Given at the ordination to the priesthood of Rev Philip Harrison SJ and Rev Kensy Joseph SJ at St Ignatius Church, Stamford Hill on 30th June 2018.
‘I will give you shepherds,’ we hear the Lord promise on the lips of the prophet Jeremiah. And today we see that promise marvellously fulfilled. As Kensy and Philip are ordained here in Stamford Hill, the ordination of six more priests draws to a close this afternoon a few miles from here in Westminster Cathedral.
Eight more men for the mission! How their forebears, the likes of Saints Edmund Campion and Ralph Sherwin, who led the mission to England and Wales four hundred and thirty-five years ago, must rejoice from heaven to see such a day; to see the Society of Jesus and the diocesan priesthood continue to shepherd the flock for which they laid down their lives, at Tyburn, near Marble Arch, all those centuries ago. With all that I received personally from the Society of Jesus in my path to the secular priesthood, it gives me deep joy to celebrate this profound bond between diocese and Jesuits by coming to ordain today two more priests for our shared mission to Britain.
Growing up as I did in a Jesuit parish and attending Jesuit schools, I was always struck by the number of priests one met, many more than you would ever get to know in a secular parish. I found it a huge enrichment to see so many different ways of modelling priesthood; and felt the call to priesthood deepen in me through witnessing this diversity of ministries among you. As one Jesuit said to me recently, ‘You meet one Jesuit and you’ve met one Jesuit.’
I asked my family some years ago which, of all the priests they’d got to know over the years, meant the most to them. I found their response very salutary. As they began to reminisce fondly about so many different priests they’d known, I realised they recalled most enthusiastically not necessarily the most able, the most efficient or dynamic priests but the ones who took most interest in them; the ones who cared about them, cared for their wellbeing, cared for their future.
Kensy and Philip, I do believe there’s a lesson in this, an important lesson for you, for me, for all the priests present. It’s that what matters is not so much what we achieve as what’s in our heart. Which is why the Lord calls us not simply to be shepherds but to be shepherds after his heart. And the key to becoming shepherds after his heart?
To seek always to put on Christ, strive to be Christ for all; strive to meet Christ in all. Seek to realise St Patrick’s vision of Christ beneath me, Christ above me; Christ behind me, Christ before me; Christ within me, Christ beside me. To call each day upon the intercession of your own blessed Founder St Ignatius and pray his marvellous Generosity Prayer: ‘Dearest Jesus, teach me to be generous, to give and not to count the cost.’ Pray it; own it; desire it.
St Ignatius’s Prayer is a prayer which can be prayed by the whole flock. But it does seem especially appropriate for those who aspire to be shepherds, good shepherds after the Father’s heart and walking in the footsteps of the one who called himself the Good Shepherd. Because Jesus is clear that a good shepherd is indeed one who will give of himself without any counting of the cost. He will even lay down his life for his sheep.
I was touched to discover in recent years why it is that Jesus describes himself as the gate of the sheepfold. You remember, he says, ‘I am the good shepherd.’ Then he adds, ‘I am the gate. I am the gate of the sheepfold.’ The reason is that shepherds of Jesus’s time corralled their sheep into a stone pen. But it will have been a pen without a gate. Why? Because the shepherd was the gate. Once the last sheep was in, he laid himself down across the entrance to the pen. That way he could prevent any sheep escaping. He could also protect the sheep from predators. If any sheep insisted on escaping, jumping out of the pen over him, he would know about that too. And, as we know from the words recorded in the Gospel of both Matthew and Luke, Jesus would expect a good shepherd then to leave the rest of the sheep to go after the one that had strayed.
The Chief Shepherd, Pope Francis, gives this a contemporary resonance when he asks the bishops in South America if they have the courage to go out of the Church and walk with people still walking away from the Church. What he asks Bishops in his marvellous letter on Evangelisation is true surely for all who share in the pasturing of this flock - when he says, sometimes they will go before the sheep, pointing the way and keeping their hope vibrant; sometimes they will simply be in their midst with an unassuming and merciful presence; sometimes they will have to walk after them, helping those who lag behind and allowing the flock to strike out on new paths.
And no priest can have failed to be challenged as well as being delighted and encouraged, I hope, by the Pope’s injunction in that same letter for all pastors to take on ‘the smell of the sheep’.
All of this combines to remind us that we are ordained above all into service. And the key to service? It is surely to strive for humility. So it is that Peter, to whom was first given responsibility for the flock, exhorts us, in the familiar words of the second reading you chose for us, Kensy and Philip, to ‘wrap ourselves in humility to be servants of each other’. Desiring humility is the kind of challenge one finds at the heart of the Spiritual Exercises.
Cardinal Hume was sensed instinctively by people to be have chosen humility. I found a clue to how he had got to that place when I discovered he once said this: ‘People often say things to us which hurt us deeply; and the reason they hurt deeply is because they’ve pointed up a failing of ours. Welcome such moments,’ he said. ‘Train yourself to say, when someone points up your failing, “Thanks be to God. They’re helping me to be humble”.’ Easier said than done, I know. But advice to hold onto, Kensy and Philip, because humiliations and fault-finding go deeper when we’re newly ordained: remember Cardinal Hume’s advice and it will help you go deeper spiritually when challenged rather than descend down the path of anger and hurt.
Cardinal Hume offered a lovely piece of advice for the newly ordained in particular. He recognised that the first years of priesthood are often a struggle. ‘I sometimes wish I had an emergency number I could call - like 999 or something. Well, actually, I do have an emergency number to use when I’m in trouble: it’s not 999 but Matthew 9, 9 – “Come, follow me”.’ Kensy and Philip, I would urge you, when you feel it’s a struggle, remember your 999: Matthew 9, 9 - and hear the voice of the Good Shepherd who called you to this point of your ordination day, calling you again, renewing in your heart that first call he made to you all those years ago to be his shepherd, hear him tell you how he needs you, needs you to feed his lambs, look after his sheep, feed his sheep; and you’ll find the grace to pick yourself up again and go.
Pope St John Paul II had a saying which I think captures the essence of so much of what has been said so far. It’s a phrase which, for many people, actually makes sense of what it means to be Church but, for priests in particular, it makes sense of what it means to be a shepherd after God’s heart. It’s ‘Communion for Mission’. What Pope John Paul actually said - it was in his prophetic document on the Laity - was that ‘Communion gives rise to mission; and mission is fulfilled in communion’. ‘Communion gives rise to mission; and mission is fulfilled in communion.’
So true because it is only in the communion of prayer that we can truly choose humility, that we can allow Christ to speak in our heart anew the call to follow, in the communion of prayer realised in commitment to that daily personal encounter with Christ to which Pope Francis calls each one of us. It’s so important what Mark captures in the opening phrase of our Gospel, that Jesus would exhort the Apostles to come away to some lonely place all by themselves and rest a while. Because it’s in the Communion of prayer that the sense of mission is kindled and nurtured. The deeper this Communion, the deeper will grow the sense of mission. There will also grow the sense, and this is surely the second point of the story that, whatever little we can bring to ministry, the Lord will take it, multiply it, and harness it to shepherding of the flock in ways we would never have imagined possible.
We began with the shared commitment of Jesuits and seculars to the mission in England and Wales. What set me thinking about this was when I met with Kensy and Philip last week; and they asked me what I believed the Society of Jesus can offer to the mission of the Church in Britain today. I knew immediately: ‘Your radicality,’ I said, ‘Your radical witness to poverty, community, chastity. And also your marvellous variety. By which I mean the extraordinary variety of ministries and apostolates through which Jesuits commit themselves to mission.’
When they left me, I continued to ponder this marvellous variety. And the thought came to me, a paradoxical thought, that it’s this very variety which points up and underlines that priesthood is not in fact so much about what you do as what you are.
Because what matters most as a priest is what’s in your heart; that you have a heart which is modelled after the Father’s heart. Kensy, as you go shortly from this place to begin your ministry as a School Chaplain in Glasgow; Philip, as you go shortly to Rome to fathom the depths of Holy Scripture at the Biblicum, what matters is not so much what you’ve been asked to do but that you go as men with hearts set on God; hearts set on moulding themselves after the heart of the one who first called you. Then, wherever Providence leads you, both soon and later, you will announce by your priestly presence that the promise uttered by Jeremiah is indeed being fulfilled, that God continues to give us shepherds after his heart, that he continues and always will continue to shepherd his flock.