May 28, 2019
Yesterday, a Mass of celebration was held at St. Jude Parish in Indianapolis to honor Fr. Jerry Kirkhoff on his 50th anniversary of ordination. I was honored to be asked by Fr. Jerry to preach at his Mass:
I am honored to be asked by Fr. Jerry to be a part of his 50th anniversary celebration. Fr. Jerry was one of the first people I spoke to regarding my vocational call. He talked me through it and supported my pursuit of the diaconate. I owe him a debt of gratitude for serving as my pastor mentor during the first half of my formation as a deacon, with Fr. Jim Farrell serving in that role for the second half of my formation.
As a matter of fact, the two of them together participated in the vesting ceremony at my ordination. My wife, Carol, carried my vestments and Fr. Jerry and Fr. Jim helped put them on me during the ritual. One of them put my stole over the wrong shoulder and the other put my dalmatic on backwards. With mentors like that, I’m fortunate to be standing here before you as a deacon today.
Fr. Jerry has always been very supportive of the diaconate. He told me my presence here today would send a message about the importance of deacons in our church. I appreciate that and am pleased to be here to represent all of my brother deacons.
I also represent St. Pius X, one of several parishes Fr. Jerry served as pastor. We certainly want to thank you, Fr. Jerry, for the eight years you gave to St. Pius. We all know how competitive parishes can be, so there were some northside folks questioning why the Mass was being held “way down here” at St. Jude. I explained to them that Father spent 17 years at St. Jude and currently lives on the south side, so it just makes sense.
That being said, once on the St. Jude campus, you can’t help but notice the huge building right across from the entrance to the Church called the Rev. Gerald J. Kirkhoff Parish Life Center. That is a merely a coincidence and I’m sure it that has nothing to do with Fr. Jerry insisting the Mass be at St. Jude.
I can joke about that because anyone that knows Fr. Jerry knows his life as a priest has never been about Fr. Jerry. It has always been about serving others.
In preparing for this homily, I asked him to respond to a couple of questions. His responses reflect his servant’s heart. First, I asked what the greatest joy of his priesthood has been. His response was simple: “Being right there among the people. As a priest, I share in whatever the people are going through.”
Pope Francis often refers to this obligation of a priest, or anyone engaged in ministry to the Church as “taking on the smell of the sheep.” You can’t be afraid to get dirty when called to do God’s work.
This led to my second question: “What advice would you give to young men discerning a call to priesthood?” I asked. Surprisingly, he did not say “Run for the hills!”
Instead, he offered this piece of advice: “Recognize the presence of the Lord in your life. You’re not in this alone.”
This first bit of advice is supported in the readings he chose for today’s Mass.
In the reading from the Book of Numbers, we heard Moses lamenting that he was overwhelmed by the work God had called him to do. Anyone called to work for the Church likely understands this feeling – there is so much work to do and I am but one person.
Moses said, I cannot carry all this people by myself, for they are too heavy for me.
Moses was caught up in a common struggle for those called to serve the Church. Not only is the volume of work daunting, but self-doubt also tends to creep in. Why would God call me? There must be a mistake. I am not worthy to do this important work.
When I was close to ordination, I remember having those exact thoughts. I shared those thoughts with Fr. Don Schmidlin, my spiritual director and a priest for 53 years.
Seeking comfort, I said to Fr. Don, “Father, the closer I get to ordination, the more I feel that I am not worthy of being a deacon.”
If comfort was what I was after, I didn’t get it from Fr. Don.
Without hesitation he said, “You’re NOT worthy. And I’m not worthy to be a priest either. But when we say, ‘Yes’ to the call, God gives us what we need to get the job done.”
Back to the reading – in response to Moses’ concerns, God took some of the spirit that was on Moses and bestowed it on others so they could help with God’s work. The Holy Spirit always works alongside those that are serving others.
In the second reading we heard similar reassurance: Whoever serves, let it be with the strength that God supplies.
Recall Fr. Jerry’s advice: “Recognize the presence of the Lord in your life. You’re not in this alone.”
The second piece of advice Fr. Jerry offered was this: “In order to be effective, you must be a servant leader.”
Again, the readings reflect this same sentiment.
In 1 Peter, we heard: As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another. And in the gospel from Luke, Jesus told his disciples: Let the greatest among you be as the youngest, and the leader as the servant.
While my question to Fr. Jerry was about advice to future priests, it was clear that his advice, and the message in our readings, was directed at all of us.
In speaking with him about those that may be called to the priesthood, he was quick to add: “For some it will be priesthood, but from baptism we all have a vocation as servant and minister.”
Fr. Jerry and his brother priests gathered here today do great work on behalf of the Church, and provide beautiful witness to what it means to love with a servant’s heart. However, the harvest is plentiful and the laborers are few. We are all called to serve others, and in so doing, serve God.
As I wrapped up my conversation with Fr. Jerry, he mentioned he finds himself drawn to the motto of the police force – serve and protect. For him it suggested an image of a priest serving the people while holding an umbrella over their heads.
Thank you, Father, for serving people in many parishes and holding your pastor’s umbrella over the parishes of St. Philip Neri, St. Jude, St. Pius X, and Good Shepherd. Thank you for being right there among the people. Thank you for taking on the smell of your sheep.