When A Man Says YES to the Lord, his Yes is Forever 0

Homily, Thanksgiving Mass of Rev. Fr. John Tanyi at Ste Anne Church,

Salem MA, Sunday, May 26, 2024

Dear Fr. John Tanyi,

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood, the Diaconate, Religious Women here present,

Dear Holy People of God,

Whenever I have taught the course on Fundamental Theology be at Boston College or at St John’s Seminary, I have always asked the students at the introductory lecture: What are the basic Christian dogmas? The responses have been mixed overtime. Today’s solemnity ranks first on the list of three: The Dogma of Three Persons in One God, namely, the Trinity; the Dogma of the Incarnation of the Son of God; and finally, the Spirit and Grace. If I were to proceed further along the lines of a Thomistic or Rahnerian explanation, then I would be compelled to charge each of you a tuition of $3200 as per Boston College rate for graduate courses in theology. I have no such intentions. Don’t be scared. But what sets us apart as Christians from all other religious expressions, is that only Christians understand God as a community of three persons, of one substance. And because we Christians understand God as a community of persons, Christianity is essentially a communitarian faith, with Baptism as the door that opens us all into this community in which we are all brothers and sisters.

As we thank God for revealing that to us that when we say God, we always mean Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and all the implications of that for our spiritual lives, today’s celebration of the Solemnity of the Trinity at this Church of Ste Anne, Salem, is uniquely marked by another aspect that must be greatly pleasing to our Triune God. Today, we are gathered here as well, to give thanks to God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for the grace of the priesthood that God has bestowed on our brother, John. It is by the power of the Trinity that Fr John will exercise the sacramental ministry as a priest.

“When a man says YES to the Lord, his YES is forever.” In these words of St. John Paul II drawn from the Second Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, 1:19, in which Paul declares that “For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us, by me, Silvanus, and Timothy, was not “Yes” and “No,” but has proved to be “Yes” in Him,” one finds what can best be described as the Christological aspiration of the inner spiritual disposition of our new priest, Fr. John Tanyi. Today, we thank God for calling one so dear to us, into the company of the YES to the Lord Forever, which is essentially what the Catholic priesthood is, as captured in this declaration by St. John Paul II the Great.

Dear Fr John, God’s grace in your life, has been guided and has unfolded in a loving relationship between you and St. John Paul II. Even the fact that your ordination is marked by you releasing a book, The Cross and the Flag, Papal Diplomacy and John Paul II’s Struggle Against the Tyranny of the Possible, is a testimony to your generous response to the grace that God poured into your heart, through the life and intellectual legacy of St. John Paul II. It is not always the case that a newly ordained priest releases a work of such intellectual, spiritual and cultural magnitude on the day of his ordination! For this, we thank you, for placing your superior intellect at the service of the great legacy of the greatest figure of the twentieth century. 

Dear Fr. John, you are certainly more competent on the life and thought of St. John Paul II the Great than I am, and perhaps, than anyone present here today. But given the celebrated friendship between John Paul II and Benedict XVI, marked by a profound mutual respect and cousinship of minds, perhaps you would permit me, from the limits of my intellectual German-Bavarian world, to offer FIVE reminders or lessons from the life of St. John Paul II, that, I believe, might be useful to a new priest who says YES to the Lord forever, today.

First, To Say Yes to the Lord Forever is to Trust in Divine Providence

Dear Fr. John, to St. John Paul II – and he repeatedly articulated this – in the design of Providence, in the design of God, there are no accidents. Everything is a part of the Divine Plan. When we look back with a retrospective glance, we suddenly see all the parts of life that appeared at first glance to be incomprehensible, falling in place, coming together. Decisions, actions, that might not have made sense to us, suddenly appear comprehensible. We see the wider picture, guided, in the words of the great Cardinal Arinze, the Lion of the African Church, by God’s Invisible Hand. Anyone with an intimate knowledge of your journey to the priesthood would clearly see, in hindsight, God’s providential hand at work.

It all began in Tiko, Cameroon, in the home of Mama Angela Bikelle Tanyi whose energy, steadfastness, and faith, I have personally grown to profoundly admire overtime, and Pa Tanyi Francis, of Blessed Memory. There, you were nurtured in the Christian faith, in ways that have never left you. Your love for Christ, the Church, and your family, took root these years and these have remained constant features of your life.

While a student at the legendary St. Joseph College, Sasse, you already showed the gift of an unmatchable intellect, nurtured by the Catholic educational ethos. Your desire for missionary life began developing at this time, with the legendary example of father Fr. Tony Murphy, MHM, whose example of priestly generosity has never left you. Clearly, God had, from very early on, planted the seed of missionary life in you. We just had to find out with time, where God wanted to send you to, as a missionary.

As a young student of philosophy at the Ugandan Martyrs University, Nkonzi, between 2003 – 2006, you were captivated by the thought of the Lithuanian-French phenomenologist, Emmanuel Levinas. Following his lifetime disappointment with Heidegger with his embrace of National Socialism, and under the cloud of the Holocaust, Levinas grounded the possibility of ethics on the reality of face-to-face. To Levinas, the other is not a phenomenon but an enigma, in the sense that the relation to the other cannot be reduced to comprehension. There is the primacy of the other, for whom we have an infinite responsibility.

Fr. John, if you meeting Levinas, who can rightly be considered as the philosopher of pastoral charity was not a part of God’s providential plan, then I am at a difficulty to know how else to characterize it! And the significance is not lost to me, that in the same month of May1980, forty-four years ago, precisely in Paris, Emmanuel Levinas and John Paul II met in person for the first time. A friendship ensued that saw Levinas not only write an article on “The Philosophical Thought of Cardinal Wojtyla,” but even more, Levinas participated at conferences at Castel Gandolfo in 1983 and 1985, under the direction of John Paul II.  I pray that your formation in Levinas helps you in your pastoral ministry, to see as Levinas saw, the uniqueness of every person, especially those you might not readily comprehend, for the other is not the crowd, as Levinas maintains.

While in Kenya, Divine Providence, God’s Invisible Hand, continued to be at work in forming you for this hour. You became a Professor of Politics and International Relations. You were fascinated by the world of politics and saw a career path for yourself, at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA), and Mount Kenya University, Nairobi, Kenya, from 2012 – 2018. I believe that you might thought that you had it all worked out. It is difficult to imagine that some young ladies might have seen in you – and here, I am following a prescription expressed to me by a young niece of mine –  tall, dark and handsome young professor, the man of their dreams.

But God had other plans, which led you from Nairobi to Boston College. And even while at Boston College, the picture was not immediately clear! I remember during my pastoral time here at Ste Anne, a Cameroonian lady came to the office to see me, and proposed a list with three names she was recommending that we propose to you for future consideration! The list was impressive. No doubt about that. The girls were all African beauty queens of the Cameroon Catholic Community of Boston. I wouldn’t have hesitated to recommend any of them to you, Fr John. But again, God clearly had other plans!

And today, we have finally seen where all of these bits and pieces were leading to, the altar of the Lord: “And I will go up to the altar of the Lord, the Lord, my joy, my delight” (Ps 43:4). Fr John, thank you for being attentive and open to the mysterious designs of God in your life, which remains an example for us, and a lesson worth keeping in mind, as priests today. There are no accidents in our lives as priests. Everything is a part of Divine Providence. It might not be clear to us now. But retrospectively, God’s invisible hand would become visible. 

Second, To Say Yes to the Lord Forever is to live the Priestly Life of Victim and Eucharistic Transubstantiation

In the clandestine, underground seminary in which the young Karol Wojtyla was formed under the legendary and unforgettable Adam Stephen Cardinal Sapieha, Metropolitan Archbishop of Krakow, it was customary to recite daily, especially on the eve of priestly ordination, the Litany of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Priest and Victim –, a prayer based on the Letter to the Hebrews. This Krakòw Litany, includes eight invocations of Jesus Christ as the victim of redeeming sacrifice, formed in the young Karol Wojtyla the conviction that dying-to-self, self-gift, or self-immolation, central to the being of the priest (Gift and Mystery, pp. 78 – 82).

Upon completion of his studies at Boston College in the month of May 2020, Fr. John informed me of his intention to discern for the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Boston. Of course, living with him here in Boston, I had grown in my admiration of John’s spirit of sacrifice and generosity. Fr John, your mentor St. John Paul II, taught that central to this victimhood of priestly identity – Iesu, Sacerdos et Victima, is the Eucharist, that you will celebrate daily: Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit (Jn 12:24). Christ himself is the grain of wheat that must die in order to ripen and bear fruit. In a few moments from now, Fr John will hold God’s grain of wheat in his own hands, the bread that is Christ the Lord himself, that has grown a hundredfold from the death of the grain of wheat and has become the bread of the entire world.

For you, Fr John, this bread, this grain of wheat, has a double meaning. The first meaning captures the reality of the cross in priestly life. Every day, as you celebrate the Eucharist, you too must be God’s grain of wheat. Your fate is tied to Christ’s victimhood as well. Transubstantiation is both of species and of life. And both can only come about, like and with Christ, through death and daily dying to the self. But there is always another side to the priest as victim. Benedict XVI refers to this as God’s joy. Priestly cross and priestly joy are intertwined(Ratzinger, Ministers of Your Joy, Scriptural Meditations on Priestly Spirituality, Ann Arbor: Michigan, Servant Publications, 1989: 22). As priests today, it is worth remembering, in the words of the Psalmist, weeping might endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning (Ps 30:5). We must not abandon our priestly calling because of challenges. Even in the midst of our challenges, the Lord still gives us joy. With the Lord, as St. Ignatius of Loyola teaches us, it is never completely desolation. There is always consolation as well.

Third, to say Yes to the Lord Forever in the Priesthood is to Understand the Priesthood as What One Is

On November 1, 1946, in the Chapel of the Archbishop’s Residence in Krakow, the memorable Adam Stefan Cardinal Sapieha ordained John Paul II a priest. In his retrospective recollections of his ordination, John Paul II thought and reminded priests that the priesthood is not simply a matter of what one does. It is more of what one is. As the saintly Pope understood and emphasized in his Holy Thursday Letters to Priests starting April 8, 1979, theontosof the priest, the so-called ontological change, after all said and done, is precisely a question of particular intensity in terms of an existential relationality to and with Christ, that marks priestly life. For the priest, therefore, and for our brother Fr John going forward, Christ becomes the defining metaphysical principle that will give his being is decisive direction, amidst the different tasks that would be assigned to him by his legitimate ecclesial superiors. In effect, priestly ontological change, however one wants to capture that in terms of the sacramental sense, is at best, a metaphysical Christic-existentiality borne from intimate relationality between priest and Christ, outside of which is left a clerical magicism that is lifelessly presumptuous and devoid of any life-affirming realism. Priestly life becomes boring and repetitive, opening the door to pseudo replacements of various modes and tenses.

Fourth, to say Yes to the Lord Forever is to grow in one’s Consciousness of the Hiddenness of Priestly Power

A few days after his priestly ordination, the young Fr Karol Wojtyla, John Paul II, could not make it for the anniversary gathering of his old troupe. The hectic nature of the days following ordination would not allow him to be present. John Paul II wrote a brief letter in which he apologized for his inability to attend the gathering with his peers. I believe that letter contains a germ of wisdom that could be helpful to you, our esteemed Fr John. This is what the saintly Pope wrote:

“Maybe it’s God design that I can’t come to this anniversary meeting. That’s how I understand it – I should be present in your activity, just as a priest should be present in life in general, should be a hidden driving force. Yes, despite all appearances that is the main duty of the priesthood. Hidden forces usually produce the strongest actions” (Witness to Hope, p. 82). 

Dear Fr John, hidden forces usually produce the strongest actions! It takes saints to articulate such wisdom. As you begin your priestly ministry with Fr Bob Poitras at St. Mary’s, Franklin, MA, I encourage you to remember this wisdom from John Paul II: Many times, our invisible actions of pastoral charity, produce the strongest and bear the most enduring fruit for Christ and for Christ’s Holy Church.

Finally, to say Yes to the Lord Forever in the Priesthood is to enter into the Eternal Today of Christ

In his reflections marking the Fiftieth Anniversary of his Priestly Ordination titled Gift and Mystery, St. John Paul II wrote:

I am convinced that a priest should have no fear of being “behind the times,” because the human “today” of every priest is included in the “today” of Christ the Redeemer. For every priest, in every age, the greatest task is each day to discover his own priestly ‘today’ in the “today” of Christto which the Letter to the Hebrews refers (Gift and Mystery, p. 84).

Fr. John, in the today of your life, the Lord calls you to holiness. True religion leads to daily conversion, the saintly Bishop Francis Lysinge often reminded me. A remarkable aspect of your life is your translucent simplicity. It has often struck me how synthetic you are. The John one encounters externally is the John who is internally. I sometimes think that if Immanuel Kant had encountered you, he might not have made the distinction between the noumena, the thing in itself, and the phenomena, the thing as it appears to us, so sharp. Build on your natural identity your supernatural priestly calling; in the today of St. Mary’s Franklin, MA, and where ever else God through the Church would mission you to.


Towards the end of his life at the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery at the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI would always end his homily with a prayer. Recently, Fr. Federico Lombardi, S.J. Benedict’s longtime Press Secretary, declared that he has begun following that pattern. Permit me do the same here, adapting the Prayer for the Occasion of the 10th Anniversary of the Canonization of St. John Paul II – April 27th, for our beloved and esteemed Fr John Tanyi:

O Saint John Paul, from Heaven’s window give us your blessing! Bless the Church, which you loved so much and courageously served along the pathways of the world, to bring Jesus to everyone and everyone to Jesus. Let us hear again your powerful cry, “Open, open wide the doors to Christ!” Help us open the doors of our hearts to Jesus, so that we may be tireless missionaries of the Gospel today.

From the window of the Father’s House in heaven, we ask for your blessing upon Fr. John Tanyi. Watch over the gift of the priesthood that the Lord has bestowed on him. May Fr John Tanyi’s priestly ministry help to open wide the doors to Christ for us, Christ, who cannot be excluded from any latitude or longitude, for to exclude Christ is to do violence against the human being, for it is Christ who fully reveals us to ourselves. St. John Paul II, pray for Fr John and pray for us. Amen.

May our Mother Mary, whose YES to God at the Annunciation – Ecce Ancilla Domini – always intercede for you, Fr John, so that your YES to God will continue to be creative, dynamic and fruitful, for the greater glory of God, now and always, Amen.

Rev. Maurice Agbaw-Ebai (AMDG)

Boston MA