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Feb. 22 marks the 45th anniversary of the inaugural departure ceremony of the Missionary Society of St. James the Apostle. On this date, a standing-room only throng of more than 3,000 persons witnessed a ceremony in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross at which Cardinal Richard J. Cushing gave to each of the 14 Boston diocesan priest volunteers his mandate and the missionary cross.
Twelve months earlier, on Feb. 1, 1958, then-Archbishop Cushing had announced in his weekly Pilot column that he was “considering the sponsorship of a new society to be known as the Society of St. James the Apostle.” He asked his fellow priests, religious and laity to give this great idea “some prayerful mementos.” These mementos became a momentum that evolved into a movement that continues to be a viable association of diocesan priest volunteers sent by their bishops to serve the “poorest of the poor” in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador.
The cited “greatest thrill of my priesthood” by Cardinal Cushing was the personal blessing conferred by Pope John XXIII upon the Society of St. James the Apostle on the occasion of that first departure from Boston. Cushing made the statement in a letter to Cardinal Domenico Tardini, the Vatican Secretary of State, whose cover letter had accompanied the papal blessing. Cardinal Tardini wrote to Cardinal Cushing, “I have the honor and privilege to send to you, enclosed herewith, the autograph letter by which the Sovereign Pontiff expresses His complaisance and imparts His blessing on the occasion of the departure of the first priests of the Pious Society of St. James the Apostle for the field of their future apostolate.”
Astutely, the Vatican ‘Segreteria Di Stato’ recognized the secular and religious significance of the departure ceremony date, stating, “The anniversary of the birth of the Father of your great Country, on which this first Departure Ceremony is to take place, is also the Feast of Saint Peter’s Chair at Antioch.” Feb. 22 marks the birth of George Washington, the first president of the United States; the day also celebrates St. Peter, first of the apostles to take the episcopal chair at Antioch.
Cardinal Tardini concluded prophetically, “... God will surely richly reward those devoted priests who leave their beloved country in order to assist the Successor of Peter in His apostolate for souls among the peoples of Latin America. Pope John XXIII sends his personal, Apostolic Blessing to his Eminence and to all ‘present and future members’ of the Society.”
The papal blessing, though written 45 years ago, is a living blessing, not restricted solely to the first group of volunteer priests, but extending to ‘all present and future members’ of the Society.” The blessing, dated Feb. 22, 1959 under the signature of Joannes P.P. XXIII, reads: “Upon the Pious Society of the St. James the Apostle, which was inspired by the loving zeal of Our beloved Son Richard Cardinal Cushing, Archbishop of Boston, and is now about to bear its first fruits, upon its present and future members, may there descend, together with Our Apostolic Blessing, an abundance of heavenly graces in pledge of flourishing development and rich success in its apostolic labors.”
While living, Cardinal Cushing stated several times that he wished he could experience the ministry of a simple missionary priest. It was not in God’s design for him. Cardinal Cushing’s greatest “thrill” of his priesthood was to be the recognition he received as the founder of the missionary organization. However, for the past 45 years, the greatest “thrill” of the lives of over 310 alumni, active members and countless benefactors has been their personal association with the Missionary Society of St. James. The “thrill” of living a fully engaged life is the “rich reward” promised by Cardinal Tardini and Pope John XXIII’s living blessing of “an abundance of heavenly graces” upon all “present and future members” of the society.