(Editor’s note: Father Hohenstein, a retired priest of the Albany Diocese, delivered this homily at a reunion of his graduating class from Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md.)
“How shall I make a return to the Lord for all the good he has done for me?” (Ps 116).
Fifty years ago, my classmates here present and I were all asking the same question amid a world that was in turmoil. Before our ordination to the priesthood in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated; right after our ordination, Sen. Robert Kennedy was assassinated.
I was a loyal supporter of Bobby Kennedy. I went to my first assignment on the day of his funeral.
The year 1968 was also the year of “Humanae Vitae,” Pope Paul VI’s historic encyclical on the sanctity of human life amid the controversy over birth control. Many priests left the ministry in protest. The Vietnam War was raging, and thousands of Americans died amid violent protests at home and around the world. Devastating riots occurred at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. It was the year that Russia invaded Czechoslovakia.
This was the real world, and the challenge that we faced as newly-ordained priests.
The jubilation of ordination 50 years ago was soon over as we entered the real world, which was far different than the confined seminary world. The reality of our pastoral assignments was the testing ground for our “book knowledge” — and, in those years, very limited pastoral or parish preparation.
Indeed, it was a far different age. For example, my pastor, when I was a deacon, said to me, “Never mind all that theology; can you run a bingo?” Some of my brother priests in the Albany Diocese were full-time teachers by day and full-time associate pastors by night, with office duty, hospital calls, marriage preparations and so on.
While we may not have been primarily prepared for the real world outside the seminary, we were totally prepared to answer the call of our bishop on the day of ordination. Through the impositioning of the bishop’s hands, something happened to us sacramentally, best described by St. John Vianney, patron of parish priests: “One kneels in the consciousness of his own nothingness and rises a priest forever.”
The call to be a priest must come from the Lord and must be answered without reservations, as in the Gospel passage, “I will follow you wherever you go.” The Lord tells us that, to follow Him, we must sacrifice our desires and our comfort zones: “The Son of man has nowhere to lay His head.” “I will follow you Lord, but first....”
Our struggle as priests is not to be another Christ, but to be more like Christ. The priest must lose himself in giving, sacrificing, serving and loving God’s people. We need look no further than the life and death of Blessed Stanley Rother, who was a seminarian here at the Mount and was ordained from here for the Diocese of Tulsa, Okla. We were in our first year at the Mount when Stanley’s class were deacons.
It was also 50 years ago during the infamous year of 1968 that Stanley Rother went to Guatemala to minister to God’s people as a priest and pastor.
When Stanley’s life was in danger as a missionary in Guatemala, he returned to the Mount to spend several days in prayer and drew support from his beloved friend, Rev. (now Archbishop) Harry Flynn, who was then the rector. Stanley knew his life was in danger, but he felt that he must return to his people in Guatemala and proclaim to them and to each of us, “A shepherd cannot run from his flock.”
On July 28, 1981, at the age of 46, Stanley was murdered in his rectory for his support of the indigenous poor. He followed the Lord to his death without any, “But first.” What an example and proclamation to Mount St. Mary’s priests and seminarians of one who was like Christ and, as declared by Pope Francis, “the first American-born martyr.”
Our late pastor, Msgr. Mulchay, told us that “there is no challenge or situation that you can’t overcome or confront, because you are a priest of Jesus Christ.” Every priest here can relate to times in his priesthood when those words have rung true.
Those words came to me when there was a small plane crash in the Mohawk River near Albany and a fireman carried me on his shoulders to anoint the deceased pilot. Another time, in 1969, a passenger plane crashed into a house in Albany, and I and my brother priests went to the scene to anoint the victims and then to the hospital to attend to survivors and their families.
There was the time when a young man murdered five women on the state university campus and my parish got the heartrending call, since one of the young women was a parishioner. The pastor went to inform the family and I went to the hospital to identify the body.
We priests also served our people through the monumental liturgical changes of Vatican II, race riots and the unthinkable 9/11 attacks. The challenges of today for our priests are school and mass shootings, the murder of police officers, parish closings and mergers, and the horror of clergy sex crimes against innocent children — our greatest treasure — and their ruined lives.
Whether we have been ordained one year or 50 years or more, our reunion recalls the sacred teachings and values we learned here at the Mount. We were taught and encouraged to lovingly serve Jesus Christ as parish priests, teachers, hospital chaplains, missionaries, seminary professors, administrators and in countless pastoral ways as a priest of Jesus Christ.
Moreover, my brother priests, our greatest privilege and joy has been to celebrate the Eucharist with God’s people and for God’s people, and thus share the body and blood of Jesus Christ as, together, we are strengthened and nourished on our journey to eternal life. As Jesus said, “Whoever eats this bread will live forever.”
“How shall I make a return to the Lord for all the good he has done for me?” The answer is found in the same psalm: “The cup of salvation I will take up, and I will call upon the name of the Lord.”