Fr. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy’s First Homily at St. Gregory the Theologian Byzantine Catholic /Melkite Seminary, Newton Center, MA, September 13, 1981
God is love. That’s what it says in Greek on the back of my vestments.
Most of you know me as a person of rather severe logic. My retreats, my workshops, my talks can be diagrammed in terms of symbolic logic.
Usually, if I prepare properly, I leave no logical stone left unturned.
But the truth of the matter is that there is more than logic to reality.
We live in a world, in Western civilization, in the latter half of the 20th century, where certainty — the phenomenon of certitude — is derived primarily from logical thinking; and therefore people go about the business of conducting their lives logically; which is fine. For to move from here to the door, the logical principle is that you walk in this direction and not in that direction.
However, logic is a dimension of existence; it is not all of existence. As you all know, logically it is possible to prove that God exists and, logically, it is possible to prove that God does not exist.
Likewise, logically it is possible to prove that you are; and likewise it is logically possible to prove that you are not—the philosophy of skepticism.
Logically, it is possible to prove that infinity exists; and logically it is possible to prove that infinity does not exist. Logic is a dimension of reality, a part of reality; it is not all of reality. It is a way to a kind of certitude; it is not the only way to certitude.
As far as logical thinking is concerned, logic is a limited tool of the human mind that, in our society, has been raised to the level of a god. It has become the only way of experiencing reality.
It has reached the point in formal scholarship, in everyday life, and in various dimensions of the Church that what is not logical is not real; and that is a patent absurdity, utter and complete.
Consider the certainty involved — the absolute certainty involved — in the experience of beauty. You cannot logically reach beauty; you cannot logically prove beauty; but when you experience beauty, you know it with a certitude that surpasses all syllogisms.
Or the certitude involved in the experience of an innocent child. In that experience of innocence one cannot prove innocence logically; but one knows when one is in the presence of it. It is different; it is real; it is there.
Or, on the negative side, the experience of fear. Logically, one cannot prove one’s self into or out of fear, and the experience itself is not logical. But it is real, even though it is not logical.
Or perhaps we could look at the experience of love. Love baffles all logic. It is beyond all logic. It is not an experience that is logically provable, or logically verifiable. But it is an experience that, when it is there, it is a reality — that when we are in the presence of it, we are certain it is there. And, it is real.
Likewise with God. We live in a world where, indeed, logic, in and of itself, will bring us to God or bring us away from God. God can be proved logically or disproved logically.
But God, the real God, the living God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who is Jesus, is not the god of the logical philosophers. God is a living reality.
The problem is, for the human being who says that what is not logical is not real, and then proves that God can be disproved logically. That person comes out with no God, except, perhaps, for something that he or she feels they must give some sort of fearful obedience to — just in case the logic goes the other way!
The center of life, the center of reality, is not logic. If you think about it carefully, the most logical system of thinking in the world is the scientific method; and that has to be proved experientially in the end.
It has to be proved by experiments that can be ultimately seen, touched, tasted, and felt, depending upon what is being used.
And so what I’d like to do, on the basis that “God is love,” is I’d like to tell you a love story. I’d like to tell you a God story. It is not logical, but is true; and is real.
It is a love story and a God story and the truth of it is known for certain. The reality is that love and God dwarf all human logic. They are real; they are one; they are beyond the certainty of the most sophisticated computer.
Between the most finite program of logic that can be put into a computer, and the certainty of beauty and the certainty of love and the certainty of God there lies an abyss.
The love story (or the God story) that I would like to tell you begins in the summer of 1958, as I was about to go to the University of Notre Dame for my freshman year. In that summer, with a clarity that is beyond logic and beyond causality, with a certitude that is (I can bring back the consciousness today) it was communicated to me that my destiny and my vocation in life, unambiguously and unequivocally was to be a married priest in the Eastern Rite of the Catholic Church.
I did not ask for the experience, I did not plan the experience. It came; it was; it can be remembered; and it was clear and unambiguous.
I did not know what the Eastern Rite of the Church was. I had never been to a Byzantine service. I knew vaguely that there were such things.
I proceeded in the summer of 1958 to go to St. Clement’s Shrine where a Russian bi-ritual priest by the name of Fr. John Mowatt celebrated Divine Liturgy weekly. It was in Russian and it was difficult, odd, strange. And there was nothing particularly appealing to it except that there was total meaning in going there because of the prior communication, which was totally clear.
And throughout that summer, I tried to find books on the Eastern Rite of the Catholic Church or Eastern Rite theology, but everything was, of course, not in English.
And so I went to the University of Notre Dame and, as a step in this direction, I chose to take Russian my freshman year, because of the one (Eastern rite) church that I knew at that time, the Russian church. It seemed like a logical thing to do — to fulfill what was destiny.
And so I took Russian. I signed up for a course where they had run out of Russian books and for five weeks I was trying to borrow a Russian book from this person or that and simply falling further and further behind. And though the books eventually arrived at the bookstore, I still managed to flunk Russian! This, of course, was a serious problem. It was a serious blow, but it did nothing to undercut the fundamental experience of what I was supposed to be.
When I went to Notre Dame in the fall of 1958, the man who was the spiritual director for the freshman at that time was a Boston priest by the name of Fr. Dan O’Neil. During the freshman year he came around and gave some talks in the halls and people went to see him.
And so I went to him, and I explained to him precisely this experience that I had of what was clear as to what my destiny was — or at least part of my destiny.
He didn’t demean it, but he said it was impossible. He said such a thing (being a married priest in the Eastern Rite of the Catholic Church) in the world in which we live is only theoretically possible. It is practically impossible. In the United States, a person cannot move from the Latin rite to the Eastern rite and become a priest. No one would ever accept that. People try it every once in awhile; but it is literally impossible, he said.
He didn’t feel in conscience that he could help me because it was going down a road that simply could not be fulfilled. But he said what he would do: he would pray for me. Never again did I talk to Dan O’Neil about the matter.
I knew him at Notre Dame when I taught there from 1967 to 1970, and I simply never talked to him; it was something that had occurred, I assumed, when I was at Notre Dame as an undergraduate, that he had forgotten about it.
I went through the first couple of years at Notre Dame, coming back in the summers and getting into contact with other Eastern Christian churches in the Boston area — going to the services and liturgies and finding very little in English. And what there was in English was really heavy-handed history and theology that was difficult to understand and follow and read.
Then, during my junior year, I decided that something had to be done about this matter. So I went to see a priest, and it was not Ted Hesburgh. Some of you know my relationship with Ted Hesburgh—and this priest was not him. I went to see a priest who I assumed would have knowledge about how to do this and I talked to him and explained it to him in detail — the nature of the experience, the certitude of it, the fact the certitude hadn’t left.
The fact that daily I went to Mass and communion and prayed about it–prayed equally that, if it was to be, let it be; and if it wasn’t to be, get rid of it—that’s fine, too.
And this priest, a very famous and important man, after an hour’s explanation, laughed at it, physically laughed. And he called in a priest, who had the office next to him– and now I was a junior at Notre Dame—and he asked me to re-explain the story, and so I did. And they both laughed together about married priests. (Parenthetically I might mention, the day of my ordination, the Patriarch (Maximos V Hakim) told me that at the time that these two priests were laughing, there was on the Notre Dame campus a married priest who was forbidden to celebrate liturgy at that time, but he was there they knew it. They could not but have known about it.
At any rate they laughed; and what this did to someone who was 20 years old, and was facing very important men who knew all about theology in the Church and so forth–it was a crushing phenomenon. And so from that point on, I never talked directly to anyone about it — absolutely no one.
Daily, I mean daily, I prayed about it. Daily it was never out of my mind. But I never talked to anyone directly.
I wrote letters to people asking them about the possibility — both Western and Eastern priests and bishops — not talking about it in personal terms, but just general discussions, and everyone was saying the same thing: this is impossible. It was theoretically possible, but practically impossible. Forget it! Make your choice between what is available to you, what is in front of you as far as real possibilities.
Don’t be thinking about things in terms of abnormal possibilities. Choose the reality that is given to you. Don’t try to create a reality — which would have been fine, except the initial experience was unequivocal as to what I should be.
And so 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964 and 1965 passed by, and I can remember — whether it was in the Sacred Heart Church at Notre Dame or at St. Ignatius Church in Chestnut Hill (MA) or another church in Millis or a church in Auburndale — I can remember sitting in church, day in and day out, week in and week out, year in and year out, praying that this burden either be lifted or be fulfilled.
1963 and 1964 and 1965 passed by. Things in my life were going on — things happening in law school. In 1967 I made the decision to quit working in law and to go out to Notre Dame to study theology, which was just simply unheard of. No one knew why; no one understood.
In 1969-1970, some fellows from Notre Dame came out here to work in a rather unique political campaign, and I can remember taking them, on a few occasions, to the liturgy over at Our Lady of Kazan Church in South Boston, which was a Byzantine Catholic church. I often wondered what they thought of going to such a place and going such a distance in an abnormal way, to a strange liturgy, which was still in Russian at that time. But we did go over there.
1973, 1974, 1975, and 1976, day in and day out, year in and year out, hour in and hour out in some cases, because it was controlling the whole of my life. The communication was clear as to what my destiny was; and there was no destiny outside of that; and until the communication had been changed, there was no choice but to pursue it by whatever means were possible — which were none.
No one knew.
Then one June night in 1978, I had a dream. You know me as a person of logic. But you know nothing about this side of me. I had a dream, and there are people who can verify this experience because I told them immediately after the dream. Fr. Dan O’Neil, from Notre Dame, whom I hadn’t thought of in twenty years (since 1958, and this is 1978) was in the dream trying to communicate something to me in the Sacred Heart Church on the campus of Notre Dame. The dream was awesome in its power! Not positive or negative—just the impression it made on the mind.
I woke up in total recall of it. The experiential dimensions, the pictorial dimensions, which I can remember to this moment, were clear. It was just a powerful experience — not positive or negative — but powerful.
And so I walked downstairs that morning, went to church, to Mass in Millis, picked up The Boston Pilot (the Catholic newspaper for the Archdiocese of Boston) in the back of the church, walked home, opened up The Boston Pilot in the study, and the first thing that I saw was that Fr. Dan O’Neil died at Notre Dame, which added to the whole experience of the thing — awesome in its strangeness and curiosity.
Nothing is on my mind since the dream but the fact that Dan O’Neil—and I picked up the newspaper and Dan O’Neil is dead. And I’m looking at the newspaper—this is totally involved with my consciousness in its strangeness, and I’m looking at The Pilot and I see the picture of a priest, Fr. Paul Frechette; and I looked at the caption underneath the picture and it says that Fr. Paul Frechette was just ordained, and that he attended seminary at St. Gregory’s Seminary (Byzantine Greek Catholic/Melkite) in Newton Center, (MA)!
Now drop your logic for a minute (and everything)!
What happened at that moment, instantly, was an explicit, direct and unequivocal communication, equal to the power of the first communication that read (and these are the words—they were not words, it was a total experience that read): “Your time of waiting is over. Your time has arrived. (These are imperative sentences!) Go to St. Gregory’s for it is there that you will fulfill your destiny to become a married Catholic priest in the Eastern rite.” Clear! Clearer than the podium in front of me—no ambiguity; total certitude! Awesome! Awesome! Not a fraction of an inch of doubt.
I put the word here, which is true; it was fearful, which I had to work at a little –knowing that God is love, and there is no reason for fear. But the abnormality of it made it fearful. But it was clear, and I couldn’t believe it. But it WAS clear, and it was as clear as the original communication. And indeed there was no choice but to go to St Gregory’s.
So that morning I drove up, and I stopped over here in Newton, at a donut shop, because even though the communication was clear, the remembrance of the discussion at Notre Dame with the two priests twenty years earlier was powerful. It had never left, and my feeling was that in coming here to St. Gregory’s was to again be rejected, scorned or simply told that this is theoretically possible but technically impossible, practically impossible, and to forget about it.
So I sat over at the donut shop and finally looked up the number in the telephone book and drove around and finally found the place, came here and parked over on Everett Street, the street next to this one, and walked up the stairway three times and walked back because I knew what was going to happen. Despite the experience and the certitude and the clarity, the rejection from twenty years earlier and everything that had gone on between then and now or(then and then) was a total negation that it could not be—universally everyone saying that it can’t be so basically –“Don’t bother with it—get on with your serious business.” And so finally when I was walking away the third time I said to myself, “You know, if you don’t go and do this, you’ll be forever wondering if you should have.”
So I walked up the stairs and rang the bell, and no one answered, which was a relief! And I started to walk away and I thought, “If you don’t ring the bell again, you’ll always be wondering if someone did not hear it, and chances are there is no one there anyway. So I rang the bell a second time and a fellow who was a deacon and is a priest now, Mark Malone, answered the door, and I said I’d like to talk to the rector of the seminary who was Fr. Charles Aboody.
Fr. Charlie and I sat down (in that room there) and talked for an hour and a half. And everything that I have told you up to this moment in time today, I told him. I told him everything.
My assumption was there was no need of kidding anyone. This was either going to be done in truth or it was not going to be done at all. It was out of my power. And also it proceeded to be very, very clear what my relationship was in terms of Christianity, Dorothy Day, and so forth—no “ifs,” “ands” or “buts.” In fact, almost to the point of laying things out so clearly that you couldn’t possibly accept me.
And of course, there was the abnormality of the situation– degrees in philosophy, education, law, theology— a very abnormal situation. And so for the first and only time in the entire history of this phenomenon, Charlie (Aboody) said, “I will help you; I will help.” No priest, no bishop, Eastern or Western, had said anything in twenty years with the exception of Dan O’Neil (who said I will pray for you) other than “Impossible! Forget about it! Get your head together! Look at reality the way it is! And so Charlie (Aboody) said that day he would help, and for the last three years Charlie (Aboody) has been the single and greatest and, in many instances, the only source of help. People have come along afterwards, and began to help, and tried to help, and then left.
Charlie (Aboody) has stayed. It has been an awesome three years in the sense of an agony. Everything was controlled by this sense of destiny.
All other things were done, but this was what had to be met. The day that I left here (St. Gregory’s Seminary), that morning in June of 1978, I walked out on the porch and I felt a tremendous sense of relief, because of the communications, and this was it, a tremendous sense of relief.
And that was the last moment of peace that I would know until the day of my ordination. There was no other relief. In fact, from that moment on, life became an agony. Indeed, it was theoretically possible and technically impossible, or practically impossible.
The pieces that had to fall together for the ordination to happen are beyond the ability of anyone to bring together; and when you look back on it, you even think it’s beyond God to bring things together.
Beyond Rome and Damascus (the place of my ordination) and here, clinical/surgical problems and all kinds of other problems.
Years and years and years dragged on – twenty-three years, as a matter of fact.
The reason I’m communicating this is that it seems to me important to think through a little bit something about the nature of the statement: God is love.
Even when I was over there in Damascus in August, there opened up the possibility of change. And so the stance had to be that you were doing what you were supposed to do and you let the ripples happen as they should for twenty-three years and building an entire life around that – in terms children being born, needs being attended to, and so forth.
I assure you, if I had known what it would cost to come from 1958 to August 9th of 1981, I could not have done it. The pain and the suffering are too much. The isolation – too much; it couldn’t be done. Fortunately I didn’t know. I was supposed to be ordained in the last week of January of 1981. It was decided on Dec 19th with the final telephone call between the Archbishop and the Patriarch that I was supposed to be ordained in the last week of January.
On December 23, 1980, my father had to have an operation, and that operation was to occur in the last week of January (1981), so there became a rather horrendous situation that arose. The choice between staying home with my mother and father for the operation or going to fulfill what had been a twenty-three year odyssey in terms of destiny. We worked at it, and worked at it, and prayed about it.
On January 13th what took place was that I (we) made a decision to stay. I (we) talked to the bishop and the bishop said that was fine and we could rearrange the ordination whenever we wanted. So, indeed, we stayed for the operation. It was the right thing to do.
A few weeks after the operation, the patriarch, who was central to all of this, and without whom none of this could be done, was shot—an attempted assassination. The bullet went across his cheek. If he would have been killed, it would have been the end of everything, as everything had been conducted through him. He was in the hospital for six weeks, and then, when he finally got out of the hospital, l/we tried to rearrange dates for the ordination. They had to postpone it indefinitely because of some past newspaper article.
And so it was postponed indefinitely as of April. So when the patriarch came here to Boston in June, we finally worked it out.
The original date set was August 15. Then it was Aug 2. Then it was the 3rd, for the ordination to the diaconate then the 4th. And then I got over there (to Damascus) and the dates were totally switched around. The diaconate was switched to the 6th and the ordination was switched to the 10th. And then it wasn’t going to be. And then it got back to the 9th and 8th.
Then, finally, the dates arrived upon were the 6th and the 9th of August. For those of you who know me, those are very important dates, utterly out of my control that those dates should be arrived upon.
What they were for me was the confirmation that the decision in January was correct. And so it is possible for you to say that things have worked out well for you and therefore you are saying that God is a God of Love. That is not so. There is not a soul in this room or any place that I know of that, if they could see what had to be gone through to get here, would accept it. Nor would I.
But it is true that the totality of the experience is that there is a benign, guiding hand even in the cross.
And so, ‘God is love’ we decided to put on the back of the vestment. And that’s what Jesus means when he says that God is Father. And one may wonder, knowing my dedication to Dorothy Day and St. Francis and so forth, how you can be dressed in vestments like this so forth and so on.
The reality is: we live by symbols. When St. Francis walked out to the city square in front of the bishop of Assisi and his father, took off all of his clothes, threw them there, and stood there naked, the statement was God is love, that he needed nothing of worldly material in order to survive; that God would take care of him.
The vestments that I have on say ‘God is Love’ on the back, and indeed they are symbolic, and they are the vestments that I was ordained in and when I put on other vestments in other places and in other times they are an extension of the statement that is made.
But they are also the vestments that I will be buried in. There is no more revolutionary or profound a statement that can be made. It is not possible to conceive in human language a symbol, a statement more important, than the statement that is made: God is love.
Someone chooses to be very safe in God’s love—that is, in the face of death and suffering and still be able to say: God is love.
This is the Good News! This is what the Gospel is all about: that God is love! I will tell you that to be true from my own experience, which is not an experience which says that “God is love,” meaning “you don’t suffer.” I will tell you that is true with a certainty from my own experience–the message of peace that Christ brought, brought through His life, brought through His suffering, His cross, brought through His death and resurrection, the message of peace that Christ brought is: God is love. If that is not so, then there cannot be an ounce of peace in the human situation. We are living in a nightmare.
The message of peace that I bring to you in my little way, not from logic but from an experience of twenty-three years, which I tell you is true, is the same message: God is love.
The Gospel story is a God story and it is a love story. My story, which I just communicated to you, is a God story and a love story. My experience is that your story is a God story, and a love story. Before you were and I was—during our life and our suffering, and after our cross, there is a benign presence caring for each, now and always and forever and ever.