Homily — Gaudete Sunday MMVIII Dec. 14, 2008

Homily — Gaudete Sunday MMVIII            Dec. 14, 2008

When I was in my last year at the seminary, I had the opportunity to take a 10-day pilgrimage to Rome during March of 1999 with 26 of my classmates.  We were all transitional Deacons at the time, and our Vice Rector, who knew lived in Rome for years and was fluent in Italian, accompanied us.

Before we left for the trip, we wrote to the Vatican, requesting a private audience with Pope John Paul II.

You see, for the first 20 or so years of his pontificate, John Paul II would invite about 30 people each day to attend Morning Mass in the Pope’s small private chapel, and after Mass he would greet each person and give them a Rosary.  (The Pope by the way stopped doing this either when he got real sick or after 9/11, and Benedict XVI hasn’t resumed the practice)

It was well known back then, that if you requested to go to the Pope’s private morning Mass and you or your group was chosen, you would be called the night before the Mass and told then.  (not much notice, but that’s Rome for you)

Well, two nights before we were to fly home, we got the call.  The Monsignor who called us told us to be at the Sant’Anna Gate in St. Peter’s Square tomorrow morning at 6:30 a.m. sharp wearing our cassocks.

We were to prepare hymns for the Mass, and we were expected to sing for the Pope a piece of Gregorian Chant called the Ave Regina Caelorum, which is sung each day to the Blessed Mother during the Season of Lent.  As hardly any of us knew how to sing it, we needed to learn it that night.

We also were expected to provide a Deacon and a Reader for the Mass.  Before we left on the trip, we picked names out of a hat to determine who of us seminarians would be the deacon at Mass and who would be the reader at Mass on any given day of the trip.  It just so happened that I was scheduled to be the reader on that day we were having Mass with the Holy Father!  (Fortunately, it wasn’t one of those Old Testament readings with a lot of hard to pronounce Hebrew names.)

So the next morning all 28 of us are at the gate well before 6:30 with our cassocks on.

And at 6:30, this tall Italian priest comes, and takes us through the gate and past the Swiss Guards, and walks us to the base of this big marble spiral staircase that we can’t see around the corner where it goes.

And he says in Italian “Wait here, I’ll be back” and disappears up the staircase.

So we wait there, it’s 6:30 in the morning and no one’s around.  20 minutes goes by.

Finally, the same priest comes down the staircase, and says in Italian “Follow me.”  And he starts walking SLOWLY up the staircase.  I’ve never seen a person walk so deliberately slow in all my life.  We wanted to run up that staircase like a kid runs down the stairs on Christmas morning, but the Italian priest knew that this wasn’t the way to prepare for meeting the Pope.

Once we got up the stairs, the Priest puts us into this room, and says again in Italian, “Wait here, I’ll be back” and disappears through a door leaving us alone in this room.

Another 20 minutes go by.  Finally, the priest returns and takes us into another holding room, which ended up being the room just outside the Chapel.

Ten minutes later, we’re finally allowed to enter the Pope’s private chapel, a beautiful, high ceiling Baroque Chapel which can fit about 50 people.

And right in front of the altar, almost hidden among the marble and gold and carved angels, kneeling with his back to us in silent prayer before Our Lord in the Tabernacle, dressed in his all white cassock, was Pope John Paul II.

So we celebrated the Mass, and I read the first reading with the Pope sitting 6 feet away from me looking right at me.

And after the Mass, we went back into the big room just outside the chapel, and the priest again said to us “Wait here.”

Our Vice Rector told us that when the Pope came in, we were to line up and he would stand next to the Pope and give our name and our diocese to him as he shook our hand and gave us a rosary.
As the time got closer to meet this great man of God, we all started to get nervous about what we should say to him when he shook our hand.

And one of my classmates, Jerome Koutnick, said “Don’t try to make something happen, just let it happen.”  Which was pretty good advice.

So the Pope comes in, and when when my turn comes to shake his hand my Vice Rector says “Holy Father, this is Deacon Michael Woolley of the Diocese of Providence Rhode Island”

And the Pope looks at me and says “You were the Deacon today”.  And I said to him, “No Holy Father, I was the Reader” and the Pope said “Hmm . . . .”

Later on, when I told my classmates this, they all said “You don’t contradict the Pope!”

I tell this story of waiting for the Pope, because today the Church celebrates Gaudete or “Rejoicing” Sunday.

The Church rejoices, for the Lord is near, the wait will soon be over.  It is not the Pope who calls us to tell us we will meet with him shortly, it is Jesus Himself who calls us and tells us his coming is imminent.

As we say after the Our Father, we “wait in joyful hope for the coming of Our Savior, Jesus Christ.”

The Christmas celebration of Jesus’ birth might not be here yet; Jesus’ coming into our hearts in a new and more powerful way may not have taken place yet; and Jesus’ Second coming at the end of time may not have taken place yet, but nonetheless we wait for it joyfully because of this preparation we have been doing this Advent.

And my brothers and sisters, if we have prepared well this Advent through prayer, through a good confession, and through good works of charity, then Jesus will surely come to us this Christmas, He will surely be born in us in a new and more powerful way.

May we take the advice of my old classmate, now Fr. Jerome, and not try to make Christ’s coming happen, but, having prepared well, to then joyfully sit back and watch it happen.

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