Vigil Mass for Cardinal Hickey: Homily by Bishop William E. Lori

October 29, 2004

Before he died, Cardinal James A. Hickey, Archbishop Emeritus of Washington, requested a Vigil Mass be held in the Crypt Church of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception the night before his funeral. He also asked that the homilist be his longtime friend and assistant for many years, Bishop William E. Lori, now Bishop of Bridgeport. Bishop Lori’s homily, delivered October 29, 2004, is below:

In the waning days of 1987, Archbishop Laghi, then the Nuncio to the United States, called Archbishop Hickey’s office here in Washington. As his priest-secretary, I was aware of the call but I didn’t pay much attention. The two Archbishops frequently talked on the phone.

When the call was over, I went into the boss’s office to do a little routine business. I found Archbishop Hickey stunned. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“You couldn’t guess in a thousand years what I’ve been asked to do,” he responded, “I’ve been asked to give the Pope’s retreat next February – twenty-one talks in Italian!”

Archbishop Hickey was the first U.S. bishop chosen to do this, and he was clearly bewildered. But the Holy Father knew what he was doing in selecting James Aloysius Hickey to give his spiritual exercises.

True to form, my boss did not stay bewildered. He got right down to business. He chose as his theme Mary at the Foot of the Cross and authored 21 meditations.

These bear the stamp of his daily prayer, his warm devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, his sound priestly formation by the Sulpicians in the French school of spirituality, and his already long and effective service to the Church. That is why tonight we appropriately celebrate this votive Mass honoring Mary at the Foot of the Cross of Jesus.

But I don’t want to deceive you. The month or so before the papal retreat was no picnic. During that month, I came to fear two words in the English language more than any others– namely “second wind.” The Cardinal’s “second wind” usually lasted well beyond 2 in the morning.

On the first morning of the retreat, we found ourselves stuck in a Roman traffic jam as we made our way down the hill from the North American College to the Chapel in the Vatican where the retreat was to be conducted. Alberigo, the intrepid driver of Cardinal Hickey when he was Rector of the North American College, was at the wheel of his little Fiat Uno. He was still intrepid. To ensure an on-time arrival, Alberigo simply bypassed a long line of traffic by driving on the wrong side of the street. I was terrified. The Cardinal seemed pleased.

At the conclusion of the retreat, Pope John Paul II was also clearly pleased. He spoke with joy about the meditations on Mary he had just heard. He gave Archbishop Hickey a beautiful pectoral cross that had belonged to Blessed Pope John XXIII and a few months later, he made him a Cardinal.

When I became a bishop in 1995, the Cardinal gave me that pectoral cross and I wear it tonight in loving remembrance. The cross I wear is made of gold. But Cardinal Hickey spent his life with Mary standing beneath the real thing – the Cross upon which Jesus redeemed the world.

He encountered the Cross daily in his devout celebration of the Holy Eucharist. Clearly, the Mass was the center of his life and the source and summit of his extraordinary ministry. So many times I stood beside him at the altar and witnessed how he drew new life and strength as he repeated, in the person of Christ, those simple but powerful words: “this is my Body given for you! This is my Blood poured out for the remission of sins!”

The French school of spirituality in which he was formed taught him how to prayerfully absorb the mysteries of Christ. It is clear to me that Cardinal Hickey deeply absorbed the obedience of Mary that permitted the Incarnation, and the obedience of Christ to the will of his Father that brought about our salvation.

The Cardinal also absorbed the obedience which Mary commends to us in tonight’s Gospel, when she says to the waiters at Cana – “do whatever He tells you.”

Cardinal Hickey strove to do just that throughout his priesthood. On the day of his ordination, he sketched some meditation points on the back of one of his ordination cards.

The first is “ecce adsum,” “behold I am present”–the simple Latin phrase by which a candidate for priesthood indicates not only his presence at the ordination ceremony, but indeed his readiness to serve the Church generously.

Also included are words ascribed to Fr. Jean-Jacques Olier, one the great lights in the French school of spirituality:

“Obeir a Dieu: sans retard, sans reserve, sans retour.”

To obey God: without delay, without reserve, without return.”

The Cardinal’s ordination card also contained a phrase from St. Paul:

“scio cui credidi” – “I know in whom I believed.”

For some 58 years, that ordination card was in every Breviary the Cardinal owned and it is now placed in his hands as he goes to God. In many ways, it sums up his life.

Ecce Adsum:

The Cardinal was not only present – he became a presence in our lives – a formative force in our lives. Many bishops and priests who were his students at The St. Paul Seminary in Saginaw and at the North American College in Rome rightly and proudly claim Cardinal Hickey as their teacher.

I was a particularly slow student so he gave me a 19 year tutorial and I suspect that the advanced tutorial is about to begin!

The Cardinal was my teacher and more. He lived what he taught – with kindness, thoroughness and consistency. The Cardinal was also very present to his priests. He would meet any of us, his priests, at any time and when he did, he put himself truly at our service. He was present to seminarians, present to religious who saw his support and guidance.

Cardinal Hickey was present to parishioners. He loved to visit parishes, to confirm, to visit classrooms, to celebrate the Eucharist. As time went by, it was harder and harder to get him to leave a reception hall – often he was the last to leave.

The Cardinal was present to the poor and the needy – beginning with the Mexican immigrants in the Saginaw Valley in the 1940’s and extending to the homeless on the streets of the District and the newly arrived from Central America in the 80’s and the 90’s.

And, how present he was to his dear family – so many of whom I came to know through the years, along with Monsignor Barry Knestout. The Cardinal was present whenever and wherever the Church needed him. And his presence pointed to the presence of Christ.

* * *

“Obeir a Dieu: sans retard, sans reserve, sans retour.”

“To obey God, without delay, without reserve, or without return!”

As Cardinal Hickey’s ordination card makes clear, obedience for him was not just a matter of following orders, but rather it was sharing in the utterly generous obedience of Christ Crucified and of Mary who stood beside him.

Because of his fidelity and integrity, the Cardinal inspired deep loyalty among the priests, religious and laity who worked with him in Saginaw, Cleveland and Washington. He allowed us to tease him, he allowed us to try to persuade him, he allowed us to argue our point strenuously – but when the decision was made he expected our full cooperation.

Once, after listening intently to a carefully devised plan to reduce the number of Catholic schools in the District of Columbia, the Cardinal sat up very straight in his chair. His lips got a little more narrow and his eyes more focused and he said: “None will be closed. We’ll group them together, find support for them and make them as good as any Catholic schools anywhere.”

And, that is what he did. Cardinal Hickey obeyed the Lord by serving children and families in need: “sans retard, sans reserve, sans retour.”

During my many years of work and friendship with the Cardinal, I came to perceive in his heart a deep passion to obey God by serving the Church. He was thorough, even meticulous, but never delayed our shunned a project or problem no matter how difficult.

He was prudent, but when it came to fulfilling his vocation as priest and bishop, he never held back. A man of principle, courage and consistency, he never went back on what he promised the Lord and never expected a return for the good he did.

Now you know the secret of his effectiveness as a priest, a vocation director, a seminary rector, a diocesan bishop and a prince of the universal Church: “sans retard, sans reserve, sans retour.”

* * *

A last phrase on his ordination card comes from St. Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy: “Scio cui credidi” – “I know him in whom I have believed” (2 Tim. 2:12). These days we rightly celebrate all that Cardinal Hickey accomplished – but let us not forget the anxiety, the occasional misunderstanding and heartache that were part of his extraordinary ministry.

He was asked to handle many difficult problems for the Holy See and for the Church in the United States. He encountered resistance in his ministry as rector and diocesan bishop. But he was the steady captain of his ship because he knew in whom he believed and he knew “that nothing could separate [him] from the love of God in Christ Jesus” (Roman 8:39).

To make sure that nothing separated him from Christ’s love, he received the Sacrament of Penance every other week, grew steadily in mental prayer, celebrated the Eucharist devoutly each day, and he maintained his sense of humor and his balance, even when his health failed him.

* * *

These past few years have been difficult for Cardinal Hickey. All his life he was a hard worker, an organizer, an avid reader, an effective communicator, a doer. The ravages of time and illness robbed him of all that. As his powers of speech diminished, he looked at me once very intently, squeezed my hand and he said, “It’s so tough. I can’t say what I want to say . . .”

It was hard to see this happen to our Cardinal and harder still for him to undergo it, but it was the Cross in a new and poignant form – a time of suffering and purification as he prepared to journey to that new and eternal Jerusalem where tears are shed no longer, where death gives way to life, where sadness surrenders to joy.

The Cardinal who helped countless people in his life now accepted the help of many – especially Cardinal McCarrick, Bishop Kevin Farrell, Msgr. Barry Knestout, his dear family – every one of you, Pat Wright, Peggy Rooney, Tony Vilmenay, Marianna Leon, Dr. Harvey, the Brothers of Charity and many friends new and old, and even a fairly regular visitor from Bridgeport, Connecticut.

But at the top of the list are the Little Sisters of the Poor who ministered to Cardinal Hickey with a dedication that was “sans retard, sans reserve, sans retour.”

You see, the Little Sisters of the Poor who helped prepare Cardinal Hickey to meet Christ in Eternity are the spiritual cousins of the Sulpician Fathers who formed Cardinal Hickey for the priesthood. Both are steeped in the French school of spirituality where Christ in his mysteries is known and loved.

Thank you, dear sisters, for helping Cardinal Hickey to make such a peaceful and prayerful exit into eternity. As one of your number said to me last Sunday morning, “this is the pinnacle of our vocation.”

And what a beautiful vocation it is. A commentator on the French school of spirituality hazards a judgment that it may be too pessimistic about the sinfulness of human nature Maybe, maybe not. All I know is that Cardinal Hickey promised to haunt me if I presumed to canonize him without begging you to pray for the happy repose of his soul.

So join me in saying:

“Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon.
May his great soul, and all the souls of all the faithful departed, rest in peace. Amen.”

Susan Gibbs
Office of Communications
[email protected]