It was a joy this week to spend time with the group who were ordained priests in 1985. We are a diverse bunch of eight. We have aged and matured. Hopefully our “vintaging” is more good wine than old car.
We spent time over the days together chatting about life and priesthood. It was clear that over the years any distinctions between priesthood and life had faded. Priesthood had become our life. Life for us was priesthood.
Between us there was two hundred years of priestly ministry to talk about. We did a bit of this. There were some great stories told. At times the laughter was deep and prolonged.
But it was evident that over the days together a much greater presence was evident in our conversation. Jesus had called us to be his priests years ago, and now he was calling us together again. Kind of like the disciples being sent out then re-gathered at the feet of the master.
As I drove back to Christchurch I reflected that I heard very little of the adventures-in-ministry of my jubilee companions. Almost all of our conversation was about what God had done through us, despite us. The moments that we once considered to be our greatest successes, were later revealed as nothing of real substance or lasting value. Instead, the days when our failure was evident to us, became the most powerful examples of Jesus the priest at work through us.
This was most evident to us each day of the week when we celebrated the Mass. In this encounter Jesus once again becomes real and tangible in bread and wine. Each of us have celebrated the Mass thousands of times in our quarter centuries. Yet every time the journey from eternity into the present is made by the God who is with us and loves us.
And we are most open to this ultimate life-giving encounter when our weakness, vulnerability and sin is evident to us. The divine hand once again writes straight with the crooked lines of our lives. This is why we begin every Mass with the invitation to “call to mind our sins”.
In the light of this real encounter with Jesus at every Mass, it is no surprise that we talk about Him instead of us when we gather. As John the Baptist proclaims in todays Gospel: “He is the One…”
Earlier in the year I had the privilege of being a part of a larger gathering of priests. On a mild June evening, 15000 priests from all over the world reflected on the life and ministry of the priest with Pope Benedict in St Peter’s Square. The occasion was the formal closing of the Year of the Priest.
As Pope Benedict has commented in the months since, that year turned out to be nothing like we could have planned. In many ways the twelve months had brought priesthood to its knees. The media focus on the dark aspects of the life of some priests, and accusations cast much more widely, ensured that any thought of marking priestly success and achievement was wisely dismissed.
As priests from around the globe gathered in the square there was an atmosphere of festivity. It was good for us to be here. I sat between a young priest from Denver and an elderly missionary from Africa. Then, as the sun lowered behind the basilica, the formal part of the gathering began. Via video links on large screens we met priests from around the world and heard them speak about their experience of priesthood. These were powerful testimonies from a diverse range of priests. As they shared I knew again what had encouraged me to apply for the seminary thirty years ago: priesthood was, without a doubt, the greatest adventure of all.
After the testimonies Pope Benedict entered the square and was welcomed with all the enthusiasm and energy of a World Youth Day. For forty-five minutes he sat and chatted with us. The large screens brought his physical presence alongside each of us. More significantly his words spoke gently and powerfully to the heart of every one of us. Several priests asked questions to which the pope responded with extraordinary simplicity and power. I was deeply moved and looked around several times to see tears in the eyes of every priest around me.
But the best was yet to come. The Blessed Sacrament was processed into the gathering and to the altar. In one movement the priests moved to their knees as the hymn was sung. Then, silence. For fifteen minutes there was not a sound. We could say that the priests were praying in those moments and that is certainly true. But the real activity here was the activity of God forming and reforming us. Now God was forgiving and healing us. This prayer was God’s work. And we together were nothing more than simple and needy servants.
Later in the evening we moved together and slowly out of St. Peter’s square. No one was in a hurry. I knew why the disciples wanted to set up camp with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. These hours were an encounter with the God who is the source and meaning of all life. “He is the One.”
It is a privilege to continue this adventure as Parish Priest of Our Lady of Victories, St Therese of Lisieux Chatham Islands, and now St. Joseph’s Darfield.