Homily: 60th Anniversary Celebration of the Ordination of Monsignor Chester P. Michael
by Bishop Walter F. Sullivan, April 6, 2002
We gather here in the spirit of the Easter season. We can proclaim, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad.” As we celebrate the joy of Easter we experience that joy in the life of one who has faithfully served the Lord with absolute dedication in priestly ministry for 60 years. In the name of the priests, deacons and friends of Monsignor Michael, I want to extend to him our sincerest congratulations and best wishes. Who can guess the countless number of lives that Chet Michael has touched. I daresay that everyone here can recall some special time or some special occasion in which Chet has impacted their lives. His life, ours, and ours, his. Today, I can only give you a capsule or a vignette of how Chet has changed us. You know his favorite word, in everything I had heard previously about him, is metanoia. For a while I couldn’t even spell it. And I think we can say that he has been a metanoia in our lives. Chet reminded me just before the liturgy that I spoke at his 50th anniversary. I thought he was going to say, “Now, we’ll give you another try.”Can you believe that exactly 60 years ago on April 6, 1942, Chester Paul Michael was ordained into the priesthood at the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Richmond. He was one of the few outstanding priests in our diocese who happened to be born in West Virginia, namely, Berkeley Springs, on October 17, 1916. (Chet, this is not a eulogy.) Chet was truly a mountaineer at heart. Throughout his priesthood, he has climbed many mountains, a man ahead of his time, leading the way for others to follow.
Besides being a mountaineer, Chet was also a missionary. He was one of the early pioneers on the diocesan mission band which went around the diocese preaching the good news. For 10 years Chet traveled to the remote areas of our diocese in the spirit of today’s gospel where Jesus summons the 11 and says “Go into the whole world and proclaim the good news.” Chet was truly a missionary in his early years of priesthood. By both his words and his presence, he broke down the early barriers of prejudice and gave encouragement to Catholic families who lived in various towns and hamlets. Back in 1942, the time of Chet’s ordination, Virginia was beginning to experience remarkable growth and change at the height of World War II.
I first met Chet when he was pastor of St. Bede’s Parish in Williamsburg. I was a young priest at St. Mary Star of the Sea Parish in Fort Monroe. Under Chet’s guidance, the priests would get together once a month, usually at Langley Air Force Base, for a retreat. We took turns serving as the retreat master and, of course, Chet critiqued everybody.
About the same time that I left the Peninsula to study Canon Law, Chet left to become the founding rector of St. John Vianney Seminary in Goochland. Those were certainly exciting times but somewhat troubled times. My predecessor, Bishop John Russell, dreamt of a minor seminary exactly like the one he experienced around 1900. Chet, the first rector, was full of revolutionary ideas like having young men wake up to music at 5:30 am rather than hearing a screeching bell in a boot camp atmosphere. I always remember hearing about that first Easter Vigil in which Chet had the fire to end all fires. It was so huge that Mr. Willis, who lived next door, drove his fire truck over to the Seminary thinking that the buildings were on fire. Needless to say, Bishop Russell heard about the incident on Easter Sunday. Chet probably told him in the spirit of today’s liturgy that “It is better to obey God than man,” or should I say, “It is better to obey God than the Bishop.” Those were the glory days of the Seminary. Some of our distinguished priests graduated from the early years at John Vianney Seminary such as Monsignor Ken Rush, Monsignor Tom Miller, Monsignor Michael Schmied, and Father Tom Lenning and Father Pat Holroyd, who are in the Diocese of Arlington, and Father Larry Terrien who is the Superior General of the Sulpician Fathers.
After four interesting years in the Seminary, Chet Michael came to Charlottesville, there to be pastor for four years at Holy Comforter Parish. At the time, Chet also had responsibility for the community here in Branchlands. Soon after Chet left Holy Comforter Parish, Branchlands became an independent parish in its own right and was named Incarnation Parish. After Charlottesville, Chet went to St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore where he received his doctorate in theology and taught pastoral education.
Chet, the mountaineer and the missionary, now became the mentor of people. He founded Genesis House, the retreat center overlooking the James River on the grounds of St. John Vianney Seminary. Here, Chet was in his glory. For nine years he gave retreats and spiritual direction. I can tell you that the best retreat I ever had was under Chet Michael at Genesis House. I remember planning to make a seven-day retreat and Chet was delighted to have the opportunity to get his claws in me. Because of my schedule as Chancellor, the seven days got reduced to four, and then eventually got reduced to one overnight. I remember well Chet emphasizing that I needed to relax and rest. My retreat consisted of sleeping for about 24 hours. It was the best one I ever made. I recommend Chet’s retreats very highly.
In 1984, Chet Michael supposedly retired but we all know that he soon became more active than before. Afton Mountain was not only his place of residence but the place from which he ventured forth to give retreat conferences to both priests and lay people alike. The lives he has touched these past 18 years are too numerable to count—like the stars in the sky. Here, Chet, the mentor, emphasized spiritual direction and later on he organized and trained lay people for spiritual direction. The Gospel today from Mark mentions that Mary Magdalene was possessed by seven devils. Whenever anyone writes to me about an exorcism, I always send the individual to Chet Michael. Unfortunately, he usually sends them back to me for another exorcism.
Chet Michael is also a prolific writer. I am sure many of you are acquainted with his publication, The Open Door. Chet, I want you to know that I read every issue, not because I want to be converted, but I want to check the text for any heresies. During this time, Chet also wrote the book, Prayer and Temperament. Chet informs me that over 100,000 copies of the book have been sold in countries around the world. In this book, Chet takes the various combinations of the Myers-Briggs and makes their application to both prayer life and spirituality. I remember riding in the car to far southwest Virginia and commenting on the book. It is a fascinating book. Each chapter ends with the same sentence, namely, “If all else fails, the person should go and make a Cursillo.” I thought he had stock in Cursillo.
Chet, others can fill in the blanks of my reflections. You, probably more than any single individual, have touched lives deeply and led people to the person of Jesus. I quote often your admonition that you give to priests at the end of a retreat. You say to them, “On driving home, think of all the good that you do and all the lives that you touch.” In the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles for the First Saturday of Easter, the Apostles, Peter and John, were given a strong warning by the elders, “Never to mention that man’s name to anyone again, never speak in the name of Jesus or teach about him.” Obviously, Chet you have never obeyed those words. Your 60 years of priestly life in ministry have led people to the person of Jesus. As the mountaineer who has climbed the heights of spirituality, as the missionary who proclaimed God’s word in season and out of season, as the mentor who led people to Christ in spiritual direction and retreats, your priestly life of 60 years has truly been a blessing. As your bishop, I want you to heed the advice you give to others, namely, on your drive back to Afton Mountain, think of all the good you have done and the lives you have touched. Chet, may God bless you abundantly in the days and years ahead. Amen.