On 1st June, the Feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Eternal High Priest, Archbishop John concelebrated Solemn Mass in Celebration of Priesthood with many of the clergy of the Archdiocese of Southwark. The feast focuses on the priestly office of Jesus, and therefore we pray particularly for priests on this day. Priests act 'in persona Christi' ('in the person of Christ'), and so on this day we give thanks to God for calling our clergy into his pastoral service and ask Him to bless their respective ministries.
Celebration of Priesthood,
St George’s Cathedral, Southwark
Feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Eternal High Priest, 1 June 2023
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ
Dear and beloved brother priests
There is a story told of Cardinal Basil Hume when he was Archbishop of Westminster. Speaking about the beginning of the ordination rite, and the presentation of the candidate, he said that when, as a bishop, he asked the question about the candidate ‘Do you judge him to be worthy?’ he longed for someone to reply ‘No.’ Then he could respond, ‘Good, now let’s get on with it.’
In gathering for Holy Mass today we are celebrating the priesthood. Make no mistake, we are not applauding ourselves, far from it. Rather, we are making an act of thanksgiving to the Father for the share we have been given in the eternal priesthood of his son.
Of course, we know that none of us is worthy of such a gift. In his book Vessel of Clay, Fr Leo Trese, about to speak to a class of children, described himself saying ‘Here comes mediocrity to teach perfection.’ It’s a lovely phrase; I know what that feels like. In another place, he points to the danger of ‘talking big and acting little.’ I know what that feels like too.
When we consider the grandeur of the priesthood, we can see ourselves as unlikely candidates for such high calling. But the Lord has called us. In fact, this truth is more specific. The Lord has called you, to be his priest, and to be his priest forever. We can only give thanks, sincerely and humbly, for what has come to us by grace for the sake of the Gospel.
Perhaps we all experience the gap between the height of our calling and the reality of our response. In desiring to be dutiful and diligent, the apostles just ended up drowsy. In wanting to give everything to the Lord, they lacked the strength simply to keep awake. We are no different. A priest friend of mine says he wants carved on his tombstone the words: ‘Paralysed by zeal.’ He says it will capture his desire, if not his output.
But those drowsy, sleepy apostles transformed the world. Despite their inadequacies, they took up the Lord’s call to go and make disciples. My brothers, their days are our days. These too are apostolic times. Throughout Eastertide, the Acts of the Apostles mapped the blueprint for what it means to be the Church. Then as now, people worshipped an ‘unknown God,’ what St John Paul II also called the ‘ignored God.’ Yet the Apostles stepped into this situation of unknowing ignorance as men of faith. They were ready to preach the word of salvation, to proclaim the God who has made himself known in Jesus Christ. We, today, need the same faith as the Apostles, faith to speak simply and lovingly, and from personal conviction, about the love and mercy of God in Christ for our world and everyone in it.
We are blessed that the Canons Regular of Prémontré, the Norbertines, have taken up residence in our Archdiocese, in Peckham. Their founder, St Nobert, wrote a beautiful reflection on the priesthood:
O Priest, who are you?
You are not yourself because you are of God
You are not of yourself because you are the servant and minister of Christ.
You are not your own because you are the spouse of the Church.
You are not yourself because you are the mediator between God and man.
You are not from yourself because you are nothing.
What then are you? Nothing and everything.
As priests, we are nothing and everything. The 'nothing' comes from us; the 'everything' comes from Christ. The Lord takes our humanity, and our discipleship, and, by the sacramental grace of ordination, shapes and moulds and configures our being to be like his very own. We are everything we are as priests because of Christ.
In a particular way, every priest can make his own St Paul’s words in the letter to the Galatians: ‘It is not I who live, it is Christ who lives in me.’ (Gal 2:20) – ‘It is not I who am a priest, it is Christ who is a priest in me.’
We act and minister in persona Christi Capitis, in the person of Christ, the Head of his Body the Church. And yet, we act and minister as servants. We are no greater than our Master who washed feet and laid down his life.
We are ordained for sacrifice, literally to ‘make holy.’ We do this in the celebration of the Mass and the sacraments; in the sanctification of our people and our world; and through compassionate pastoral service. In this work of ‘making holy,’ we cannot forget ourselves. We too need sanctification. We too are journeying in conversion and holiness. We too, as shepherds who lead God’s people, must also remain disciples who follow Christ our Saviour.
The first reading from the Book of Genesis recounted how Abraham was tested in faith, almost to the point of no return. When he took up the knife ready to sacrifice his son Isaac, the Lord responded to his faith. A ram was given for the sacrifice in place of Abraham’s son. God named that place of sacrifice ‘The Lord Provides.’ Isn’t this another way to describe what happens in our priesthood? The Lord sees our faith, and our sacrifice. And the Lord provides; and the Lord keeps providing.
St Norbert warned priests, lest what was said to Christ on the cross be said to them: ‘He saved others, himself he cannot save!’ Of course, no one saves him or herself. We are only saved by Christ, by uniting ourselves to his death and resurrection. But the point is this: priests can be so busy ‘saving others’ that they ignore their own need for salvation.
Inscribed around his alarm clock St Charles de Foucauld had the words: ‘It’s time to love God.’ We priests must be men of real prayer, even when that prayer is simple, wordless and, especially, when it seems unproductive. We priests must be men who know and love the Lord Jesus first-hand, not from books, or from others, but from our hearts. We priests must tremble with awe in the presence of the living God, happy to pause in Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. We priests must nourish our soul with the Word of God, not merely to prepare homilies, or give talks, but to draw us into loving dialogue with Christ the Word of life.
No priest can give everything to others and nothing to Christ. Whatever the obstacles, we have in our hearts that yearning to encounter Christ personally, every day. We need to rediscover our apostolic identity. The Apostles depended on the Spirit of the risen Lord to fuel their ministry. What we can offer in our own strength can be good. But it’s nothing – nothing -compared to what the Lord provides when we are in living union with him.
My brothers, our vocation and our mission, our joy and our delight, is to do the will of the Father. Thank you for your priestly service. What the Lord asks, we will not refuse. Confident that he provides everything we need, that he always works for the good with those who love him, we drink from the cup of his sacrifice because this is the chalice of salvation.
Archbishop John Wilson
1st June 2023