Jer 1:4-9; Heb 5:1-10; Jn 15:9-17
Dear Giovanni, caro mio, figlio e fratello
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ
In a few moments Giovanni will be asked some very serious questions about his commitment to the life and ministry of a priest. But before we ask them, and hear his answers, let’s ponder another, more fundamental question: Who is at the centre of this Solemn Rite of Ordination?
Relax, Giovanni, it’s not you. Take a deep breath. Thankfully, it’s not me either; nor anybody else present in the Cathedral. Most definitely, this beautiful liturgical action requires our participation; and it’s truly wonderful to see each one of you here. But nothing – nothing of what is about to take place – actually depends on any of us. In truth, we are totally reliant on God our Father’s loving kindness. In truth, we are completely dependent on the high priesthood of our redeemer Jesus Christ. In truth, we are utterly subject to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
‘Do not be afraid,’ the Lord said to the Prophet Jeremiah, ‘for I am with you to protect you.’ Yes, we really do rely on the Lord God and our Saviour Jesus Christ. With certain faith we gladly choose this man, Giovanni, our brother for ordination as a priest. In somewhat reduced circumstances, we, together, image the Church in her fullness, gathered in expectant prayer.
Giovanni, by the laying on of hands, and the prayer of consecration, your soul is changed. For all eternity you will be signed, marked, with a special character.[i] You are to be configured to Christ the high priest, shaped to act in the person of Christ, the head of the Church.[ii] Believe with all your heart that without Christ your priesthood is nothing. Believe with all your heart that, through Him, and with Him, and in Him, your priesthood is everything, in fact more than everything you could ever hope for.
As a priest, in a new way, you will belong intimately to Christ. As a priest, in a new way, you will belong radically to His Church. As a priest, in new way, you will belong sacrificially to His people. You are no longer to live for yourself, but for Christ, obedient to His will in the Church. When you lay down your life for others, when you give of yourself generously, your joy will be complete. Not just once, but over and over and over again.
Giovanni, the pathway of your priesthood, of your holiness, and of your service, can only be fulfilled through sincere union with the Lord Jesus rooted in daily personal prayer and the celebration of Holy Mass. Nurture your inner life and the Lord your God, who foresaw this blessed day when He formed you in the womb, will put His words into your mouth. Have an ever deepening trust that Christ will work through you, even despite you, in ways you cannot yet imagine. You will speak words in homilies you never planned to say and offer consolation in the confessional that seemed to come from nowhere. The Lord will put words into your heart, onto your lips, for His purpose, in service of His kingdom, for the salvation of His people.
Christ loves you more than you realise. Whatever your human frailties, whatever your concerns and anxieties, know for sure that He has brought you to this moment. Christ has chosen you to be His priest because He knows it’s the best way He can love you. Christ has chosen you to be His priest because He knows it’s the best way you can love others. Priesthood is the particular way, the special gift, the definite service, through which Christ is calling you to live in loving friendship with Him, lifelong here and forever in heaven.
St Thomas Aquinas reminds us that Christ is the source of all priesthood: both the priesthood we share by Holy Baptism, and the ministerial priesthood conferred through Sacred Ordination. The priests of the old law, like the great Aaron and Melchizedek, were, says St Thomas, figures of Christ, they pointed towards Christ. The priests of the new law, says St Thomas, act in the person of Christ.[iii] Giovanni, through your priesthood you act in the person of Christ – you act in the person of Christ. This is completely mind-blowing. And it is completely true. Take courage. Do not be daunted. Christ has commissioned you to step forward into the deep. Put all your gifts and talents humbly at His service. Entrust all your weaknesses and inadequacies faithfully to His mercy. By remaining in His love, by abiding in His love, by loving others as He loves you, you will act authentically in His person.
My first appointment after ordination was to St Joseph’s in Pontefract. That’s in Yorkshire in case you didn’t know. The day I arrived, the Parish Priest took me on a tour around the parish in his car. He pointed out the primary and secondary schools, the hospital and the hospice, each where I would serve as chaplain. We drove past the nursing homes and housing estates I would visit. He told me that I would know when the sweet factory across the road from the presbytery was making humbugs because I would be able to smell mint in the air – and he was right. But most importantly, he said this: ‘I try to be an extension of the love of Christ in the service of His people.’
Giovanni, this is our shared mission in the presbyterate of the Church of Southwark: to be extensions of the love of Christ in the service of His people. Do everything you can to stay close to Christ, to draw others to Christ, to be Christ’s loving presence. When you celebrate the Sacraments, remember you are an extension of His love. When you preach and teach, remember you are an extension of His love. When you are misunderstood and treated with indifference, remember you are an extension of His love.
The most amazing adventure of God’s providence and grace is about to unfold in your life as a priest. Bear fruit. Bear fruit in love. Bear fruit that will last in the hearts of those the Lord sends you to shepherd. Amen
[i] Cf. CCC 1563 (PO 2)
[ii] Cf. CCC 1563 (PO 2)
[iii] CCC 1548; St Thomas Aquinas, STh III, 22, 4c.