which builds throughout the ceremony and the release is often found in thunderous applause from the assembled.
Father Viet alone is quite a story, as is the faith witness of his family. Always wishing to be a priest and attempting on several occasions to enter the seminary in his native country of Vietnam, he was prevented from doing so by the Vietnamese government authorities who have the “right” to vet any and all candidates for the Catholic priesthood prior to their admission into any seminary in the country. In Father Viet’s case, it was probably guilty by association with his uncle who is a priest in the Diocese of Hue and who is at this very moment in prison for the “outrageous” crime of speaking publicly on behalf of democracy and freedom of religion throughout Vietnam. Now in his third decade of imprisonment, his uncle, Father Thadeus Ly, was released briefly when his jailers discovered that he had cancer but he was quickly put back into prison where he remains today. Needless to say, I asked everyone present to pray for Father Ly, for his health, for his freedom from prison, for his liberty to again be a priest to God’s people in his home diocese.
BUT, one member of the family in jail was not enough and when the young Gioan Nguyen Vu Viet protested his uncle’s imprisonment, he too was placed in prison, in solitary confinement and sometimes going days without being fed even subsistence food and water. He was a “political” prisoner of the government of Vietnam. They tried to break him but they could not. They tried to kill him even but they could not. It was all about his faith, his desire for the freedom of his uncle. A human rights group from the United States discovered his case and several members of Congress sought his release to come to the United States and end the punishment of an innocent man.
They succeeded, Viet came to the US and to the Tampa Bay area and soon sought us out to see if he might pursue his longtime goal of priesthood in the United States. We accepted him, put him in the seminary, and on Saturday ordained him a priest. His mother and a few other relatives were allowed to come for his ordination, but the government of the United States refused to approve a request for a visa for Father Viet’s brother and sister, fearing I suppose they might “overstay” their welcome.
The joy among the Vietnamese community over one of their own being ordained a priest was clearly present, just about every Vietnamese priest in Florida was with us for the ordination, and Viet’s bishop from his home diocese of Phu Cuong, Bishop Joseph Nguyen Tan Tuoc, was present for the ordination of a man who his predecessor as bishop could not get the Vietnamese government to allow to enter the seminary. How sweet is that?
Father Viet has been assigned as Assistant Pastor of St. Paul Parish in St. Petersburg where he served his pastoral year two years ago and where he became much loved by the parishioners. In time, of course, he will minister closely and directly to the Vietnamese community in our Diocese which currently gathers for Sunday Mass at Epiphany Church in Tampa and Holy Martyrs of Vietnam parish in Largo.
Father Justin Paskert, after graduating from high school joined his Dad and brothers in the family plumbing business in southwestern Hillsborough County. I remember meeting Justin when he was in grade school and high school and he would serve my confirmation Masses at his home parish of St. Anne in Ruskin. Nine long years ago he came to Father Len Plazewski, then the Vocation Director, and asked him if he might enter the seminary. He completed four years at St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami and five years of theology at the Regional Seminary of St. Vincent de Paul in Boynton Beach. During his pastoral year, he was at Corpus Christi parish in Temple Terrace but any parish that had Justin during his formation years for any purpose felt blessed. Quietly effective in many ways, he was elected the President of the Student Body at St. Vincent de Paul seminary, thereby enjoying the respect and confidence of his peers.
Father Paskert will serve his first years of priestly ministry at St. Ignatius of Antioch Catholic Church in Tarpon Springs.
I have the greatest level of confidence that these two men, one once a plumber and the other once a prisoner (“for the Lord” in the language of the great St. Paul) will do well. They sure got off to an incredible start at their ordination to priesthood yesterday and for them both, the best is yet to come. If you wish to read my homily on this occasion, you may do so below or via a PDF version by clicking here.
HOMILY AT THE PRIESTHOOD ORDINATION MASS FOR
JUSTIN PETER FRANCIS PASKERT AND JOHN NGUYEN VU VIET
Most Reverend Robert N. Lynch, Bishop of St. Petersburg
St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church, Clearwater, FL
Saturday, May 18, 2013
Viet and Justin, may the applause of your family and friends and indeed this local church of St. Petersburg, ring in your ears and remain in your memory long after the doors of this church have once again been locked and all of us have withdrawn. The affirmation just heard and to be repeated several more times is but our only way of expressing our pride and joy in you and our gratitude to the Lord of the harvest who has skillfully planted the seeds of your vocation in your heart and carefully managed their cultivation to this moment.
Our applause is genuine. Our pride is real. Our hope is palpable. Our love for you is unconditional. Our desire to support you even more in the days and months ahead is freely offered. However, praise can be a fleeting thing. Christ Himself who used the same words from Isaiah as we proclaimed in the first reading in his great return to the synagogue of his youth would soon hear applause give birth to skepticism, truth give way to cynicism, and popularity quickly decline to opposition. Today you conform yourself more closely to Christ, the priest. He sacrificed himself, you will offer sacrifice. He forgave sinners in his name and by his power; you will forgive through the ministry of the Church thereby offering both pardon and peace. These and more are awesome responsibilities of which no man is truly worthy but as was Aaron, you too have been called by God. Priesthood is not about power, nor might I add is the episcopacy. We are called to serve, friend and foe alike, the learned and the ignorant, the faithful as well as the erring. In recent days Pope Francis has reminded us with his stark, simple, stunning and stirring words, there is no room in Christ’s church and especially in ordained and consecrated ministry for careerism and a self-reverential approach to priesthood stands in stark opposition to the ministry of Christ. How, often, as in this morning’s readings do we hear Christ deflect praise by reminding his listeners that he is busy not about His business but that of the one who sent Him. Genuine ministry is always at the service of someone higher than ourselves – we are merely instruments in the hands of the Almighty.
It has always been amazing to me in my thirty-five years of priestly ministry how the core or substance of who we are and what we were ordained to do remains unchanged but the accidentals change. Perhaps an analogy might help? Understanding priestly ministry today is something like eating an artichoke – truth and transparency require me to admit that is something I have never done and would not ever think of doing. However, watching others attack this weird looking vegetable, the satisfaction that is gained from peeling off and sipping the contents of the leaves eventually gives way to both gazing at and then eating the core. The leaves are teasers, if you wish, for the delight that remains hidden to both the eye and the palate until the end. The core of the priesthood is our role in the celebration of the sacraments, of transubstantiation and of reconciliation, of baptizing into new life and anointing those soon to pass into life eternal, of reminding those who are about to begin their life together as husband and wife that fidelity has its place in marriage and in ordination and consecration. That’s the core but each priest has an opportunity to sweeten the leaves – to smile when it seems the impossible has been asked of us, to invite to the table those who society and perhaps even our ecclesial community tends to exclude, to eat with prisoners incarcerated and to assist those incarcerated with their own addictions to find new freedom. Christ is the core of priestly ministry, but the leaves can be sometimes of our doing and sometimes under the influence of others.
Justin and Viet, you are the first of what will likely someday be called the “Francis priests.” Almost every priest in this church today can say that they are Paul VI priests, John Paul II and Benedict priests and now Francis priests. I very much consider myself a Paul VI priest but I will not belabor definitions. However, I think Paul VI’s vision of the Church post Council was what excited me enough to shut up and listen to the voice of God calling me to ministry in the Church. A lot of who I am, how I act as a priest and bishop, how I envision Church was shaped by his ministry, his vision, his commitment to the Council. The core of my ministry, the fruit if you will of God’s call is the same as everyone else’s and it has been very satisfying for thirty-five years, to me and I hope to God to others.
But if I were your age, I would be enchanted by Pope Francis. I too believe that the future of the Church depends not on how we serve the comfortable, but how we reach out to the fringes, the excluded, the vulnerable, and the forgotten. Doing that will make some uncomfortable in ministry and some uncomfortable of their ministers. But look at the ministry of the Lord – little time was spent with those whom he was most comfortable with and a lot of time was spent on those who had no other friends. Both of you have great gifts of experience to bring to your priesthood, leaves if you will which have special delight and will want others to continue on until they find the core.
Justin, you know that there is dignity in hard labor for with your father and in the family business you took pride in the product of your labor no matter how dirty your hands and clothes became. You know how hard it is to gain a dollar and how quickly and foolishly that which came as a result of hard work can disappear in a consumer moment. You will be a comfort to God’s holy people as they search for meaning and dignity in their work.
Viet, you have stared your prison guards in the face, conquered incarceration, proved that there is no restraint which can chain the human longing for freedom of religion and when faced with solitary confinement and starvation, you felt the presence of Jesus in a manner which none of us ever will, you cloned yourself to Paul and Silas and Peter for whom chains and ankle irons never confined their preaching and powerful witness and your hunger was for the bread of life. Who better in this whole diocese to say, “I have come to bring freedom to prisoners?”
My brothers, the leaves, which surround the core of your priestly ministry, raise great expectations in all of us today. Both of you have born the heat of the day and may Francis, our Pope, who understands the challenges of life perhaps better than many of his saintly predecessors and perhaps even of ourselves inspire you to become “Franciscan” – and sorry sons of St. Francis, you know how I mean that!
The daily journey to the core substance of your priestly ministry will provide you with many moments of joy and happiness. Everyone here this morning joins me in welcoming you to priestly ministry at the service of others. AMEN.