Given on the occasion of the ordination to the priesthood of Rev Andrew Chamiec, Rev Derek Hyett and Rev Brian O'Mahony on 28 June 2014 at the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Most Precious Blood in Westminster.
How wonderful that we gather for this day of priestly ordinations on the very feast of our patron saint, John Southworth. As we ask our Heavenly Father for the grace of priestly ordination for Andrew, Derek and Brian, our prayers are accompanied by the prayers of this saint, just as his bodily remains are present in our midst. And there is another saint with us in a special way in these prayers: St Sigmund Felinski, a nineteenth century Archbishop of Warsaw who is a direct relative of Andrew and who will be surely smiling today!
These relics of St John Southworth are a powerful symbol. Look at them afresh. They speak to us of continuity of faith and priesthood; of unshakable belief in Christ’s victory over death; of the final resurrection of our mortal bodies; of the powerful witness given by faithful priestly ministry. If we let them, these relics challenge the way we think about so many things, disturbing familiar images by which we make our priorities, order our lives. Their presence, and all that happens around them today, call us to reset our life’s compass, to set out again on the road of Christ’s call for each one of us.
Earlier this week an engaging speaker described our life as followers of Christ as 'the theatre of faith'. Now a theatre is a house of drama where the wonder and perplexities of life are played out, often in an imaginative and vivid manner. Today three new protagonists enter that theatre of faith, step up to take their part in the drama of faith as priests of the Catholic Church.
St John Southworth is a giant in this theatre. Let’s see what we can learn from him.
Firstly: he served as a priest for 36 years in an age when many exercised their earthly priesthood for fewer than 36 months. He had tenacity, durability. He was never put off, neither by prison nor discomfort - certainly not by threats. He was focussed. His focus for many was the poor and sick, struggling to survive here on these streets around the Cathedral.
So the first drama of faith we serve, especially in the priesthood, is the drama of human life frequently lived in the struggles of material hardship. That hardship can shape everything, yet so often those who bear that burden also strain to cling to love, faithfulness, family and a life of spiritual depth. But there’s another drama too, when affluence dulls our hearts, the deeper wells of our humanity, our compassion, our capacity for mercy. Affluence so often robs us of the docility of soul which alone creates space for the presence of the living God within us.
Priests are often key actors in these human dramas. The words we speak, the gestures we make, the mercy we exude and truly serve to break open stubborn hearts just as the sacraments we offer can truly strengthen weary limbs. Be fine protagonists in these dramas of eternal consequence!
The second is also clear in the life of St John Southworth: the drama of faith at the moment of death. He could have avoided the executioner's knife had he denied being a Catholic priest. He rejected the invitation to do so almost scornfully.
In every death there is real drama. My mother's cousin, one of the pioneers of hospices, said that dying is the most important step a person ever takes. Here we priests, new and old, play such an important part. Visiting the sick and the dying is central to our ministry because sickness and death are central to the human drama of those we serve. Whether in the materially impoverished conditions of former centuries or the spiritually impoverished circumstances of today, let us not shrink from speaking and acting in the face of death in ways shaped by faith, enriched by prayer and strengthened by sacraments. This is a vital witness for us to give.
The third drama of faith in St John’s life is the way great historical events shaped his story. He ministered in a public culture and order that had scant regard for the Catholic faith, still viewing it as against the national interest, treasonable. His body, swiftly taken to the safer place of Douai, was then hidden away again at the French Revolution. It returned here only in 1930, to bring us the comfort of the stability of his faith lived through those ages of upheaval.
We cherish the same stability of faith and its first fruits of human goodness still abounding in our midst. We see that faith and goodness every day, despite the upheavals, comparatively minor, through which we are called to live. These upheavals, aspects of our public culture and order, do not at all deflect us from our call to proclaim the Gospel, letting its saving invitation resound again today.
Very soon, Andrew, Derek and Brian, you will prostrate yourselves alongside the body of our saint. This will be a lasting inspiration for you, as you give your lives completely over to the Lord. Your radical openness of heart, explored and prepared with great care and much appreciated assistance in your years of formation, can now be filled with this unique gift of the Holy Spirit, by which you become willing instruments in the hands of Jesus himself. May he use you every day to work his miracles of love in the lives of us all, to make real his abundant mercy for us in every weakness, his radical forgiveness of our sins, the healing presence of his most sacred Body and Blood in the Holy Mass.
As this happens, day by day, we come to see life anew. Our imagination is fired with a vision different from that given by so many others in our world, and, truth be told, often by our own hearts. Only slowly do we see with the eyes of St. Paul. He challenges us to see true strength in weakness and suffering; that the popular image of the strong, lone ranger masks profound insecurity. Only slowly do we learn that affectation, studied indifference, can give way, in the end, to the appeal of purity, kindness and patience; that true joy is found in the company of those who follow Jesus, so often, today as then, 'thought to be the most miserable' of people; and of course, that real, lasting, external riches are received from those thought to have nothing.
The steady, patient ministry of a priest, on which, to our joy, you embark today, is the slow shifting of these false imaginings: about strength, about purity, about the sources of joy and about lasting wealth. As priests we must take such care never to reinforce these false images that do not give life. We can do so when we seek power and control over others; when we embark on quietly storing up what we think to be private wealth; when our ministry is exercised with miserable faces; when we live with mixed motives and no longer even try to resist behaviour which compromises our purity. No! Rather, whenever these facades of false humanity crack, in our lives as in the lives of others, and this often happens under the stress of our inherent flaws and duplicity, then and only then God’s grace can again flood in.
And you are joyful ministers of that grace.
In a moment you will stretch out your hands to receive the anointing with chrism. Such a powerful symbol of your new and definitive consecration! You reflect Jesus stretching out his hands so that they could be nailed to the Cross. Yours is the lesson of the Gospel: that a servant is not greater than his master and if they have really persecuted him, then you too will be persecuted. But you are ready for this. Beside you, you have the shining example and powerful prayers of this great saint as well as the love, prayers and full support of this whole community. For we never follow Christ one by one, but always in company, in the company of the Church and, as priests, in the company of this presbyterate so richly visible today!
So we proceed. I now ask you to make the promises of priesthood, shaping not only this great day, but every day of your lives to come.