A number of Food For Faith followers have requested to read the homily given by Bishop Basil Meeking DD, Bishop Emeritus of Christchurch, at the Christchurch priesthood ordinations earlier this month. It is printed in full below.
A major challenge facing religious faith and the mission of the Church today is the Catholic who is so bound up in himself, that he makes himself the centre of the world rather than God his Creator. This individualism found expression in the writing of the British poet Philip Larkin who was not a believer; thirty years ago he wrote:
“Putting someone else first
so that you come off worst?
My life is for ME
As well ignore gravity.”
Poor Larkin! He could not live with the logic of love. That individualism was a problem in the beginning, when Adam tried to make himself God: it is surely a problem today when it has come to be nothing less than the pattern of much human life and is a source of the dominant atheism. That individualism has a practical outcome in the demand for freedom of choice, even when that would destroy innocent human life. It is expressed when someone’s goal in life is “to be his own person.” That is the mentality of our Kiwi culture. It is the culture from which our seminarians come, it is the culture in which our priests have to live and to exercise the priesthood of Jesus Christ.
A response to this kind of thinking is found in a book written over 50 years ago by the American bishop, the Venerable Fulton Sheen. Its title is: The Priest is Not His Own. The book shows that the Catholic priest belongs to someone else; he cannot simply be “his own man.” His very soul bears the mark of Christ’s ownership which is the character that conforms every ordained priest to the eternal High Priest. As the second reading of this Mass from the Letter to the Hebrews shows, Christ is the Priest; the ordained men are his ministers, his servants, So when a priest exercises the priesthood he has received, he acts, not in his own person, but in the person of Christ and by Christ’s power. So a priest cannot draw the map of his own priestly existence; his life is defined by a deep relationship with God the Holy Trinity, with Christ the Son of God and with the Church which is Christ’s Mystical Body. I remember years ago hearing a priest of this diocese, then quite young, exclaiming with delight: “I now see that a priest is someone in a unique relationship of being and of love with God.”
That is what defines all of us Christians from the day of our baptism as the priestly People of God. That is what in a quite unique way defines the man who receives the sacrament of holy orders which Deacon Graeme Blackburn, Deacon Alister Castillo and Deacon Huynh Than are to receive today. The priesthood, in its origins and in their future exercises of it, is, in the words of Pope St. John Paul II, a relationship which arises from the Holy Trinity and especially with Christ, a relationship which is prolonged in the communion of the Church. As the holy Pope said: “Through the priesthood which arises from the depths of the ineffable mystery of God, that is from the love of the Father, the grace of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit’s gift of unity, the priest sacramentally enters into communion with the bishop and with the other priests in order to serve the People of God who are the Church and to draw all humankind to Christ, as he wills. The most fundamental of all these relationships is the priest’s bond with Jesus Christ, Head and High Priest.”
The Catholic priest then always in an unchangeable way, finds the source of his identity in Christ the Priest. That is what it means to say that the priest is not his own. He is Christ-centred, Christ-related. The whole of his priestly life is necessarily a striving to be what he has become in ordination. Christ is the source of all priesthood. Through baptism, dear sisters and brothers all of you, the faithful, share in Christ’s priesthood; it is that which enables you to participate spiritually in the Mass, to receive Holy Communion and the other sacraments, Ordination does something more. Vatican II teaching on the Church in Lumen Gentium tells us the ordained priest alone is given the sacred power to shepherd, lead and govern the priestly people and to offer the sacrifice of the Mass in the person of Christ. That is because the priest has himself become a sacramental sign of Christ. He is given a new order of being; his relation to Christ and through Christ to the Church becomes part of what he is and of his ministry.
Ordination is a marvel of transfiguration by the gift of an anointing by the Holy Spirit which gives the new priest in his inmost being a likeness to Christ permanently and indelibly. The priest acts also in the name of the people; that is only because he first represents the person of our Lord Jesus Christ who is the Head of the members of the Church and who offers himself for them.
The word “icon” these days is widely used improperly in a secular sense by publicists and journalists to refer to something outstanding. Its true meaning is of course a sacred representation of Christ, of his works of salvation and of his saints, a representation which in a sense makes that person or event present. In that way the word icon has been used since the early days of the Church especially in the East. The Fathers of the early Church spoke of the priest as the icon of Christ because he bears inwardly the imprint of Christ. St. Thomas Aquinas has a similar idea when he says the priest is “the figure and expresses the form of Christ. The priest bears the image of Christ in whose person and by whose power he pronounces the words of consecration.” In St. Luke’s Gospel which we have just heard read, Christ is the principal sacrificing priest; in the Mass he uses the ordained man as his human instrument to convert bread and wine into his body and blood and thus to make present in a sacramental manner the sacrifice of the Cross. The Catholic priest bears indelibly the image of Christ the eternal High Priest. That is what is to be brought about in these three deacons by their priestly ordination today. From today they are no longer their own. They will belong irrevocably to Christ the Priest and the Holy Spirit will equip them to carry on the mission of Christ and his Church with theological and moral integrity and by a holy life. They become icons of Christ the priest.
That will be realised fully in you Graeme, Alister and Huynh, as new priests, to the extent you are in constant communion with Christ by prayer. Our Lord became a priest when in the words of St. Cyril of Alexandria he was made flesh, man like all of us. In other words it is also as man that the Son of God is Priest. That is why his sacred human heart is intrinsic to Christ the Priest; it is the sign and source of his unique sensitivity and compassion and love. This truth has essential implications for the spiritual life of the priest. If the priest is to be Christ-centred he has to be focussed on Christ’s own human centre, his Heart. It is from the Sacred Heart of Christ the Priest that every act of your divinely given priesthood will flow. It is to the pierced and wounded heart of Christ that you can bring your own broken and wounded heart for healing and restoration. Every priest needs a right devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a devotion that is strong and tender, a devotion that is not effete or simply sentimental but that is called forth in your hearts by the love Christ has for all of us his priests and people.
Your priestly relationship with Christ brings with it other relationships. As a priest you have a new and deeper relationship with Mary the Mother of Christ and the Mother of Priests. This is much more than a pious figure of speech. The surest means for a priest to maintain that Christ-centred relationship which is his priesthood is through the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and devotion to her. She, of all human beings, is the most Christ-centred, It was in her womb that Christ became a priest; at Nazareth she was the first educator of Christ the Priest. Mary will keep loving watch over you her Son’s priests and over your priestly development; being a man is essential to Christ’s priestly office; but it was through a woman that he was enabled to take up that office.
As Vatican II kept insisting, your priestly ministry means being configured to Christ, shaped in his likeness. However this transformation which begins today with your ordination is not immediately entire. It takes place over time and not without a struggle. You have to work on it. Being a priest is indeed “a work in progress”. But as it goes on you are able to reflect more perfectly the light of Christ in your words and in your pastoral charity. As a priest you are able to bring Christ into the midst of the world in an amazing way. However you do so in and through the weakness of your own person. You are transformed in ordination but as a believer who struggles to persevere in the darkness of this world; you can do so by means of the faith, hope and charity you received in your baptism. You will absolve people from their sins; and yet you yourself remain a sinner, subject to similar weaknesses, similar hesitations and fears; you are called to be instruments of Christ the one priest, to be an alter Christus, another Christ in the midst of this complex world and with the complexity and limitations that are within each of you; always therefore you ordained men are called to the same profound and lasting conversion so that over time the clarity of Christ’s truth may shine through you more and more brightly. You will have to keep praying: “Yes, Lord, I am weak but your grace is powerful and victorious and in you alone can I find the strength I need to become fully what you are making me in ordination.”
By having such profound mercy on a poor human being as to make him a priest, God shows the depth of his love for the whole human race, God chooses us imperfect human beings as priests because he wills that his Church might know the love of Christ our Saviour for the sake of the world.
My dear young men you are to be our priests; be always aware of what you are becoming today, another Christ, a sacramental instrument of the Lord, a living tabernacle of the presence of Jesus in your very person. Even while you remain a human creature with the traces of original sin in you, by ordination you are made holy with a priestly holiness, a holiness worthy of the altar and of Christ’s sacrifice which through you will be made present upon it. You have been chosen by Christ to receive the imprint of his own priesthood in your souls so that your destiny is linked to him in a bond that lasts into eternity. What a challenge, what a demand that is upon you but what a privilege too. May the Lord make good and bless all through your lives the great work he is beginning in you today.
Ordination photo album at this link