St. Peter and Paul Church in Cumberland was the scene of Fr. Blaine Burkey's celebration of Fifty Years of Priesthood this past Sunday. It was the same place where he celebrated his First Mass of Thanksgiving fifty years ago on June 11, 1961. Fathers Bernard Finnerty, Gary Stakem, and myself joined in the concelebrated Mass. The congregation was obviously well pleased with their "son of the parish" as they applauded him before the Mass began and again at the end. Afterwards, Blaine's two sisters and some friends hosted a family luncheon in the parish hall.
Here are some excerpts from the homily for Fr. Blaine's 50th Anniversary Mass.
The Church today around the world is celebrating “Trinity Sunday.” We ended the Easter season last
week with Pentecost, extinguished the Paschal Candle, and now we take a Sunday to stand in awe of this God who is so close to us and so good to us. This God, who so loved the world as to give us his Son who humbled himself to enter into our world, to show us the way to live, to love us even to death, and then to reunite us – even in intimate ways – with Himself. The question that lingered 2000 years ago was: “How is Jesus going to continue his work?”
Now we know how. Today, as we celebrate with Fr. Blaine and the Burkey and Hast family, we recognize “how.” God is brought to us over and over again through the ministry of his priests. The priesthood enables us to visibly see God in the Eucharist, to audibly hear His words of forgiveness and encouragement through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Priests allow us to sensibly feel God’s healing touch in the anointing of the sick. In the sacrament of Marriage, a priest enables a couple to be so courageous as to make a lifetime commitment of love. And in baptism, priests – and deacons, too, of course – bring people into the Body of Christ to become Jesus’ arms and legs, hands and feet in a world that cannot exist without him.
Fifty years ago, on June 11, 1961, Father Blaine – slimmer, with more hair and fewer wrinkles – walked (briskly, I presume) to the altar here at Sts. Peter and Paul’s to celebrate what would be his “First” Mass of Thanksgiving. There have been many since. He had been given the gift of Holy Orders just eight says earlier by Bishop Hannan in the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. The
feeling of the pressure and tightness of the hands of Bishop Hannan and priests was still a recent memory. The oil, too, was still a fresh memory, as was the faint smell of the lemon juice that was used to wash off the oil on his hands. The invitation to proclaim the Gospel was still echoing in his ears. The challenge to lead the people of God was probably still stirring his ambitions. The command to celebrate the Divine Mysteries was surely creating tremors in his heart and wonder in his mind as he prepared to say, in persona Christi, “Hoc est enim Corpus Meum.” This is my body. And then, looking into the chalice at the wine, Hic est calix sanguinis mei... “This is the chalice of my blood.”
Blaine’s life was changed, and he knew it. He studied the sacrament of Holy Orders and prepared for the reception of this sacrament. Now he was proclaiming, leading and celebrating in a way that he had never done before. He was “in persona Christi,” in the person of Christ. An unknown but exciting future lay ahead of him. He was about to bring about changes in our world, real changes, changes that people can not only believe in, but they can see. God was going to use the gift and power of the priesthood to change bread and wine, to change His people’s lives, and to change His fragile world. Blaine was now an instrument of change in the hands of God.
He heard Father Patrick McGann – or maybe he didn’t hear him because of the excitement and anxiety – but Fr. Patrick spoke at Fr. Blaine’s first Mass of Thanksgiving. Fr. Patrick reflected on the new and
mysterious “powers” that men and women were acquiring in that time – this was 1961 when Yuri Gagarin had orbited the earth just two months earlier and the U.S. was entering vigorously into the space race. Scientists were opening up new technologies that would lead to new powers in what seemed to be the beginnings of a new world; world leaders were staring each other down with threats of powerful and destructive weapons. We were awed and scared. But, in spite of all this power that scientists and world leaders were developing, those powers paled next to the powers of the priest, Fr. Patrick said. The priest calls on God to come to the altar, to be present as bread and wine, and God obeys. The priest says, “I absolve you,” and God forgives. I don’t know what went through Blaine’ mind at that moment, but he probably thought, “I’ve got to look that up and verify it.” That would be Blaine.
Fr. Blaine’s priesthood during these fifty years since 1961 certainly showed itself visibly at the altar, as well as at the baptismal font and in the comfort and healing he gave through the Sacrament of the Sick
and the other sacraments and he ministered. His priesthood – his “Holy” Orders – was manifested in the ordinary ways of how we understand the work of “priests.” But Blaine’s fifty years of priesthood came visibly alive, too, when he found himself unraveling “other” mysteries that were part of God’s mystery of Trinitarian love – mysteries of history hidden in Western Kansas and along the Volga River in Russia as well as in Novosibersk in Russia and Bavaria in Germany; mysteries surrounding fascinating people in history such as Wild Bill Hickock, and General George Custer; mysteries of saintly people like Fr. Francis Xavier Seelos and Julia Greeley and friars who lived in the Pennsylvania Province and the Mid-America Province; mysteries hidden in family genealogies. Blaine was captivated by the mysteries of history and he brought them to light so that others could enjoy them and be fascinated by them. They became a tool of envagelization.
Through research, writing, and sacramental work in St. Louis, Hays, Victoria, and Denver, he guided young people to careers which have changed the scientific and medical world. He inspired young people to write and to achieve places of honor in the journalistic world. He nurtured others to find their
place in politics in the state of Kansas. He cultivated vocations and taught young people who were thinking about a vocation to priesthood and religious life to have an appreciation for ALL the
mysteries of life, wherever they were hidden.
Blaine researched the writings that were published about St. Joseph, husband of Mary. He is an
expert in library and archival studies.
We congratulate you, Father Blaine, on fifty years of priestly ministry. You were given a gift fifty years ago and you have brought that gift back here to this altar this morning. It has increased. You did not bury it or hide it. You literally let the world see it. What was a mystery fifty years ago has been unraveling in ways that only God knew then, and we are beginning to know now. All of us are grateful for the mysteries you have unraveled for us through your research and your writing and your encouragements.
But what we are most grateful for today is that you have opened yourself to God so that the power of the priesthood could change our world through the unraveling of faith mysteries, secular mysteries, and mysteries or life.
Blessed John Paul II, in the homily he gave on the 50th
Anniversary of his own priesthood, thanked Christ, the high priest, for sharing priesthood with him. We, too, thank Christ, the high priest, for your
priesthood, Fr. Blaine. And on this Trinity Sunday, surrounded by the mystery of God’s powerful love as expressed in unity and community, we say in the final words of Blessed John Paul in that homily on his own 50th
“I will proclaim your truth, Lord, I will proclaim you love: eternal love, which encourages us to look
trustingly to the future. … Glory be to God the Most Holy Trinity, forever and ever. Amen”
May God bless you, Father Blaine. Thank you for fifty years of unraveling the mysteries of God, wherever you found them hidden.