Ordination to the Priesthood of Rev John Howard – 18 July 2020, St George’s Cathedral, Southwark

Jer 1:4-9; Heb 5: 1-10; Jn 15:9-17

Dear John, my son and my brother

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ

Dear friends

Through the solemn simplicity of this Sacred Rite of Ordination John is to receive the gift of the priesthood. He will be moulded into the likeness of Christ, the supreme and eternal Priest.[1] This is a truly awesome undertaking. It comes after many years of soul-searching, of playing hide and seek with the Lord, of testing and discerning His will. Most importantly, we are here today, because you, John, have heard definitively the voice of Christ say to you ‘Come’ – ‘Come and follow me as my priest.’

With the loving support of your family and friends, with the maternal nurturing of the Church, and after serious formation and preparation, we reach together this pivotal point both of arrival and of departure. Knowingly or not, everything in your life so far has been oriented towards this deeply personal sacramental encounter with the Lord Jesus. He calls you to be His priest. He calls you to have a shepherd’s heart. You could only accept Christ’s call to the priesthood because you first accepted the invitation to be His friend. Your person to person, heart to heart, friendship with Christ is the underpinning for your priestly ministry. You could not be a priest had you not first been a disciple. You cannot serve as a priest if you do not continue to follow as a disciple.

Twenty five years ago, on a warm day in Halifax – which is in Yorkshire, in case you didn’t know – I was ordained a priest by Bishop David Konstant. He said often that he thought some of the most important words spoken by the Lord Jesus are those contained in the Gospel you chose and we just heard: ‘I call you friends.’ It’s astonishing, but true, that your Redeemer is also your friend. So, dear John, if there is any anxiety whatsoever in your heart, let it go. The Saviour of the world says ‘I call you my friend.’ Christ the High Priest, the source of eternal salvation, calls you His friend and wants you to be His priest.

Let me remind you of words you will have heard many, many times, but which none of us can hear enough. Let me say words you will repeat to others throughout your priestly life. John, the Lord loves you. You must never doubt this. His faithfulness to you is certain. You did not choose Him. Before you ever thought of being a priest, He chose you from your mothers’ womb. Now He draws you close, but so that He can send you out in His name. You are to bear fruit by speaking and acting in His person. In a radical way, you are to be another Christ, embodying His gentleness, His mercy, and His compassion. Let the words to the Prophet Jeremiah take root in your being: ‘Go to those to whom I send you, and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid, for I am with you to protect you.’

In a few moments you will lay down your life for your friend. Literally, you will prostrate yourself in humble self-abandonment. It is only love that makes you fall flat on your face in this way. Only love. Totally surrendered to the Lord, completely vulnerable to God’s grace, remember the prayer of Blessed Charles de Foucauld:

Father, I abandon myself into your hands;
do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all.

As a priest you abandon yourself by obedient service to Christ, to His Church, and to His people. This means a life of daily prayer and the celebration of the Eucharist. It means inhabiting the Scriptures so that your ministry of preaching, catechesis, and counsel, are alive and active with the Word of God. It means putting yourself out, making sacrifices, giving of yourself ungrudgingly. Every priest will tell you that there will be times in your ministry when you want to give up on a particular situation or walk away from a particular person. But choosing instead a greater love, by priestly self-forgetfulness, by fidelity to the commandments, such times will bring you blessings as yet undreamed of.

Today we pray for you to receive the ‘blessing of the Holy Spirit and the grace and power of the priesthood.’ Priestly ordination will change you forever. It bestows an ‘indelible spiritual character’ on your soul.[2] Christ has captured you with the love He has from the Father. Now, with an undivided heart, you must capture others for Christ and build up His Body.

Have no doubt that Christ will work through you. When you baptise, it is Christ who brings new life. When you take bread and wine, it is Christ who gives His Body and His blood. When you absolve, it is Christ who forgives. When you anoint the sick, it is Christ who heals. Through your priesthood the presence of Christ is made visible in the community of believers. You are to foster their unity and strengthen their holiness. Always be a pastor for the whole flock entrusted to you, for the hundred, not just the ninety-nine. Have a special care for the broken and the dispossessed, for the weakest and the poorest.

John, you are to be a priestly evangelist. Do not be cowered by any feeling of apprehension or inadequacy. Draw your strength from Christ. In the words of Fr Leo Trese, when the challenges come lift your chin from your chest and look at the Tabernacle, look to Christ. Make one simple plea to the Lord: ‘Tell me again how much you love me.’ And then listen.[3] Whatever struggles you experience, whatever apathy or resistance you may meet, remember that Christ the High Priest submitted so humbly that His prayer was heard.  

With your family and friends, with the clergy, religious, and lay faithful of the Church of Southwark, we are overjoyed that you are ordained a priest – overjoyed. These are very different circumstances from those we would have wanted. What matters above all is that by the laying on of hands and prayer, you are consecrated to share the priesthood of Jesus Christ in the service of His Church and holy people.

Christ called you to be a priest to make your joy complete. As you remain and abide in His love, may your priesthood give joyful witness to love lavishly received and love abundantly shared. May God bless you now and throughout your priestly life. Amen

[1] Cf Roman Pontifical

[2] Cf. CCC 1582

[3] Leo Trese, Sanctified by Truth, 36.