By Edmund Cardinal Szoka
Church of St. Hugo
July 11, 2009
My Dear Brothers and Sisters,
The Church in her sacred liturgy celebrates the birth of only two people: one is the birth of St. John the Baptist which we observe on June 23rd, the other is the birth of Jesus that we celebrate on December 25th.
The celebration of today’s liturgy is not to add Msgr. Tocco’s birth to this exclusive list of birthdays we celebrate. It is rather to join him at this altar as he celebrates the Holy Eucharist to give thanks to God for all the Lord has given him, for all the blessings he has received during the 70 years of his life. We are all pleased to join him today as he thanks God for all His gifts and especially as he thanks Him for the greatest gift of all – the gift of the ministerial priesthood, the ordained priesthood.
It s a special privilege and honor for me to join him and all of you today and to proclaim the word of God on this special occasion. It was during my years as Archbishop of Detroit that I appointed Father Tocco to be pastor of St. Hugo’s parish. That was on July 2, 1985 – 24 years ago. And to my great joy, he is still the pastor. All of you are aware of the leadership he has given to this parish. We can look at the physical structures – the church, the school, the bell tower, the rectory, as well as the Gothic chapel and admire his leadership in all these accomplishments.
These, however, are buildings, structures, which are necessary and very important but not foundational to the life of the parish. The people of the parish in a union of love of Christ, and with each other together with their pastor, are a particular community in the worldwide community of the Mystical Body of Christ. It is to the building up of this community of faith and love, which is the fundamental mission of a parish priest.
I have celebrated the Holy Mass a number of times in this parish church and every time, as I greeted the people after the Mass, I could sense and feel the very positive spirit of faith and love and enthusiasm of the people of St. Hugo’s. That has been Msgr. Tocco’s greater accomplishment as your pastor.
This celebration in which we are participating today should not simply center on one particular person. It is rather an occasion to recall again the sacredness of the ministerial priesthood of Jesus Christ.
We all know and have heard so many times that we all share in the common priesthood of all the faithful, each in its own proper way, in this one priesthood of Christ. Because of baptism and confirmation, we share in various responsibilities in the Church. However, the ordained priesthood is essentially different from the common priesthood of the faithful.
In the ecclesial service of the ordained minister, it is Christ Himself who is present to His Church as Head of His Body, Shepherd of His flock, high priest of the redemptive sacrifice, Teacher of truth (CCC #1547). This is why we say the ordained priest acts in the person of Christ. By his ordination, a priest is sacramentally configured to Christ the priest. In this sense, he is Christ the priest in this world, especially when he proclaims the Gospel, administers the Sacraments and, most especially, when he stands at the altar to offer this Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. So it is not just this priest who stands at the altar, it is Christ who stands there. It is not just this priest who says: This is my Body, this is my Blood. It is Christ who is standing at the altar; it is Christ who is saying these words.
The ordained priest possesses the most awesome authority in the world. No king, no president, no emperor, no dictator, no billionaire can change the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Only the ordained priest can do that. This belief has always been the foundation of my faith conviction that there can be no greater vocation than the vocation to the ordained priesthood. Pope John Paul II, as well as other popes, stressed the absolute necessity of the priesthood. He said that without the ordained priesthood, there is no Eucharist, and without the Eucharist there is no Church.
All of this does not necessarily mean that the priest is the holiest person on the block. The history of the Church makes that clear. But it does mean that he is essential to the life of the Church and to all its members.
Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, has declared this year, beginning June 19, the “Year of the Priest”. He has named St. John Vianney, the Curé, or pastor, of the little town of Ars in France, as the patron of priests. St. John Vianney was not a brilliant intellectual. He had trouble getting through the seminary because of difficulties with his studies. But he became one of the greatest parish pastors of all times. He gave himself tirelessly to catechetical instructions, to the hearing of confessions – as much as 16 hours in a day, and to the celebration of Mass. He lived a life of simplicity, of prayer, of penance and drew thousands of people to Christ.
The Holy Father has various reasons for calling this the Year of the Priest. It is an opportunity to re-emphasize the importance of the ordained priesthood; it is an opportunity to reaffirm priests in their ministry and to encourage them to keep striving for holiness; it reminds us as well of the necessity of parents and all of us to encourage vocations to the priesthood. It is the Year of the Priest – all priests, our priests, your priests.
It is on this note of the Year of the Priest that I express our best wishes and gratitude to Msgr. Tocco for his 44 years of dedicated ministry as an ordained priest of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I have known him well since 1981 when I became Archbishop of Detroit. He was always a loyal, dedicated, hard-working priest and he was always most loyal to me in my ministry. So, to Father Tony, another 70 years of the joy and happiness which our Great High Priest, our Lord Jesus Christ, gives to his ordained priests who sacramentally make Him present to our world.