WASHINGTON — Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory of Washington and eight other priests ordained with him in the Chicago area 50 years ago concelebrated a special Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington May 9 to mark their shared anniversary of priestly ordination.
They were part of a class of 38 ordained May 9, 1973, at the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception in Mundelein, Illinois.
In his homily, Cardinal Gregory noted that the ritual response spoken by those 38 young men during their ordination, that they were “ready and willing” to begin their priestly ministry, might in retrospect seem “a bit presumptuous.” He said that after 12 years of seminary formation, “we were excited to begin a life of service and care of people that we had not yet met.”
The cardinal added that over the past 50 years, “It has been our good fortune to attempt to be ‘ready and willing’ to be Christ’s priests.”
The cardinal’s classmates – and lifelong friends – who concelebrated the Mass were: Father Michael Cronin, Father James Joslyn, Father John Lodge, Father Edward Mikolajczyk, Father Dennis O’Neill, Father Frank Sasso, Father Daniel Smilanic and Msgr. Kenneth Velo.
“We have presented ourselves to the church as eager and willing servants of the Gospel, and in this Eucharist, we do so again,” Cardinal Gregory said.
Ten years after his ordination as a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, then-Father Gregory was named an auxiliary bishop for Chicago by St. John Paul II. Bishop Gregory was named to head the Diocese of Belleville, Illinois, in 1994 and served there for 11 years.
While leading the Belleville Diocese, Bishop Gregory was elected in 2001 as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and he led the nation’s bishops as they implemented the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.” Then he was named archbishop of Atlanta, serving there from 2005 until Pope Francis appointed him as the archbishop of Washington in 2019. The next year, Cardinal Gregory was elevated to the College of Cardinals by Pope Francis.
The congregation at the anniversary Mass included dozens of women religious along with laypeople, including the cardinal’s archdiocesan co-workers and friends of the jubilarian priests. The Mass also was livestreamed.
After the opening prayer, Cardinal Gregory said, “I thank all of you for being present for us to celebrate this Mass which occurs on the day my brothers and I were ordained to the priesthood 50 years ago.” Then the cardinal laughed as he added, “We don’t look too bad, I think!”
Standing at the cathedral’s bishop’s chair, flanked by his eight ordination classmates wearing their priestly vestments, Washington’s archbishop then said, “The Lord has been very good to us, giving us the ministry that his Son left to the church, and giving us the friendship and love of countless thousands of people.”
The Scripture readings were the same as those proclaimed at their 1973 ordination Mass in 1973: the first reading was from Isaiah 61:1-3, the second reading from 2 Corinthians 4:1-2, 5-7, and the Gospel reading from Mathew 20:25-28.
Reflecting on the second reading, Washington’s archbishop said, “Paul reminded us that the ministry that we were given was a treasure that we carried in the fragile earthen vessels of our personhood.” That understanding, he said, helped them as priests continue to “desire to start anew, even after 50 years.”
Cardinal Gregory said the Gospel reading from Matthew that they heard on their ordination day and again at the 50th anniversary Mass helped them “remember that greatness is to be found in humility, in littleness, in serving others. We can never remember that lesson too often as priests of Jesus Christ.”
As priests care for the people entrusted to them, they are serving in the pattern established by Christ, he said.
“How privileged we have been to know, to love, to serve the many people who have entered our lives, and in return to know their love and care for us. We can never forget the Lord’s favor in our lives that these past 50 years have been,” said the cardinal, who expressed gratitude for the friendship, encouragement and support that people have offered him and his fellow priests over the years.
Concluding his homily, Cardinal Gregory repeated the phrase that he and the other men ordained 50 years earlier had promised as they were beginning their priesthood: “We are ready and willing.”
“We ask your prayers for us and for all priests that we might renew the promises that we made however long ago to be priests for you in the image of Christ Jesus,” the cardinal said, adding, “‘We are ready and willing’ to do so into the future that God only knows and has in store for us and for you.”
In an interview during a reception after the Mass, Msgr. Velo noted, “I can’t think of a better way to celebrate our 50th anniversary, than to join together with our classmates, particularly with Cardinal Gregory, who was the core of our class. His hospitality and graciousness are the cornerstone of who he is as a man and a bishop. We treasure his friendship, and we are honored he gathered us together to celebrate this day.”
Msgr. Velo is the senior executive of Catholic collaboration for DePaul University in Chicago and co-chairman of the Big Shoulders Fund, which supports inner-city Catholic schools in Chicago.
Father James Joslyn, who retired as a Navy chaplain with the rank of captain after serving in that role for 23 years, said the anniversary Mass “was thrilling. It just brought back so many wonderful memories.” In retirement, he helps out at Our Lady of Hope Church in Rosemont, Illinois.
Father Cronin also is retired and helps out at Queen of All Saints Basilica in Chicago. He called it “a great honor” to join Cardinal Gregory and their other ordination classmates in celebrating the anniversary Mass.
“The cardinal said we answer, ‘I am ready and willing,’ and he’s right,” Father Cronin said.