Given at the Mass of ordinations to the priesthood on Saturday 25 June 2016, at Westminster Cathedral.
The Jubilee Year of Mercy has been a great blessing for the Church. We are coming to know afresh the mercy of God, to know again that God reaches out to us with a caress of mercy and forgiveness, always welcoming us as we strive to walk in his way. No one is excluded from this great and transforming mercy.
This is a marvellous moment in which to be ordained a priest! I hope that these six men, today to be ordained priests, will always remember that their ordination took place in this Year of Mercy and always strive to make mercy the key motif of their priesthood. That, surely, is the way in which to follow most closely in the footsteps of our Blessed Lord.
St Paul, in the first reading, uses a different image in which to describe his closeness to Jesus. He describes himself as ‘a prisoner in the Lord’. A prisoner; one who has lost much cherished freedom; one who can no longer do just want he or she wants. It’s a powerful description and it only makes sense when we know, beyond all doubt, that Paul is not only a willing prisoner, but a joyful prisoner, one who rejoices in being bound to the Lord in chains, unbreakable chains, of love.
Now I am old enough, but none of you will be, to remember the Beatles’ first LP, titled ‘Please please me!’ It included a song which ran: ‘Chains, chains, my baby’s got me locked up in chains and they ain’t the kind that you can see. These chains of love have got a hold on me!’
Not quite how St Paul puts it, but expressive enough. Unless we are the most willing prisoners of the Lord then we will not truly grasp the depth of his appeal:
‘I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to lead a life worthy of your vocation.’
Yes I do. Yes, so do we all. And we promise you our prayers and support as you set out to lead that life as priests of Jesus Christ. To be his prisoner is to enjoy the most exquisite kind of freedom!
Paul spells out what a life worthy of your vocation really means. And here I mean St Paul, not Paul of the fab four. A worthy life is marked by unfailing charity, offered to one another. So no clerical gossip, no back-biting, no writing people off. A worthy life is marked by selflessness, gentleness and patience. So no putting yourselves centre-stage and thereby upstaging our Blessed Lord. It is his word you are to promote, not your own. No harshness of judgement that is the contradiction of the Lord’s caress of mercy. No short tempers, even when provoked. Anger in a priest directed at another person is so damaging. It is surely a contradiction of all that we stand for.
‘Do all that you can to preserve the unity of the Spirit.’ Here surely St Paul is talking about the Spirit of Jesus that lives in the Church, that holds us together as a Church. That is the unity we are to serve, always looking beyond particular advantage, of myself or of my parish, to a greater advantage which, in time, will, in fact, serve every personal and parish need.
These are the qualities echoed also in the words of Jesus himself, in the Gospel. We are to see ourselves as ‘servants’, as ‘slaves’ who are to give our lives as a ransom, a ransom being something lost to self for the benefit of a greater good.
Without doubt this is a high calling, one that is reflected in a wonderful variety of ways in the life of every true disciple, be they a mother or father, a single person with a generous heart, a religious sister and brother or, as today, a man, six men, setting out on the adventure of priesthood.
As we look around this cathedral we see signs of those who have walked this same path before us. For St John Southworth it led to martyrdom, the literal giving of his life rather than betray his priesthood. And this week, on our Jubilee Day for Priests, we heard of another hero of our past, Bishop Richard Challoner, whose body was brought here to rest in this Cathedral, 70 years ago, almost to the day.
He was a pioneer who led the Church in this country in the eighteenth century, from the penal times, the age of martyrs, towards the more settled pattern of parishes and institutions on which we build. His vision of what is was to be a priest is so relevant for us today. And his vision is summed up in one phrase: ‘missionary priests’, men centred on God and on their people, adventurous in finding ways of contacting Catholics, so long scattered and hidden, of drawing them together, of giving them courage, instruction and the grace of the sacraments. The priests he wanted were to be men of initiative who sought a new and vibrant participation in English society. They needed good local knowledge, networks of support and help, strong local presence and above all personal commitment. His priests were not lone rangers, but men building community.
He was brave enough to lay down some clear guidance for his priests. They were to be men of prayer: daily, personal prayer. That was their foundation. They were to be men who lived regular lives, not easily distracted from their ministry. In this the key issue was clear: how they used their ‘vacant hours’. There were many distractions in his London District, just as there are today, so he urged them to be attentive and put to good use those ‘vacant hours’, which always come along. And, thirdly, he wanted his priests to be available, readily available, to their people, especially in the evenings.
In this way, his priests were to be men of prayer, who were pragmatists and full of missionary enterprise. Then, he believed, his priests and his people would know their true Catholic identity in a time of growing religious pluralism.
Today, in an age which is so different but with some similar challenges, I can ask for no more! I can ask no more of all us priests and of you, our six new companions and brothers, than we be rooted in prayer, full of missionary enterprise, marked by a healthy pragmatism. That will do us fine in this 21st century, too, for it is our inheritance, our abiding DNA, the identity which we receive and cherish.
The prayer of ordination this morning begins with the words ‘Come to our help, Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God.’ How deeply we mean those words. Priesthood is something beyond us all. It is a gift beyond our imagining, beyond our doing. And it is a gift which opens for us all the wonders of the Lord’s goodness and grace, transforming not only the lives of these six men, but through them, the lives of us all.
After the ordination, in the solemn prayer of the Mass, we pray for those who have just been raised to the priesthood. We say, ‘In your mercy Lord, keep safe your gifts in them, so that what they have received by divine commission they may fulfil by divine assistance.’
And to that we all say ‘Amen’.
So let us proceed with this joyful ordination!