By Rev. Ryan Rooney
Pastor, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (Springfield, Massachusetts)
Homily at the Midday Mass, Our Mother of Perpetual Help Chapel
Thomas Aquinas College, New England
April 22, 2021
It’s a great joy to come to this place to celebrate Mass as a priest. I was a young student here when it was Northfield Mount Hermon, and I sang many concerts in this place. I was also privileged to serve Mass here for my childhood pastor, Fr. John Ayers — because our local church, St. Patrick’s, was a tiny church, we needed a bigger place — when it was Sage Chapel, to celebrate his 50th anniversary of priesthood. And now I come into this sacred space which your institution has beautifully changed into this amazing chapel, to celebrate the Bread of Life with all of you, to receive Jesus — Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity — at my hands. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing. So that’s primary — number one — if I preach anything else, I’m just really, really thankful for being here.
Today I went back to the original homily I gave to Thomas Aquinas College when you first came here at St. Patrick’s Church, and the reading centered around Stephen, and we just had that reading the other day. And Stephen has been stoned; and you might, as you’re reading Acts of the Apostles, tend to get down, because one of their great preachers has been martyred. But the Church doesn’t stop. The Church doesn’t stop in her tracks when things get down, when there’s defeat — seeming defeat, right? Stephen, of course, goes to heaven. He’s the first martyr.
Philip is called to go preach the Good News, too. The Church is not centered on one person alone. Jesus has called many Apostles and other servants to go out and spread the Gospel; it is, indeed, the vocation of the Church to evangelize. The Church is never closed in on itself. It’s always seeking outward growth. And so as Jesus says in the Gospel today, “No one comes to me unless the Father who sent me draw him.” The Ethiopian eunuch is drawn to Philip; or, rather, Philip is drawn to him, too, right? The Spirit moves as He will. It’s like the wind, or maybe even the snow today; the Spirit moves where He will, and He draws Philip to this Ethiopian eunuch.
So much pregnant theology in this one reading helps us to understand the mission of the Church living in resurrected times. The Ethiopian eunuch is reading this passage. He has just come to worship in Jerusalem, and he needs a teacher, and a teacher is sent to him. That’s check one for God, right? A teacher is sent directly to this man who is wishing to have the Scriptures opened to him, and pay attention — it’s kind of just like we heard: the Gospel of Emmaus, where Jesus opens up the Scriptures to those two disciples, and their hearts burn within them. This eunuch is ready for this moment, he wants the Scriptures opened to him, and Philip proclaims it.
Interestingly enough, if you go into the reading, it says that the Ethiopian is reading this passage from Isaiah, where it describes the suffering servant, and he wants to know about the suffering servant, maybe because he himself is a suffering servant. He asks that telling question, “Who is it that he is speaking about? About himself, or about someone else?” This Ethiopian has given himself in service to the queen; he has been made a eunuch for the sake of serving the queen. Maybe he’s thinking about his own life, but he also wants to know a little bit more about God.
And so Philip proclaims the Resurrected One to him, he proclaims Jesus, and in that moment his life changes. The Ethiopian is set off on a path, he is baptized, he’s like, “Look, you’ve got to baptize me now — I’m ready,” and he’s baptized, and then he’s sent out. And we know the history of the Church — I think it’s in St. Irenaeus’ writings, he talks about this eunuch as going to proclaim Jesus to the rest of the region of Africa where he was. To this day, we don’t know exactly where that was, but he says he was an Ethiopian eunuch — the Greek is a little fudgy on it — but he’s sent out. We know the history of Christianity in Ethiopia has been very strong.
The Spirit is moving here in this place. The Spirit has been sent to this place. It’s no coincidence that you’re here in Northfield, Massachusetts, as a Catholic college. We need the Scriptures opened to us. We need people who are convinced about the power of the Resurrected One, about the power of the Holy Spirit, to go out and teach those who do not know about the Bread of Life — and there are so many here, in Northfield and the surrounding areas, that don’t.
Praise God that you built this beautiful chapel to proclaim it. Invite people here to experience the grace of Jesus, the Resurrected One, to experience the grace of the Holy Spirit moving in their lives. The Holy Spirit certainly moved in my life, to answer the call to become a priest. He can do it in many other lives here, too.