Holy Trinity Church
14 October 2013
On Saturday, in the Office of Readings, there was a passage from Pope Gregory the Great about us priests. It quoted the Gospel saying that the harvest is plentiful but the labourers few and went on to say: 'it grieves us to have to say that...we see around us a world full of priests, but it is very rare to find a labourer in God's harvest, because we are not ding the work demanded by our priesthood, although we accepted this office.'
Well, Bishop Mark, sixty years into your ministry and still here in harness at the age of eighty, no one can say that of you! Bishop Mark, we salute you and we thank you for your steadfast and generous ministry.
By God's good providence we have for our first reading at Mass today the opening of St Paul's great Epistle to the Romans. Here, in less than 150 words, is a fine reflection on the gift of apostolic ministry, and so pertinent for us all today.
Here are some of the keys to our understanding not only the ministry of St. Paul, not only the ministry of Fr Mark, for which we are giving thanks, but also our own, too.
Paul first speaks of himself as a servant, or more literally, as a slave of Christ Jesus. This is the only starting point for our life of faith. We have only one Master, one Lord of whom we are the willing servants. Otherwise we would not be here. We would be waiting down at the pub for the party. We are here because of the initiative of God in our lives by which we have received the gift of faith. It is God who has first called us, not we who have chosen this course of our own determination. This is all God's work. The moment we forget that is the point at which we begin to build on the sand of our own effort alone.
But there is more to Paul's use of the word 'slave'. The same word is used thorough out the Old Testament to describe Moses, Joshua and all the prophets. They see themselves, speak of themselves, as slaves of God. So here is Paul placing himself in that line of succession. Indeed the task he has been given was first given to them: that of preaching the Good News of God first 'promised long ago.'
We too are part of this long line of servants. Indeed, this is our most fundamental identity, on which Mark embraced with great solemnity sixty years ago: an identity forged by God in his soul which takes precedence over every other identity by which he can be known.
I have a personal memory which fixes the point I am making for ever in my mind. My mother's sister was a member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Her name, to me, was Auntie Peg. Her name in religion was Sister Thomas More. I remember so vividly her requiem Mass and the sight of her coffin. On it was the plaque which read: 'Sister Thomas More: professed such a date; died such a date.' That was who she was, her identity in Christ. Everything else came second and was not recorded. Plain speaking indeed!
Maybe this could be advice for Mark, too. Otherwise a huge plaque will be needed: naming his beloved parents, his brothers, his baptismal and religious names, the countries in which he has lived, his titles as Father, Abbot, Bishop, with a list of schools and monasteries, a diocese and now a parish where he has served. There is so much to be recorded, but only one thing is necessary.
Let's go back to St Paul. Next he speaks of himself as an apostle, sent to proclaim the Gospel. In doing so he points to the rhythm of life of each of us, especially those called to Sacred Orders, a dynamic which should shape every day. The disciple is one who wakes to hear the call of the Master; one who is ready each day to respond to that call and one who, in each particular vocation, is given the task of sharing that call, that invitation with those who are near. The apostle is one who is set apart for this task: set apart by God by ordination and set apart by office in the Church.
It is important to understand the real meaning of this being 'set apart'. The Christian faith always sets us apart. We can sometimes feel that 'apartness' as we move though our daily lives. It is more obvious for those whose lives are shaped by religious vows. But let's be clear. This setting apart is never to be seen as a privilege, it is not for our pride, nor a cause for us to view others in a lesser light, still less with scorn. No. This setting apart, of which Paul speaks, and which you and I can experience, is a setting apart for service of others, a setting apart received in humility and formed and expressed only in love. Only in these things are we called to be exceptional.
Paul then speaks of what he has been given by this being 'set apart.' The gifts he receives are given to us too, and given for the same purpose. He is given the gift of grace and the gift of the obedience of faith. The gift of grace reminds us that what matters in life is what God has done and what God will do, and that all this work is always the work of God's love.
The gift of grace gives rise to the obedience of faith which is nothing other than the obligations of love given and received. What does it mean when we promise love to another? It means that we behave differently towards them, and not simply in matters of romance. It means everyday courtesy and sensitivity, not turning up late, not ignoring their desires and needs. The obedience of faith is the practice of love. In this light we can see the commandments of the Lord as the pathway of loving thanksgiving, as Pope Francis has described them (cf 'Lumen Fidei'). We obey because we love. We strive to keep the commandments because we are full of thanksgiving for the truth and love we have received.
This is the heart of the disciple, the heart of the faithful priest, abbot and bishop: a heart which knows the grace of God and which is ready to do his will thankfully and generously. We thank God whenever we meet a person who has such a heart, and we spontaneously call it a heart of gold.
Paul then spells out the purpose of such great gifts and such a noble calling: it is so that the good news of Jesus Christ may be announced. He expresses the vital importance of that Gospel so succinctly, and so must I. Who is this Jesus? In the order of nature he is one of us, descendant of David. In the order of the spirit he is reality of God, the Spirit of Holiness. Jesus is both human and divine. This is the Gospel of the Incarnation and of the Resurrection. What Paul has to announce is that in Jesus, God became what we are to make us what he is. And this is our good news, the greatest possible news, the news that gets us out of bed each day, even after eighty years, and thrills our hearts, stirring them into action again and again.
And a final point from St. Paul. Paul describes himself as the apostle of the pagan nations - that's you and I. He is sent to speak to 'the others', those outside, who also 'belong to Jesus Christ'. This call to go outside, not to stay turned inwards, to reach out, step out, to go to the peripheries, is coming again and again from the mouth of Pope Francis. It comes with such insistence that none of us can ignore it. We cannot stay within our own company. We have to turn outward and see all around us the 'outsiders' who in God's eyes already belong to Christ but have not yet heard his loving call. As we rejoice in this long life of faithful apostolic work we must all be renewed in this zeal for giving expression to the loving invitation of the Lord to all around us.
In these few lines, Paul has given us great insight into the very core of his being and of his life focused on Jesus. His Lord and Master is at its heart. So too for us. Only in a clear and personal relationship with Jesus do our lives make sense and retain their joy and enthusiasm. And, Mark, it is for this that we most give thanks this evening. In you, too, we are graced with the witness of a life centred on the Lord, flowering in peacefulness, remarkable fidelity to friends, generosity of spirit and in the gift of great welcome and hospitality. In you, too, we see another characteristic of Paul - an urgency, an urgency to get things done, an urgency which, you must admit, also catches up more mundane and practical matters and which, charmingly, gives rise to a title by which you sometimes are known: Bishop Now!
Mark, we happily join in this Mass of thanksgiving for your many years of life and of religious profession. You enrich our lives and strengthen our faith. May God bless you always.