St Carthage’s Cathedral, 6th April, 2009
Dear brother Priests, Deacons, Religious Brothers and Sisters, Seminarians, and Catholic people of our Church of the Diocese of Lismore:
Once more we are back in the Mother Church of the Diocese for this annual Mass, and I welcome you all most warmly, especially those of you who have travelled some distance from your home parishes to be here. This Mass is a very special manifestation of the unity of our Church, the priests gathered around the high priesthood of the bishop, and all of you, Christ’s faithful, in all your variety and gifts gathered together with your shepherds, a people of one faith, one Lord, one baptism. How intimately we are related by that one baptism, most particularly by our sharing, each in accordance with our part in the Church, in the one Priesthood of Jesus Christ.
Especially since the impetus of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council on the sharing of all the baptised in the priestly office of Christ, we have come to appreciate better, and more effectively encourage, the Christian people in their own degree of priesthood conferred by baptism and confirmation. This teaching appears from the beginning, it is of apostolic origin, but at times it has been obscured by a much stronger emphasis on the distinction of the priestly character of those ordained in the Sacrament of Order. In modern times, the priestly character of all the lay faithful was brought to the fore by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical on the Mystical Body of Christ, in the hey-day of the movements of Catholic Action. Even earlier, in 1937, an Australian bishop, Justin Simonds, Archbishop of Hobart and later of Melbourne, had written a Pastoral Letter On our Incorporation into the Priesthood of Christ. At the time it was misunderstood and criticized in some quarters as giving rise to confusion regarding the uniqueness of the ordained Priesthood, but it still remains a beautiful teaching later vindicated and expounded upon by Popes and an Ecumenical Council, as the foundation of the mission of every member of the Church to bear witness to the Gospel.
The doctrine of the Priesthood of the Laity is not under challenge today, even if it is not fully appreciated, but questions do surround some aspects of the practical application of lay ministry within the Church as it relates to an appreciation of the unique nature of the ministerial priesthood, without which there would be neither the Eucharist, nor even the mission of the Church herself.
It is within this context that there is significance in the recent announcement by Pope Benedict of a Year for Priests, to commence in nine weeks time, on the Feast of the Sacred Heart. While the Holy Father does express concern at a trend to dilute the priestly rôle in some places — perhaps having in mind such developments as entrusting to lay people more regular liturgical functions than are envisaged for Extraordinary Ministers — the principal objective in establishing the Year for Priests is to encourage priests to strive for the spiritual and moral perfection which is the hallmark of an authentically priestly heart, and on which above all, he says, the priestly ministry depends.
On this occasion I wish to commend to everyone of us, priests and laity alike, this initiative of Pope Benedict for the encouragement of our priests. Day in and day out they labour to encourage you in your Christian life and build up the Church in the parish. They bear the brunt of the effects of the increasing secularisation of our society, with its indifference to religion and reluctance to engage in any binding commitment that compromises the pursuit of material and pleasurable goals. They often receive more criticism and complaint from people with unrealistic expectations, than they do compliment and gratitude for their generous spiritual service, their devotion to prayer and liturgy, and to the teaching of the faith of the Church. As men who have given the totality of their lives to the service of Christ and His Church, including the sacrifice of a home and family of their own, it is not loneliness simply to be without the physical presence of a wife and family. The loneliness that can most crucify a priest, that nails him to the cross like his Master, that can pierces to the soul, is a loneliness that comes from the indifferent crowd and the mockers who whisper, ‘Come down from the cross.’ It is the loneliness that comes when a priest must live face to face with practical unbelief, with diminished numbers of men and women whose hearts are fired by faith, by love for Christ and the Church; when he cannot lean on the support of those who share the great ideals of the common tradition and are committed to the same loyalties. This is the loneliness of the modern Gethsemane. How this Holy Week of the Lord’s suffering and death goes to the heart of the priestly vocation, when only Mary and John and those few good women stood with Him against the darkness.
But then, as God had planned, comes the triumph of the Resurrection. As it is with the Church, so it is with the priest. If we have an eye for them, green shoots of new life are also breaking out, signs of spring appear. The new family that moves into the parish, the success of new initiatives in the parish school, the response to a crisis that brings things to a successful outcome, the appearance of young people at Mass and the sacraments, furtively and timidly perhaps for fear of their peers, the young people who follow their heart to seek direction and power from a source that will not fail them. God does have his ways, the unseen ways of grace. And our diocese: we went those seven years to 2008 without an ordination. But look at the young faces in the sanctuary tonight, and pray for these seminarians, the future of our presbyterium. And more are set to join them. For those studying at Vianney College, the coming Year of Priests has an added significance: it marks the sesquicentenary of the death of the saintly Curé d’Ars, St John Vianney. After having been dismissed by some as an unrealistic model, he is being rediscovered in the idealism of the young. Inscribed on the base of his statue in the grounds of a new house of formation I visited in England last year I read the following prayer: “Holy Curé of Ars, you have become an outstanding model for the priests of the whole world. Give our priests a love of the Church, apostolic zeal and steadfastness in faith. Awaken in the hearts of young people an awareness of the splendour of the priesthood, and the joy of responding to the call of the Good Shepherd. St John Vianney, intercede for us to God. Through you, humble and faithful pastor, may we be granted an abundance of priestly vocations to serve the people of our diocese.”
There is another sesquicentenary occurring at this time which I believe is also significant for priests. It is just past the 150th anniversary of the birth in Dublin of Joseph Aloysius Marmion. During his studies in Dublin and then in Rome at the College of the propagation of the Faith his ambition was to become a missionary priest in Australia. But on a visit to the famous abbey of Maredsous in Belgium he discovered the call of the cloister. Strongly dissuaded by his bishop he nonetheless persevered, and eventually was permitted to enter Maredsous where, to honour the place of his birth, he took the religious name, Columba. Older priests will know the rest of his story. He later became the Abbot of Maredsous and one of the greatest teachers of the Christian spiritual life in the 20th century, far beyond his death in 1923. His teaching is recognisable in a number of the documents of the Second Vatican Council. That’s not surprising, because the records show that after the Bible, the Catechism of the Council of Trent and the 1917 Code of Canon Law, the spiritual books of Dom Columba Marmion were the most universally read by the bishops of the Council. Christ in His Mysteries, Christ the Life of the Soul, and Christ the Ideal of the Priest sold some 1.5 million copies in many languages. “I owe more to Columba Marmion for initiating me into things spiritual than to any other spiritual writer” is the testimony of Pope John Paul II. The same Pope beatified him in the year 2000.
In the last four years modern translations and reprints of Blessed Columba Marmion have appeared and are popular again among young Catholics rediscovering the Faith, and among a new generation of seminarians and priests.
I speak of Marmion as an early influence on my own life in bringing together, in a simplicity that one could understand, all the aspects of the Gospel – as a life to be interiorized, and as a life to be lived. I’ve no doubt Pope Benedict would commend a rediscovery of Marmion as a very profitable project for all of us priests during the coming year. The book which I sent to each of you recently, Reclaiming our Priestly Character, prompted me to dust off my original editions of Christ in His Mysteries and Christ the Ideal of the Priest, and once again to add the reflection of a few pages of Marmion to my daily prayer. It is still as fresh and beautiful, but I have to say I find it a challenging reminder of how one can slip backwards, without even realizing it, and why we need this annual occasion in which to renew the Promises of our Ordination.
Now in this Mass of the Holy Oils, Christ in His Mysteries will reveal Himself in all his sacramental beauty and power, and take us up with Him, and those whom these Oils will anoint in the coming year, closer to the Kingdom of the Father. Mary, Mother of the Church and Mother of priests, pray that it may be so.