Ordination to the Sacred Priesthood of Rev Peter Sebastian – 25 July 2020, St George’s Cathedral, Southwark

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

Dear Peter, my son and my brother

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ

Dear friends

Each person’s journey to the priesthood is unique. Your call to Holy Orders, Peter, first came when you were married to your beloved wife Mary. You heard the Lord’s call to the diaconate and have served faithfully as a minster of the word, of the altar, and of charity. In a special way we remember Mary today, and pray for her eternal rest.

All the gifts God has given you in your life so far are now caught up and carried forward as you follow the Lord Jesus in a new way. Your marriage and family, your friendships and your diaconal ministry, all these together shape the priest you are about to become. With deep gratitude we will ask Almighty God to pour upon you the ‘blessing of the Holy Spirit and the grace and power of the priesthood.’[1] This is something so beautiful: in your life, in the lives of those you love, and in the life of the Church.

Today is the first anniversary of my installation as your Archbishop. I hope, Peter, that you’re not feeling quite as nervous as I was this day last year. Be completely at peace. The Lord is in control, even if, sometimes, providence seems to masquerade as chance or coincidence. The Lord is in control. As the saying goes, the Church only has one Saviour. Thankfully, it’s not you and it’s not me. St Gregory Nazianzus speaks of what it means to be a priest. You are to ‘become light to illumine.’ You are to ‘draw close to God to bring Him close to others.’ You are to be ‘sanctified to sanctify.’ You are to ‘lead by the hand and counsel prudently.’[2] In all this, and more, we rely completely on the help of the Lord God and our Saviour Jesus Christ.

The first reading reminds us that Jeremiah was a reluctant Prophet. No matter how intelligent or experienced we are, we can all, sometimes, be a little hesitant and unsure. This is not always a bad thing. It will temper our pride and cultivate our humility. But the Lord’s words spoken to Jeremiah are meant for you Peter. Take them to heart today and every day of your priestly life: ‘Do not be afraid… for I am with you to protect you.’ Of course, you’re not perfect. You certainly won’t get everything right. None of us do. But do not be afraid. The Lord loves you with a perfect love.

It is a great joy, especially on this anniversary, to ordain you a priest for service in the Church of Southwark. The ancient rite of ordination, by the laying on of hands and the prayer of consecration, comes down to us, across the centuries, directly from the Apostles. Through an unbroken succession, the priesthood continues the presence and ministry of Christ in His Church.

You will act not only in Christ’s name, but in His very person. When you celebrate the Eucharist, you will speak as Christ: ‘This is my body;’ ‘This is my blood.’ When you reconcile penitents, you will speak as Christ: ‘I absolve you from your sins.’ Your life must speak of Christ; not only in the public realm, on view to so many; but also in hidden ways, known perhaps only to one other person. You are to shepherd the hundred, not just the ninety-nine. As you lovingly serve and nurture the majority, keep your eyes and heart attentive to anyone on the fringes of life or faith. A few may demand the most. A few may test your priestly patience. But those few will help you to get to heaven.

Teaching about the Sacraments, St John Chrysostom writes: ‘The Lord said clearly that concern for His flock was proof of love of him.[3] From your personal friendship with Christ, you Peter are being sent out to bear fruit. As diocesan priests we are to bear the fruit of self-sacrificing care for our people, both spiritually and humanly. Bear this fruit joyfully and generously. It is by loving those we are sent to serve that we will prove our love for Christ.

Every priest remains a disciple. He is to seek lifelong growth in holiness and in virtue. This is sourced in the rhythm of his daily prayer, and rooted in the celebration of the Mass. The priesthood is, of course, a most precious gift. But it flourishes when it is given away, when it is poured out, in service of Christ, of His Church, and of His people. Christ did not take for Himself the glory of becoming High Priest. It was given Him by the Father. We share Christ’s priesthood by grace, by the free and undeserved gift of God. We cannot earn it or, even less, demand it. The priesthood is given to us, on trust, as a gift. It must be received and shared as a gift. A priest who is self-serving is self-defeating. ‘A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.’ Priests lay themselves down, like bridges over troubles waters, like cloaks across which the King of Glory passes. Priests are conduits to Christ and the loving mercy of His Sacred Heart.

For a time I worked in a parish in the centre of Bradford – which is in Yorkshire, in case you didn’t know. I found it tough for all kinds of reasons. The parishioners and local community were delightful. Less so the vandalism in the church and the break-ins to the presbytery. But I will always be grateful I was sent there. It taught me about myself and about the priesthood. The two things that made sense of everything were the desire to love the Lord Jesus and the desire to serve Him in His needy brothers and sisters. These two foundations apply anywhere we are asked to minster. Poverty, searching, and suffering, are real for everyone, in different ways and at different times. We desire to love the Lord Jesus by serving Him in others, especially, and compassionately, those most in need.

Above all, dear Peter, be encouraged. There are people you do not know, and have not yet met, who need your priesthood to show them Christ’s love. Be encouraged. You are appointed a priestly evangelist, to teach and preach the Gospel of Salvation, by word and by witness. When you do not know how to speak, the Lord says ‘There! I am putting my words into your mouth.’ The Lord will put His love into your heart, His kindness into your being, and His presence into your silence. Be encouraged. You are a priest of Jesus Christ forever.

In a few moments, you will be ordained and then anointed that ‘Jesus may preserve you to sanctify the Christian people and to offer sacrifice to God.’ May your celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass serve the sanctification of everyone entrusted to you by the Lord. May the Lord’s sacrificial love so pervade your ministry that God’s people will pursue their own vocation to holiness because of what they see and receive through you. In all this, Peter, may the Lord put His joy in you and make your joy complete. Amen.

[1] Roman Pontifical

[2] Cf. CCC 1589

[3] Cf. CCC 1551