Given on the feast of St Barnabas, 11 June 2016, at the diaconal ordination Mass at Westminster Cathedral.
Dear Carlos, Joseph, Julio and Michael, thank you for offering yourselves today for service as deacons. By ordaining you on this feast day, the Church gives you a good patron to accompany you for the rest of your lives in the person of Barnabas the apostle.
Did you know his name means, ‘son of encouragement’? So, if ever you feel discouraged, as of course you will from time to time, then remember Barnabas; turn to him for encouragement and I’m sure you will derive a renewed strength and energy.
Luke tells us in this passage from the eleventh chapter of Acts, that Barnabas ‘was (indeed) a good man, filled with the Spirit and with faith’.
He first appears on the stage of history in chapter four, when he sells his estate and lays the proceeds at the feet of the apostles. It’s clear, from the success of his mission and Paul’s to the people of Antioch, that he was endowed with a great gift for preaching and teaching.
The ‘Holy Spirit said, “I want Barnabas and Paul set apart for the work to which I have called them.” So it was that, after fasting and prayer, they laid their hands on them and sent them off.’
We believe it’s the same Holy Spirit who chooses Carlos, Joseph, Julio and Michael to be set apart today for the work to which he calls them. And so hands will be laid on them and they will embark on what promises to be a rich and fruitful diaconal ministry by way of preparation, before long, for priestly ordination.
‘You received without charge,’ Jesus tells his apostles. ‘Give without charge.’
A radical sign of these four men’s desire to give of themselves fully to this ministry is the promise they will make to be celibate, ‘to remain celibate for the sake of the kingdom’.
To promise celibacy always was a most generous act but the fact that it’s so counter-cultural today makes it more generous than ever. Of course, it’s because it goes so much against the prevailing culture that it speaks so loudly, at least to those who have the ears to hear and the eyes to see; it edifies and encourages them.
I don’t believe we can live celibacy unless the Lord is calling us to. The Lord himself said celibacy for the sake of the kingdom is only for those to whom it is given.
That’s why Pope St John Paul II stressed the need for those of us who feel called to diaconate and priesthood to pray for this gift: pray earnestly for the gift to be celibate.
Over the years in seminary, you see your peers approach the day when they will make the celibate commitment, and how it becomes a part of their spirituality.
I remember how encouraged I was to hear one of my year, when asked, ‘Why celibacy?’ reply, ‘Well, the way I see it is this. If I’m to preach a crucified Christ then Christ must be crucified in me.’
‘If I’m to preach a crucified Christ then Christ needs to be crucified in me.’
I thought to myself, that’s how I see it too. His testimony was a grace and an encouragement for me.
I was reminded of his words when I re-read recently St John Paul’s vision of priestly formation, which he called I will give you Shepherds. John Paul talks there about the identification with Christ crucified which is at the heart of celibacy.
Sometimes he uses the still more powerful word ‘configuration’. Identification with Christ crucified, he says, witnesses to our belief that there is value in self-sacrifice, in suffering, austerity and asceticism, especially within a culture which is so imbued with secularism, greed and hedonism.
But if we want to identify with the crucified Christ in this radically bodily way, we have to be sure we are receiving the gift to do so. Only gradually do you reach the point of being able to say, ‘Yes, I can drink the cup.’
You should always think in terms of receiving the gift, not as having received it, because, like marriage, it’s a commitment which we need continually to work at.
If celibacy is our gift, then we can derive enormous encouragement from friends and parishioners whose calling is marriage. I think the longer you’re celibate, the happier you are to say, ‘I realise marriage is no easier!’
Good married friends help me say, your ‘yes’ to Christ in each other and in your children helps me deepen my ‘yes’ to Christ in celibacy. Sometimes they will say back to you, in turn, ‘Your “yes” to Jesus in celibacy helps us deepen our “yes” to Jesus in marriage.’
But whereas the married person rightly puts his or her trust in both Christ and their spouse, the celibate puts his trust explicitly in Christ.
I will always be indebted to the priest who told me, on the eve of my diaconal ordination, to pray often those words of the Te Deum, ‘In you, Lord, we put our trust.’
Every time I pray the Te Deum, I see myself on the eve of making this commitment, and the gift of celibacy is somehow renewed in me.
In a few moments, we shall hear our candidates being asked, ‘In the presence of God and the Church, are you resolved, as a sign of your interior dedication to Christ, to remain celibate for the sake of the kingdom and in lifelong service to God and mankind?’
To reply ‘I am’ is to make a profound act of faith in God.
But I do believe that, with his help, you can make of this gift which he has bestowed on you a gift worthy of offering back to him.
I often pray those words of St Ignatius, when I’m thinking about my own celibate commitment: ‘Take, Lord, receive … You have given all to me; now I return it.’
Words of Paul to Timothy also come to mind: ‘I know who it is that I have put my trust in, and I have no doubt at all that he is able to take care of all that I have entrusted to him’ until the last day.
The last thing the bishop said before ordaining me as a deacon were words from the homily which is to be found in the Roman Pontifical: ‘Finally, on the last day, when you go to meet the Lord, you will hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of the Lord”’.
It made my spine tingle then as it does every time I remember it. ‘Finally, on the last day, when you go to meet the Lord, you will hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of the Lord”’.
I say those same words to each of these four men about to be ordained this morning. I pray that you too will hear the Lord say, when you go to meet him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of the Lord’, for, dear brothers, just as you received without charge so you give without charge.
And the gift you make of yourselves this day is truly precious in the eyes of the Lord.