All Saints, Kempsey, 18 April, 2011
Dear Brothers and Sisters:
Tonight, once again, the Diocese comes to Kempsey, to the parishes of the Southern Deanery. Each year as we assemble, at the Cathedral or in Coffs Harbour, or here among the parishes of the Southern Deanery, for the celebration of this Mass of the Chrism, we must experience a deep sense of the loving generosity of our heavenly Father towards us. Towards each of us individually as Catholic Christians, towards our families, towards the family of our Diocese.This liturgy abounds in our reasons for gratitude: it speaks of the very plan of salvation, reaching its climax in the coming among us of the Christ, the Anointed of the Father, the bearer of the Good News, the bringer of our freedom, and the one who binds up hearts that are broken. It speaks of the Church, Christ’s Body, in which we are made a line of kings and priests to serve our God; It directs our focus to the gift of the Sacraments, the means of grace and our pledge of glory; and the Eucharist at the heart of all our gratitude.
Yes, so much given to us, so much to be grateful for, for all the goodness, the beauty, the truth, the love which surrounds us in and through Christ our Lord, which soaks through to the depths of our souls with that Chrism of baptism, of confirmation, of ordination, the mysticalanointings which infuse our souls with grace,which enable us to be partakers,through Him and with Him, of the divine nature.
Tonight, and on Holy Thursday night of this week, our thoughts are focussed by the liturgy so precisely on Christ our great High Priest, and on his Priesthood shared with us. We are made vividly aware of the particular and personal continuity of Christ’s priestly workin the ministry of his priests on earth, the men in our midst whom we respect and look to literally as ‘other Christs.’ Among those many gratitudes in our hearts tonight is a gratitude to God for these men, called and consecrated to be ‘the priests of the Lord,’ uniquely ‘ministers of our God’; these particular men, the priests of our parishes, homegrown or born in distant lands, who, anointed and sent like their Master, pledge themselves year by year in renewed fidelity to the service of God and His people.
Also with us this evening are all but two of our ten students for the priesthood of the Diocese. We rejoice that they are numbered among the increasing ranks of young men preparing for ordination across our country. This year, thanks be to God, we will witness the joy of the ordination of three new priests, James, who will shortly step forward with Frederick for Candidacy for Sacred Orders, and our transitional deacons, Roland and Shelwin.
In the words of the Australian priest-poet, John O’Brien, these men are our ‘young soldiers . . . the last recruits to bring their vows of loyal service to the ranks of Christ the King.’ Soon these three will be ‘by words of power enrolled/ in that long line of priests so new and yet so old/ . . . in flowing albs on altar steps which stretch for ever on, . . . unbroken back to that far time when God’s Begotten Son/ ordained the Twelve and bade them go and do as He had done.”
You may know those words are from the poem, “My Curate, Father Con,” about the old priest’s altar boy at morning Mass,come froma struggling country family – the lad he lives to see not only ordained a priest, and then sent to his bush parish as his assistant, but later on to see consecrated a bishop. The old priest is watching him pass,newly invested with mitre and crosier, and recalls him those years before, ‘when parish priests are very wise and curates very young’:
“I saw in him the priest I was or rather wished to be,/ and wondered when and where and why we parted company. The many called, the few elect, the last who had been first,/ and but the grace of God between the best man and the worst. He knew it all and understood, and he so pure and young;/ the splendid Latin of the Mass was living on his tongue/ when every morn in vestments clad he bowed his handsome head,/ and prayed on Calvary’s height for them for whom his Master bled. I’d seen him tender with the weak, and patient with the rude;/ I’d seen the sick, the poor, the old, shed tears of gratitude;/ “You’ll teach him things,” the Bishop said, but soon I came to see/ I wasn’t teaching him at all, but he was teaching me.”
Perhaps today these verses seem couched in the sentiments of the now distant romance of the Irish Australian Catholic story. But when you look closely the romance of the priesthood is indeed tempered evenly with its tough reality, like the romance and the reality smelted as one in a marriage that has stood the test of time.
Well, the albs still ascend the altar steps, and the men enrobed in them still do there each day the same thing as they have always done, for the living and the dead. They still descend the steps again into the world of the mission, together with their people to renew this little parish patch of the kingdom with the grace, the mercy, the teachings and the lived works of Jesus Christ.
Reading the old records, the documents and letters preserved in our diocesan archives not only tell a story similar to the vignettes of FatherHartigan’s poems – he, once parish priest of Narrandera – but brings home to us the courage, the tough manliness of those men, in the struggle of their day. The romance of the Gospel, of the mission to bring every Australian into the Church of Peter and Patrick under the banner of Mary Help of Christians, this is what fired their courage and determination, no matter the obstacles, no matter the opposition, no matter the cost.
It is this priestly living of the virtue of fortitude that needs to inspire us and strengthen us in the combat of our own day. In his book Men of Brave Heart, the recently installed Archbishop of Los Angeles, José Gomez, writes, “Fortitude fights fear, and we in the clergy have much to fear. . . we live in a culture that, while it does not persecute believers, sharply restricts expressions of the Christian faith, and pressures believers to abandon core principles in order to ‘get along.’ Archbishop Gomez quotes the view of the philosopher Charles Taylor, that our societies of the West are now reconstructed uponpowerful prejudices that see Christianity and above all the Catholic Church, in which our culture grew to its highest expressions, as a barrier to human freedom and development. Thus the intense pressures to exclude all talk of God, faith and religious and moral values from our public life. ‘Among us ‘practical atheism’ has almost become our de facto state religion. More and more, in order to live in our society, to participate in its economic and political life, people are required to conduct themselves as if God does not exist.’
In this hostile climate, Archbishop Gomez continues, relentlessly out to evangelise us believers to the pseudo-gospel of secular materialism, the priest himself, not only his people, faces dangers. He may be tempted to question the wisdom or continued relevance of certain Church teachings. He may be tempted to make concessions and compromises in his ascetical life, to quietly loosen or even abandon certain standards of personal discipline, habits of life, and spiritual and religious practices intended to foster his virtue and strengthen the effectiveness of his ministry.
Thus it can become easy to compromise, to act from a fear of incurring criticism or displeasure, of appearing out of step. Instead of calling people to conversion, in pulpit or confessional, the priest may take a softer and what appears a safer line, fearing people might turn aside and leave if he calls them to embrace the harder path. Yet it may be precisely an encounter with our timidity and compromise that will turn away the person.Don’t they come, after all, to hear from our lips the word of truth, and to get from our counsel some strength for the struggle to live as a Christian? It is always our fortitude and faithfulness that builds a courageous and witnessing laity, and a courageous laity that in turn confirms us in our priestly fortitude and perseverance.
With his beatification but a short time away, on the Sunday after Easter, we priests could well recall the constant encouragement and well-directed challenges which Pope John Paul II so frequently directed towards us. His annual Holy Thursday messages to priests alone deserve to be read and reread and meditated upon. In the work of the new evangelization he knew that so much would depend on the courage and the fortitude of priests.
As we ready ourselves to renew the promises of our ordination out of love for God and His Church, let Pope John Paul address to us again these words (20 November 1982): “With all the powers of persuasion at my command, I say to each one: Priest, be what you are without restrictions, without illusions, without compromise, in the face of God and your conscience . . Have always the courage of the truth of your priesthood.”