Dear Mark, my son and my brother,
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ
‘The love of Christ overwhelms us.’ These are magnificent words to hear at this particular moment. ‘The love of Christ overwhelms us.’
Beloved Mark, I hope this powerful sentiment of St Paul is ringing true throughout your being. As you sit on the threshold of the priesthood, let Christ’s love overwhelm you. Let it fill you inwardly and wrap itself around you.
What was once spoken by God to the Prophet Isaiah applies to you. In his abundant loving, before ever you first came to life, God knew you and chose you. As the saying goes, when God created the world, he thought of you; and when God created you, he thought of us. God foresaw today and the gift you are about to become for the Church through sacred priestly ordination.
Keen etymologists may know the English word ‘overwhelm’ has the root meaning of ‘being turned upside down.’ This is exactly what Christ’s love does to us, but always for our good. As our heart is captured by the Lord Jesus, what seems like being turned upside down is really being turned the right way round. By our cooperation with God’s grace, his loving-kindness repositions our existence. The reconciliation Christ won by his cross brings healing to our wounds. We really do become a new creation. And even though progress may be gradual – sometimes almost imperceptible, other times more dramatically so – God in Christ is at work within us. As we become reconciled to ourselves, we dare to abandon ourselves into the Father’s hands, praying with St Charles de Foucauld:
‘…do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me,
and in all your creatures –
I wish no more than this, O Lord.’
The love of Christ really does overwhelm us. Allowing this to happen is the most essential and fundamental prerequisite for the priesthood. We receive courage and confidence to go where the Lord sends us, to speak and do what he commands. It can only ever be the Lord who leads, putting Good News into our mouths and tenderness into our hearts.
The great and holy patron of priests, St John Vianney, wrote beautifully that ‘The priesthood is the love of the Heart of Jesus.’ This can mean the priesthood itself, and each priest, is loved by the Heart of Jesus. It can also mean that the priesthood consists in loving the Heart of Jesus. Of course, both are true. Importantly, it is the reciprocal loving, between our heart and Jesus’ Heart, which must possess a priest completely. Remember the words of Caryll Houselander: ‘Christ asks for a home in your soul, where he can be at rest with you, where he can talk easily to you, where you and he, alone together, can laugh and be silent and be delighted with one another.’
Every journey to the priesthood is as unique as the man called by God. Each priest can testify to the twists and turns of his own particular pathway. As God’s will is discerned, we listen with the ear of our heart. As the Lord’s invitation unfolds we are seduced by a divine love that will not let us go. As sons in the son we become priests of the Lord and spiritual fathers to our people.
Today, Mark, you can have the certainty of knowing you are where God has called you to be. This is the appointed hour. You are ready to receive the dignity of the priesthood. Through prayer and the laying on of hands, your soul is to be signed with a priestly character. You will be configured to Christ to act in his person. Never become dulled or indifferent to this sacramental outpouring. Let joy fill your priesthood as the echo and pulse of Christ’s life within you.
For the rest of your life you will live your priestly obedience with an undivided heart, set firmly on the love of Christ and his people. You will celebrate the Eucharist claiming Christ’s very words as your own. Not ‘this is his body, this is his blood,’ ‘but ‘this my body, this is my blood.’ You are identified and united personally with Christ in the Sacrifice of the Mass. Celebrate worthily and daily the mystery of the Lord’s dying and rising. Bring to the Eucharist your yearning for holiness and offer up the needs and cares of your people. As you confect Christ’s body and blood, embody his presence to those you serve, especially people in most need. Your patient generosity to others will help you navigate heaven.
Through priestly ordination the authority to forgive sins is entrusted to you, to be exercised with the utmost compassion. Be a martyr to the confessional. Recourse to sacramental reconciliation needs urgent revival in the Church today, best done through encouragement. Receive sinners as a Good Shepherd. Help them open wide to forgiveness any doors in their hearts which have been closed by sin. Through you the risen Lord Jesus stands in the midst of each sacramental encounter. He speaks pardon and peace through your lips. The best way to succeed as a confessor is to persevere as a regular penitent.
In anointing the sick, the aged, and the dying, you will trace with holy oil the saving cross of Christ upon their frail bodies. Your priestly ministry to people who are suffering in mind or body or spirit, and to those nearing their final moments of life, makes Jesus the healer present through you. As an ambassador for Christ, it is your great privilege to accompany your brothers and sisters through infirmity and mortality in the hope of new and eternal life.
Dear Mark, all that has been part of your discipleship and diaconate until now – your prayer, your growth in Christian living, your preaching and catechesis, the baptisms, weddings and funerals, your pastoral care and missionary evangelisation – all that has gone before is to be caught up into your priesthood as you live no longer for yourself, but for him who died and has been raised to life.
It is a wonderful blessing to be ordained a priest today on the Feast of St Thérèse of Lisieux. There is something reassuring when she writes: ‘To reach perfection, I do not need to grow up. On the contrary, I need to stay little, to become more and more little.’ The little way of trustful humility is the way of perfection. It is also the way of the priesthood. Ask St Thérèse to help you ‘stay little,’ not to be discouraged by faults, but to offer your love and sacrifice to God for his pleasure. This is the paradoxical way to greatness in the kingdom.
It was the love of Christ that overwhelmed St Thérèse. ‘I have found my vocation’ she wrote, ‘in the heart of my mother the Church I will be love.’ Your priestly vocation is to be love, the love of Christ in the Church and in the world, towards everyone the Lord apportions to you without exception.
‘The love of Christ overwhelms us.’ May it always overwhelm you, beloved Mark, and your priesthood. St Thérèse prayed: ‘O Jesus, eternal priest, keep your priests within the shelter of Your Sacred Heart.’ Invoking our Blessed Lady’s maternal intercession, this is our prayer for you, from today forwards and towards eternity.