At the end 1877, the young Scottish poet, Rabbie Burns, found himself with mates and muckers at a pub where he embellished ancestral ballads passed down by older muckers who recalled times that evaporated into history. Whether sober recollections of old and spirited souls or from the drunk tank of their harking back, he penned the song, “Auld Lang Syne,” which translates as “old long since” or “days gone by.” While sometimes referred to as “everybody’s favorite song with words nobody knows,” it laments the passage of time and beckons us to pay tribute to trusted forbears and treasured memories along with tried-and-true friendships.
Returning to Rockhurst College in the summer after a forty-year absence and to the inner city after twenty-five years serving elsewhere, it is a blessing for me to reconnect with ole acquaintances. Things have changed in both places—some for good and some for not—while other things seem unchanging. These places hold sacred memories for me. I periodically receive pleasant surprises by encountering people I knew long ago, as we catch up on life and talk about days gone by. From September homecoming to December baccalaureate and random urban Masses in which associates from my youth or young priesthood greet me afterward, I seem to have reconnected with people from just about every stage of my life in these months. Maybe because I am older now (playing the back nine, doing the seventh inning stretch, entering the fourth quarter…), I am more willing to find grace in reminiscing.
Soon after I became a college student in 1977, there was a horrible flood that turned nearby Brush Creek into a raging river, washing away parts of the Plaza, and claiming many lives. Soon after I graduated in 1981, the Hyatt Regency tragedy of collapsing overhead walkways occurred taking life from over a hundred more. When serving in the inner city in the 1990s, parishioners were murdered, and I sat with families trying to understand how people deal with the horrors of loss and devastating tribulation. But as college life and parish life would have it, there were incredibly joyful experiences, amazing friendships, and personal achievements that are also long lasting. But things change. It seems to me that college is not as fun now as it was then (though a colleague informed me that kids are having just as much fun but in less obvious ways). A favorite college bar where I and friends often hung out is now a gay bar (which another colleague informed me after I had unwittingly taken many current students there; I don’t have very good detective skills). Troost Avenue has changed—it is far less a symbol of division now: more a symbol of unity in diversity. I have not yet figured out if there is less or more violence in the streets of my urban parishes, but I recognize that humor and gratitude for blessings remains strong among its people. Sadly, some wonderful saintly souls there passed on to heavenly shores without successors to take their places—or so it seems.
I am left, at the end of another year and beginning of a new horizon, to offer my own words to the ballad paying tribute to days gone by. Among my former school mates, some are influential, some are rich; some struck out in life; some are dead. Some have big hearts that impact their surroundings in wonderful ways. “These old acquaintances are not forgot, they swirl within my mind; a nod of honor to them all, a toast to auld lang syne.” From Pope Benedict XVI to Queen Elizabeth II, children of Uvalde, and tens of thousands of innocents in Ukraine, we face another yearly passage. Invited to take one another’s hand, let’s walk together toward the hope life holds: “…and here’s my hand, my trusted friend. Now put your hand in mine. We’ll lift a cup of kindness then and drink to auld lang syne.” To all that has been, let us give thanks. To all that will be, let us surrender to God’s will for us and our world.