More and more each year, I am growing in my anticipation and appreciation for Holy Thursday and the celebration of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. One of the reasons for this increase of regard is related to the way in which the senior priests of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee are acknowledged and affirmed with a special meal and participation in the Liturgy on that day at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist.
The term “senior priest” is used in our archdiocese to refer to those presbyters who have advanced past the age of 68 years and who no longer have an “official” placement in a parish or religious institution. At one time, such priests were given the title “retired,” but the use of the term was dropped because it is quite inaccurate. Most of the senior priests still are very active in terms of pastoral ministry, serving in a “help-out” role in parishes by celebrating Mass, Reconciliation and the Anointing of the Sick. In fact, it has been estimated that nearly one-third of the Masses celebrated in the parishes of our archdiocese on any given weekend are presided over by a senior priest.
However, as busy as they are on most weekends, senior priests often find themselves without a place to celebrate Mass on Holy Thursday. That is because Catholic tradition stipulates that only a single Mass is offered on this occasion, as it promotes the unity of the Body of Christ. Yet, the sole celebration usually eliminates the need for help-out priests – leaving a senior priest in the unfortunate position of having no formal celebratory role on the very day which the Church commemorates the Institution of the Holy Eucharist and the priesthood. Thus, a number of the senior priests respond enthusiastically and happily to the invitation of Archbishop Listecki to join him for an evening of fellowship and prayer at the Cathedral.
The festivities begin in the late afternoon of Holy Thursday as the senior priests gather for refreshments and a time of sociability, providing a delightful opportunity for them to renew fraternal bonds with their ordained brothers. A dedicated group of Cathedral parishioners volunteer each and every year and go to great lengths to create a warm and welcoming environment and a truly delicious meal. When asked why they are willing and even eager to work so assiduously on this yearly project, the parishioners of St. John the Evangelist point to their heart-felt gratitude for the many years of service which the senior priests have given to the Church.
Yet, the highlight of the occasion for the senior priests most certainly is the chance to join the Archbishop in concelebrating the Eucharist. Especially touching is a portion of the Introductory Rite of the Liturgy, when the senior priests take part in a “Renewal of Priestly Promises.” In one of their affirmations, they vow to continue to unite themselves more closely with the Lord Jesus, to conform themselves to Him, to deny themselves and promise to embrace their sacred duties toward Christ’s Church, which was prompted by love of Him, which they willingly and joyfully pledged on the day of their priestly ordination. Also very moving is the opportunity to see how the senior priests react as they watch the archbishop fulfill the Rite of the Washing of the Feet. The venerable priests nod knowingly and graciously as they no doubt recall the many years they sought to imitate the selfless giving of the Lord and which they longed to become characteristic of their pastoral ministry.
The only thing which would make this celebration even more meaningful would be if there was greater attendance at this event. While there always is a representative group of senior priests which takes part in the special meal and the Mass, there could be more. Some senior priests politely decline the invitation due to difficulties with driving related to their advanced age, or some apprehension in trying to deal with the intimidating traffic, parking and construction challenges of downtown Milwaukee. How wonderful it would be if some former parishioners of the senior priests would be willing to contact them and offer to transport and accompany them to the Cathedral on Holy Thursday. Moreover, how glorious it would be if more Catholics in southeastern Wisconsin simply would come to join the prayerful celebration of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at the Cathedral as a sign of affirmation and gratitude for the legacy of service of the senior priests.
Knowing the senior priests as I do, I would be willing to bet that they do not necessarily expect nor want such affirmation. Rather, what would please them most would be the increased emphasis that a larger turnout would place upon the Eucharist and the priesthood itself. And, perhaps most of all, they likely would rejoice in a greater offering of prayer intentions for future priestly vocations who would someday take their place.