The preparation for, the Assembly itself, and the work of the Implementation Body, all help to underline in a very powerful way the priesthood which we all share in Jesus Christ our High Priest, whether by our Baptism or Ordination. We, the ordained and non-ordained, need each other, are dependent on and destined to support and to be supported by each other in living our respective vocations. A clericalisation of the laity or a laicisation of the clergy would be a demeaning of both vocations. While I hope that what I have to say will be of relevance to all who share the priesthood of Jesus Christ, I hope you will understand, in view of what we commemorate this evening, if I focus more on the ordained priesthood. When either form of priesthood is nourished then the other will benefit.
Change in recent times has impinged upon all followers of Jesus Christ and on the ministry of the priest in a very particular way. Multi-culturalism, different religious traditions, economic prosperity, marital breakdown and in some cases loss of hope, all combine to present a very changed and challenging landscape for our pastoral ministry.
The cultural soil of some areas of Western Europe is similar in many respects to that in which the gospel seed was sown in the Mediterranean world and in ancient Rome. Today, as then, the light of the gospel has to contend with the darkness of mentalities which are often sceptical, indifferent and hedonistic.
Nevertheless, the unique light which Christ sheds on our humanity can be a spring-board for the new evangelisation about which Pope John Paul II spoke. As priests we have a very significant contribution to make to that evangelisation.
In this situation it is important to try and nourish the vocation to which we have been called. There are many sources of nourishment, all of which are inter-related, God, the scriptures, Christian tradition, the people whom we serve and the difficulties and crises which we encounter in our ministry. One of the great sources to which I return time and time again for inspiration, encouragement and direction is the Apostle to the Gentiles. There is no one quite like Paul. With the exception of Jesus Christ and his mother the greatest figure in the New Testament must surely be the apostle Paul. He is a missionary rather than a systematic theologian, he spent his life not in his study but in the maelstrom of religious controversy and missionary labours. While he belonged primarily to the mainstream of first century Jewish religion, he understood the Greco-roman world and was able to plant a Palestinian gospel on alien soil and yet keep it true to its roots. Paul was seeking to express the depth of his faith in Jesus Christ at the point of intersection of the Jewish, Greek and Roman worlds.
In many respects the challenge facing Paul was not unlike the challenge which we face today as we endeavour to present and proclaim Christ in a multi-cultural and multi-religious setting.
At the centre of Paul’s life is a person, Jesus Christ, the Kyrios. What is important to us is the complete change and profound influence which his meeting with Jesus Christ had on him. It led him to re-think all of his past life, his reading of scriptures, his view of the world, of humanity, and of history. His mission was preoccupied with highlighting the significance of this Lord for all. I believe that Paul has the capacity to nourish our sense of vocation today. As priests we have had to rethink and rework what we were taught in our seminary days. We have to try to find Christ in the busy market place and present him in a language that can be understood. In the seminary we were taught to deal with large amorphous groups, today we have to learn to work closely with others, minister to, support, encourage and enable smaller groups to take initiative and responsibility.
The 1950s was a time of triumph and triumphalism. Today we find ourselves in exile, having lost the glorious certainties of the past, however illusory they might have been. We have to reckon with failure. I am reminded of the cries of the exiles in Babylon “How can we sing the Lord’s song on alien soil?” We have to keep reminding ourselves that it is the Lord’s song, not our song. In all of this I believe that Paul has much to teach us.
For a few moments I would like to focus on Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. Many winds of doctrine blew into the harbours and along the streets of Corinth and it must have been difficult for young Christians to keep on a straight course. The town was set in the midst of the Hellenistic world; popular philosophy and popular piety, to say nothing of popular scepticism, were propagated there. Paul never wrote a more personal letter than 2nd Corinthians. It would be equally true to say that he never wrote a more theological letter. It is simply a letter in which he wears his heart on his sleeve and speaks without constraint, hiding neither his affection, nor his anger, nor his agony.
Nothing appears more powerfully in 2 Corinthians than the strength of Paul’s vocation.
In this letter we get some indication of the physical as well as the moral discouragements and disincentives under which Paul worked. This letter more than most of his epistles reveals Paul as a man capable of profound feeling. His love for the Corinthians is revealed not less but more clearly by the fact that it was misunderstood. Yet this letter is marked by an unflinching defence of his apostolic status and a further explanation of what is understood by apostleship.
Whatever happens to Paul is shot through with Jesus Christ. The selfish, self-centred core in Paul and in all of us has now been taken over by Christ. In Christ we move from self to others, to selflessness. For Paul, the effect of this is seismic. There is a certain irony in 2nd Corinthians in that while Paul has brought them Christ, yet he is reduced to writing a letter to them which insists on preserving his apostolate. He is humiliated as we see in chapter 11 of this epistle, not unlike the humiliation to which, as priests and bishops, we have been subjected in recent times. When our good faith is questioned, either in the case of Paul or ourselves, we are really poor; there is no currency left. I believe that we can see ourselves in Paul’s experience. Yet the apostle is never closer to the Lord than in this powerlessness. He suffered personal limitations, is socially detached, individually poor, yet in his weakness he has a special claim on God’s power. In 2 Corinthians 12:9 we read “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”.
The dynamic element of priestly service is conscious of the transcending power coming from God alone. He acknowledges that he is in difficulties on all sides but never cornered, “we see no answer to our problems but never despair” (2 Cor 4:10) He is a man in Christ. Always turning to Christ, carrying in his body the death of Jesus. Christ for him is an indwelling person, not a distant model. So the poverty stricken Paul is rich in Christ. And he goes on “we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” A tremendous sense of the centrality of Christ enables him to say “we do not lose heart”, so we are always of good courage.
We share the same landscape as Paul. We are resident aliens, while obeying the command to preach the good news, we are entering into alienation. We find ourselves at the same time alienated from the public culture and at the same time marked by the fragmentation of that culture. We belong to disappointed hopes and damaged relationships and we are at the same time healers, who are wounded healers. We are accepted as individuals but not as representatives of a tradition. And this provides a huge temptation for us to preach ourselves rather than Jesus Christ. In Paul however we find a very welcome corrective when he says “what we preach is not ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake (2 Cor 4:5). As priests we are fractured and failed vessels of the suffering God, impotence and power co-exist in us, human life and divine providence come together.
Much of what is happening in priesthood today needs to be contextualised. The apostle in 2nd Corinthians provides us with an opportunity to do so. Paul stresses the value of suffering as a witness to the truth in the gospel as the power of God. So powerful is this witness that suffering is transformed into a most eloquent testimony of faith.
Paul has presented the cross as the decisive truth, folly for those who were perishing but salvation for those with faith. Here he describes his own suffering as indisputable evidence of his call as an apostle. In 2 Cor Paul provides an inspiring example of a person committed to serving his people. For the apostle and the priest that service is marked by faith in Jesus Christ and by sharing his sufferings. An experience of suffering and of receiving God’s healing mercy qualifies the minister of the new covenant whether then or now.