By Msgr. Steven P. Hurley
Vicar General, Moderator of the Curia, Diocese of Wilmington
Bishop Koenig, Bishop Malooly, my brother priests, and to all the gathered faithful, we have come together this morning with a mixture of emotions. Most certainly we have come with a sense of respect and reverence for a priest whose life was well lived, who gave himself totally to serving the church. But we also feel the loss of a bright light that no longer shines among us.
To Monsignor Cini’s sister Deborah and her husband Robert, to his brother Dennis and wife Robin and to all of his nieces, nephews, and family members, on behalf of the bishops and the priests of the Diocese of Wilmington, I offer you our prayers and our sympathy this morning. We are united with you in sadness for we too have lost a brother. Monsignor was a devoted son, brother, and uncle. You occupied a special place in his heart that no one else could fill and his devotion to you influenced many of his life choices. You know that he loved you very much. Thank you for sharing him with us.
“To those gathered here have courage, for today is a day of faith.” Monsignor Cini would often begin a funeral homily with those words. Above all other words and descriptions, our dear brother is rightly remembered for his faith and courage and we would be wise to imitate.
Over half a century ago, the newly ordained Father Cini began his priestly ministry here at St. Elizabeth’s. It was in this most beautiful church that he cut his teeth and became accustomed to celebrating the sacred liturgies. It is where he first experienced the delight of celebrating baptisms and weddings, where he first understood the gravity of being a confessor and the honor of celebrating Masses of Christian Burial. It is where he came to know that his priestly life would always be nourished and strengthened by the celebration of the Most Holy Eucharist. It is where the young priest became firmly grounded in the Sacred Orders that were bestowed upon him. This is where he fell in love with the priesthood. How fitting is it then that we have come here this morning, as we lay to rest our brother at the end of his earthly ministry.
The Mass of Christian Burial unites us this morning to remind us of God’s untiring fidelity and persistent hope. We are reminded that in death, life has changed but not ended. We will hear those words again in the preface to the Eucharistic prayer. We are invited to reflect on Monsignor’s life in order to see how he revealed the Lord’s paschal mystery through his discipleship. This is the task of Christian living; to reveal Christ.
Monsignor John Thomas Cini will be remembered by many as a superb administrator with a sharp, witty, analytical mind and a relentless work ethic. 37 of his nearly 55 years as a priest were spent in diocesan administration. As the Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia, he was a true visionary as he introduced standards and practices in church management that were decades ahead of others. He was a trusted confidant and rock-solid advisor to four bishops, helping them to navigate through prosperous and perilous times alike. All of this he did with grace and a seemingly effortless efficiency. He was a formidable presence who set high standards for those who worked for him and even higher ones for himself. However, this arduous persona that he often portrayed was a contradiction to the humble servant of the Lord that was his true self.
Monsignor Cini had the heart of a pastor and was a gifted preacher and although he held prominent positions, he never sought the limelight. He did not enjoy being the center of attention. He preferred to work behind the scenes and to be left alone in order to complete the task at hand. While he enjoyed the challenge of his administrative duties, he said so many times that all he ever wanted was to be a pastor. It’s no surprise then, that he described his pastorate at St. Ann’s, as some of the happiest years of his priesthood. I was fortunate to have spent four years with him there as his associate pastor. That is where Tom and I became friends and where he became a great mentor and role-model to me. Monsignor was probably unaware and would have been embarrassed to know of just how many priests looked up to him.
Since his passing, I have heard from several priests who also described him as a role-model, as someone they admired and tried to emulate. One priest’s comments were particularly poignant. He wrote “many years ago I was going through a rough time in my life and Tom showed me kindness and understanding when no one else would.” That was Monsignor. If someone was in trouble spiritually or otherwise, in him they would find a careful and compassionate listener with wise and practical, fatherly guidance.
The readings this morning are choices that Monsignor used whenever he celebrated funerals for his family. They remind us of foundational elements of our faith and they also serve as a source of consolation. From the Book of Wisdom, we heard “Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed, because God tried them and found them worthy of himself.” In Sacred Scripture there are multiple examples of people who respond to God’s call with a protest of unworthiness. St. Peter for example proclaimed his unworthiness when Jesus called him to leave his fishing nets behind and follow him. Peter also used this same objection prior to Jesus washing the feet of his apostles. Each time the Lord ignored Peter’s statement and pressed forward. At times we all experience feelings of unworthiness, particularly in our life of discipleship.
Monsignor Cini often spoke of his unworthiness to serve the Lord as a priest and that he was ever mindful of the sin of presumption. We tend not to talk about this grave sin anymore. Simply put, it is the expectation that salvation will be granted regardless of one’s personal response to God’s grace. Something we all ought to be mindful of. Monsignor was not perfect and he more than anyone was acutely aware of his own humanity, that is to say that he was a humble man. True humility not false piety. He had a true sense of himself. He recognized his gifts and talents but also his faults and was not overwhelmed by either. The reality is that none of us are truly worthy, we don’t have to be. We only need to be willing. In faith, whether in season or out of season, Monsignor Cini had willingness to put himself out there when the Lord called him to do his bidding.
In St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we heard “For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.” And, from John’s Gospel, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him on the last day.” These readings alert us to the hope and promise of the Resurrection.
Jesus called his disciples to follow him and in Baptism, we receive that same invitation. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus invites the disciples to “come after me.” This implies a challenge perhaps even a dare. To go after someone suggests that the person we are following is moving quickly, perhaps too fast for us to keep up. The life of discipleship is a daily mission to keep up with Christ. It is frequently not an easy road to travel and from time to time we get lost and we stumble and fall. There is nothing extraordinary about falling, everyone does it. What is more interesting is getting up because not everyone does it, as some prefer to wallow in the mud. Getting up takes courage. Monsignor Cini used to say that “faith is reason that becomes courage.” Faith is reason that becomes courage. Jesus sets the bar high. But our Lord does not command us to succeed, rather he commends us to try. All he asks of us is faith and courage. Faith and courage are two things that Monsignor Cini had in abundance. We don’t have to understand Jesus, we just need to follow him. It is in following him that we grow in our knowledge of him and in our union with him. And as our readings this morning remind us, it is at the end of our earthly pilgrimage that we are united with Christ in a death like his, so also will we be united with him in his Resurrection, when we finally catch up to him.
Monsignor Cini never stopped being a priest, even in the face of serious health concerns. He carried many crosses over the past several years of his life and somehow through it all, he maintained a positive disposition. It was a rarity for him to be downhearted or reclusive. He never lost his mischievous sense of humor or his ability to offer meaningful counsel. His spirit was not diminished rather it seemed to intensify. His nurses and caregivers were drawn to him because he was so engaging and humorous. While I was visiting him a few weeks ago, a nurse came in to see him, just to say hello. She had tears in her eyes as she thanked him for the solace that he had given her during a conversation they had days earlier, when she had shared with Monsignor a personal struggle. Monsignor’s family has heard similar stories from others who had cared for him. A priest he was until the very end.
Monsignor’s sister, Deb was visiting with him one afternoon and out of her own frustration at the complexity of his health situation, she asked him how it was that he could maintain his upbeat attitude when so many people would have rightly become angry and embittered. Without hesitation, Tom responded with one word … faith. His faith was undeniable, and his courage was remarkable.
Livestream from the Mass can be replayed on the Diocese of Wilmington YouTube channel at youtube.com/dioceseofwilm.