Maundy Thursday Letter to Priests 2021

‘I want you to be happy, always happy in the Lord. ’ (Phil 4:4)

Dear Brothers in Christ

I want to write to you about happiness. You may think this a strange subject given the experience of the past year and the ongoing pandemic. No one can underestimate the tragedies and challenges the past twelve months have brought and continue to bring. On this day, however, when we celebrate the institution of the Holy Eucharist and the gift of the Priesthood I want, simply, to remind each of you of the happiness we have as priests of Jesus Christ.

Coming from Middle English, our word ‘happy’ carries a sense of being ‘lucky’ or ‘fortunate.’ We use it to communicate feelings or demonstrations of pleasure or contentment. The biblical sense, however, is much more profound. The Beatitudes are not just about luck or fortune, pleasure or contentment. The Greek makarios, while sometimes translated as happy, conveys that far deeper sense of divine blessedness, of being, and knowing oneself to be, a child of God, beloved of the Father. 

In the Christian tradition, the search for happiness is understood as the search for God. This is summed up beautifully by St Augustine and quoted in the Catechism: ‘We all want to live happily; in the whole human race there is no one who does not assent to this proposition, even before it is fully articulated…How is it, then, that I seek you, Lord? Since in seeking you, my God, I seek a happy life, let me seek you so that my soul may live, for my body draws life from my soul and my soul draws life from you…God alone satisfies.’ (CCC 1718)

Psychological surveys, self-help books, and motivational speakers, all have a take on what happiness is and where it can be found. In ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’ (2006), psychologist Jonathan Haidt advocates blending ancient wisdom, from religious and philosophical sources, together with a sense of virtue and purpose, to secure a happy life. Some offer more or less quick fix liberation from unfulfilling behaviour, jobs, or relationships. Empowering messages about ‘breaking free’ and ‘focusing on self’ encourage us to jettison whatever ‘baggage’ impedes the supposed inalienable right to happiness. Invariably, happiness is reduced to subjective well-being, to likes and wants, rather than anything more substantial. Evidence suggests that altruism is a powerful route to happiness. Generous activities, such as volunteering, bring a sense fulfilment beyond that generated by material wealth and success.

Happiness is not alien from considerations of the priesthood. Mgr Stephen Rossetti, in his book ‘Why Priests are Happy: A Study of the Psychological and Spiritual Health of Priests’ (2011), concludes: ‘Priests, as a group, are very happy with their lives and vocations. They are among the happiest of any people in the country.’ This is reassuring, although we might not agree one hundred percent all of the time.

What is the secret of priestly happiness? Rossetti notes that, despite excessive workloads, priests report comparatively low burnout rates. They are sustained by strong spiritual lives. On the whole, they do not find celibacy burdensome or a cause of loneliness. They experience fulfilment from their faith and their self-giving in ministry. He adds that happy priests find their ‘relationship with God is very much alive and a strong source of their inner peace and happiness.’ Furthermore, happy priests ‘reported having a strong nourishing relationship to God, feeling personally loved by God, feeling a sense of inner peace and even joy, and being grateful for these blessings.’

Here we begin to tap into a deeper vein of happiness, the spiritual reality of blessedness, of being, and knowing oneself to be, a child of God. How vital it is that every priest lives his priesthood from the knowledge and strength of being the beloved of the Lord. This is the true source of our Christian and priestly identity. Our happiness, our inner contentment, comes from a deeper, more profound appreciation of blessedness, of knowing we are individually and uniquely loved by God. This is the wellspring of our joy. Here is the source of our peace and our gratitude.

Speaking about the ‘secret’ of Jesus’ joy, St Paul VI offered words that speak too of the secret joy of the priesthood: ‘But it is necessary here below to understand properly the secret of the unfathomable joy which dwells in Jesus and which is special to Him. It is especially the Gospel of St John that lifts this veil…if Jesus radiates such peace, such assurance, such happiness, such availability, it is by reason of the inexpressible love by which He knows He is loved by His Father. (Gaudete in Domino, 1975)

Knowing we are loved by God is the foundation for priestly happiness. This is never an instant or magic solution to every trial and challenge. It cannot guarantee to eliminate tough days, exclude awful situations, or eradicate temptation. But to know, with unshakable faith, at the centre of our being, that we are loved by God in Christ establishes a state of blessedness that nothing can overcome.

St John Paul II tapped into this when he spoke to young people in Rome for the 2000 World Youth Day: ‘It is Jesus in fact that you seek when you dream of happiness; he is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; he is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is he who provokes you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is he who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is he who reads in your hearts your most genuine choices, the choices that others try to stifle. It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be grounded down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society, making the world more human and more fraternal.’ (World Youth Day Address, 19 August 2000, Tor Vergata)

Young or old, his words speak to us as priests. The basis for our priestly discipleship is that life with the Lord Jesus makes us happy. It is a blessed life, a beautiful life, a meaningful life, a life of love and joy. This is the foundation on which the priesthood is to be lived. We are happy priests, blessed priests, because we are happy and blessed disciples.

The happiness we live in the Lord Jesus is not, however, some superficial cheeriness, nor the perking up of our sometimes fading or gloomy temperament. The happiness that the Lord Jesus offers is embedded in the promise of eternal life. It is the blessedness of the kingdom of which the Beatitudes speak. Our friendship with the Lord Jesus enables us to enter into the reality of this blessed happiness here and now. It means we are never alone. It means He is always with us. Loving mercy forges the bond of our relationship with and in Him. All of this is true, whether the bright sun is shining or the dark thunder clouds gather. It is true when priestly discipleship is a challenge and when the limitations of our weakness tempt us to believe our ministry is in vain. No matter what we face, the Lord Jesus longs for us to be happy, to experience beatitude. This is why He came. This is why He rose from the dead. This is why He is with us now, in His Church, through His Spirit. This is why He called you to be His priest. He knows this is the way for you to be truly happy.

One of the great truths we experience in our priestly life and ministry is that God rewards us for our gift of self in ways we cannot imagine. We encounter people who look to us as the people of Galilee looked to the Lord Jesus. We minister the sacraments in times of effusive joy and deep tragedy. People share with us the most intimate aspects of their lives. We are witnesses to God’s healing, forgiveness, providence and mystery. People invite us to laugh with them and cry with them. Sometimes they need us to speak words of faith, to make sense of what is happening in their lives. At other times they need us to be silently present when words cease to have meaning. We rejoice with them and their new-borns. We watch and pray with them as their aged and sick loved ones pass away. We speak God’s word and call them to holiness. We may get things wrong, but God’s people are very forgiving of kind priests.

There will be single events and encounters that make the whole of our seminary formation worthwhile. On occasion, we will meet someone, not even seeing their face, hear their confession and help them to change their life forever, for the better, through divine absolution. If we died then, our priesthood would be have been complete. In short, we are the happiest men alive because the Lord Jesus uses us. He works through us to bring about His salvific will. Happy are you; blessed are you. We embody the priesthood of Jesus Christ. Our happiness, our blessedness, flows from knowing we are loved by the Father in Christ. Our priesthood is a sacramental fountain of His grace and mercy so those we serve might also be happy in the Lord and truly blessed by Him.

It is the Mother of the Lord Jesus, Our Blessed Lady, who is addressed by her cousin Elizabeth as ‘Blessed among all women,’ and the unborn child, Jesus, who is ‘Blessed’ as the ‘fruit’ of her womb. Such blessedness, such divine happiness, is intrinsic to the Good News of salvation in Christ. Our Blessed Mother points the way for each priest’s happiness: to live in imitation of her love for the Lord Jesus. Mary is the ‘cause of our joy’ because her cooperation enabled the coming of God among us in the flesh.

My brothers, your priesthood too is a cause of joy. Through it, the Lord Jesus comes among us through your ministry of word and sacrament, especially in the great gift of the Eucharist. Look to Mary to reinforce your happiness. Consecrate your priesthood to her Immaculate Heart and maternal protection. Let her lead you closer to the Lord Jesus, the source of your blessedness. Let her teach you how to grow as a child of the Father, always happy with her as a priest of her son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Thank you for your priestly life and ministry: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I say rejoice.’ (Phil 4:4) Be sure of the Lord’s love for you, and of mine in Him.

With every blessing for the Sacred Triduum and Easter

Your devoted brother in Christ

+ John

The Most Reverend John Wilson

Archbishop of Southwark