“Gaudete” Sunday at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was a day to rejoice not only in the Savior to come, but also in Christ’s work in the life and priesthood of Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, on his 60th anniversary as priest.
The cardinal, who served as archbishop of Denver from 1986 to 1996, celebrated a Mass on Dec. 17 accompanied by his brother bishops of Colorado: Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of Denver, Auxiliary Bishop Jorge H. Rodriguez and Bishop Michael J. Sheridan of Colorado Springs; and by many brother priests and deacons.
“On this ‘Gaudete’ Sunday we gather to rejoice, to rejoice first and foremost in Jesus Christ… in the gift of salvation and his conquest over sin and death,” Archbishop Aquila said in his homily. “We rejoice too for the 60 years of priesthood that the Father has so generously bestowed upon Cardinal Stafford.”
“He is a man of Jesus Christ, one who understands what it means to be a disciple,” the archbishop said. “Whether in marriage or consecrated life, we can all learn from his example.”
Cardinal Stafford was ordained Dec. 15, 1957 in Rome for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, where he served as pastor, director of Catholic Charities and president of the Presbyteral Senate. He was appointed auxiliary bishop of Baltimore in 1976 and bishop of Memphis in 1981, prior to becoming archbishop of Denver.
It is when Cardinal Stafford became bishop that “he understood well what it means to offer oneself completely to Christ,” Archbishop Aquila affirmed.
After being Archbishop of Denver, Stafford was called to serve the universal Church as president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity in 1996. John Paul II appointed him cardinal in 1998 and Major Penitentiary in 2003.
He also emphasized the fruits of numerous organizations and initiatives that World Youth Day brought to Denver through the leadership of the apostolic penitentiary emeritus: “He said ‘yes’ and trusted in the Lord. Few could guess what that ‘yes’ would bring for [the local and universal Church].”
Centered in Christ
The cardinal chose St. Augustine’s words for his holy card: “I was not yet humble enough to receive the humble Jesus as my God.” The archbishop of Denver explained the cardinal’s intention for choosing that phrase: “He recognizes the essential virtue of humility because our faith is never about ourselves but about Jesus Christ and the work he accomplishes in us and with us when we open our hearts to him.”
Cardinal Stafford thanked his brother bishops, priests, deacons, religious and lay faithful for their presence and prayers at the end of Mass.
The cardinal said that his acceptance to become archbishop of Denver was not without fear. “[But] you prayed in hope that I would grow in love to overcome whatever fear I had,” he said to the congregation.
“What happens when a bishop is prayed for by his people? It means that the bishop has grown in love of his people,” he continued. “I grew in love of you, dear brothers and sisters, and because I loved you, I trusted you.”
Such trust was present in the decision to bring World Youth Day to Denver, Cardinal Stafford stated. He firmly believed the coming of John Paul II to Denver would open the doors to the freedom Christ desired for his people. And now, the whole body of Christ was present to also praise God for the fruits of the event, made possible by the work of the faithful in communion with Christ.
The cardinal recalled three images that have had special significance in his 60 years as priest: The plaited spiritual wreath, the cross and the rainbow.
He referenced St. Ignatius of Antioch’s metaphor: The presbyterate of the diocese is a “neatly plaited spiritual wreath,” highlighting the importance of the relationship and unity among priests. “[The priest is] called to be plaited, united with the archbishop,” he said.
The cross was the image that led his priesthood, especially in its beginning. Evoking the hardship of his first years as presbyter, he assured, “It was only by discovering the mystery… of the Holy Cross, that I began to experience freedom.” The writings of St. John of the Cross helped him find that freedom, the cardinal said.
“God is present to us even [when he seems] absent, when we are suffering, as [when] the Eternal Son was suffering on the cross,” he told the Denver Catholic.
Finally, Cardinal Stafford remembered vividly the image of the rainbow that appeared on the sky of Denver after a storm, as John Paul II entered the stadium during WYD: “Our young, suffering people of ’93 pointed with joy to the rainbow in the southwestern mountains… I pointed to it and was overwhelmed with that sign, what did it mean?” It was a source of hope for things to come, he assured.
Cardinal Stafford told the Denver Catholic that upon his retirement, his mission is to offer what he has experienced and learned in his path: “I hope to be able to convey to people that the greatest treasure we have in this life is to understand the depth, height and beauty of knowing the Lord Jesus Christ.
“There is no higher knowledge than that. Nothing is as rich in life on earth than to come to know Jesus. Nothing… We can strive to become engineers, doctors, professionals… but all of those things are penultimate,” he continued. “Parents, above all, have to share this with their children.”
Featured photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic