Sunday, May 12, 2013

A Priest Forever

This weekend has been one of the most glorious weekends of my priesthood.  When I was assigned as pastor of Divine Providence, I wasn’t only entrusted with a magnificent faith community, but I was given the gift of having a parishioner, a seminarian who was six months away from being ordained a priest.  Now I knew this young man.  I had been his Vocation Director for three years, and he was one of my first phone calls when I received the assignment.  Even back in November I looked forward to receiving him home to his parish so that he could celebrate his first Mass as a priest with his people.  If that wasn’t enough, last month he sent me a note that he wanted me and my associate to vest him with his priestly stole and chasuble during the ordination.  Humbling to say the least.  All four of the young men ordained this weekend were seminarians under my care when I was Vocations Director.  One of them was the first candidate I ever interviewed.  And if I didn’t have enough on my mind and in my prayers this past week, on Monday these four good men asked me to preach at the prayer service that is held with the Archbishop the night before the ordination.  No pressure.  I want to share with you some of the things I said to them and some of the things that I had written down and didn’t have a chance to say to them. As I wrote these lines last week, they reminded me of the greatness and the challenges of the priestly ministry which I was ordained into 11 years ago yesterday.  Here are excerpts from my reflection on Friday night:

“[My brothers,] during the month of May, the majority of the priests of this Archdiocese celebrate the anniversary of their ordinations. It is a time in which we are reminded of what each of you will experience tomorrow and in the years to come.  You will become part of a great fraternity that has also responded to the voice of the Shepherd.  That is why tomorrow after the Archbishop lays his hands on you, every priest will follow in kind.  We are united by the Holy Spirit and overjoyed that God has called four good men to join our ranks to strengthen our fraternity and to help us in spreading the good news of our Savior. 

[This past Holy Thursday, our Holy Father, Pope Francis during his homily at the Chrism Mass, gave us a wonderful catechesis on the priesthood using the images of anointing and the Good Shepherd.  Tomorrow morning, after having imposed his hands on you and ordaining you priests forever, Archbishop Wenski will anoint your hands with the Sacred Chrism.  Your hands will be set apart to consecrate and anoint.  Pope Francis reminds us that “a good priest can be recognized by the way his people are anointed…When our people are anointed with the oil of gladness, it is obvious: for example, when they leave Mass looking as if they have heard good news.”  My brothers, our people long to hear the good news.  They long to hear it in a new and exciting ways.  They long for passionate preachers of the good news who have been “anointed to bring glad tidings to the poor (Luke 4:18).”  Bring passion to your preaching.  Be authentic witnesses of the Risen Christ just like the first Christians that we have read about in the Acts of the Apostles during the Easter Season.  The good people of God, Pope Francis tells us, “long to be anointed with fragrant oil, since they know that we have it.”]

[Our Holy Father also uses the image of the shepherd to remind us that we must “go out” to go in search of the lost sheep for it is in ministering to those who are on the outskirts of society that we experience our own anointing.  As priests, we cannot be prisoners of our offices, of our rectories, or even of our altars, we must “go out” and minister to our people where they are.]

One thing that each of your brother priests can testify to is how much the people of God love their priests and how much we are inspired by them.  Yesterday afternoon, I visited with an elderly blind woman from my parish who I am convinced, because of her deep faith, sees the Lord more clearly than I do.  Yet, towards the end of our conversation she started talking about her love for all the priests who have ministered to her throughout the years and said, “Padre, yo no se que hariamos sin nuestros sacerdotes.  (I don’t know what we would do without our priests.)”  These are the good people who await you with open arms and who thirst to be strengthened by your ministry.

And how do we strengthen our people?  By being among them: dining with them as Jesus did, laughing with them as Jesus did, crying with them as Jesus did, and healing them of their sins as Jesus did.  [This is where our new Holy Father really brings it home and basically shakes the heart of every priest to remind us what we are ordained for:  “The priest who seldom goes out of himself, who anoints little – I won’t say “not at all” because, thank God, the people take the oil from us anyway – misses out on the best of our people, on what can stir the depths of his priestly heart.”  And the priestly heart is nothing more than a shepherd’s heart longing to tend to his sheep.  As you prepare for your ordination to the priesthood, it is as if the Vicar of Christ were speaking directly to the four of you with this one simple phrase: “This I ask you: be shepherds, with the “odour of the sheep.”]  Never forget that you are ordained for them.  That everything you do must point them to Christ, the Good Shepherd and eternal High Priest.  This is accomplished through a faithful life of prayer so that your heart and the Sacred Heart of our Lord beat as one.  Only then will you be able to anoint your people with the oil of gladness and only then will you bring the lost and the marginalized home.  I am reminded of something that our beloved Bishop Roman used to constantly tell us:  “We cannot wait and sit in our churches for the people to come to us.  We must go out and find them.”

My brothers, this evening, the great presbyterate of this Archdiocese along with our holy people join you in prayer as you prepare to embark on the greatest of adventures.  May you feel the power of these prayers not only tomorrow as you are ordained, but every single day of your priestly ministry, so that you may indeed go out to anoint God’s holy people with the love that he has poured out into your hearts and that you so courageously now lay down for the service of his Holy Church.  Mary, Mother of All Priests, pray for us.”

Of course, this was just the beginning of my weekend.  We had the ordination the next morning in which the cathedral shook with the joy of the people as the welcomed their new priests.  I’ve always said that every Catholic should attend an ordination at least once in their life because there you see the glory of Holy Mother Church and all her tradition that has been passed down to us through the laying on of hands for 2000 years.  We sent three buses from our parish to the cathedral and everyone was moved to tears.  As I told the new priests the night before, all priests rejoice at an ordination because we recall our own, and as Providence would have it, I was celebrating this one on my 11th anniversary of priestly ordination.  Yet, my day was not done.  Even though I had told my staff months before that I wanted this weekend to be entirely about our newly ordained priest, last week they held a mini coup d’état and my associate moved some Masses around so that I could celebrate my anniversary Mass with my family, friends and parishioners.  Many who were present in the cathedral on Saturday morning and were planning to attend the new priest’s first Mass the next day were present on Saturday night to celebrate my priesthood which really isn’t mine for it belongs to them.  Because every time I take a piece of bread into my hands and say, “Take this all of you and eat of it.  For this is my body which will be given up for you,” I’m not merely reciting the words of consecration or just repeating what Jesus said, the priest, who is acting in the person of Christ, is also telling his people, “Take, this is my body which is given up for you, which I lay down for you as Christ did, which no longer belongs to me but belongs to you.”  I still recall the night of my first Mass when I held that piece of bread for the first time and recited those words for the first time and raised that glorious and precious host.  Right there in my newly consecrated hands was the summation, if you will, of the love that Christ has for me in giving of himself in the Eucharist but also of the love that I have for him and for his holy people.  Right there, in these unremarkable, unworthy hands, Christ is given up for you and this servant gives himself up as well.

I heard this phrase over and over again this weekend, and I reminded the new priests as well:  “Thou art a priest forever.”  Our church was packed today to witness a newly ordained priest tell his people for the very first time:  “Take this all of you and eat of it.  For this is my body which will be given up for you.” What a blessing.  There is no greater life.  No greater calling.  For every single day, I give my life to you.