Given at the Mass of ordinations to the priesthood at Westminster Cathedral on the Solemnity of the Nativity of St John the Baptist, 24th June 2017
Today we celebrate the birthday of a herald, John the Baptist, who came as a voice in the wilderness, crying ‘Prepare the way of the Lord!’ (Mk. 1.3)
Today we celebrate the ordination to the priesthood of these seven men, good and true, who will spend their lives as heralds of the Gospel, speaking and acting in the name of the Church.
What a wonderful day on which to be ordained a priest!
One of the themes strongly stated in the readings we have just heard is that of being chosen. This is important for there can be no reason for a man to become a priest other than the discernment, affirmed by the Church, that such is God’s call, God’s will.
In the First Reading, we listened to Isaiah explaining that ‘the Lord called me before I was born’, and in the Second, we heard of the ‘election’ of David by God himself, and in the Gospel reading, the intensity of the choice becomes more obvious with the dramatic announcement of the Baptist’s name, John.
Here, then, is the first point for our rejoicing: that God has chosen you, calling you by name, to serve him as priests of the Church. Indeed, we may express that rejoicing in a fuller, more Trinitarian way: the Father has chosen you, from all eternity, to be companions to his Son, sharing in his mission, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
And when I look at these seven before me, and think of the diversity and richness of their lives up to this day, I am very tempted to say: ‘Lord, how mysterious are your ways!’
The promises of ordination, which these candidates will shortly make, bring into focus a second point for our rejoicing. They will promise ‘to celebrate the mysteries of Christ faithfully and religiously…for the glory of God and the sanctification of Christ’s people’.
In the experience of priestly life, this is truly the key. I heard it said recently that devotion to the sacraments is the defining spirituality of the priest. Of course, our relationship with Jesus lies at the heart of every life of discipleship. Each one of us tries to build up our lives on that foundation, a relationship which we strengthen every day in our prayer, in our wanting to do his will. But for the priest, this relationship is deepened in a particular way in the privilege of being able to celebrate the Holy Mass, for in the precious actions of the Mass, the hands and voice of the priest become those of Jesus. This is the bond between every priest and Jesus, the bond that keeps the priest one with him, in love with him, ready always to do his will. And in all this, too, we follow in the footsteps of the Baptist and strive that ‘He must increase and I must decrease’ (Jn. 3.30). Remember, please, that in every sacramental celebration, the person at the heart of the action, who occupies centre stage, who commands our attention, must never be the priest. It must always and only be the Lord.
During these last weeks, as you all know too well, four events of sheer destructiveness have taken place in this city, ripping lives apart in death and trauma and attacking the very fabric of families and communities. The terrible fire in Grenfell Tower has been so dreadful. Its reality and its images will remain with us for the rest of our lives.
Let me take just a moment to tell you something of the work and ministry of our priests in one of those: that fire with its terrible consequences. First of all, they were there: day after day, bringing a recognisable presence and special comfort and prayer to so many who were bewildered, bereaved or homeless. Then our priests and their churches, became a focal point for the great outpouring of help and compassion: thousands of gifts piled high in the courtyards, received, sorted, distributed, by tireless volunteers. And the churches themselves, especially St Francis of Assisi, havens of peace. Priest chaplains waiting tensely in the hospitals, on standby sometimes for over 12 hours at a stretch. Priests, working with the schools, slowly, carefully compiling the heart-breaking list of those who had lost their lives or who were still missing. I could go on.
But there is one moment I am compelled to tell you about. Thursday, the day after the fire, which is still smoldering. Our priests spend all day, from 8.00 am, at the foot of the tower, quietly talking with the fire fighters as they come out exhausted and then prepare to go back in, offering comfort and encouragement. There was no one else to do it. But then such a special moment. Towards the end of the day, our priests stood together, with one of our bishops, and prayed. They prayed in the heart of that darkness, the site of so many cruel deaths. They prayed for those who had died and they sprinkled that mangled debris with holy water, the sign of God’s presence and of the promise of eternal life.
This, for me, is a most remarkable image of priesthood, etched in sharp detail against that towering, blackened skeleton. There, in the sacramental of holy water, the touch and power of the mystery of Christ is to be seen. I do not need to explain. This is the truth and beauty, here a terrible beauty, that lies at the heart of every Sacrament, by which our human realities are transformed and our true selves and our final destiny revealed and fashioned.
This is the work, the ministry, of the priest, a ministry, which you, my brothers, embrace today. These are the mysteries, which you promise to celebrate faithfully and to which, please God, you will give yourselves selflessly for years to come. This is what accompanying people in a pilgrim church actually means: accompanying them in life’s dark valleys, whether cruelly public or hidden in the privacy of a home and a heart; dark places where God is so easily forgotten yet where God is never forgetful of any one of his precious children.
Just as I thank every priest of this diocese for their generous work, so too today I welcome you into our midst, for it is always as a presbyterate that we act, never in our individualism, but only in the name of him who has called us and bound us together in his Son and in this his Church.
So let us proceed, full of thanksgiving for the great gift of our faith, for the priesthood and for the service, we are called to give. Amen.