//JESUS LOVES YOU – Reflection on 25 years as a Priest

JESUS LOVES YOU – Reflection on 25 years as a Priest

Jesus Loves You  
Those three words have forever shaped my life,
and that is something that I don’t ever remember not knowing.

This May 29 will be 25 years since my ordination to the Priesthood of Jesus Christ.  These were the remarks I offered at the end of the Mass of Thanksgiving that took place on Saturday, May 11, 2024 on the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord at Holy Family Church, Nutley New Jersey – Thanks for stopping by to read them, In Christ – Father Jim

It’s up there with other universals that you just know and know to be true, like “you need air to breathe” – you can’t remember where and when you first heard and understood it to be real and true.

I’m sure that “Jesus loves you” was something I learned from my family.  Mom and Dad teaching prayers, bringing us to Mass and CCD at St. Agnes in Clark every week, doing their best to keep control over my two brothers and I by sitting in between us (to mixed results)…  But also in building a home where such an important teaching could be first planted, and nourished in their own unique ways.  Unique is the best way to describe it.  I mean, that’s true of everything else in our lives.  How else can you characterize other examples, like when  my father very dramatically made my brothers Chris, Craig, and I the “Love brothers.” Insisting on it as we were en route flying up the GSP to this very town of Nutley on one of our regular Sunday visits.  As my brothers and I were in the back seat, things went from verbal to physical annoyances of one another that escalated to the point that we “tripped the wire” so to speak and hit Dad’s breaking point as he screamed “ENOUGH” with “If it kills me, I’m going to make the three of you the Love brothers.” The tone and actual words didn’t sound like they matched up – like I said, unique.  After maybe 5 seconds of stunned silence, I can’t remember whether it was Chris or Craig mockingly imitating my Dad uttering “THE LOVE BROTHERS,” which made us hysterical (including my parents).   Thank God – Dad was right – he and Mom helped make us “the Love brothers” in their and our own way.  But even more, those Sunday car rides, those family dinners with Aunts, Uncles, and cousins – which often happened in this very town of Nutley whether it was at Great Grandma Durando on Lewis Street, Grandma and Grandpa Chern on Taft Street and Grandma and Grandpa Trippodi on Princeton Street.  These hours-long gatherings were unique:   being real, frank, and honest – far from perfect, but perfect in learning how imperfect people, through trial and error, forgiveness, faithfulness, and dedication, were able to teach us lots of important lessons about love.

It was on one of those Sundays, though, returning home from the family visits in Nutley, that a crucial memory that helps capture when those three words Jesus Loves You  really registered.  I think I was in kindergarten.  When we got home, there was a note on the door left by our pastor, Fr Whelan.  He had been stopping by parishioners’ homes to update the Parish census cards, and his note said how much he enjoyed seeing our family at Church and added, “You have to make sure Little Jimmie gets to Mass every Sunday.” Far from when one of the prophets heard God call them in the middle of the night – but no less impactful for me at such an impressionable young age.  No, I didn’t think Fr. Whelan was God – although some justifiably contend he’s a Saint – but I knew he was that guy who was up there at the Altar every Sunday – beneath the giant crucifix, consecrating the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ – no, he wasn’t God, but obviously knew Him pretty well.  Those simple words written by a humble and holy priest – made real to me that: I was seen by God, I was known by Him, that He wanted me to be with Him at Mass, Jesus Loves You – was something personal and intimate and just cemented in my mind and heart at such a young age.   Then, growing up with loving family and friends, teachers who made a public school seem Catholic not by proselytizing but by authentically being who they were – selfless, sacrificial, God-fearing – God Loving people – coupled with parishioners who loved their parish, with some tremendous priests who all who were very unique and different in their own particular ways – that all shared their lives, their experiences of being called by Jesus and trying their best to share Him with us.

It was such an alignment of so many blessings that when people ask me when I first thought I was being called to be a priest, I don’t have a dramatic story where I can pinpoint a dramatic moment or breakthrough that was crystal clear.  It was as simple and profound as knowing in your heart of hearts that  Jesus loves you and this finding this longing and desire to somehow reciprocate, and believing this was how He was calling me to do that.

What has been even harder to put into words, even define for myself, let alone explain to others, is what it’s like being ordained 25 years now.  There’s so much there.  It’s something incredibly precious and personal.

I think back to being a 25-year-old newly ordained priest at Our Lady of Lourdes in West Orange who didn’t even know what I didn’t know.  I encountered so many wonderful, genuine, authentic, sincere people who had lived so much and given so much, and somehow, as this kid showed up on the scene, they didn’t laugh when they called me “Father” but embraced me as their priest as they, whether they realized it or not, taught me how to be a priest.

I reflect on Archbishop Myers sending me to Montclair State University in 2007, at the still young-at-the-time age of 33 and saying to me, “in a lot of ways you’re going to be like an older brother to the kids…” which initially felt very much that way.  But very quickly, being with these kids at such a monumental time of their lives where they start making big decisions that impact and affect the rest of their lives, trying to understand God’s will for them and how to come to know, or deepen or develop their own personal relationships with Jesus, where I found myself worrying about these young men and women who were biologically not my sons and daughters but that the Lord had entrusted to me, and who made the Fatherhood of priesthood so, so real to me.

When I just look out here tonight and think of all the ways that our lives have intersected – where we’ve shared chapters of our lives with each other – some longer than others, but none more or less important… Knowing the awesome and beautiful providence of God who has brought us into each other’s lives – in some ways incredibly obvious like being able to minister and be a part of this tremendous parish of Holy Family, the very place where my grandmother Minnie Durando Trippodi was baptized and my Grandma Chern and Aunt Lee Ann Barlotta called their spiritual home for many years… to others that are far more subtle, and just as meaningful.  With all that, it’s truly miraculous and mysterious that the depth, richness, and truth of those three words have only grown.  At the same time, I realize I am only scratching the surface of how true they are when I hear them in my heart of hearts – Jesus Loves You.

This is why what we’ve done here tonight has been in my heart of hearts for some time now as this anniversary is approaching.  I know that I’ve done nothing to deserve Jesus’ love which makes it such a pure gift and grace.  I know how many times and in ways I’ve been woefully inadequate in responding to Him, being obedient to what He’s called me to do, and even struggling to just humbly and gratefully accept His love.  Yet, despite all that,  He still worked in and through such very, very imperfect means.  So that you’re here tonight, whatever it was out of friendship, affection, or memory that brought you here – it wasn’t because I wanted you to celebrate me – but for me to Thank You for how you have continued to make those three words ever new for me… And the best way to do that is to offer this highest, most perfect prayer we’ve been given – the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in thanksgiving to Almighty God for all that He has done – for all that you have done – with my single prayer and hope that each and every one of you leaves with a deeper awareness how much Jesus Loves You.