Cardinal Gregory marks his 50th anniversary as a priest at special Mass with eight ordination classmates

By Mark Zimmermann | Contributor
Sunday, May 14, 2023

Cardinal Wilton Gregory celebrates Mass with eight of his USML ordination classmates on on May 9, 2023 at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C. (Mihoko Owada/Catholic Standard)

Father Wilton Gregory’s life as a priest began when he was ordained to the priesthood with 37 other men at the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception in Mundelein, Illinois, on May 9, 1973.

Exactly 50 years later, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, now the archbishop of Washington, celebrated a 50th anniversary Mass on May 9, 2023 at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C. Joining him in celebrating the Mass were eight other priests ordained with him in the Chicago area on that day 50 years ago who have remained lifelong friends as ordination classmates, and who flew into Washington to celebrate that milestone together.

In his homily, Cardinal Gregory noted that the ritual response spoken by those 38 young men during the ordination in 1973, that they were “ready and willing” to begin their priestly ministry, might in retrospect seem “a bit presumptuous.” He said that after 12 years of seminary formation, “We were excited to begin a life of service and care of people that we had not yet met.”

The cardinal added that over the past 50 years, “It has been our good fortune to attempt to be ‘ready and willing’ to be Christ’s priests.”

The eight priests concelebrating the 50th anniversary Mass from St. Mary of the Lake Seminary’s ordination class of 1973 included Father Michael Cronin, Father James Joslyn, Father John Lodge, Father Edward Mikolajczyk, Father Dennis O’Neill, Father Frank Sasso, Father Daniel Smilanic and Msgr. Kenneth Velo.

For all those men, their vocational journeys as priests began on that day in 1973, and brought them together 50 years later to join their ordination classmate and friend at his cathedral church in Washington, standing at the altar to celebrate the Eucharist together.

“We have presented ourselves to the Church as eager and willing servants of the Gospel, and in this Eucharist, we do so again,” Cardinal Gregory said.

After Father Wilton Gregory was ordained as a priest for the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1973, he was ordained as an auxiliary bishop in Chicago 10 years later. Bishop Gregory was named as the bishop of Belleville, Illinois, in 1994 and served there for 11 years.

While leading the Diocese of Belleville, Bishop Gregory was elected in 2001 as the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and he led the nation’s bishops as they implemented the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.” Then-Archbishop Gregory served as the archbishop of Atlanta from 2005 until Pope Francis appointed him as the archbishop of Washington in 2019. The next year, Cardinal Gregory was elevated to the College of Cardinals by Pope Francis.

After the opening prayer, Cardinal Gregory said, “I thank all of you for being present for us to celebrate this Mass which occurs on the day my brothers and I were ordained to the priesthood 50 years ago.” Then the cardinal laughed as he added, “We don’t look too bad, I think!”

Standing at the cathedral’s bishop’s chair, flanked by his eight ordination classmates wearing their priestly vestments, Washington’s archbishop then said, “The Lord has been very good to us, giving us the ministry that His Son left to the Church, and giving us the friendship and love of countless thousands of people.”

The Scripture readings at the 50th anniversary Mass – the first reading from Isaiah 61:1-3, the second reading from 2 Corinthians 4:1-2, 5-7, and the Gospel reading from Mathew 20:25-28 – were the same readings proclaimed at the priests’ ordination Mass in 1973.

In his homily, the cardinal noted how the prophet Isaiah emphasized that the Lord’s anointed are called to serve others.

Reflecting on the second reading, Washington’s archbishop said, “Paul reminded us that the ministry that we were given was a treasure that we carried in the fragile earthen vessels of our personhood.” That understanding, he said, helped them as priests continue to “desire to start anew, even after 50 years.”

Cardinal Gregory said the Gospel reading from Matthew that they heard on their ordination day and again at the 50th anniversary Mass helped them “remember that greatness is to be found in humility, in littleness, in serving others. We can never remember that lesson too often as priests of Jesus Christ.”

As priests care for the people entrusted to them, they are serving in the pattern established by Christ, he said.

“How privileged we have been to know, to love, to serve the many people who have entered our lives, and in return to know their love and care for us. We can never forget the Lord’s favor in our lives that these past 50 years have been,” said the cardinal, who expressed gratitude for the friendship, encouragement and support that people have offered him and his fellow priests over the years.

Concluding his homily, Cardinal Gregory repeated the phrase that he and the other men ordained 50 years earlier had promised as they were beginning their priesthood: “We are ready and willing.”

“We ask your prayers for us and for all priests that we might renew the promises that we made however long ago to be priests for you in the image of Christ Jesus,” the cardinal said, adding, “‘We are ready and willing’ to do so into the future that God only knows and has in store for us and for you.”

Another poignant reminder of the priests’ ordination during the anniversary Mass was the music led by the cathedral’s Schola Cantorum choir and a brass quintet, which in many cases replicated the music sung at their ordination Mass in 1973, including the choral prelude, “‘Gloria’ from Missa a la Samba” by Peloquin.

The responsorial psalm from Psalm 19, “Lord, you have the words of everlasting life,” was also sung at the priests’ ordination Mass. The opening hymn from that Mass, “Wake the World,” was sung during the presentation of the gifts at the anniversary Mass. The Communion hymn, “Keep in Mind,” and the recessional hymn, “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name,” sung during the anniversary Mass were also sung at the ordination Mass in 1973.

In interviews during a reception after the Mass, some of the priests reflected on the milestone they celebrated together that day.

“It’s been an amazing 50 years,” said Father Edward Mikolajczyk, a retired priest who helps at Our Lady of the Woods Church in Orland Park. “We have a wonderful class, very supportive of one another.”

Asked what has sustained their priestly vocations over the years, he said, “the people you minister to,” and he added, “For us, it’s been our class, we’ve been a very supportive group of classmates, always there for one another.”

Msgr. Kenneth Velo noted, “I can’t think of a better way to celebrate our 50th anniversary, than to join together with our classmates, particularly with Cardinal Gregory, who was the core of our class. His hospitality and graciousness are the cornerstone of who he is as a man and a bishop. We treasure his friendship, and we are honored he gathered us together to celebrate this day.”

That priest, who serves as the senior executive of Catholic collaboration for DePaul University and as co-chairman of the Big Shoulders Fund, noted that ordination class of 1973 included priests of the Archdiocese of Chicago, priests for the Diocese of Gary, Indiana, and some religious order priests. Of the 38 men ordained that day, 19 have died. Some of those priests marking their 50th anniversaries were not able to travel from Chicago.

“We remember all those who were part of that great class of 1973,” Msgr. Velo said.

Father James Joslyn, who retired as a Navy chaplain with the rank of captain after serving in that role for 23 years, said the anniversary Mass “was thrilling. It just brought back so many wonderful memories.”

Twelve of his friends from the Navy attended the Mass.

That retired priest, who helps out at Our Lady of Hope Church in Rosemont, Isaid, “Our class is very close. We enjoy getting together. It charges our batteries.”

Father Frank Sasso, who noted that he is now retired after serving African American Catholics in the South Side of Chicago over the past 50 years, said, “We’ve always been a close class. For us to get together and celebrate with Cardinal Gregory in his cathedral is remarkable. We always stick together through thick and thin. We get together every year.”

Father Michael Cronin, who is retired and helps out at Queen of All Saints Basilica in Chicago, said it was “a great honor” to join Cardinal Gregory and their other ordination classmates in celebrating the anniversary Mass.

“The cardinal said we answer, ‘I am ready and willing,’ and he’s right,” Cronin said.