SIXTY. As I write this today (Wednesday) I celebrate my 60th birthday. Groan. Part of me has never liked birthdays, for obvious reasons. But I know that’s not the right attitude, so I generally try to take my birthday as an opportunity to sort of count my blessings and give thanks to God for them. So let me do that today.
First, I thank the Lord Jesus for my Catholic Faith, and through that access to His love and grace, especially through His Word and Doctrine, and sacraments, most particularly confession and the Eucharist. With that I’m thankful for my parents, Dan and Barbara (Bobby), two of the most devout Catholics you can imagine, who taught their children the Faith by actively instructing them but also by their example. Even in their imperfections they taught us of God’s mercy and grace.
I also thank God for my two brothers and two sisters, whom I still remain close to after all these years, and who buttress my faith by their own fidelity to the Church. I especially thank God for my sister, Barbette, who is so strong in her faith, and though barely 5 feet tall insists on calling me her “little brother.”
I also thank Him for all the teachers in 12 years at St. Mary Magdalene Grade School and Central Catholic High School, especially the Incarnate Word Sisters and Marianist Brothers and Priests who set such a strong example of self-sacrifice for the Lord.
I’m also thankful for the 10+ year career He gave me as an accountant before I entered the priesthood. It’s amazing all the lessons I learned then that still help me today. And the great friends who helped me along the way, especially my mentors and my clients. My old boss, Ed Polansky, in particular comes to mind: a good Catholic man, a good family man, a fine professional and a heck of a good boss.
Also for all my friends I made along the way in San Antonio. Particularly some of the friends I went to grade school and high school with and my other good friends from childhood, many of whom became truly like family.
And perhaps I will surprise you by thanking Jesus for the girls and women I knew and loved before I entered seminary. They helped me in many ways, but in particular to understand how good the gift of marriage is, and the dedication and depth of love and commitment that celibacy would demand.
And I am thankful for the friends and priests who led me to the seminary. I think of the folks in my young adult group at St. Matthew’s parish in San Antonio who encouraged me in my prayer life and had confidence I could be a good priest. And I think of Fr. Christopher Phillips, an Anglican convert to the Catholic Faith, who was my spiritual director, and insisted I had a vocation. And Fr. James Gould, the legendary Vocation Director of the Arlington Diocese, without whose support and example I would not be a priest today.
And I’m thankful to God for sending me to Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, at the time the best seminary in the country. Not perfect, and so I wasn’t always delighted to be there, but a place where I grew in faith, knowledge and love for the Lord and His Church. I’m especially thankful for the good priests who taught and formed me, especially Fr. Robert Zylla, and for the immeasurable help of the great moral theologian, Prof. Germain Grisez. May they both rest in His peace.
Above all else, I thank the Lord for my ordination to the Priesthood, on May 18, 1996, which has been the font of so many other gifts. I thank Him for bringing me to the Diocese of Arlington to serve with so many great priests and lay people. And for allowing me to be ordained and serve under Bishop John Richard Keating, a courageous and wise servant of the Lord, who was also very kind to me in very difficult times. He left us too soon. May he rest in peace.
And let me thank Him also for bringing me to Virginia, a naturally beautiful state, but also one of such historic and political vibrancy. And for allowing me to be born in the greatest country on earth, to spend the first half of my life in the greatest state (Texas) in that country, and for allowing me to spend the second half in the second greatest state.
And by bringing me to Virginia, also allowing me to be close to and enjoy the support of my sister Barbette and her family, and my cousin Beth and her family, who live so close by.
I thank the Lord also for all the good priest friends He has given me, so many I can’t name them all here (but I guess I have to mention Fr. Ronald Gripshover, or he won’t let me stay in his parents timeshare when we go on golf vacations). And for the outstanding pastors he’s assigned me to, most especially Fr. Jerry Daly (yes, him), and Fr. Dennis Kleinman. Their examples of dedication, devotion, work ethic and unwavering faith continue to inspire and instruct me.
And I thank the Lord for the gift of so many wonderful parish assignments. A parish isn’t just a geographic area on a map or the bricks of a church building; it’s the parishioners that make it what it is. So I am thankful for all the parishioners in each of the 6 parishes I have served in (8 if you include my seminarian parishes), and especially at Holy Spirit, St. Andrews and St. Mary’s (Alexandria), with whom I have made many lasting and strong friendships.
I thank the Lord also for being formed and serving under two of the greatest Popes in the history of the Church, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and being intellectually formed by their brilliant scholarly writings. They are truly my intellectual mentors.
And I thank Jesus for saving my life so many times when I was sick or foolish, and for giving me the assistance of His Mother, my patron saints (all the St. John’s) and a loving patroness, the Magdalene.
And last but not least, I deeply thank the Lord for the 10 years he’s given me as father of this parish of St. Raymond of Peñafort. Of course, we have our beautiful church, but the real joy of being pastor here is the devoted staff and volunteers, and the kind and holy parishioners. Sometimes I look at little children playing, and I feel a pain in my heart at not having children of my own. But then that pain quickly reminds me that I do have children. And so, finally, I thank the Lord for the gift of celibacy, which has been fruitful in giving me all of you.
There are countless other things I’m thankful for, but that will suffice for today. Praised be Jesus Christ.
Oremus pro invicem. Fr. De Celles