Homily for Mass of Ordination to the Priesthood + Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord

08 Aug 2022

St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 06 August 2022

A few weeks ago the news was awash with the first pictures from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. The giant telescope, which cost $10 billion dollars to design, build and launch, is “powerful enough to catch the heat of infrared light in the cold darkness of space, but light enough to be carried by a rocket more than a million kilometres away from Earth; a machine that can unfurl and assemble itself to precision measurements smaller than the width of a virus, with a sun shield as big as a tennis court on its back.” Now from our “little blue rock in the outer suburbs of the Milky Way”, we can stare into the deepest heart of the cosmos, and “not just deep in space, but deep in time, when the first stars were burning through the fog that forged the universe. Their light has taken more than 13 billion years to reach us…”[i] For this reason, the James Webb is called a giant time-machine.

Peter Paul Rubens, Transfiguration (1605)

Much of the excitement elicited by the Webb telescope stems from its potential to tell us more about the beginnings of the cosmos. But origin stories are not just of interest to scientists. The dreamtime stories of the First Australians, the Gilgamesh Epic of Mesopotamian folklore, the alamats of the Filipinos, are all examples of pourquoi stories. The prequels and backstories common in film and pop culture also help explain what comes next in those stories. We are especially edified when worlds or individuals with dark pasts transform into something better, seeing here hope for our own redemption.[ii]

Great Christian origin stories include the creation and fall of our first parents, and the re-creation of the living world after Noah’s flood, the making of Israel from the children of Abraham, and remaking by Moses through the Red Sea. But before all this comes the Genesis of all things, when a dark chaos was turned by God’s creative Word to light and life, order and possibility.

Today’s Gospel (Lk 9:28-36) can be read as a matching origin story. Luke tells us that after being called, Peter, James and John followed Jesus everywhere. They heard Him teach and forgive sins. They saw His miracles, healings, even raising the dead. They’d thought and talked a lot about who He was. So when Jesus asked them, Peter jumped in with his declaration “You are the Christ of God.” But then came Jesus’ terrible prediction that He would be rejected and killed. What were they to think?

Fra Angelico, Transfiguration (c.1441)

Today He lets His three favourites glimpse His glory. As God the Father shone upon the dark chaos at creation saying “Let there be light”, so God the Son illumines the gloom within and around the apostles with His dazzling light. Amidst the chiaroscuro of their excitement and fear, the Father declares: This is my beloved Son, Light from Light, True God from True God, the Chosen, the One to listen to. He will transform your sickness, ignorance and sin into light and life, possibility and plan. Reflecting on today’s experience later in his life, Peter wrote that by Christ’s divine power we have not only been given everything we need for a godly life on earth: we have also been promised that we will ultimately share in His glorious nature (2Pet 1:3-4; cf. 1Pet 5:1-4).

My sons, the priesthood of Jesus Christ, revealed today as He stands arms outstretched in all His glory before the altar of the world, has been shared with His priests ever since. Like Peter in today’s Gopel, you must say “Master, it is wonderful for us to be here; so let us build you a tabernacle, your Church.” You are the ones who must now unveil His glory in the sacraments, transfiguring babies into children of God in Holy Baptism, sinners into saints in Holy Penance, and lovers into spouses in Holy Matrimony. At your hands and by Christ’s power the sick will be healed in Holy Anointing, the dead prepared for resurrection in Holy Burial, bread and wine transubstantiated into Christ’s Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist. You are the ones who must now proclaim the story of human origins in God’s creative Word, and of our restoration to perpetual light in Christ. By teaching, sanctifying and leading you will offer humanity a glimpse of the transfigured One and an invitation to join Him. You must, in St Peter’s words today, be presbyters who are true shepherds of the flock (1Pet 5:1-4).

My brothers: you have five origin stories of your own to celebrate today. Your journeys of faith were shaped by temperament and upbringing, the witness of faithful priests, religious and relatives, prayer and devotion, a yearning for more amidst the emptiness of the world. You are from diverse backgrounds: the English, Irish and Scots of the old Catholic Australia, and the Lebanese and Indians of the new. You bring to priesthood diverse experiences as an electrician, musician, water-resources engineer, construction salesmen, and a cobbler-become-risk-manager.

Family and friends of our ordinands: for all their diversity these, your sons and brothers, all speak of a powerful call to serve the Lord and His Church. During his time in the desert—not as ascetic but as a fly-in fly-out electrician, and then in the secular wilderness of Sydney—Mark credits Jesus with giving him new insight into what is truly fulfilling, leading him to a life of sacrifice and prayer. Devotion, music, formation and health challenges have all helped make Ben Gandy an “instrument in the Lord’s work”—dare I say, a musical instrument that will uplift others liturgically and pastorally. Bijoy’s Syro-Malabar relatives include a Mother Teresa sister, a Carmelite nun, a Jesuit, diocesan priests, a bishop and a Blessed: so I guess he was doomed to this vocation! Yet even he struggled to reconcile his inherited faith with his secular education, until he found intellectually serious explanations at World Youth Day in 2008 and had a life-changing encounter with Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Ben Saliba experienced a reversion to faith in his mid 20s, also through attending sound talks and holy hours; then missionary work amongst the poor in the Philippines ignited a call to service in him. And Adrian’s vocation was sparked early by a Dominican priest, and he found what he most wanted was to bring hope to others, especially the forgotten, sick and dying. At a time when fewer than half now call themselves Christian in Australia and many Christians are confused, disillusioned or disconnected, we need you five to be evangelists and saint-makers for the 21st century. My sons, brothers, and soon fathers, there are many more sides to your pourquoi stories. But if the Transfiguration is a new origin story for humanity divinised by grace, your own transformations today are a new beginning also for you. In the words of our Collect: Christ’s Transfiguration wonderfully prefigured your full adoption to divine sonship; by listening to His voice and conforming yourselves to Him, may you also be revealed as God’s beloved sons and coheirs with Christ, for ever and ever.

Thank you Father Ben and may I echo your words of thanks to those who raised the five of you in the faith, those who formed you for service as a priest, and those who made today’s such a special celebration.

A few weeks ago I celebrated the funeral for Fr Kevin O’Grady, a Sydney priest of 63 years. From an early age he loved the Eucharist and felt called to the priesthood. He was never deflected from that, describing his ordination in this cathedral in 1959 as “the happiest day of his life”. He served in eleven parishes as an assistant priest, then for eleven years as parish priest in one parish and another eleven more in another. He lived under eight popes, six archbishops and 21 Prime Ministers (they don’t last so long!), was honoured by the Holy Father for his service, and was beloved of many parishioners. If Fr Kevin said Mass everyday—and on many a Sunday and some other days he said more than one—then he offered the Holy Sacrifice a minimum of 23,000 times. Add all the other sacraments, prayers, homilies and pastoral care he gave, and that is one very well lived life! That in the very month we commended him to God we have five new priests to replace him is surely in part due to his intercession.

I said that Fr O’Grady counted his ordination day the happiest of his life. I could say the same, except that I think I am even happier on a day like this when I get to pass on that priesthood to five men of this calibre. Indeed, I get to have a happiest day of my life about once a year!

The Church of Sydney rings out with joy today that it has five new priests. Five is great—ten would be even better! Call me spiritually greedy, but the harvest is rich and the labourers too few. So I charge the people of Sydney with praying to the Lord of the harvest to send more into His harvest. And to the young men of Sydney I say: people are crying out for words of life and sacraments of grace to transfigure their hearts and lives; you might be the very one, by God’s grace, to offer them this. Come discern with us and be assured you will receive a first rate formation. May the five men who have offered themselves so generously today inspire you to give yourself over to God’s plan for you.

And to these five I say: Congratulations! Thanks be to God!

[i] https://www.smh.com.au/technology/james-webb-has-seen-billions-of-years-into-the-past-how-could-it-shape-the-future-20220712-p5b0x8.html

[ii] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-psychology-behind-superhero-origin-stories-4015776/

Introduction to Mass of Ordination to the Priesthood of Rev. Mark Anderson, Benjamin Gandy, Bijoy Joseph, Benjamin Saliba and Adrian Simmons + Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, St Mary’s Basilica, Sydney, 6 August 2022

Welcome to St Mary’s Basilica for the priestly ordination of Rev. Mark Anderson, Rev. Benjamin Gandy, Rev. Bijoy Joseph, Rev. Benjamin Saliba and Rev. Adrian Simmons. On this Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, it is fitting that we celebrate the splendor of God’s glory shining upon our Archdiocese with the addition of five new workers in the vineyard of the Lord. A sixth member of this gang, Rev. Michael Kasiita, will be ordained priest in the Archdiocese of Kampala, Uganda on the 13th of this month, and we keep him also in our prayers.

I acknowledge the presence of my predecessor as Archbishop of Sydney, His Eminence George Cardinal Pell; Sydney Auxiliary Bishops Most Rev. Terry Brady, Richard Umbers and Danny Meagher; the Vicar-General of Sydney Very Rev. Fr Gerry Gleeson; the Vicars for Clergy Very Rev. Frs Kelvin Lovegrove and Maurice Thompson; Vocations Director Fr Daniele Russo and his predecessor Fr Epeli Qimaqima. Also present are the Rector of the Seminary of the Good Shepherd Very Rev. Fr Michael de Stoop, the Acting Rector of the Redemptoris Mater Seminary Rev. Fr Marlon Henao Perez, and the Acting President of the Catholic Institute of Sydney, Dr Rohan Curnow, representing the staff and students of their institutions.

I extend a particular welcome to our ordinands’ families and friends who have nurtured their faith from birth. From Mark Anderson’s family we welcome parents Brian and Gayle as well as Mark’s siblings Ian, Gemma and Craig, together with their spouses and children; from Ben Gandy’s clan, parents Peter and Leisa, together with Ben’s siblings David, Nick, Rachel and Elizabeth; and from the Simmons family parents Greg and Donna, as well as Adrian’s two Aunt Annes. More numerous are those from India and its diaspora, from Lebanon and its diaspora: Sydney airport has been overrun and we had to limit Deacons Bijoy Joseph and Ben Saliba to a thousand of their closest relatives and friends each, but all are very welcome! I salute in particular Bijoy’s parents Joseph and Ruby, his brother Roshan and godmother Mrs. C.M. Matthew; and from the Saliba family, parents Sam and Anne, and Ben’s brother Daniel with his family.

A warm welcome to Bijoy’s relatives Fr Tom Kunnumpuram and Fr Chacko Puthiaparambil from the Archdiocese of Changanacherry, Kerala. I also acknowledge the priests of the Archdiocese of Sydney and beyond, who welcome these new brothers into their ranks with great joy, along with the seminarians who can better see the light at the end of their own tunnels today, and the lay faithful from the parishes from which our ordinands hail or in which they have served.

To everyone here today or participating by live-streaming from every corner of the globe, a very warm welcome on this most joyous occasion.

Main photo by Alphonsus Fok