30 May 2019

Redemptoris Mater Seminary, Chester Hill

It’s a hard time to be a priest. First the Royal Commission, then the conviction of Cardinal Pell; the media are getting ready for further excitement around that latter in the weeks ahead. At his request I’ve said very little publicly, lest it damage his appeal. But there is so much we might like to voice about the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ and ‘what-to-dos’ of all this. I suspect many faithful Catholics have been traumatised by it all; it has rocked my own confidence in my country, its legal institutions, media and culture, and even to some extent in my Church. Many clergy and seminarians are feeling vulnerable, to false accusations, angry attacks, abandonment by the Church.

Tonight’s readings highlight the difficulties of the Christian life and especially, dare I say, of the priesthood. Jesus doesn’t promise us a bed of roses. In His farewell discourse He promises His disciples “weeping and wailing, while the world rejoices”(Jn 16:16-20). In Corinth Paul encounters Aquila and Priscilla exiled from Rome under the Emperor Claudius (Acts 18:1-8). In fulfilment of Jesus’ prophesy, persecution was already commonplace in the Roman empire for Jews and Christians and would become worse in the decades to follow. But there is trouble within the family also: when Paul tried to preach to those who should be most open to the Word of God – God’s Chosen People – he was firmly rejected, insulted for good measure, and forced to preach thereafter to Pagans rather than Jews. It was a key turning point in his mission…

At a gathering of priests and seminarians in Philadelphia St. John Paul II said that the priestly vocation is not a call-up of an unwilling conscript to God’s army, but instead a sublime self-offering of the volunteer. “Our vocation”, he insisted, “is a gift from the Lord Jesus himself. It is a personal, individual calling: we have been called by our name, just as Jeremiah was.”[1] By invoking this image of Jeremiah the Holy Father highlighted three essential aspects of the ordained priesthood: its prophetic, personal, and permanent nature.

First, the prophetic. To say a priest is prophetic means more than he’s a good prognosticator: it means he is one sent to speak on behalf of God, and by word and deed to speak a truth that is often unwelcome, counter-cultural, confronting. The prophets of old could behave rather strangely to draw attention to their message – Jeremiah buried his loincloth, walked around naked for days, then dug his jocks up and put them on again, smashed a good deal of pottery, and on one occasion pretended to be a dumb animal wearing a yoke (Jer chs 13, 19, 27 and 28). Jeremiah was not alone in such behaviour: Isaiah also preached naked – for three years (Isa 20)! Now, I don’t want any of you adopting such unhygienic or immodest practices, or destroying the dining room crockery, or otherwise requiring the Rector to send you for counselling!

Nonetheless, such strange prophetic behaviour tells us seminarians and priests should not be fashion-plates, not be too flamboyant, not too self-conscious about their dress. Self-respect and fruitful interchange requires a certain standard of clerical attire, but simplicity of dress should set a cleric apart from others for divine service rather than over others for personal power; it should focus attention away from ourselves and towards Christ. A simple exterior should indicate an inner dedication and point to values beyond those of wealth and vogue.

Whether it’s prophetic dress or behaviour or words, the first duty of the priest is to proclaim the Gospel.[2] And that, as Jesus warns, may turn one family member against another, synagogue against believer, court against innocent citizen (Mt 10:17-23; 24:9-10; Mk 13:12; Lk 21:12; Jn 15:20; 16:2). Instead of cosying up to power, the priest must be ready to speak truth to power and suffer the consequences. Which is not the same as finger-wagging or being permanently critical, angry, dismissive. As St. John Paul II reminds us, our preaching should be and invite “a personal, living encounter – with eyes wide open and a heart beating fast – with the risen Christ”.[3]

Which brings me to the second aspect of prophetic priesthood: personal mission. When generals are conscripting armies they don’t much care about who the soldiers are, their life-histories, personalities, aspirations: they are just looking for obedient footmen of a certain age and fitness. God’s call to the priesthood is of a different sort. Just as God called Jeremiah specifically and by name, so too does He call each one of us, as individuals. We can’t pass the call onto someone else. No-one can fill our place. The prophets were always particular men. When we are asked to give our life in order to get it back again (Mk 8:35) it is our life and no other that we are asked to give and are given back; it is your life, your passion, your energy God wants, not just anyone’s.[4]

Finally, the call of Jeremiah to prophetic service and personal vocation, was also a call to total surrender. Give God your all, he seems to be saying, even your underpants! And this, I suspect, is the real roadblock for many. We’re happy enough with going on stage as prophetic preachers. We like bringing our individuality to the task. But to compromise our will to others, to the Church, to God: that’s just not cool in today’s world.

Yet no-one is forced to be a priest. We might sense a gentle nudge or a powerful push, a quasi-seduction or a persuasive argument: but it is always, as St John Paul insisted, a gift, not an ox yoke, something freely given and received. God is no Indian-giver: the grace He offers He never withdraws. So we must be no Indian-receiver: the gift of the priesthood we unwrap in seminary and ordination is for keeps. And as God willingly receives our gift of self in Baptism, Confirmation and Ordination, so “we cannot claim back our gift once given. It cannot be that God, who gave us the impulse to say Yes should now desire to hear us say No.”[5] Priesthood is permanent, an indelible seal, a character carried into eternity. And “the celibate ministry of love and service according to our Lord’s example” is, John Paul explained, a powerful sign of “the totality of the Yes”.[6]

Prophetic, personal, permanent: this is what vocation is about. It’s no bed of roses, as I said. But nor is it always a crown of thorns. Jesus concludes His warning that we will experience sorrow with the promise “but your sorrow will turn to joy”. Paul is cast out of the synagogue, yet his very next converts were “Crispus, the president of the synagogue, and his whole household”. There were enemies for him in Corinth, but great friends also: Aquila and Priscilla, Silas and Timothy, Justus and Crispus. “A great many Corinthians who heard him became believers and were baptised.” By God’s grace many such moments of prophetic, personal, permanent joy will be yours also. God bless you all!

[1] John Paul II, Homily, 4 October 1979

[2] Vatican II, Presbyterorum Ordinis, 4

[3] John Paul II, Homily in Santo Domingo Cathedral, 26 January 1979

[4] John Paul II, Letter to Priests, 8 April, 1979, 5

[5] John Paul II, Homily, 4 October 1979

[6] Ibid.