Fr. Coleman, S.J.'s Golden Jubilee Homily

50 Years a Priest—reflections

I can remember vividly, as if it were yesterday, lying down prostate in the center aisle of

this church with a group of 12 other Jesuits preparing for ordination here on June 2, 1967. I

started sobbing for two reasons. One, after thirteen years of preparation as a Jesuit, I was

finally being ordained. Thus, a sob of joy and relief. But also of fear: I really did not yet know

what being a priest would entail and whether I was really fully up to what it would demand.

When I joined the Jesuits, thirteen years before, I had entered primarily to be a Jesuit

rather than for priesthood as such. Those who most influenced me to be a Jesuit were non-

ordained scholastics teaching me in high school rather than priests. Until I became such a

scholastic seven years later, teaching at Saint Ignatius high, I did not give all that much thought

to wanting to be a priest as such. I would not have chosen to become a priest except in the

Jesuits. But during my regency period, I worked closely with two priests helping on high school

retreats or working with Christian life communities. They showed me that being a priest had a

vital added dimension of ministry beyond teaching or counseling. One of those exemplary

priests, James Hanley, has a nephew and his wife who are active members of our parish.

I am only one of three of the 12 men ordained with me that day, still alive and

also still a Jesuit. Half of my classmates ordained with me left the Jesuits and the priesthood to

get married. While I remain or remained good friends with a number of them, their leaving

saddened me a great deal during the first few years of my priesthood. I remember writing in

my journal somewhere around 1971: “ I used to say my reason for being a Jesuit priest is that

so many of my friends are. Now that they have gone, I either need to get new friends or get a

better reason to be a Jesuit priest.” I have endeavored to do both. Around that time , my

mother who knew a number of the young Jesuit priest friends of mine who had left to get

married, asked me one day:” Is your name also written on the wavering list?” I laughed at the

idea that there would be somewhere a scroll that included the names of those who thought of

leaving the priesthood. But, I suppose, in honesty, I had harbored some of my own doubts.

Yet my earliest experiences as a priest were truly rewarding. I spent my first two

summers as a priest at an African American parish in Los Angeles, Saint Anselm’s. Its pastor,

Msgr. John Clarke, had been taught by the Jesuits in Ireland. He also had started what has now

become the world famous Los Angeles Religious Education Congress. Among the other two

curates, one, Michael Driscoll, later became a bishop in Orange County and the Bishop of Boise.

I was fond and felt a warm community in that parish and remained in contact with Msgr. Clarke

and Mike Driscoll over many years. I also remember my very first anointing of a dying man. I

had not been taught all that well how to do it and was quite apprehensive going to anoint him.

The African-Americans at Saint Anselm’s were largely from Louisiana and were long time

Catholics who met me at the door with bell, book and candle. Like my Irish mother, they knew

how an anointing should happen and helped me do it properly. The dying man was unconscious

so did not receive communion. I had asked if the family wanted it but they said he was not

likely to regain consciousness. I remember vividly the next day getting a phone call saying their

father had regained consciousness and could I bring communion, which I did. Later that same

day he died. I took away a vivid sense of the power of priestly ministry to and for the sick.

When I went to Berkeley to study for my doctorate in sociology, I lived with two other

Jesuit students in an apartment across from the Newman Center in Berkeley. Soon, I became

active helping the Paulist priests there saying mass and working with Catholic college students,

some of whom became the first people whose marriage in the church I witnessed. I also started

preaching regularly at Saint Francis de Sales Oakland Cathedral—it had almost the best liturgies

anywhere in the country at that time, great music, greetings of the people and drew

parishioners from all over the Oakland diocese. It was a rich pastoral experience.

Over the years, I was and am amazed at the range of ministries and places I was asked

to go, to exercise my ministry, beyond teaching at the Jesuit school of theology in Berkeley,

which I did from 1974-1997, or later at Loyola Marymount University where I taught from 1997

to 2009 and in writing books, chapters in books, articles or giving outside lectures. I went to

Japan to work with chaplains at Air force and Navy bases in 1971. I lived two and a half years in

the Netherlands and experienced the church in action in a very different country. I gave eight

day retreats with regularity—to lay people who studied at the Jesuit School, to the California

Bishops over a fourteen year period, in a Jesuit retreat house in Zambia where I remember

directing a nun who I was sure was a true saint. I wrote pastoral letters for American bishops or

in other ways worked with them on pastoral and moral issues. I was invited for conferences at

the Vatican. For a number of years I worked helping the tribunal in San Francisco with

annulments for marriages. I did spiritual direction. I gave conferences for Maryknoll priests in

Bolivia and Chile. Also, over a long period of time, I was involved with anti-war movements

during the Vietnam War and helped counsel students to choose conscientious objector status. I

opposed the build up of nuclear weapons in the 1980’s and was twice arrested at protests at

Laurence Livermore lab. I also got arrested at the start of the second Iraq war in 2003 since it

violated the just war theory. You need not agree with me on this issue, my father didn’t. One

time, I was arrested at Livermore Lab on Good Friday, assuming that, like the earlier time, I

would be out in a couple hours. Instead, we were held until Easter Sunday morning. Later,

when I visited my father and complained about the unexpected longer imprisonment, he

said: ”They should have kept my jail-baiting priest son even much longer!” I laughed and still

loved my father even if we disagreed. I also have been involved in other social justice

movements, such as for environmental justice, (now more important than ever to follow Jerry

Brown and not Trump on this), and such as teaching English as a second language once a week

for eleven years to non-documented Latinos living in the Jesuit parish, Dolores Mission in East

Los Angeles and recently our parish’s advocacy against human trafficking. Besides living in the

Netherlands for two and half years, I lived in Belgium for a year and a half and had extended

stays in Bolivia, Ireland, Mexico, Taiwan, Zambia, England, France, Italy, Spain, Australia—so I

got a vivid sense of what priestly ministry can be in many different settings and I met a raft of

good priests and admired and learned from their generous work.

I remember when I was still a youngish priest a wonderful older Jesuit, Joe Carroll, said

to me: you know you will have good days and bad days; good weeks and bad weeks; good

months and bad months, (I was young enough to shudder at the idea of a bad month), but I was

really taken aback when he said: you will have good years and bad years. In retrospect I have

had them. Yet even married couples who have reached 50 years, such as my dear friends Jack

and Karen Powers who are here today, would acknowledge, much as they love one another and

would do their marriage all over again, they too had their ups and downs. That is life, (and also,

because of it that is how we discover God’s graces of forgiveness, fortitude, patience, hope).

But if I had it all over to do again I would do so with even more enthusiasm and joy than I did 50

years ago. I know now better than I did 50 years ago what it takes to be a good priest but alas I

do not have the same energies I had 50 years ago to enact it as it ought to be. Heck, guess that

is just life ! I remember with great fondness the many babies I have baptized, marriages I have

witnessed, anointing of the dying and funerals, hearing confessions and the rich sense of

connection they have given me to so many of my family, former students, parishioners, fellow

Jesuits and friends. I have seen the church so often at its best. But, importantly, I have known,

from almost the beginning, that as I have learned from the joys and hurts, gifts and flaws, of

those I have ministered to, so I have learned about my own as well. I also learned that I have

been cared for, prayed for, ministered to by my non-priest friends every bit as much, if not

more, than I have ever ministered to them.

Today, of course, we celebrate Pentecost, the sending forth of the spirit. As today’s

second reading reminds all of us, ordained and lay, there are many gifts of ministry from the

spirit. None of us has them all or any monopoly on them. They are all there to build up the body

of Christ. The gospel recalls for us that Jesus sends the spirit to give us profound joy and peace

and for the forgiveness of our flaws, (and I truly ask you today for forgiveness for my own many

failures and flaws).

I inherited the car of Father John LoSchiavo, S.J., former president of USF, when he

retired. It is a twenty year old Camry. But in the back seat John had a pillow, which I look at

almost every day. It says: “I am not over the hill, I am just in the back nine!” At 80, I have no

idea how many years of active ministry will be mine but I pray that I am still in the back nine.

When a Jesuit retires to Los Gatos he continues to have an important mission from the Jesuit

provincial: To pray for the church and society. I could easily do that since I have been trying to

do that for the last fifty years already. I pray that the Holy Spirit will empower all of us to the

joy of building up the body of Christ of which all of us are essential parts. So many thanks for

those who have enriched and nurtured my years of priesthood. My way of celebrating 50 years

of being a priest is not in any way a boast but a profound sense of thanks. To the question,

“What is it like to be 50 years a priest?”, perhaps the best answer is the one the Jesuit poet and

peace activist, Daniel Berrigan gave when asked that question. His answer: ”We serve a mystery

and we serve it badly." On Pentecost, I pray that the spirit will move all of us less to reflect on

the past, but to look forward to future service, as I look to such service here at Saint Ignatius. I

pray that I may have the joy of Pentecost as I stroll, leisurely, down that back nine.