HOMILY ON PRIESTHOOD.
We are all challenged by the contemporary conditions of the prevailing culture. These profoundly affect the personal lives of all of us, lay faithful, religious and priests. There is nothing like a crisis to bring clarity. In today’s world there is a crisis of hope. And yet there are very striking signs of hope in the Church where people are becoming actively involved in the mission of the Church and working together with their priests as members of a team.
I have been asked to speak on the theme of priesthood and hope. You might ask what is the relevance of such a theme for yourself as you endeavour to rear your family, provide them with values which will enable them to cope with the very changed and challenging world. A priest is never a priest on his own. He is chosen from a family and a community and is sent to minister to a community. While the short comings and failures of priests have been highlighted, nevertheless when tragedy strikes a community, recognising that the priest has privileged access to families and individuals in their suffering, pain and brokenness, it is inevitably the local priest who is contacted to provide insight into how the bereaved and broken hearted families are coping. Every priest knows that this access is accorded him not because of his own person but rather because he ministers on behalf of Jesus Christ. This places enormous responsibility on the priest to respect and respond to the situation as he stands shoulder to shoulder with his people in the gardens of their Gethsemane. The close relationship between a people and their priest is something not always appreciated or understood by many who write about priesthood today. At the local level this relationship is very edifying and most encouraging and a sure sign of hope.
Many of you will have experienced the ordination of a priest in your local community. There is a great sense of people coming together preparing for the occasion and a sense of gratitude that God has chosen one from among themselves. There is a very definite mood of celebration, joy and thanksgiving.
At ordination the priest is reminded that his priesthood is founded on and derives meaning from a relationship with Jesus Christ. The priest has responsibility for teaching God’s word. In an age where so much attention is given a to the sound bite the priest must help people to go beneath the surface and help his people to interpret what is of substance and will endure. The priest will carry out this task as he proclaims God’s word which will always be a message of hope, encouraging, comforting and challenging. But the priest will also proclaim God’s word by the example of his life and the way in which he conducts his ministry and lives his priesthood. Ordained to bring hope and healing, sadly and shamefully some have brought harm and hurt, resulting in brokenness, betrayal and disillusionment.
Central to the vocation of every priest is the celebration of the Eucharist where the broken bits and pieces of life take on new meaning, as the broken bread becomes the body of Christ. The Eucharist celebrated with dignity and lived generously, frees priests and people from preoccupation with ourselves, enabling us to be truly involved and immersed in God’s plan. It is here that we accept a call which challenges us to give ourselves to others and to be less preoccupied with success or failure.
As spiritual leader in the community the priest is responsible for making people aware of their special dignity as a people called by God. Here the priest working with his pastoral council and his people makes decisions which promote dialogue and mutual reliance. It goes without saying that if the priest is not a man who listens then he can hardly inspire dialogue among his parishioners. He must continually nurture and reinforce the gifts of others.
In many ways the Apparition here at Knock lends itself to reflection on priesthood. At the centre of the Apparition we have the altar, the lamb of sacrifice, and the cross which speak unmistakeably of the centrality of the Eucharist. As we reflect on the different people in the apparition we find that they too help to illuminate different aspects of priesthood. Mary is there; attentive to human anxieties and concerns, whether it was the wedding at Cana when the wine ran out or here at Knock it was on this evening 130 years ago when the life blood seemed to be drained from the people through famine and emigration. Mary was the one who carried the hope of the world in her womb and in her heart. In that way Mary proclaimed God’s word and is a pointer to the way in which the priest today must proclaim the gospel by being himself an example of Gospel values and Gospel joy.
In the figure of St. John we have the teacher, the one who proclaims and teaches God’s word. As priests we have responsibility for the word of God, for reflecting on it, allowing it to take root in our hearts, living according to it, and courageously proclaiming it in season and out of season. The agenda for the priest is dictated by God’s word not by the various winds of change which happen to blow at a particular time.
In the figure of Joseph we have one who takes responsibility for the pastoral situation, sensitive to, caring for and addressing not just the needs of the Holy Family but also the needs of God’s family today. As priests we are exposed in different ways to joy and sorrow. We are privileged to be with families and individuals in their celebration and suffering, in a wide range of human experiences and every kind of human circumstance. We are rewarded by many friendships; we witness the joys of seeing closely the greatness of God in human lives, in individuals and families as they grow and develop. Of course, at the other end of the scale we are no strangers to sorrow – the fatigue of body and mind, the monotony of times when the spark seems to go out and the day seems grey, damp and foggy. In many ways Joseph could be seen as the almost forgotten member of the Apparition; yet he is there in the background, providing a sense of completion to the scene. Today, the priest does not need to be in the foreground, perhaps his most important work is done in the background, encouraging, facilitating and praying, thereby enabling men and women to fulfil their responsibilities as followers of Jesus Christ.
Different aspects of priesthood will emerge depending on the culture in which the priest exercises his ministry.
Today, the priest is summoned to be a herald of hope in the menacing desert of scepticism. The person with hope in his or her heart actively participates in the world, does not succumb to defeatism but rather is impatient to bring about a better future. Hope enables and challenges us, relying on the promises of God to change the world. In his Encyclical “Spe Salvi” Pope Benedict reminds us that we grow in hope through the things we suffer. It is not by side-stepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for coping with it, maturing through it and finding meaning in it through our relationship with Jesus Christ. Surely, this is particularly relevant in the situation in which we find ourselves as a Church and in a special way as priests today.
Today the priest is entrusted with being a herald of hope for others. As priests we accept finite disappointment but we must never lose infinite hope. One of the results of secularisation is the eclipse of God. This produces a disenchanted society, unable to propose anything beyond material well-being and riches, leading to an impoverished way of interpreting the human and the ordinary. It is urgent therefore to recover the vocation of the priest to enable people to recognise the presence of God in their ordinary lives. It’s when the storms blow that we need the deepest roots. When we are entering unchartered territory, it is then we need a compass to give us a sense of direction. What gives us the strength to cope with change are the things that don’t change – a loving family, a supportive community and the religion of hope founded on Jesus Christ. Those who carry that hope with them face the future without fear.
While in recent years, understandably, priests have experienced disorientation and alienation, now, I feel, is the time for movement to another situation. Having experienced loss and darkness, we search for the healing and peace that comes from knowing how deeply God acts in our lives. Without that peace we find it difficult to be present to anything other than our anxious concerns. The challenge will be for Church members, together with religious and priests to find the heart to face the future without fear and with great trust, to surrender our spirit into God’s hands, and to pledge ourselves as bread and wine poured out for others. This transformation will only take place through prayer, reflection and the interaction of people, religious and priests who support and challenge each other. Through the grace, power and goodness of God we as priests are seeking and discovering signs of a new future, one that is vital to the faith and well-being of every Catholic.
Today, priesthood when faithfully and intimately related to Jesus Christ in prayer, when reaching out to God’s people in a compassionate, understanding and merciful manner and when generously lived, has the potential to be a great source of transformation, inspiration and hope for people and their priest. I conclude with the words of the Lord spoken to the prophet Jeremiah at a very testing time in their history: ” I know the plans I have for you say’s the Lord, plans for peace not disaster, reserving a future full of hope for you”