Given at the Mass of Ordination of Priests in Westminster Cathedral on the Solemnity of St John the Baptist, Saturday 24th June 2023
This morning we have before us the awesome figure of John the Baptist, wearing his camel hair and eating locusts and wild honey! And there are other characters I want to mention this morning. But let’s start here with our five candidates for ordination to the priesthood: Francis, John, Juan, Marco and Patrick. Fortunately, they are more properly dressed - or maybe there is some camel hair beneath these fine white albs!
There are many ways in which the Baptist is a great figure for this ordination ceremony.
To start with, we heard the words of the first reading from Isaiah and applied them to John: before he was born the Lord’s purpose for him was established. The Gospel emphasised that same point: his calling was there from the beginning just as his name had to be pronounced by his father, struck dumb for his reluctance to believe.
These five men, and we in the name of the Church, have spent much time and prayer coming to the certainty that the call of God for each of them, written in their heart by God, is that they should serve him as a priest. They are chosen by the Father to be the companions of his Son, as priests of the New Covenant. As St Paul said: they are to proclaim that Christ is ‘the message of salvation’ meant for all. I thank, without exception, all who have contributed to this process of discernment, encouragement and formation and who rejoice in this day.
This give us our second point: that finding the will of God for each one of us brings into great clarity the full wonder of our being. To know our God-given purpose in life, whatever that may be, brings with it a sense of fulfilment like no other. I believe this is true for each of those to be ordained this morning. And it makes this ceremony a moment of great joy and fulfilment.
But there is a third point I want to put before you.
There is one word which above all others gets to the heart of the priesthood of Christ. It is a word that these five men own more deeply through this ceremony, and is signalled in their prostration. It is word that applies to everyone present who seeks to be a disciple of our Lord and Master. That word is sacrifice. Our response to the love and calling of the Lord always contains a remarkable element of sacrifice.
Think of your daily lives. Every day, I am sure, there is a moment, an action of sacrifice in which you put the needs of someone else before your own, in which, out of love, you deny yourself, forget your own desires, step back from what you wanted, and put another first. It may be as a parent, a carer, a friend, a husband or wife, or a classmate. It may be at home, in an office, at a workplace, on the pavement or at a bedside. But sacrifice, written small or large, is a mark of your life.
The ordained ministry involves this same kind of sacrifice, day in and day out. It could be anything: from coping with those who persist in the absolute surety of their views, or who make no allowance for our weariness, to bearing with those who ring the doorbell during Match of the Day. To embrace such daily sacrifice, and to do so willingly, is to walk more closely the path of holiness.
But there is a further point. The ordained priesthood bestows the duty, the privilege, of offering the Sacrifice of Christ, every day, in the Holy Mass. And the sacrifice of the Mass completes and fulfils every act of sacrifice that we make, be it small or great.
In the action of the Mass, Christ brings to fulfilment all sacrifice, throughout time. In accepting death on the Cross he sums up and draws together all the sacrifices we make, transforming them into the sublime act of praise of the Father given by us all. The Father, in return, radiates mercy and healing on our poor and fractured efforts. This is the great mystery of our faith: our saving mystery.
Now I have some other characters to introduce. All of them embody self-sacrifice as the supreme expression of love and service. They have come alongside us in the last few days as saints whom we have honoured. I see them gathered around us now. I introduce them chronologically:
First St Alban, from the second/third century, the first English martyr, a man who sheltered a priest and gave his life to protect him, having come to commit his own life to Jesus. His feast day was on Tuesday.
Then yesterday we welcomed St Etheldreda into our prayer. An heroic woman from the seventh century, who gave up her life as Queen, sacrificing her advantage for Christ, and founded a great monastery in Ely. One tough and demanding lady!
Moving to the sixteenth century, saluting the great figures of Sts John Fisher and Thomas More, I come to two saints we remembered on Wednesday. The young St Aloysius Gonzaga died in Rome, in 1591, from the plague whose victims he was treating. A rich, aristocratic young man, he gave up all that preferment, and his servants, to be a servant of a far greater cause. His sacrifice, too, flows from and into the glory of the sacrifice of our Blessed Lord. Just a few years later, in 1600, a young man from Chorley in Lancashire offered to take the place, in court, of the daughter of his employer, charged with being a Catholic. John Rigby confessed his faith and gave himself up to death by cruel execution.
And finally we have the company of our own St John Southworth who refused to deny his priesthood with such aged dignity that even the judge who imposed the death penalty wept as he did so.
This rich array of saints, each making a fragrant sacrifice of their life, surrounds us at this moment. So we pray that these five to be ordained, soldiers true and bold, may fight like those who nobly fought of old, and win with them the victor’s crown of gold. True, we feebly struggle while they in glory shine. Yet all are one in thee for all are thine!
From this day on, you, our five new priests, will come every day to the altar to offer again the sacrifice of Christ himself. This timeless act stands at the centre of your ministry, for it draws together and into fulfilment, the daily sacrifices of the people. For this reason we are all summoned to Mass, to unite our simple acts of service and sacrifice with the greatness of Christ’s offering of himself to the Father. In response, the heavenly Father, through your hands, fills his people with the gift of the Holy Spirit, most poignantly in the nourishment of the very Body and Blood of Christ which he laid down for us all. In this Spirit you will continue, day by day, as will we all, your journey of sacrifice in service and of joy in the praise of God.
The days in which we live are not easy. Our world is full of violence and rancour. So we pray for you, our new priests, and for all our priests, that every day, as you light candles at your altar for the celebration of the sacrifice of the Mass, the light of Christ will shine forth, until history itself is steeped in his light.
✠ Cardinal Vincent Nichols
Archbishop of Westminster