Given at the ordination of Rev Bill Bowder, Rev David Burke, Rev Cyril Chiaha, Rev Daniel Humphreys and Rev David Lucuy to the priesthood on the feast of St John Southworth, 27 June 2015, at Westminster Cathedral.
Today is rich in gifts: given and received.
The first gift in view is that of five new priests, five willing today to give their lives to the Lord in this new and radical way, Bill Bowder, David Burke, Cyril Chiaha, Daniel Humphreys and David Lucuy. Today they offer their hands for His work, their tongues for His words, their hearts for His love and mercy. I thank all who have helped to bring them to this moment: their parents, families and, in the case of Bill, who comes with many years of ministry in the Church of England, his wife for many years, Caroline. I thank the staff of Allen Hall and the Beda College, who are well represented here. God touches our lives in wondrous and surprising ways.
This generosity is surpassed by the generosity of our Heavenly Father in giving to them, to us, the gift of the priesthood. Through this gift we are kept bound to Christ, in bonds of love which alone can bring us to the fulfilment of life, our salvation, for which we have been created.
Less in view, but much in my mind, are two other great gifts of God. This year is the 150th anniversary of both the death of Cardinal Wiseman and the Episcopal ordination of Cardinal Manning. Their mortal remains lie immediately below this sanctuary. We thank God for all that they gave. Between them they led this Diocese, building it up from its establishment, for 42 years.
Directly in view we have St John Southworth, our patron, our shining example of what it is to be a missionary priest. We look to him for inspiration and, of course, for his prayers for our new priests today.
This, then, is a day rich in gifts.
We have just heard words from the Gospel of St John telling us what, as disciples of the Lord, we are to expect. We should never be surprised by opposition, criticism, hostility.
The context in which St John composed his Gospel made this truth so clear. In that day, anyone who chose to follow Christ as Lord was viewed as disloyal to Caesar and therefore an enemy of the State.
St John Southworth, and many others in his time, knew that by being Catholic priests they were, in the eyes of the State, viewed as traitors. His trial made that clear. The judge invited him to deny that he was a priest and then he could go free.
Cardinal Wiseman's Letter of 1850, 'From Without the Flaminian Gate', provoked outrage and violent protests, as it was interpreted as an act of Papal aggression.
Cardinal Manning, like Cardinal Newman, paid the price of great personal and social loss, in his decision to follow Christ in the fullness of his visible Church.
We too can expect our own share of that burden, especially as we are called to public ministry in a society which organises itself without reference to God: a good definition of what St John means whenever he uses the word 'the world'. But we have been chosen by the Lord to be apart from ‘the world’ so we are ready for opposition and misunderstanding and not fazed by it.
A few days ago I asked one of our young priests what his experience has been in the first years of his ministry and what I might say to these men being ordained today. This is what he told me of his early years of ministry.
Yes, he said, there is opposition and criticism. But it is important not to take it personally. More often than not it is directed at 'the priest', and for all sorts of reasons that may not be immediately obvious. It is part of our calling to be ready to absorb the anger and resentment of many, taking them on our shoulders and then handing them over to the Lord, depositing them, each night, at the foot of His cross. For it is on that cross that He carries, to this day, the anger and sins of the world, absorbing them into the mercy of infinite love. But we should not forget that there will also be times when criticism is well founded and we are to change!
Our young priest also said to me this: 'I have been overwhelmed at times at the deep love and respect that our people have for us priests. Once they know that your heart is in the right place, they will give you much support and affection.'
I asked him about his heart 'being in the right place.' His answer: willing to serve; free from self-promotion or ego; knowing one's own limits and not trying to do everything.'
St Paul expands that succinct answer. He says 'We prove we are servants of God', or in other translations, 'We commend ourselves to you', by patience in hard times, by purity, knowledge, love free from affectation, by working for the faith in any circumstance, by not playing to the gallery - or to the congregation - by knowing and living by a different set of rewards and riches than that held by the world, by being happy with what we have, not hankering after more, for example, a more prosperous parish!
So this young priest teaches us not to take criticism too personally and not to take the love and affection offered to the priest as a badge of personal success and popularity. We are loved, we are criticised, because, like those who have gone before, we are Catholic priests. We wear the vestment and the collar with pride in Christ Jesus whose heralds we are.
St John Southworth served the poor people of this neighbourhood with selfless love and courage. We still love him and honour his presence. Cardinal Wiseman's funeral was an occasion of 'extraordinary popular demonstrations' way beyond what normally marked the burial of a notable person. Cardinal Manning, in his old age, made one of his last journeys from Archbishop's House, just next door to here, to bring off a settlement of a hugely damaging dock strike and to bring dignity to an embattled workforce. The streets of London were lined for his funeral. There was even a pub named after him - and he a teetotaller!
Pope Francis has made famous his own description of these lessons. 'Priests who smell of the sheep!' It is not new. It is the proud tradition of our English Catholic priesthood, a fraternity of missionary priests and one into which these five men are today most warmly welcomed. This is the pathway we are to take, seeking always to serve, especially those most in need. If one characteristic of our way of life is that we can expect opposition, the other is that we always present ourselves, and defend ourselves, through our works of loving service. History tells us that this is the more enduring force, for it is of the very life of God, made visible in Christ Jesus and finding expression today in our flesh and blood.
So, my brothers, be ready with open hearts: to give yourselves entirely to the Lord; to receive these great gifts of Sacred Priesthood from the Lord Himself; to see the path ahead as one of true service, bearing all for love of Him, striving always to do His work, through Word, Sacrament and merciful pastoral care and thereby rejoicing always in this calling which is your hearts' desire and your greatest joy.