St Carthage’s Cathedral, Lismore, 30 July 2010
(Readings: Numbers 11:11-12, 14-17, 24-25; II Corinthians 4:1-2, 5-7; St Matthew 9:35-37).
There are few more happy occasions in the life of the diocesan Church than the ordination of a new priest. For the man himself years of preparation, prayer, study and testing open definitively in this moment of consecration into a life at the service of Jesus Christ, Teacher, Priest and Shepherd. And for everybody present there is the realization that this man is happily giving his life away, like Christ did, for our sakes. He is a priest not for himself, but for us. He will not marry, he will have no children with his own surname, and yet he will be a member of every family, and beget countless spiritual children among those he baptises, with whom he celebrates the sacraments, and whom he supports and guides through life’s changing scenes to the happiness that lasts for ever. He will cherish these children of his ever-growing family, and like St Paul say of them, “I became your father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.”
Deacon Peter, tonight you take your place in this spiritual fatherhood of the Catholic priest, to become an icon of the divine fatherhood to all those whom God calls His ‘beloved children.’ From the beginning the Christian people have believed that as God is their Father, the Church is their mother; that their bishops and priests are spiritual fathers; that through the sacraments they were made children of God, or, as St Peter said, “partakers of the divine nature.” They have known this because, again as St Paul says, ‘like a father exhorts his children’ their spiritual fathers had told them that they had been ‘chosen before the foundation of the world.’ God had a plan for their lives, to make them holy, to make them saints.
When our people bestow on us this beautiful title, when they call us Father, it is no mere honorific; it expresses a spiritual reality. Catherine Doherty, a most remarkable laywoman who died in Canada in 1985 after a life of influential holiness, and whose cause for canonization is in process, was born into the minor Russian nobility at the end of the nineteenth century. As a young woman she lived through the turmoil of the Bolshevik revolution. She wrote a moving account of the slaughter of all the priests in St Petersburg before being fortunate to escape to England. There subsequently she became a Catholic. Just as poignantly she wrote about her own esteem for the Catholic priesthood:
“We call you Father because you begot us in the mystery of a tremendous love affair between you and God; because you participate in the one priesthood of Christ; because you are wedded to the Church, his Bride. We call you ‘Father’ and we are your ‘family.’ We need you desperately – to serve us, to feed us with the Eucharist, to heal us with anointing, to reconcile us to God and one another in the sacrament of Penance; to witness our unions of love in marriage, to preach God’s Word. Teach us how to love. Teach us how to pray. Inflame our hearts with the desire to wash the feet of our poor brethren, to feed them in love, and to preach the Gospel with our lives.”
The Gospel this evening reveals Our Lord on the move amongst the people, teaching, proclaiming the Good News, and healing – we are told – all kinds of diseases. We heard St Paul describe this teaching and healing as ‘the light shining out of darkness, the revelation of the light of God’s glory, the glory shining on the face of Christ.’
A priest is called to reflect that light, to be a bearer to his people of that final glory they are already able to share here below through grace. He does this by his preaching: ‘stating the truth openly in the sight of God, preaching not ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.’ A priest has as his commission precisely to teach the full faith of Christ’s Church, full strength Catholic faith and practice, no reticence, no deceitfulness, no watering down the word of God, in season and out of season, welcome or unwelcome, with the power of truth that comes from God, not from the earthen jar that merely holds the treasure.
The heart of a priest, like the heart of Christ, will feel sorrow for the crowds surrounding him in today’s world who are also harrassed and dejected: on the one hand knowing that there is a better life and yearning for it, still keeping in touch as it were at Christmas and Easter, but hesitant to fully embrace it. They draw back from the sacrifice and the conflict with the dominant culture which the full life of Christ and His Church will demand. Deacon Peter, as a priest you will be like Moses, called to stand in that gap and draw the sheep and the Shepherd together. To use Our Lord’s own analogy in the Gospel, you have to nourish the seeds to maturity, to be a labourer in a harvest that is the Lord’s, not your own, totally dependent on the Lord to give the increase.
We priests do not labour for long in our ministry before we find ourselves submitting entirely to the truth of Our Lord’s words to his Apostles at the Last Supper: “apart from Me you can do nothing.” We discover that results do not come from our ability to act, or to plan, or by working ourselves to a standstill trying to meet the many expectations placed upon us: concern about parish plant and finances, engaging the struggle with the modern mentality of apathy to religion, today’s ingrained moral relativism and all the rest. We become convinced of the truth of Our Lord’s preceding words in that same discourse: “He who abides in Me, and I in him, will bear much fruit.”
To put it simply, the closer we are to Christ the more effective we will be as His instruments. The Lord of the harvest will do the rest. By prayer, with the Divine Office as its daily core, by steeping our minds in the Word of God, and by humbly relying upon divine grace working through an intensely sacramental life, we are able to place in the Lord’s hands the best possible instrument for His use.
Central to what is being accomplished in the celebration of this sacrament tonight is the indelible marking, the anointing, of the soul of the new priest with the Priesthood of Jesus Christ. He is thus empowered to offer sacrifice to God, accomplished in the celebration of Mass. Ordination also empowers the priest to absolve from sin in the sacrament of Penance.
You are being ordained, Deacon Peter, above all for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. You are called to form and lead a Eucharistic community, its members typically assembled at the altar of their parish church. However, configured as you will be to Christ and acting in His Person you will be uniquely identified with him as Priest and Victim. For this reason your daily celebration or concelebration of the Lord’s sacrifice, normally with a congregation but even without one when necessary, is intended by the Church to be the cornerstone of your spiritual life. Resolve right from the beginning never to let a day go by, unless hindered by illness, travel or other unavoidable cause, when you do not stand at the altar of God, clothed in the vestments of your sacred office, to perform what you are essentially being ordained to do. While you may well take a day off from other things, nothing but the most serious cause should be allowed to interrupt your daily prayer in the name of the Church and your daily offering of the Mass. Every Mass that you offer, from tonight to the end of your life, bears fruit for the Church, for you, for the assembly, for the universal Church and the world, for the living and the dead.
Dear Peter, the people of the Diocese welcome you as our newest priest. They are also looking forward to the continuing ordinations of your seminarian friends. Your priestly friends, within and beyond our Lismore presbyterium welcome you, across our generations from Father Nicolas Maurice who preceded you, to Father Leo Donnelly who this year celebrates sixty years as a priest. You join us in the leadership of a vast and challenging enterprise of evangelisation, reaching out to seek and to save, at the heart of which is the courageous teaching of the truth of Jesus Christ and the celebration of the Sacraments which charge us with His life. So we shepherd a holy people, those called out, chosen by God to be His very own. We shepherd them along the way of His salvation, empowering their baptismal gifts and activating their Christian energies.
May Mary, the Mother of Christ, watch over you, Peter. Seek her intercession and cherish her silent presence day by day to help you grow in the wisdom and grace, and seek from her Immaculate Heart the virtues and the holiness of a true priest.