Given at the Mass of ordination of Reverend Andrew Bowden to the priesthood, at Our Lady of Mount Carmel and St George Church, Enfield on 15th July 2017.
In September 2013, Andrew left Enfield and his job in the City and set off for the English College, in Rome, to begin to prepare for this day of his priestly ordination.
Well, that’s not true. His time at the English College has been a pathway of formation not for today but for his life as a priest. Today that is beginning. And nor is it true that his preparations began those four years ago. They began long before that. Indeed this moment, which sees Andrew receive the grace of priesthood and begin his ministry, has its origins from all eternity in the will of our Heavenly Father that Andrew be a priestly companion of his Son, Jesus, who is sent to bring life and salvation to the world.
Today is indeed a great day. But it is our lives that count, not just the special days.
Indeed, I would like to put it in this way: our project, as followers of Christ, is to fashion a way of living. Being a Catholic, being a priest, is not primarily about winning arguments, exhorting the weary with fine words or offering a version of the real meaning of life. It is, essentially, about a way of living. And priesthood is a way of living in the name of the Church.
Let me put it another way. When people meet you and me, what is it that they see? Whom do they meet?
We hope and strive that they meet a person who is, first of all, a good human being, who shows, and not just knows, something of the way in which we human beings can live together, can build a better world together, can love and prosper. These are the dramatic questions that we face today: what is it to be a good human being? How do we cope in confusion and conflict? What does life look like when lived with poise and faithfulness?
Andrew has lived in Rome for these last four years. He has seen Pope Francis up close. I am sure he knows that these are precisely the questions that our Holy Father sees as facing our world, a world, which is forgetting what it is to live a truly human life. This is the deep crisis of our day. Our response is to show God’s saving truth essentially by how we live our lives, rather than by the arguments, we win or lose.
St Paul had his way of speaking to the existential crisis of his day: he remembered the words of God ‘Let there be light shining out of darkness’ and he saw that light shining on the face of Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6).
This is why we want to follow him: because he shows us how to live as human beings. He is the living truth of our humanity. He shows us how to live, and how to die. So the lives we live are the first and most powerful witness to him we can give, much more than the words we say.
Our way of life is our discipleship, no matter where we are, whatever company we are in. And that discipleship begins in the heart: knowing that Jesus is our constant companion; drawing always on all we know about him; referring all things to him in our conversations with him, our prayer; returning to him when we lose our balance and sense of direction.
Our way of life is our discipleship: acting always in the presence of God, who sees, loves and encourages us; responding to other people as if they were the Lord himself; pursuing the real and lasting wealth and treasure of his love and life within us; building up bonds of faithfulness in reflection of his faithfulness; offering compassion and forgiveness; living by the truth of our word, neither deceiving nor accepting deceit.
In all these ways, we pray, something of the glory of God on the face of Christ will be reflected in us so that others may see and believe.
And this is the task of the priest: to serve, strengthen and enrich that capacity, within each of us, to be the light of Christ today shining in our lives. As we will hear in the promises that Andrew solemnly proclaims, in a few minutes, we are reminded that such service springs from the kind of life he sets out to lead as a priest, after all these years of preparation.
For you, Andrew, and for each one of us, the Gospel passage we have just heard contains such an important message about how we prepare each day to live this life. Jesus asks Peter three times the single most crucial question ever faced by a human being: ‘Do you love me?’ Each time Jesus spells out the response to love that he is looking for: ‘Feed my lambs’, ‘Feed my sheep’. But still the question is repeated. Only at the third time is the last layer peeled away, when Peter says those healing words: ‘Lord, you know everything!’ Only then does Peter stand before the Lord in full honesty, no longer trying to hide something away, things of which he is ashamed. Only then does his love become truly radical, truly liberating and truly the full gift of himself.
These words, ‘Lord, you know everything’ need to be your constant companions in all the years that lie ahead. Remind yourself of them every morning as you face a new day with its challenges and anxieties. These words ‘Lord, you know everything’ go hand in hand with St Paul’s joyful admission: ‘We are only the earthenware jars that hold the treasure’. (2 Corinthians 4:7). These words, taken together, free you from the pretence that you are nigh on perfect, acting as if you are God’s gift to others. They free you from the burden of doubt and the sense of emptiness that can creep up in the early hours. They remind you that you are radically dependent on the loving mercy of God and that your first duty is to show that mercy to others.
I heard once of a young woman who was searching for a husband, someone with whom she could share and build a way of life. She said there was one supreme quality she sought in her man: that he loved God more than he loved her. ‘Then’, she said, ‘I know he will be faithful and loving towards me.’ Andrew, this is what we pray for you today, hope for you today: that you will always love God, in Jesus, first and foremost. Then we all know that you will be a fine priest, offering true service to the people entrusted to your care, just as your Heavenly Father has willed, from all eternity.