Dear friends, on this day twenty five years ago I was in the sacristy of St Bernard’s Church, in Halifax. Gathered with Bishop David Konstant, and clergy from the Diocese of Leeds and beyond, with a full church waiting, we were in the last minutes before the beginning my ordination to the priesthood. Bishop David called me over and said ‘Unfortunately, John, I’ve forgotten my zucchetto’ – a zucchetto is the little purple skullcap worn by a bishop. Jokingly, I replied, ‘Will the ordination still be valid?’ Bishop David smiled and turned to the assembled clergy and asked: ‘I don’t suppose anyone happens to have a spare zucchetto do they?’ Quick as a flash, a priest responded, ‘Oh, what colour?’
I never imagined I would be celebrating my silver jubilee of priestly ordination wearing a zucchetto. As the saying goes, ‘If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.’ Whatever plans I may have had – and I’m not really sure that I had any – I could never have foreseen how my priestly life would unfold. But here I am. The keenly sighted among you will recognise that this is the same chasuble in which I was ordained a priest. It still fits, unlike the cassock. Here I am, through ups and downs. Here I am. The Lord has been unfailingly kind and overwhelmingly generous.
A question has been on my mind these past few days: What does it mean to have been a priest for twenty-five years? As I look back over my life, my journey of faith, my preparation for priesthood, and my ministry as a priest, I am grateful; I am humbled; I am amazed. What does it mean to have been a priest for twenty-five years? It means everything. Certainly more than I could ever say here.
The risen Lord Jesus put a question repeatedly to the remorseful Simon Peter: ‘Do you love me’ He said. ‘Do you really love me? Do you?’ Peter’s answers escalate with frustrated intensity: ‘Yes, Lord, you know I love you;’ ‘Yes, Lord, you know it;’ ‘Yes, Lord, I love you.’ At the centre of the priesthood is an interrogation of love: ‘If you love me, then come, and follow where I call.’ The loving dialogue with Christ that begins in discipleship never ends; and from within it, the response to being called to the priesthood matures and, please God, bears fruit.
I think we often take the Lord’s question to Peter and rephrase it: ‘Jesus, Son of God, do you love me? Do you really love me? Do you?’ The answer is a resounding eternal ‘yes.’ But learning to accept God’s love, made real in Christ, takes time and we need help.
A priest’s privileged ministry is to communicate God’s love for each person, especially through the Sacraments, through preaching and teaching, through pastoral care and counsel. Our love for Christ is but a reply to His love for us. The most important task of a priest is to help people know the Lord loves them by bringing them into relationship, into communion, with Christ.
I have met many people who believe that God loves everyone. But, when it really comes down to it, they’re not really sure that God loves them. Acting in the person of Christ, a priest is an agent of God’s love. A love that calls and consoles. A love that challenges and changes. A love that commissions and sends out. In the most beautiful way, everything begins anew when we know we are loved by God in Christ. A priest is the aide-mémoire of God’s loving.
I am so very grateful for the people who have loved me, and who do love me still. There are people who have shown me God’s love without realising it. There are people who, by their own love, have helped me understand and accept God’s love. To my parents and my brother; to my family and friends; to past and present bishops, priests, and deacons, religious men and women; staff and students of the Venerable English College, Rome; parishioners in Halifax, Pontefract, Bradford, Huddersfield, and Wakefield; staff and students of Ushaw College, Durham; residents and staff at HMP Leeds; fellow clergy and laity in the Dioceses of Leeds, Westminster, and Southwark, and many more besides; to everyone who has been part of my journey to and in the priesthood, I am indebted to each one of you. Thank you seems inadequate, but it is extremely heartfelt.
I am deeply humbled to share Christ’s priesthood. Into my earthenware shell has been placed a glorious treasure that comes from God. I did once think aloud to a friend, who has never let me forget it – that I just wanted ‘to be a humble servant of the Lord; but the trouble is nobody recognisees it!’ In my experience, prayers for humility are often answered quickly by being humiliated, like when I ended one Easter Vigil by wishing everyone a happy Christmas.
Most humbling are the ways I have been invited to share people’s lives, not because of me, but because I am a priest. So many joyful celebrations of baptisms, weddings, First Holy Communions and Confirmations. What a pleasure to be included in times of such great happiness. What an honour too, to be present in times of challenge and sadness: anointing the sick and the dying; praying with people as they died; presiding at the funerals of babies, children, and loved ones. I have been trusted as a confessor and a spiritual director. When I have not known what to say, I marvel at the Lord’s presence and the words He has put onto my lips.
For the mistakes in my ministry and service, I ask forgiveness. Wherever there has been light, it has been the glory on Christ’s face, radiating the knowledge of God’s glory. I can claim nothing for myself, and everything for Him.
I am constantly amazed by the Lord’s goodness, by the outpouring of His grace and the working of His providence. As I continue to grow in the priesthood, I realise, more and more, that we are held in love, no matter what. To love Christ, to know Christ, and to serve Christ. This is the desire of a priest. This is his desire for those he shepherds.
The great Edith Piaf was once asked by a journalist, ‘Do you pray?’ ‘Yes,’ she replied, ‘because I believe in love.’ Above all, a priest believes in love, the love of Christ crucified and risen, the love that redeemed the world, the love that touches his own heart whenever he celebrates Holy Mass. To stand at the altar and repeat the words of Christ – ‘This is my body, this is my blood’ – is a gift beyond compare.
Whatever the future brings, I step forward in faith because I believe in love. I believe in love come down from heaven, love who is a person, love who is Jesus Christ, love who is God’s son, our Saviour.
‘Do you love me? Do you really love me? Do you?’
‘Lord, you know everything: you know that I love you.’