Given at the Mass of ordination to the priesthood of William Johnstone, Tim Mangatal, Marco Salvagnini and Jakub Joszko at Westminster Cathedral on 26th June 2021
So, a solemn choice, and election is made. And the ordination is now to follow.
Of course, this choice, this election, has been fashioned over many years: years of formation at Allen Hall, for which I thank Canon Roger and all the staff; before that in many years of pondering; and, most originally, in the choice made by God, our loving Father, who from all eternity has wanted to give these four men as close companions of his Son, Jesus, sharing in his mission.
Today we give thanks to God as we strive, in our imperfect and clumsy ways, to do his will. Think for a moment about Sarah, in the first reading. In her heart, she reacted with amused incredulity to the notion that she would have a child. Yet the secrets of her heart are wide open to these three mysterious guests who have arrived from nowhere. The ways of God covered her in confusion.
So too with us. But this moment is clear. Now we pray that, in his mercy, God will be present, in the fullness of the Trinity, as we invoke the Holy Spirit, calling on the name of Jesus our Blessed Lord in order to fulfil the will of the Father.
Remember the shape of our opening prayer: that William, Jakub, Timothy and Marco, ‘whom you graciously choose today for the office of priesthood, may, by their life and ministry, gain glory for you in Christ.’
There are two great and lasting focal points in the life of a priest.
The first is his radical focus on Christ. Here is the first and fundamental love of his life. Each morning, before all else, every priest must turn to Jesus, giving him first place, in prayer, in quiet reflection, laying the foundations for his day’s ministry. Each day he asks for the grace of conversion, a fresh love of the Lord. His heart has to be changed anew so that he can say with St Paul: ‘I live now not with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me.’
This is no easy journey. We are so full of other things: our own thoughts; our own judgements about practically everything, and so many of them negative judgements, too; our ambitions and perhaps even a sense of entitlement; our frustrations and jealousies. The list is long. And all of it has to be cast to one side so that Christ can find space within us. Only then can we be ready for a ministry that is truly rooted in Christ, and not shaped by our own weaknesses and preoccupations.
The second focus in the daily life of the priest is very clear: every priest is ordained to fulfil a ministry of service to the people entrusted to him. He is called to accompany them on their journey through life. He does so by his prayers, by offering the Sacraments, by his faithful teaching of the faith, by his constant pastoral care. He does so by fashioning a parish as a well-ordered place, a spring of good water where all may come for refreshment. He does so in obedience to the Lord, present in the Church, not least in the person of the bishop. The priest is one who, like the centurion in the Gospel, recognises an order, an authority, flowing from God, which overcomes our collective weakness and chaos. We stand with the centurion. Indeed, at every Mass, each one of us echoes his words when we say: ‘Lord I am not worthy, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.’
The work of accompaniment, this second focus of priestly life, is both demanding and fruitful.
It is demanding because it asks of us priests qualities that are contrary to aspects of a common way of behaving today. In accompanying his people, the priest will always strive, first of all, to see what is good and positive in their lives. In contrast, today so many look first to see and highlight what is wrong in another’s life. They want to know and highlight their failures, their weaknesses, their errors, even if their mistakes have to be dug up from the past. This we can see all around us, and among us too: taking delight in another’s weaknesses, refusing to tolerate difference of opinion, a shunning of the other, a cancel culture. This is exactly the opposite of accompaniment. Such a culture should have no part among us.
By truly standing alongside the other, the privilege of the priest is to help uncover the next step that person might take on their journey to God, a step towards a way of life that more closely reflects the goodness and faithfulness of God. This is the fruitfulness of our ministry. And it is conducted in the light of the gift of forgiveness: a forgiveness flowing from the Cross of Christ, a forgiveness offered to each of us as we strive to turn away from our wrong-doing, a forgiveness we are called to offer to each other for it has first been lavished upon us.
I remember so well sitting in the kitchen with a priest of this diocese, pondering with him on his sense of purpose in his parish. After a while he said, with beautiful transparency, ‘Well, I am here simply to help people get to heaven. That is why I walk with them, in their joys and sorrows, in health and in sickness. I want to be with them.’ After the enforced distances of these months of the pandemic, this is a priority to be recovered as best we can, to learn again the stories of those in our care, with the tragedies and achievements of these long months during which so much has taken place in uncomfortable isolation.
Marco, Timothy, Jakub, William, the moment has come. The life of a priest is about to begin within you. Embrace this grace with grateful hearts. Let it fill them totally, but never let it go to your heads! Go from here today as humble priests, willing to give all to the Lord and his people, just as he gives all to you. Amen.