Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Priest's Representational Role

Mass of Thanksgiving – Ordination Class of 1985

Chapel of the Regional Seminary

of St. John Vianney and the Uganda Martyrs

6:30 p.m. Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Acts 12:24-13:5
II Cor. 4:7-15
John 12:44-50
            “One day while they were offering worship to the Lord and keeping a fast, the Holy Spirit said, ‘I want Barnabas and Saul set apart for the work to which I have called them.’ So it was that after fasting and prayer they laid their hands on them and sent them off.”
            It is almost legendary what is recounted about how Pope John Paul II fasted and prayed in preparation for ordinations at his hands. The rector of the North American College in my days was then Bishop and later Cardinal Archbishop of Washington, DC, James A. Hickey; he too fasted in preparation for ordinations. I haven’t as yet ordained anyone in my five+ years of Episcopate, but I probably would fast too out of the awareness that I am sending someone out in the name of the Holy Spirit. There may have been times in history when people set value on being ordained to an estate, a class or a caste, but mission, sending out in the name of the Holy Spirit is the thread that connects us over time going back to Christ Himself.
            We’re joining the Class of 1985 in saying “Thank you, Lord” for 25 years of being “sent out in the name of the Holy Spirit” as men called and consecrated to share in the priesthood and the mission which sets it and them apart.
Excuse me a stray thought at this point, but what is all this business about priests in recent years suffering from an identity crisis? How can you have doubts about who you are when in the process of solemnly creating you, the Church has fasted and prayed and laid hands on your head unto priesthood? Through the laying on of hands by a successor of the Apostles we confer a clearly delineated mission in the name of the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God, we know who we are and what we are about. It has ever been so and so it will be until the end of time.
Although it may be somewhat inappropriate to speak about each priestly ordination as a risk or an investment, there is a sense in which the Church from the days of the Acts of the Apostles has certainly treated ordination and especially unto priesthood as just that. Priesthood is not a point of arrival, a decoration for somebody’s lapel; it is a point of departure. Hence the prayer and fasting by which we turn over to the Lord our choice and the man upon whom we lay our hands! The Church continues after ordination day to accompany him with our prayers as well. Priesthood is a life-long adventure and although we are never “home free” this side of the grave, there is certainly a sense in which after 25 years we can rejoice in the yield of the harvest, so to speak. We thank the Lord for these men and all the good which has come to the Church in the region at their hands. In well-founded hope, we pray that the next 25 years will be even more fruitful to the greater honor and glory of God. Life for a priest only gets better as you enter deeper into the mystery of fulfilling God’s Will and of cooperating with the grace bestowed.
            Pope Benedict XVI sums up very nicely in his address at the Wednesday Audience of April 14th what we are about as priests. He formulates it under the heading of a series of talks he has started on the tria munera, teaching, governing and sanctifying, to be delivered as the Year of the Priest draws to a close:
“Hence, the priest, who acts "in persona Christi Capitis" and in representation of the Lord, never acts in the name of someone who is absent, but in the very Person of the Risen Christ, who makes himself present with his truly effective action. He really acts and does what the priest could not do: the consecration of the wine and the bread so that they will really be the presence of the Lord, [and] the absolution of sins. The Lord makes present his own action in the person who carries out such gestures. These three tasks of the priest -- which Tradition has identified in the different mission words of the Lord: teach, sanctify, govern -- in their distinction and in their profound unity, are a specification of this effective representation. They are in reality the three actions of the Risen Christ, the same one who today teaches in the Church and in the world and thus creates faith, gathers his people, creates the presence of truth and really builds the communion of the universal Church; and sanctifies and guides.” {ZENIT translation}
            These days I’m reading a novel by John Henry Cardinal Newman, whom the Holy Father will beatify in September during his visit to Great Britain. The Newman novel I am reading is entitled: “Callista, A Tale of The Third Century”. The author does a fabulous job of describing the character of a young Christian, Agellius, baptized at age 6, orphaned and entrusted to the care of pagan relatives. Now a young adult contemplating his future, in the midst of a Church which has literally rotted away around him, Agellius by the grace of God comes to terms with the principal temptations of his young life and makes an adult choice in favor of the faith of his baptism. Skeptics might ask how Cardinal Newman dare speak about the life and psychology of a young man back in the third century. That is not the point, now is it? The Cardinal has written something universal about youth in uncertain times: third century North Africa, his own day and time in England or today here in our region; you choose! The point is that by the grace of God youth endangered (most certainly), but youth noble in its aspirations and search for God, triumphs. Ideals, timeless values, truth triumph in and through the Risen Christ. Has it gotten any harder today than it was 25 years and more ago for you to respond to God’s call? Is there any reason to despair of God’s will to raise up priests today as well after the heart of His only Son? I think not.
            We have a special Second Reading, not assigned for today but chosen for the occasion: “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us… For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.”  As priests especially we are “Christophers”, “Christ-bearers” not for our own sake but for your joy, in order that you might better give thanks to God.
            The Holy Father explains how this works in his same audience talk, with reference to our Gospel for today:
“This fact -- that the priest does not invent, does not create and does not proclaim one's own ideas inasmuch as the doctrine he proclaims is not his, but Christ's -- does not mean, on the other hand, that he is neutral, almost like a spokesman who reads a text which, perhaps, he does not appropriate. Also in this regard Christ's example is applicable, who said: I am not of myself and I do not live for myself, but I come from the Father and I live for the Father. That is why, in this profound identification, the doctrine of Christ is that of the Father and he himself is one with the Father. The priest who proclaims the word of Christ, the faith of the Church and not his own ideas, must also say: I do not live from myself and for myself, but I live with Christ and from Christ and because of this all that Christ has said to us becomes my word, even if it is not mine. The life of the priest must be identified with Christ and, in this way, the word that is not his own becomes, however, a profoundly personal word. On this topic, St. Augustine said, speaking of priests: "And we, what are we? Ministers (of Christ), his servants, because all that we contribute to you is not ours, but we bring it out from his storeroom. And we also live from it, because we are servants like you".”
There is a moment in the blessing found in the rite of infant baptism where the priest speaks to and about the parents and the mother in particular as giving thanks for the gift of her child. Our jubilarians give thanks for the gift of their priesthood of 25 years. They talk in the world about “self-made men” (Rockefellers and the like), but there are no self-made priests. Thankfulness is not and cannot be for us a pharisaical pat on the back; thankfulness from the bottom of our hearts is pointed to the other, to the Church who called us and set us apart, to Christ Who lives and works in us. I can remember that one of the hallmarks of my own father’s faith when he was alive was a healthy pride in his family, yes, but more than that a profound gratitude to God for the gift of his wife and children, a gift he was convinced he had not merited. To the extent that I as a priest am not entirely my own man, I too give thanks just like a believing husband or father in his quiet and pensive moments gives thanks for his wife and children, who complete him and are really the only worthy source to claim for his joy in life. Fair or not, I think we priests, completed as we are by Him in Whom we live and move and have our being, have even more reason to give thanks. Our gratitude, profound gratitude for the representational role bestowed upon us in union with Christ, is certainly mysterious but not esoteric. Believing folks have appreciation for what this means and how important priesthood is both for the Church and for the life of the world. If parents of small children don’t dream about a son of theirs becoming a priest they don’t have the faith; they have somehow missed out on where joy lies this side of heaven.
A homily is not meant to be the last word on anything. Let us be today like the beloved disciple was for Peter in the boat on the lake. Let us point and say “It is the Lord” and be happy. Thanks be to God for 25 years of priesthood, for 25 years of standing in the place of the Risen Christ, the only true Mediator between God and men! May the Lord grant you many more years in His service! May we fulfill our sacred trust and open our arms to receive a new generation of men called to teach, govern and sanctify in the Name of the Lord!

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