My assignment for writing this piece was to share some thoughts about my best day as a priest. I was a bit daunted by sifting through 49 years of being a priest to find that best day, but two instances surfaced rather quickly – one being the most memorable day, the other the best day. There is a difference between the two.
The most memorable day occurred in Rome when I was one of a group of priests invited to celebrate an early Tuesday morning Mass with Pope (and now Saint) John Paul II. As luck would have it, I found myself celebrating the Mass standing next to Pope John Paul at the altar in his private chapel. It was an amazing experience for me – a simple priest from Michigan, concelebrating a Mass standing next to the pope. What a demonstration it was of the connectedness and unity of the priesthood of the Catholic Church, with pope and priest together offering Christ's Holy Sacrifice at the same altar.
My best day as a priest came a few years later when, in early January of 2001, I presided over the funeral liturgy for my mother. Here I was, my mother's only child, accompanying her soul on her journey homeward to heaven, there to be immersed in the infinite love of God our Father. She was being born again into eternal life. I was “birthing” the woman who gave birth to me.
I had been with my mother when she passed away, sleeping peacefully on the afternoon of January 6. She had suffered from Alzheimer's disease for eight years. Toward the end of her life, I was asking God to bring her back home to heaven. My mother gave birth to me on January 6, 1933, and here on my birthday God answered my prayers.
Now, as her priest and her son, I was sending her off through Christ, with Christ and in Christ to our home in heaven. Never have I felt more forcefully what it means to be a priest. Never have I experienced the love of God more intensely than at that moment in celebrating her funeral liturgy at St. Francis of Assisi parish in Ann Arbor. Clearly, it was my best day as a priest, and it is a reality that is more than just memorable. Why? Because a priest isn’t about memories. A priest is all about bringing God’s presence, power and love to us and bringing us back home to God, our Father.
That I could do that for my own mother was a great blessing – my best day as a priest.