The Rector writes …
The 4th Sunday of Easter is called “Good Shepherd Sunday” because in the Gospel passage set for that day Jesus defines his own ministry in terms of shepherding. As a consequence, the Archdiocese mandates a collection to support the training of our seminarians (to be taken after all Masses this weekend). Of course, we realise that these are not easy times to encourage fresh vocations. There can hardly have been a time in the long history of the Church when its priesthood has been so denigrated or questioned. It would be wrong to look outside to try to explain away what has happened. The weakening of the struggle for personal holiness, combined with a diminishment of pastoral zeal, can be identified as an attempt to identify with the realities of a secular society, but allowing the world to write the Church’s agenda is to play a risky game, and as Benedict XV1 has recently reminded us it comes at a high price..
That being said, it seems right to use the occasion of the annual collection to underline my own belief in priesthood. I was ordained as an Anglican fifty years ago and I have been a Westminster priest since 1996. Through these decades there have been difficult times. I remember a conversation with Cardinal Hume in which he said that the older he got the more conscious he became of the many individuals he had failed. I can identify with his sentiments. But I can say in all honesty that I have never doubted that this is the path which God has marked out, and that, for me this is the only way to salvation. At base there is the conviction that the vocation to priestly ministry is a tremendous gift and privilege – something which although received in frail, earthen vessels still retains the touch of divine authenticity.
Saint Gregory Nazianzen (Patriarch of Constantinople in the 4th century) offers these thoughts: “we must begin by purifying ourselves before purifying others: we must be instructed to be able to instruct; become light to illuminate, draw close to God to bring him close to others; be sanctified to sanctify, lead by the hand and counsel prudently. I know whose ministers we are, where we find ourselves and where we strive. I know God’s greatness and man’s weakness but also his potential (What then is a priest? He is …) the defender of truth, who stands with the angels, gives glory with the archangels, causes sacrifice to rise to the altar on high, shares Christ’s priesthood, is divinised and divinises”. That last phrase encapsulates everything. A priest is a priest because he shares Christ’s priesthood. Like every other Christian he is being “divinised”, remade in the image Christ, but what sets him apart is that he is a minister of sacramental grace, a conduit – not its source, but its servant. It is his duty, as it is his joy, to be able to offer others the effective means of salvation. In Saint John Vianney’s’ phrase the priest is to show his brothers and sisters the way to heaven.
Karl Rahner one wrote a reflection with the title: “The Man with the pierced Heart”, in which he relates the priesthood of Jesus to those whom the Church needs to ordain. “Tomorrow’s priest will be the man with the pierced heart, from which alone he draws strength for his mission. With the pierced heart, pierced through by the godlessness of life, pierced through by the folly of love, pierced through by lack of success, pierced through by the experience of his own profound unreliability. I say he is the man with the pierced heart because he is to lead others to the very core of their existence, to their inmost heart,” To be a Christian, to be a priest, is to accept the nature of Jesus’ pierced Heart. Good Friday is an eternal reality. But the cross is only one side of the Paschal Mystery. Out of suffering and humiliation come the green shoots of new life. Easter has to be an eternal reality as well. The Cure’s d’Ars said that: “the priest continues the work of redemption on earth – the priesthood is the love of the Heart of Jesus”. Pray for more priests: pray more for your priests: pray, above all else, pray for a holy priesthood.