Easter III Saint Mary’s, Norwalk 2015
Fr. Richard Cipolla
The resurrection appearances of the risen Christ all have a deep sense of mystery about them: the appearance to the apostles in the Upper Room on Easter afternoon and then again this time with Thomas present; the appearance on the road to Emmaus—and they knew him in the breaking of bread; the appearance of Jesus on the seashore to the apostles who were in their boats fishing but catching nothing. Sometimes they recognize him, other times not. There seems to be something holding them back from recognizing him because the possibility of his being alive is not part of their horizon, not at all to be expected despite what Jesus told them. But in the end they always do recognize him as he calls to them. For me the most dramatic encounter is that of the risen Lord with Mary Magdalene. Fra Angelico’s painting of this scene speaks deeply to me. She who loved Jesus so much for what he had done for her, he who had rescued her, she who knew him because of her love for him: she does not recognize him. She assumes he is the gardener who takes care of the area around the tombs. They have a conversation. No recognition. And then Jesus says to her: Mary. He calls her by name, and she recognizes him. It is Jesus who calls Mary Magdalene to faith, faith in his resurrection, faith in Him as the life of the world. And she, like the others is surprised by joy, not expecting it and so not seeing it, but finally accepting it: surprised by joy.
It may be foolish of me to compare this encounter between our Lord and Mary Magdalene and my encounter with Bishop Caggiano when he told me he was appointing me as pastor of St. Mary’s church. But foolish as it may be, there was something there that partook of that mystery and surprise that accompanied the resurrection appearances. This was not part of my horizon, not part of my understanding of possibility, not something I thought about wanting in any sense. My seven years here with Fr. Markey as pastor were wonderful in the sense that I saw a parish transformed by the reality of liturgical renewal grounded in the Tradition of the Church. I supported vigorously every move that Fr. Markey made in the direction of the Tradition. And I rejoiced that this bore such wonderful fruit in the whole parish and could be seen in pastoral ministry as well. And the icing on the cake, so to speak, was the renovation of the church, or rather, the transformation of the church that bespeaks the beauty of God and that provides a fitting and holy place for the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
So when the bishop asked me if I would take on the role of pastor here, there was a nanosecond of pause: being a married priest and the effect this would have on my wife and on my home, my age—although the rumors of my being 102 are exaggerated–, my difficult years as a priest in this diocese because of my love of the Tradition of the Church, my lack of experience in the matters of running a parish—this flashed through my head in that fraction of a second, and I said yes with great joy: the joy of the Cross and the joy of Easter, all at once.
This past week has been busy and somewhat daunting. A priest friend of mine asked me on Thursday how everything was going. I said; well, the church is still standing and no one has yelled at me so I think it’s fine. And I am surrounded by such dedicated and faithful men and women who love Christ and his Church and therefore are already helping me to grow into my new role. The great number of parishoners that came out for Fr. Markey’s reception on the day of his leaving is not only a testament to their love for him as a priest, it is also a witness to the depth and the strength of this community of faith that is St. Mary’s church. This parish is unique. That word can be used positively and negatively. There are those Catholics who see this uniqueness in a negative way, claiming that how we celebrate Mass here, with the priest and the people facing God together not in opposition, whether in English, Spanish or Latin, is a throwback to the bad old days before the Council, and that our insistence on preaching the whole of Church teaching including what is unpopular to today’s culture turns people off. Well, they are wrong, and you are the proof of this. We are doing here what the Church asks us to do, and we do so with great style, with great beauty, with great devotion, with great zeal and most of all with great love. And we will continue on this path, the path of goodness, truth and beauty.
Nothing essential will change in this parish. But things also will not stay the same. There will be changes, not essential, but still changes. For change is the sign of life, the sign of growth. To advance on the path we have chosen and worked hard on, there must be change. Bishop Caggiano asked me what I would do as pastor. I told him that I certainly would not change the liturgical practice of this church and in fact want to bring it even further down that glorious path. But I told him that I hoped to do two things among others. The first is this: to end the isolation of this parish church. Now what do I mean by this? In some ways, because of our uniqueness, we have tended to isolate ourselves, taking the attitude that what we do here is wonderful and we don’t care what everybody else is doing in other parishes in this diocese. I want St. Mary’s to take on a leadership role in this diocese, especially in helping to bring other parishes to appreciate and understand the intrinsic role of Tradition in liturgy. And to do so the clergy must be willing to get out there, so to speak. And our laity must do the same. The best way to help others know and come to love Catholic Tradition and Catholic teaching is to let them see the joy that it brings you. What we have here is not rigidity, it is not legalism, it is not a deadly uniformity, it is not vying to see who can be the most traditional in outward appearance and practice: it is none of these things. It is the joy of knowing the blessing we have here in this parish church and wanting to share that with others.
The second thing I told the bishop is this: that the two busiest rooms in the rectory will be the kitchen and the dining room. Our Lord did much of his ministry eating with people, all sorts of people. That will be a good part of my ministry as pastor: getting to know you as my parishoners in the context of good food and where possible good wine. But that is also how I will get to know my fellow priests. That is how I will get to know guests who are just coming through or those who want to understand what we are doing here at St. Mary’s and why it is so wonderful. When things settle down I will announce a time that I will be available in the rectory for people to just come and chat. But it must work both ways. It is you who must also do what has to be done to get to know me. Some have already invited me to come to your house for dinner. I hope there are many more. Or just invite me for coffee. Whatever. Because it is important for me to be with you in your home, for there is where you are most yourself, there is your center, there is where the joys and sorrows you experience within your family that make you unique and not just a name on the parish rolls.
There is much to do in this parish church to make it what it is called to be in Jesus Christ. I wake up quite early now, and I lie there and think and plan and hope, and I thank God for all of his blessings, and now especially for the blessing of being the pastor of this wonderful parish, of being YOUR pastor. I need your prayers, I need your support, I need your love in Christ. And I promise you, with the prayers of the Blessed Virgin Mary whose name graces this church, to give you my very best.