The church was very different too! Then I learned to celebrate Mass in Latin, and my final “Mass exam” required me to be able to move “from amice to amice” in 30 minutes without singing or homily. (I think I still have that basic rhythm.) That month no one (except perhaps Pope John XXIII alone) had yet imagined a Second Vatican Council. The wonderful blessings of Hispanic culture had yet to be experienced in our midst.
So much has happened since then on every level.

The reform and renewal of the church, as Pope Benedict XVI likes to describe it, took off with high hopes, with very few truly understanding the deep inner spiritual conversion it would demand from everyone. Perhaps like the prophet Jeremiah, who lamented the lack of serious reform in his day, we have witnessed large groups of church members, even some in leadership, who gave up far too early and slipped back into familiar and often less demanding patterns. Many liturgical and catechetical dreams are still unclaimed and unwrapped. We can’t allow them to be abandoned.

On Oct. 11, 1962, I was present for the Council’s opening Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, and heard Pope John XXIII’s clear rejection of the “prophets of doom.” I still believe that he was correct in refusing to accept that viewpoint, no matter which end of the theological spectrum may utter the lament. This is God’s work and it will be successful in God’s time … which is why I am determined, like the prophet Habakkuk (2:3), to “hold onto the vision and wait, for it will not disappoint!” even if it still seeks its own time.

Thirty years ago the 1979 ordination to the episcopacy was also at a different time and in a different place, even amid its own personal confusion. The initial revised Rituals for the church’s sacramental life were in place and being tested in the rhythm of parish life. Communal absolution was greatly welcomed by folks of my mother’s vintage as the social implications of individual sin were highlighted. In my judgment we still must find a way to reintegrate that type of celebration into our sacramental lives. It is too precious to be lost.

Parish councils came into being and sought to find their proper place in the mature life of the church. It has taken time to fine-tune that reality. Much good has occurred on every level … and a few course corrections became evident as well.

The struggle for social justice for all, including the unborn, remains a profound challenge in our radically individualistic culture. The blight of war refuses to be healed and so many lives have been destroyed year after year because of greed and national hubris. A priest cannot cease pondering all these things.

Looking backward, these years of priestly ministry have been graced beyond my wildest imagination. Not always easy, but never boring. To unpack the Gospel of Christ for people’s lives, to celebrate all the church’s sacraments which signal God’s presence in every moment of human life, to be invited into people’s most inner hearts … has been a privilege beyond measure.

The terrible sadness of the sexual abuse crisis and the need to claim the responsibility we each bear for that tragedy has scarred the past two decades. There have been so many victims … including all who clumsily tried to do the right thing without truly understanding the depth of the wound. It will take at least a generation to begin genuine healing at the depth needed. Ecclesia semper reformanda … this church of ours constantly needs the ongoing purification of renewal.

Even in these contemporary days of light and shadows, it is the Gospel of truth and justice, of compassion and healing which must continue to be proclaimed … to ourselves as well as to the entire world.

We live in a terribly divided and polarized world and church. The bitter divisions once delineating democratic West and communistic East seem to have been individualized … and woven into every aspect of our lives. God’s grace is needed more than ever.

“We are one body, the Body of Christ” as the song goes, and each of us has her/his unique contribution to the work of ongoing redemption and reconciliation. I am so grateful to all who have shared and shaped my tiny portion of ordained ministry over these 50 years … mostly to God who makes all things possible and even sometimes fruitful.

PS: Special thanks to all who sent such thoughtful and kind cards and notes. Perhaps one of the unanticipated joys of retirement will be the opportunity to respond individually! They deserve greater courtesy than this hectic and frail moment seems to allow. Thank you!