After nine years as pastor of St. Ambrose Church in Albion, Rhode Island, the Father Bernard A. Healey recently was reassigned to the East Greenwich parish of Our Lady of Mercy. Following is his final homily at St. Ambrose, a tribute to the parish and parish life, a delineation of the essentials that make every great parish a great parish.
In the gospel, Jesus tells the apostles to take nothing but the barest essentials for the journey with Him. They’d need their sandals and their walking sticks, nothing more. I wish I had read this gospel a month ago, before I started packing all those many boxes for my move!
In preparing this homily, my final homily here at St. Ambrose, the words of the Gospel hit home. What essentials can I take from St. Ambrose? Don’t worry, I won’t be taking the crucifix, or the altar! But I will be taking an abundance of memories, memories I’ll cherish forever, memories that derive from all the many things that occur here, the occurrences that make St. Ambrose the wonderful parish that it is. What are these essentials?
St. Ambrose is much more than just a building of mortar and wooden planks and stained glass. It’s more than just a Post Office box in Albion, or an attractive building on School Street.
St. Ambrose is her parishioners, because in the people of this parish we discover nothing less than the Body of Christ, good people who feel called to be here, in this place, to pray and give thanks, to praise and worship, to encounter the living God.
It’s the young father out of work, who comes by to light a candle, to pray for a good job. It’s the couple with a sick newborn, taking turns going to different masses, so that one of them can stay home with their child. It’s the daughter who makes sure her elderly mother makes it to Mass every Saturday night. It’s the widow who stops by in the afternoons to pray the rosary, and the lawyer who attends Mass every morning before going to work.
This is St. Ambrose.
St. Ambrose is the Sunday gatherings of believers who proclaim what they believe, then do their best day by day to live out their faith-informed beliefs. Many do this through the parish’s many ministries and organizations. It is the lector, who proclaims God’s Sacred Word with faith and joy. It is the minister of Holy Communion, who reverently distributes to his or her brothers and sisters the Body of Christ. It is the Minister to the Sick, who every Sunday through rain, sleet or snow brings the Eucharist to the elderly residents of Lincoln Place. It is the volunteer men and women who spend hours upon hours preparing the chowder and clam cakes that others enjoy on a beautiful fall afternoon. It is the women who ensure that every altar cloth is starched to perfection, that every vessel is brightly shined, that every flower is perfectly arranged.
St. Ambrose also is the usher, who holds open the door and welcomes allwith a smile. It is the volunteer teacher, who spends Sundays teaching our children about God’s love, Christ and His Church. It is the choir and the musicians, who fill this sacred space with sounds so beautiful they can only be called a prayer. And it is the teenage altar servers who rush in breathless five minutes before Sunday Mass, not minding that the cassocks they throw on are too short for them. Their focus, like the apostles who followed Jesus, is on essentials and being here, on this altar, is more important to them than how they might look. We are blessed with nearly 50 alter servers! Amazing, isn’t it?!
So this is St. Ambrose, but it’s only a start.
It’s also the young child at Christmas Mass, holding the statue of baby Jesus above her head and understanding that the Baby Jesus is the reason for the season. And it’s the young woman at the Easter Vigil, who had been searching and finally found what she’d been looking for, here, in our midst. On a springtime evening she stands before hundreds of people with baptismal water dripping down her face, a Catholic now, part of us and we, part of her.
This, too, is St. Ambrose – the faithful who turn out, week after week, to pray for people in need or friends in crisis, or to give thanks for a blessing received, an illness cured, a tragedy averted; the faithful who come Friday night after dark Friday night, year after year, to walk the Stations of the Cross; the families that turn out during every Lenten season to listen to my priest friend who’s been invited to serve as our Mission preacher; the faithful helpers who pack boxes and boxes with food and supplies for the poor and hungry, and then ensure those basic provisions are delivered to people in need.
St. Ambrose is the newborn baby being baptized, the little child receiving first holy communion, the teenager being confirmed, the young bride and groom exchanging their marriage vows, and the devoted parishioner being laid to rest, all with faith, hope and love. It is the sacramental life of God’s church, being reborn, again and again in every anointing of a sick parishioner in the hospital or nursing home, in the prayer said for a troubled soul who asks for a prayer on the way out of Mass, in every confession of a humble sinner on a quiet Saturday afternoon, in every sign of the cross made in the middle of a busy day.
This, too, is St. Ambrose. All this and so much more.
Ultimately, the story of St. Ambrose Parish is a love story, the story of our love for God, and God’s love for us. It is the story of how we live that love in ways large and small. The reading from St. Paul tells us: “In all wisdom and insight, God has made known to us the mystery of his will.”
The great mystery is vitally alive here at St. Ambrose. And the good works of this parish are a beautiful testament to a living faith, a faith that grows every day, a faith that spreads and touches others. There is something about what we do here at St. Ambrose that calls out to people: Come and see! And they do.
It’s not just the building, not the location. It’s that the living God, Jesus Christ, has found a home here, within each of us, a dwelling place in our hearts, as we seek to build His kingdom here in this parish and beyond. This is the family of faith we call St. Ambrose Parish.
And faith is where it all begins. For we are a parish of astounding good works, and deep, abiding faith, and we are wonderfully alive.
When I arrived at this village parish nine years ago, I did so as a very happy priest. I leave today more joyful than ever thanks to the great privilege I was granted to serve here as the Pastor of Souls, to serve you, the good and faithful People of God.
As I take my leave from St. Ambrose, I invite you to join with me in praying that God’s grace might continue to sustain and enrich us, that we shall always be a people of abiding faith, a people of good works.
Let me conclude with a prayer I’ve often turned to in my years here, a prayer composed by our parish patron. “Lord, teach us to seek you, and reveal yourself to us when we seek you, for we cannot seek you unless you first teach us, nor find you unless you first reveal yourself to us. Let us seek you in longing and long for you in seeking. Let us find you in love, and love you in finding.”
And so with love and joy, with hope and gratitude, let us say together, “St. Ambrose, pray for us!”