The First Homily to St. Mary's

Preached by Father Jay Scott Newman
Sixteenth Pastor of St. Mary’s Church
Greenville, South Carolina

My name is Jay Scott Newman, and I am a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. I am also, by the grace of God, a priest of the New Covenant in the presbyteral order. And by the appointment of Robert, twelfth Bishop of Charleston, I am now the sixteenth pastor of St. Mary’s Church. Of these three titles (Christian, priest, and pastor) the most important by far for my salvation is the first: I am a disciple of Jesus Christ.

The heart of discipleship was summarized by St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians. The Apostle quoted what is possibly the oldest liturgical hymn in the Christian Church when he wrote:

Have among yourselves the same mind that is also yours in Christ Jesus, Who Though he was in the form of God, Did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at. Rather, he emptied himself and took the form of a slave, Being born in the likeness of men. He was known to be of human estate, And it was thus that he humbled himself, Obediently accepting even death, death on a cross! Because of this, God highly exalted him And bestowed on him the name above every other name, So that at the Name of Jesus every knee must bend In the heavens, on the earth, and under the earth, And every tongue confess to the glory of God the Father Jesus Christ is Lord!

In these few, dramatic words St. Paul sets forth the heart of the Gospel: God became a man so that men could be restored to the glory of the divine nature which was lost by sin. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth, and we have beheld his glory, the glory of the only begotten Son of the Father. My friends, we are here today because the Son of Mary is the Son of God: the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. He it is through whom, by whom, and for whom all things were made. Jesus Christ is the answer to which every human life is the question, and only by knowing, loving, and serving Jesus Christ can we fulfill the deepest desires of our hearts.

If you read my first pastoral letter to the people of St. Mary’s, then you already know that I have not always been a Christian. To the horror of my Protestant family, I became an atheist at the age of thirteen, and until I was nineteen I remained sincerely convinced that there is no God, that the cosmos could be explained without a creator. In October of 1981, however, during my sophomore year at Princeton, I discovered my error. The Lord Jesus Christ laid hold of my life on the evening of October 15th, and here I am today to bear witness to the power of his love. Since that moment, the Gospel of Christ has been my consuming passion, and I want it to be yours as well. My first duty and greatest joy is to announce the Gospel in all its power and with all its demands. The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe, and our common mission as disciples of Christ is to bring the Gospel to all we meet. Indeed, Christ commands us to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth, and that is our Great Commission: to be evangelists.

Evangelization is not something undertaken only by priests and religious or only by missionaries in foreign lands. Evangelization is the common mission of the entire Church, and every Christian shares in the duty and privilege of sharing the Gospel with all people. For this reason, the heart of my service here will be preaching the Gospel with the conviction born of conversion and inviting every member of this parish family to do the same. Every single one of us should feel in our hearts the same fire which burned in the heart of St. Paul: “If I preach the Gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting, for necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (1 Cor 9:16).

Before we can announce the Gospels to others, however, we must first have received it ourselves, and not only received it. We must be changed by the Gospel; we must be converted from the way of sin and death and placed firmly on the Way of the Lord Jesus: the Way of the Cross, the Way of Truth, the Way of Life. In a word, we must become faithful disciples by surrendering to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in body, mind, and soul. If Jesus Christ is Lord, then he is Lord of everything, of all that we are and all that we have. In the coming years of my service here, we will explore together the inexhaustible riches of the Incarnate Word who calls us by our Baptism to follow him unreservedly. This is what I call radical discipleship, and it is something most of you live out in marriage and family life; I have been called to live it out in the priesthood.

Even before I was received into full communion with the Catholic Church, I knew that God was calling me to the priesthood. A priestly vocation is something Pope John Paul calls a Gift and Mystery. The ministerial priest does not choose his own path; he is chosen by Christ and called through the Church to a life of service to the baptized. Answering my call was a long, complex process which took me to St. Anselm’s Abbey in Washington, DC; the Catholic University of America, also in Washington; Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina; and the Pontifical North American College and Gregorian University in Rome. During all the years of my formation, I struggled to understand how and why God had called me; at length, though, the years of testing and trial came to an end, and on July 10th, 1993 I was ordained to the Priesthood of Jesus Christ for the Diocese of Charleston.

Since then I have been a college chaplain, a parish priest, and most recently a seminary professor, and despite the wide variety of work in those jobs, in each of my posts my fundamental duties have been the same: to teach, to sanctify, and to govern. These three duties remain with a priest no matter what work he may be engaged in because they flow not from what he does, but from what he is. Presbyteral ordination configures the man ordained to the Person of Christ the Head and Bridegroom of the Church in such a way that he is able to stand in the Person of Christ and act in his name for the welfare of the whole Church. In ancient Israel the offices of priest, prophet, and king were clearly separate, and usually no two of them could be held by one man. The Lord Jesus, however, unites all three of these offices in his own Person: the priest offers sacrifice and acts as a mediator between God and man, the prophet announces the Word of God and preaches revealed truth, and the king governs God’s people in fidelity to the revealed Word. Christ is the fulfillment, the completion, and the perfection of all of these offices, and through the sacrament of holy orders he transmits the sacred power to teach, sanctify, and govern to those men whom he calls in the priesthood to exercise the paradoxical servant-leadership of the Gospel. And so during my years among you, I shall give myself entirely to these three sacred duties: to teach the Gospel by word and example, to sanctify by celebrating the sacraments and praying for you in the Liturgy of the Hours, and to govern by leading this parish in every facet of its life towards one goal: making all of us more faithful disciples of Christ.

After disciple and priest, the final title which describes my service among you is pastor, a word which means shepherd. The Lord Jesus, of course, is the Good Shepherd, the one who laid down his life for his sheep. Bishops and priests who lead a portion of God’s flock are called shepherds or pastors only in imitation of Christ, who is the true shepherd of our souls.

By the design of God, the Church at every level of her life is provided with shepherds. The Bishop of Rome, the Successor of St. Peter, is the pastor of the universal Church and exercises a primacy among all the bishops of the world as the one chosen by Christ to strengthen his brethren. Each diocese or particular Church is also lead by its own shepherd who, as a successor of the Apostles, is a true Vicar of Christ. Our Bishop Robert is therefore the high priest and true pastor of the Church in South Carolina, and it is from his office that all priests in our diocese derive their authority to assist him in teaching, sanctifying, and governing their portion of the flock. I now hold the office of shepherd of this flock only because the Bishop of Charleston conferred upon me the responsibility to be the pastor of St. Mary’s, and to the Bishop of Charleston I am at all times accountable for the exercise of my ministry. Although I officially became pastor on June 28th, Bishop Baker cannot be here to install me formally until August 28th, and in the coming weeks I will provide information about the Bishop’s visitation and the Mass of installation.

In my Pentecost letter to you, I wrote that I would be the eighth pastor of St. Mary’s. My recent research in the diocesan archives, however, reveals that—in truth—I will be the sixteenth pastor. This error confirms my first promise to you: I will make mistakes. And when I do, I ask only this: Be patient. I will do my best to acknowledge and learn from my mistakes and to serve you to the best of my ability. Bearing with another in love is a sure sign of Christ among us, and the Lord Jesus promises us that our love for one another is a principal means of convincing others of the truth of the Gospel. At no time is that witness more convincing that when we bear with one another patiently, even when we might disagree. Let us then resolve always to love one another that the world may believe that Jesus Christ is Lord.

When you came in the church today, I’m sure that you noticed some changes. I should say here that as a matter of principle I am opposed to change for the sake of change, especially in matters concerning the sacred liturgy. Nevertheless, I have begun my ministry here by making changes that you can see and hear, and these changes will continue at a moderate pace for the first few months. Which leads to my second promise: every change in the way we worship will be ordered to one purposeBdeepening our union with Christ through the faithful celebration of the Roman Rite, the whole Roman Rite, and nothing but the Roman Rite. It is inevitable that some of the changes will bring momentary inconvenience or confusion to a few of you, and for that I apologize. I know from the experience of having done this before, however, that in a few months all of you will grasp the “internal logic” of what I’m doing, and it is my hope that the way in which we celebrate the Paschal Mystery will lead every person in our parish family into a deeper union with the Lord Jesus, which is the final goal of all prayer.

I have already mentioned that I’ve been doing some research on our parish history in the diocesan archives. That was my first small step towards learning about the rich history of St. Mary’s; the next steps will involve listening to your stories about the people who made this church what it is today. But this is not a lesson only for me to learn. Next year we will celebrate our 150th anniversary, and it is my hope that all of us will learn about the extraordinary sacrifices made by those who came before usBthe sacrifices which allow us to pray in this magnificent church and to rejoice in the blessings of our extraordinary school and beautiful campus. I will speak with you again soon about our anniversary celebrations, but I ask you now to begin thinking about ways in which we can fittingly observe this splendid moment in our history.

The purpose of looking to the past, however, is not simply to appreciate what came before us. In pondering how we came to be here, we can better understand where we are today and where we should go in the future. Our parish is at a crucial moment in its history, and we must make careful and prudent plans now to shape our future. Outstanding work in this area has already been done by our Strategic Planning Committee, and in the months ahead I will be reviewing their work and speaking with you about the plans we need to makeCplans to expand and improve the services offered by the parish, plans to restore this beautiful church to its original splendor, plans to expand and improve our facilities, plans to serve our community in creative and compassionate ways. In this parish community we are blessed with extraordinary gifts in the present and a rich patrimony from the past. If we build on these strengths together, then we can provide a splendid future for St. Mary’s.

Although St. Mary’s was organized as a parish in 1852, we did not have a permanent church building until 1876. In October of that year, Bishop Patrick Lynch of Charleston consecrated that House of God to Our Lady of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. You may be surprised to learn that even now this is the formal title of our parish: Our Lady of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. By popular usage, the church has never been called anything but St. Mary’s, and I’m not proposing that we change a custom of 150 years. But we do need to be aware of the title under which as one family in God we offer the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: Our Lady of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

As I said, that first church was dedicated in 1876 in the month of October; you may recall that my conversion to Christ also occurred in October, 105 years later. Our archives revealed to me something more: both events took place on the same day, the 15th of October. My friends, I believe that everything in my life to date has been in some way a preparation for the work I am now beginning here, and words cannot convey the joy I feel to be your pastor. Twenty years ago the Blessed Virgin Mary, Christ’s first and greatest disciple, led me to embrace with faith and love the Sacred Heart of her divine Son, and now she has guided me here to lead a congregation dedicated in her honor on the day of my conversion to that Sacred Heart. There are no mere coincidences in God, and so I am certain that my service here is meant to be a privileged moment of grace in my life. I pray most fervently that it may be the same for you.

The Scripture lessons appointed for today are about discipleship. Elijah’s call of Elisha and Our Lord’s call to unnamed disciples are offered together to demonstrate three points. First, it is God who calls. Second, the call is urgent and demands everything from us. And third, we are free to answer yes or no to the call.

Friends, on the day of our Baptism Jesus said to each one of us, Follow me, and every day of our lives he renews that invitation. The drama of our lives is the struggle we each undertake to answer Christ’s call, to resist the mystery of iniquity in our hearts, to repent of our sins and believe in the Gospel: in a word, to be disciples. Today I begin my ministry among you as priest and pastor, a herald of the Gospel and a steward of the Sacred Mysteries of salvation, but I am both priest and pastor only because I am first a disciple of Jesus Christ. I pledge to you today my solemn commitment to love you as a shepherd, to teach you as a father, and to walk with you as a brother in the daily struggle to answer the call of Christ: Follow me.