I was privileged to be asked to give the homily at the Mass of Thanksgiving of Fr. Isaac Fransen who was ordained in Hamilton on Saturday 17 July 2021. Here is my text.
We have gathered this weekend, at this Mass of Thanksgiving this morning and the ordination yesterday, because of one man. A man we know and love. We are his family and friends, representing his parish and diocesan community. There are many things about him that we like and which attract us to friendship with him. And there will be some other aspects that we think might be a bit extreme: perhaps this man is taking relationship with God a bit far… leading him to give his life in such a radical celibate and obedient way.
The man I am speaking about is Jesus Christ.
We are here for Jesus since we are his family and friends, his parish and diocesan community. Yes we are attracted to him and yes we resist him. We are here to worship Jesus seeking deeper friendship with him, attracted by some of his teaching, and a bit hesitant about his unrelenting demand that we love, that we live justly and forgive those who have wronged us. Yet, despite our hesitations and reservations, we are here as disciples of Jesus Christ.
There was a New Zealand bishop a few years ago who would use his ordination homilies to make a point directly to the one he was ordaining. To the ordinand who seemed to struggle with obedience the bishop would preach about the perils of disobeying his bishop. To the one who was a bit unreliable and all-over-the-place the bishop emphasised priesthood as the Sacrament of Order.
In one of these ordination homilies we thought the bishop might have gone a bit too far. The one being ordained was a talented guy who seemed able to turn his hand to anything, so, naturally, following his made-to-fit homily style we shouldn’t have been surprised when in his homily the bishop addressed the young man directly saying “today as you are ordained as a priest of Jesus Christ, you bring…you bring… nothing!” Your life is now about Jesus who fills our humble nothingness with his abundance.
And so this weekend Isaac as you are ordained a priest, it’s not about you. It’s about Jesus. Yes you do have gifts, both natural and the result of your learning and the fruit of your growth. And we your family and friends appreciate and love you with your talents, your friendship, your witness to us. But at best you are, and we need and ordain you to be, a sign which points us to Jesus Christ, leads us to Jesus, carries us even to Jesus Christ who is God-with-us.
As a sign you follow the model and method of Mary mother of Jesus, Mother of God, the one who lived her earthly life for her Son, and now in eternity remains an ultimate sign directing us and leading us to Jesus..
And it is no coincidence that this morning the gospel reading has Jesus speaking especially to those of us in this church today who feel weary, uncertain, vulnerable, we of weak and faltering faith. Let us hear Jesus speak directly to us the words of this passage we have just heard saying ‘You must come away to some lonely place all by yourselves and rest for a while.’
Why would Jesus say this to you Isaac today, just as others are thinking your training is complete and you are ready for a life-time of labour in the Lord’s harvest? Why? Because the disciple is the one who lives with Jesus, who converses with Jesus. For emphasis I’ll use the prophet’s attention-grabbing sentence-starter from today’s first reading: “Doom” to you and to all of us if you (if we) do not live in constant conversation with Jesus … we will become frustrated functionaries in an ailing and flailing and often failing organisation, rather than a vessel carrying life-blood for the organism that is the Church, the body of Jesus Christ on earth.
You may have heard the story of the parents who brought their new born baby home to meet their four year old toddler. They had prepared their little boy well for this moment of meeting, explaining that God loved their little family of three so much that he was giving them a little sister, a present directly from God for them. The meeting was an encounter of delight as the parents watched their little boy look at, nervously touch, then hold his new sister. After the introductions it was bedtime and with the baby settled in the cot and her brother in bed in the room next door the parents relaxed for the evening.
After a few minutes they heard, through the baby monitor, a sound they recognised to be their son entering the baby’s room. They weren’t worried at all, just a bit curious. Then they heard their boy speak, obviously to the baby, saying, “Please tell me what God is like, I think I’m beginning to forget.”
Please tell me what God is like, we think we are beginning to forget.
Isaac, every day of the years ahead, please tell us, show us, what God is like….otherwise we will begin to forget.
That’s why Jesus invites us to a lonely place, where he has us to himself, to remind us. to listen to us, to love us, that we might re-member.
In this beautiful thought we can understand the prophet’s reprimand: Doom to the shepherds” Why? They, those shepherds, have forgotten, they have forgotten to re-member what God is like.
The rector of the seminary for the years I was a seminarian was a wise and holy man, Monsignor Tom Liddy. He understood well that while a young man might learn some things in a seminary, his true maturation as a disciple of Jesus Christ and his real formation as a priest began on the day of his ordination. For Tom the seminary was a bit of a prep-school and it was with ordination that the more advanced stage of priestly formation begins with a great team of professional educators, formators teachers… I’m speaking of you, people friends, family, parishioners, you who live the ups and downs of relationship with Jesus in families and farms and factories and clubs and pubs and every part of the city the region and the world. A few of us at Holy Cross Seminary and Good Shepherd College have done our bit and our best. Now Isaac Fransen the priest is your student and you are his teachers in the Higher School of faith and priestly formation.
Monsignor Tom Liddy knew many years before Pope Benedict wrote that “all human believing is a believing WITH. “There is a mutual give-and-take in faith in which priests and people become mediators of the nearness of God for one another.” Benedict continued as if he was repeating Tom’s wisdom: “The priest must also nurture the humility of such receiving in himself.”
So in preparation for this reflection this morning I took the advice of Pope Benedict, repeated so often by Pope Francis who also speaks of this new era in which bishops and priests and even popes must listen to and learn about adult faith from the people who in their baptism have accepted the call to be professional disciples of Jesus.
Over the last couple of weeks I have told a number of people that you had asked me to preach at your Mass of Thanksgiving, and I have asked them what I should say in this homily.
First there were the women working in a diocesan office. When I dropped in they were ready for a friendly chat, excited about the new grandchild of one and the challenges of the day ahead for each of them. I asked them what advice they would give to priests, and especially to the newly ordained priest. Their reply came quickly and clearly: “We need our priests to not be afraid of their vulnerability. We need priests to be authentic and to be people of integrity. Tell Isaac and other priests not to be afraid of friendship.”
Then there was the father of the young family. He and his wife had invited me to have dinner last week with their family of several children who were full of great company questions and inspiration, and especially delighted when they wanted me to teach them how to add a decade of the Rosary to their nightly prayer time. The next day I sent a text of thanks and asked the father for his thoughts for today’s homily. Within sixty seconds he had texted me back: “John tell Isaac that becoming a priest and accepting the call from God is such a blessing. As you know, the impact priests have on families like us can be life changing. We are so blessed to have you all in our lives. A true gift from God” He finished “Will pray for Isaac with the family tonight”.
Remember these inspirations, don’t forget, never forget, Re-member. You will use this word every day at the heart of the Liturgy of the Church: “Do this in memory of me.” And, to savour the origins of the word re-member for a moment, you will serve to re-member (make one again) all the diverse parts, the members, into one united body, the body of Christ…. in this very real sense you will re-member Christ.
Your call is unique Isaac, distinctive, often misunderstood, not to be a priest of a Religious Order, but a priest of a diocese where we recognise the order of Jesus Christ in the diversity of the situations we find ourselves in in the local church, for you this diocese of Hamilton, under the leadership of the diocesan bishop.
Again it was my wise seminary rector who taught me that a priest of a religious order who lives in a community of two or three priests serving a parish must find his first community in the monastery or house in which he lives. A diocesan priest, whether living alone or with others, is to find his community in the parish or the chaplaincy he serves. This maybe in a city or an isolated rural district, a chaplaincy or a unique ministry, that is, wherever there are people, a diocesan priest will make his home among them, with them, and for them.
I like the quote of one priest who said that he was not called to be a Dominican like Dominic or a Franciscan like Francis, but a diocesan priest like Jesus!
I’m going to leave the last word to one of my recent teachers, an older woman who doesn’t keep great health and who I have the privilege of taking communion to. I asked her too, what should I say to this new priest. She didn’t hesitate: Tell him I am praying for him. Then she reminded me of the prayer she prays after receiving communion, words of your friend Isaac, the friend of many of us, Fr. Graeme written by him in his parish newsletter just one month before his tragic death. He wrote“Remember: (there’s that word again), Remember, God is always faithful to his promise. Regardless of what adversity we face, there is always a way through. Put another way, there is always hope.”