As Those Who Serve Award
April 20, 2017
I’m truly humbled to be here tonight. Thank you for the privilege of being this year’s recipient of the As Those Who Serve award. Having served closely with Cardinal Bernardin when I was the director of the Office for Divine Worship, the name of this award, taken from Cardinal Bernardin’s episcopal motto, carries an added layer of meaning for me.
In preparing for tonight, I couldn’t help but to ask myself: “how in the world did I ever get here?” That question led me to recall all the wonderful people in my life who nurtured my vocation to the priesthood. Certainly there was my family and my parish priests. But one of the greatest influences in my life and vocation were the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth at Assumption Parish in West Pullman. My 2nd & 3rd grade teacher, Sr. Elaine Marie, particularly touched my soul. She was a great evangelist, long before anyone started to talk about a “new evangelization.” [And by the way – she is still active in ministry at the Motherhouse in Des Plaines!] The sisters were pros at getting us engaged in the Church. By the time I was in 8th grade, they had me working as the coordinator of the altar servers, assistant sacristan and a substitute teacher for the lower grades. …..we can all learn from their example as we think about how to engage more Catholics at a d=significant level in the church – even at a young age.
The sisters always had us on their radar. When the time was right, Sister Immaculata called me out of class into the hallway and said: “Lewinski, the entrance exam for Quigley Seminary is two weeks from tomorrow. Be there!” Any protest would have been futile.
Little did I dream in my 3rd floor Quigley classroom that one day I would have an office situated in the exact same spot.
I was thrilled when I finally got to Mundelein. Mundelein for me was a powerhouse of pastoral wisdom, Tradition, community life, inspiration and prayer. Most people take it for granted that the seminary is a center of academic learning. But it can also be a place of conversion. Case in point: One day Sr. Agnes Cunningham ,sscm, who taught patristics at the seminary, knew of my interest in liturgy, and suggested I read the writings of St. Cyril of Jerusalem and Theodore of Mopsuestia. I know….sounds a bit dry and academic….but wait!
I went to the library and I read commentaries of the Fathers of the Church on the Christian initiation of adults in the 4th and 5th centuries. I was stunned by what I read. Why hadn’t I ever heard this kind of in-depth revelation of what it means to be baptized into Christ Jesus? It was a conversion experience that gave me a new incentive for my studies and for what would later become a major focus of my priestly ministry. My passion for Christian initiation and my annual observance of my Baptismal day soon earned me a nickname with my classmates: “Ron the Baptist.” To the seminarians here today I say: “Beware. You may think you have just another reading assignment to do for class. But the Holy Spirit may have another agenda. So dig in and be open.”
My interest in Christian initiation and liturgy was far more than an academic pursuit. The more I delved into the initiation sacraments and the liturgy, the more I longed to be in a parish where I could put all I learned into practice.
As it turned out, the parish too became an invaluable learning experience. The seminary provided me with an essential theology package. But the people of God opened that package, added the water, seasoned it all, and brought what I had learned to a whole new level. Some of the early Church Fathers referred to the baptized as the “Illuminati,” the “enlightened ones.” I found out how true that can be as I learned what it meant to be a priest from the people I served in many places – the illuminati of Cicero, Chicago, Schaumburg, Northfield, Mundelein, Palatine, Malaysia, Australia, South Africa, Dubai, etc.
Many of you “illuminati” are here today. Thank you. You inspired me. You challenged me. You supported me. You allowed me to dream with you. This award belongs to you too.
And thank you to all who are donors and supporters of the seminary and the vision it represents……yes, good people like Richard and Maryjeanne Burke. You make the vision we are celebrating here tonight achievable.
People sometimes ask me: “What do you remember about your ordination?” What remains vivid in my imagination these many years later is laying prostrate on the floor of the seminary Chapel as the litany of the saints washed over me. It was a mysterious experience of being welcomed into the priesthood of Jesus Christ by a timeless community of holy people. I’ve often thought I’d like to go back to the seminary and lay prostrate on that floor again to bring the litany of saints up to date by adding the many people in my priesthood whose holy lives have shaped my soul and ministry. I’m afraid to do that, however, because someone would undoubtedly walk into the chapel, see me prostrate and call 911.
The joy of being a priest is to be a student of many saints. Indeed, there are even two people whom I knew through my ministry who are now in the formal process of canonization!
One last thought I’d like to suggest to our seminarians. Allow yourself to be surprised. Open your heart to wherever God will lead you. You have answered a call to priesthood, but God will deliver you unto the shores of whatever mission he has in mind for you, just like he delivered Jonah on the shores of Nineveh. But try to be more cooperative than Jonah!
What I’ve observed after many years as a priest is that the experiences for which I am most profoundly grateful are nearly all experiences I didn’t initiate. I didn’t dream them up myself. A need I wasn’t looking for came my way. I heard a call. And I responded as best I knew how. And the fruits of these experiences have been far beyond anything I could have predicted.
If someone had told me when I rose from the sanctuary floor on ordination day that I would one day re-found a parish, build a church, start a new school, teach in the seminary, coach a pope – now saint – how to celebrate one of the rites of the RCIA in Grant Park, and to travel literally around the world in competition with Saint Paul, I would have said, “You are absolutely out of your mind!”
The daily experiences of ministry have all been grace-filled surprises. I’ve come to the conviction that we must avoid getting stuck in one paradigm of ministry or one period of history. It’s the living, breathing and growing body of Christ that has been entrusted to our care and we must love it in all its diversity.
It’s a great time to be a priest because the needs are so great and God’s people are so hungry. In the Archdiocese of Chicago the RENEW MY CHURCH initiative stands as an example of the work that lies ahead for all of us – no matter what diocese we are from or what our role is in the Church. We need imaginative priests and parishioners. We need risk takers. We need priests and laity with a passion for mission. We need holy men and good shepherds who are not so proud that they can’t learn from their people. Over the years I’ve discovered that there’s more than one way to be church and that orthodox Catholicism requires flexibility, adaptability, and creativity in style, structure and pastoral approach to sustain the Tradition.
Pope Francis has issued an important message for all of us whether priest, seminarian or faithful lay Catholic. He captures our imagination when he calls us to be missionary disciples and to reshape our parishes to be alive and vibrant, welcoming and inclusive, and truly mission-oriented. I’m excited about that vision and I hope you are too. But we all have to work together to make that dream a reality – priests and laity together.
I’d like to think that our gathering here tonight is more than about 3 honorees, but a community dedicated to embracing the mission of Christ with renewed zeal.
Thank you once again for the honor of receiving this award. It gives me a second wind to keep going and remaining open to whatever surprises God may still have in store for me. And I promise, I will try to be more cooperative than Jonah. Thank you.
Fr. Ron Lewinski