20 Feb 2019

Seminary of the Good Shepherd, Homebush

Wednesday of the 6th Week of Ordinary Time Year 1

What’s different about priests? Strange clothes and even stranger personalities? A super commitment to God and the Church? Being professionally religious? Well, in the face of a radical treat to the priesthood in 1563, the Council of Trent taught definitively that the priesthood is essential to the constitution of the Church, that priests are only made by the Sacrament of Holy Orders conferred by bishops in succession to the apostles, and that this sacrament imprints the candidate with a character.[1] Lots could be said about that ‘character’: that it is ontological not merely professional, that it is life-long not merely temporary, that because it is permanent it is unrepeatable, and that it is vocational – a calling and gift, not just a personal option. Priests are priests even when on holidays, retired, or asleep. Far from encouraging a culture of privilege, this doctrine should impress upon us our responsibility: to be Christ’s visible representatives in all we do, 24/7, and never disgrace our Holy Orders, our Church or Christ Himself by abuse of power or shameful acts.

But what precisely is our task, what are the Orders and character for? Against the Protestant Reformers, Trent defined priestly power and responsibility as consecrating and offering the true Body and Blood of Christ and absolving sins. It is a minimalist description, focusing particularly on what no-one but priests can do, and is not meant to be exhaustive or to exclude the munera of governing, preaching, pastoral care or sanctifying in other ways. Even Trent’s list of sacramental tasks is minimalist. As men of the sacraments, priests are involved not just in Confession and Eucharist, but in Baptisms and Marriages, and various sacramentals, blessings and liturgical acts such as Funerals. Too easily overlooked is what is now called the Sacrament of the Sick. Though Trent listed it amongst the seven sacraments, it neglected to treat of it as one of the essential aspects of the priesthood.

So where does it come from? Mark records that on the Lord’s instructions the apostles “drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them” (Mk 6:13; cf. Mt 10:8; Lk 10:9). In the Letter of James Christians are told: “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the Church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the Lord’s name. And the prayer offered in faith will heal the sick man; the Lord will raise him up; and… his sins will be forgiven.” (Jas 5:13-15) So care for the sick, and therefore hospital and aged care ministry, as well as parish ministry to the elderly, frail, sick and disabled, are not just for hospital chaplains or lay pastoral workers, let alone for healthcare professionals and social workers: they are absolutely mainstream priests’ work.

It all started with today’s Gospel passage. The Church, in the guise of a blindman’s friends, brings him to Jesus – just as the Church today brings the sick to her priests or priests to her sick. The Lord takes the man aside for privacy, and anoints the man’s eyes with Jesus’ own saliva, which heals him (Mk 8:22-26). In John’s version Jesus makes a paste out of soil and saliva to anoint the blind man (Jn ch 9). You – and your people – will be pleased to know you will only be called upon to anoint with oil – not spit or mud! But the point remains that we have received the sacraments from Christ, that priests are men of the sacraments, and that to mediate sacramental graces they use natural signs and symbols of water, oil, bread, wine and hands.

Jesus didn’t have to do things this way. He could simply have thought the thought “Be healed” and people would be healed; or said the words “Get up” and people would be raised (cf. Mk 5:40-3; Jn 5:8). But He knows we are physical beings and need to see, touch, taste, smell and hear if we are to perceive and believe. In today’s story He even repeats the anointing for good measure…

That repeat performance is interesting. Some sacraments are oncers: Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage (generally speaking), and Holy Orders (in its three degrees). Others are repeat sacraments: Holy Communion, Confession-Absolution, and the Sacrament of the Sick. We have a recurring need for healing and nourishment, and it is both physical and spiritual. In ancient Semitic idiom being ‘blind’ meant being obstinately immoveable.[2] When Jesus said a healthy eye enlightens the whole body (Mt 6:22-23), He wasn’t confused about physics and biology: He was describing our need for inner light parallel to torchlight, for both sight and insight. Our repeat performance today makes this point: Our Lord is curing the man not simply of a physical ailment, but of a spiritual one too. As James puts it, “the prayer will heal the sick man… and his sins will be forgiven.” We are all that blind man repeatedly in need of healing and nourishment, both physical and spiritual, and so we need priests…

There’s another repeat performance in our readings today: Noah sends out the dove three times (Gen 8:6-22). The number, of course, is no accident: three Angels of Mamre for three Persons in God, three days in the whale’s belly for three days in the Tomb, three affirmations by Peter to expunge three denials. The angels in heaven and Mass-goers on earth say “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus”. For the Semites three times is superlative, definitive, complete. Once or twice, you might change my mind; but three times establishes a pattern. It’s only because Noah sends out the dove three times, that we know that he was willing to send it out again and again, as often as required, so firm was his trust in God and patience in the meantime.

The 12th century Benedictine exegete, liturgist and musician, Rupert of Deutz, had an interesting take on this passage. The dove, he says, is to be understood as the Holy Spirit, sent to the faithful three times: “first, when they are baptised; second, at the imposition of hands by the bishop; and third, at the resurrection of the dead.”[3] Priests are men of the sacraments only because they themselves have been sacramented: they have received a superabundance of the Holy Spirit so they can be dispensers of that Spirit. The second time the dove is sent out in Noah’s story, it returns with an olive branch, the symbol of peace. So too, when the Holy Spirit is sent a second time to confirm young men and make them priests, God calls them to be bearers of the olive branch of Christ, of the Word of Peace in preaching and teaching, governance and care.

I call on that divine Dove, the Holy Spirit, to guide you in your formation and studies this year. I petition Christ the Priest to continue to heal and nourish each one here. I beg our Heavenly Father to guide your vocations directors, Rector, formators, families and friends in their task of accompanying you in your discernment. And I commend you all for your courage and generosity in giving yourselves heart and soul to discernment and formation for service, as dispensers of the sacraments of healing and nourishment, and as bearers of the olive branch of Christ’s Word to the world. God bless you all!


Seminary of the Good Shepherd, Homebush

Wednesday of the 6th Week of Ordinary Time Year 1

Welcome dear seminarians to this morning’s Mass to open the seminary year. I acknowledge concelebrating with me this morning the Rector of the Seminary of the Good Shepherd, Very Rev. Danny Meagher, along with seminary staff Frs Simon, Arthur and John, and vocations directors, spiritual directors, and brother priests. I also recognize other seminary staff. Above all, I welcome the 55 seminarians in formation from 10 dioceses who are ready to begin their formation for the year – 13 of you for the first time! – with your families and friends. To your familes I say: you are not losing your son; you are gaining a dozen more…Happily you won’t have to feed, house and clothe them: that’s my job! But a very warm welcome to you all.

[1] Council of Trent, Session VII.

[2] Cf. John J. Pilch, “Blindness”, The New Interpreters’ Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 1 (2006)

[3] Rupert of Deutz, Commentarium in Genesium, on Gen 8:10-11a; see Joy Schroader, The Bible in Medieval Tradition: The Book of Genesis (Eerdmans, 2015),p. 115.