Today we stand with our Blessed Lord at the beginning of his ministry as he went about preaching a Gospel of repentance and joy: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
But though he was the Son of the Living God, he was also Jesus of Nazareth. Full God and fully man…a man like us in all things but sin: like us in our limitations, as well.
So he had to call helpers: Apostles and their successors, Bishops, and their helpers, the Priests: helpers to carry his Gospel of Joy to the ends of the earth: to Cappadocia, and Thessalonica and even Boston.
That is why, at every Ordination to the Priesthood, the Bishop prays:
And now we beseech you, Lord, in our weakness,
to grant us these helpers that we need
to exercise the priesthood that comes from the Apostles.
For over a thousand years, the Church has prayed those words, because she knows that no Bishop can evangelize the Church all by himself. That is why at every ordination the Bishop looks out over the local Church which God has placed in his care and beseeches God to look on him in his weakness, and give him the priests he need to teach, sanctify, and govern this people whom God has placed in his care.
And that is what this seminary, this holy house is about: helping men to discern a vocation to the priesthood and forming them into the kind of Priests their Bishop needs them to be. And that is why you love and support this holy work: for without your support this seminary would cease to be, and without this seminary we would have no priests, and without priests the Church would cease to be.
It is a holy work, and one of the most important works the Lord entrusts to the Church to carry out. And one that finds its fulfillment in ordination.
Like the day of my own ordination.
Almost thirty four years ago I was laying down on the carpet at Saint Paul’s Cathedral in Worcester as the cantor led the gathered Congregation in the Litany of Saints. At twenty-seven I had no idea what God held in store for me, But I did know that the carpet was itchy against my nose, and I remember thinking that with all the anxiety coursing through my veins that I was feeling a bit dizzy. Which is when it occurred to me that at least if I fainted while laying on the floor, I wouldn’t have far to fall.
But I didn’t faint. Rather, I stood up and knelt before Bishop Flanagan and felt his hands upon my head and heard him pray to God on my behalf. The prayer he prayed, has been used by Bishops to make Priests for over a thousand years. It asks God, “the author of human dignity” to draw near, recalling how when Moses and Aaron found it hard to govern the Israelites, God “chose men next in rank and dignity to accompany them and assist them in their task.”
The life of a Priest is pure grace, seldom easy, but always exquisitely beautiful. I wish I could tell you what it feels like to hear a penitent weep when welcomed home after 35 years of being lost. I wish you could know what it’s like to give viaticum, anoint in faith, and commit a soul to God as she breathes her last breath.
To be and be called “Father,” to so many, to be called to preach the Gospel with conviction and joy, to be invited to bring Christ’s healing presence and truth to the most intimate pains of the human heart.
And most of all, to join the sacrifices of your lives to the one perfect Sacrifice of Christ offered upon this altar, and to receive the power through Christ to transform mere bread and wine into his own Body and Blood. To stand behind that altar before which I was ordained, and to offer the sacrifice which is the source and the summit of each and all of our lives.
In almost thirty years, I have never doubted, even for a moment, that God chose me to be a Priest. Oh there have been good days and not so good days, trials and temptations, fears and exhaustions. But all that goes with being a human, and it is in my humanity, and with my weaknesses, and even with my sinfulness that God has chosen me to be your Priest and to make me strong in Christ.
Sometimes its hard to tell. That’s why we call it discernment. For example, I think of John. John was twenty years old when Father Balley opened a seminary near his home town. The problem was that John was not very good at academics, having no more than a little arithmetic, history, and geography from his elementary education.
His early writings reveal that he found Latin extremely difficult and he and his best friend Matthew would sit up late at night reciting declensions, which he never really mastered.
But if this wasn’t enough, a war broke out and John was drafted into the army. After basic training he lasted less than a week. You see, in the morning his regiment was due to march into battle for the first time, so John got up before the sun rose and snuck off to Church to pray. However, he lost track of time, and when he returned to camp his regiment had already left. While he escaped being punished for that incident, he soon decided that military life for not for him and he joined the resistance, deserting the army and serving as the schoolmaster in a nearby town under an assumed name for over a year. When he eventually contacted his family, his father, was naturally furious with him. In the end, his brother volunteered to join the army in his place and no charges were ever brought.
So he returned home to try the Seminary again. However, his Latin was still so bad, that he failed the entrance exam the first time around, but kept trying and eventually passed.
Three years later he was ordained a Priest and sent as the associate to Father Balley, the good Priest who first encouraged him before the war. But Father Balley died within a few years and Father John was sent to one of the smallest and most remote parishes in the entire Diocese.
And from that parish, John Baptiste Vianney, the Cure of Ars, transformed the Priesthood and revitalized the Church, which is why Pope Benedict XVI named him the patron of all Priests in the Year for Priests, for Father John “taught his parishioners [not just by words, but] primarily by the witness of his life.”
But if God could work through Jean Baptiste, he can work through these men who sit among you, who need never fear: for if they listen carefully for his voice deep within their hearts, he will strengthen them and form them and make them shepherds after his own heart.
Pray for these men. Work for these men. Support these men. For God who has begun the good work in them will bring it to fulfillment.