Homily from the Mass of Ordination – June 18, 2016
My brothers and sisters, as we begin this Rite of Ordination I wish to draw our attention back to the words of Scripture from the Prophet Jeremiah and the words of Jesus himself speaking to his disciples at the Last Supper. Within the Church’s Liturgy, Scripture is always proclaimed prior to the celebration of a Sacrament as an announcement that leads to an enactment, Word leading into Sacrament. In the readings from Jeremiah and the Gospel of John, we heard the announcement of good news in the call to serve God and others: Jeremiah called from the womb, appointed as a prophet to the nations, to go where God will send him, to speak as he is commanded, – and the disciples, called by Jesus, chosen and appointed by Him to go and bear fruit that will remain. The connection of these readings to what we are doing here this morning in this co-cathedral is quite clear. These three men – Joseph as a transitional deacon and Curtis and Matthew as priests – have been chosen by God through his holy Church to go forth, appointed and anointed through the Sacraments of Holy Orders to spread the Good News that Jesus Christ is Lord of all and the bearer of salvation to entirety of creation.
The rite of ordination makes this call from the Church quite evident at the very beginning. While these three men felt the personal call in freedom to discern a vocation to the priesthood, it is still the Church that ultimately calls them to service to the Church and its order. Fr. Schnobrich presented and called these men by name from the community. I asked him the question, “Do you know them to be worthy?” and he replied, “… I testify that they have been found worthy.” Relying on the help of God, I chose these men, your brothers, for Holy Orders and all here present showed their approval in applause.
Yes, brothers, you are called forth from the community to serve that same community and the wider Church as servants of the Church. What an honor and … what a responsibility.
When I was on the faculty of St. John Seminary in Boston, part of my work, besides teaching and formation, was a yearly evaluation of the seminarians. There was a whole process designed to both encourage and challenge the student as he moved closer to the call to Orders. This collective work of the faculty became especially profound and serious when the time arrived to vote on a man’s suitability for the transitional diaconate, the order to which Joseph is being called. You would think it would be priesthood but not so, for the Church’s teaching regarding the transitional diaconate is that it is just what it says it is, transitional, moving onto the priesthood. By ordaining Joseph to the transitional diaconate, as it was for Curtis and Matt last year, we are saying, – all things being equal – that we see in him a future priest. No need to send out a “Save the Date” card for him, though, as it will be on the third Saturday of June.
So getting back to my time on the faculty at St. John’s, we literally had to vote on whether we thought a man was ready for ordination both as a deacon and as a good candidate for priesthood. Well, you can imagine that sometime a man didn’t get a perfect vote. Sometimes it was a little bit mixed or sometimes, sadly, it was even a “no” vote. Whatever the case, the results of the vote were only shared with the man and his bishop, with the bishop making the final decision as to whether or not to ordain the man. But I can remember sitting as a faculty member at many ordinations in various cathedrals when the Rite of Election of the Candidates took place and thinking, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if the presenting priest answered the bishop’s question, “Do you know them to be worthy?” with the results of the vote: “After inquiry among the Christian people and upon the recommendation of those responsible, and a 9-1 vote for David and 7-3 vote for Michael, I testify that they have been found worthy?” Matthew, Curtis, and Joseph, you will be relived to know we won’t be doing that this morning. Perhaps next year …
My friends gathered here in this Church, you most assuredly know one, if not all of these men better than I do. I hope that each of you could share with me a resounding vote of “yes” for their being ordained. They are your sons and brothers, your nephews and neighbors, fellow members of the Catholic Church in Vermont. You have raised and nurtured them and prayed and worshiped with them. As parents you love them and as friends and family you have great regard for them as men who are willing to serve the Church as ordained ministers. But, you also know them as fallible human beings, like all of us, who are in need of God’s mercy and love. Please pray for them every day. Pray that they may be good and holy priests.
In one of his Chrism Mass homilies, Saint John Paul II spoke to the priests gathered before him who were about to renew their priestly vows – the same vows that Matthew and Curtis will be making for the first time. Saint John Paul said this, “This rite takes our minds and our hearts back to the uncomfortable day on which we made the commitment to be closely united to Christ, the model of our priesthood, and to be faithful stewards of God’s mysteries, not allowing human interest to guide us, but only love for God and our neighbor.” An interesting phrase, “uncomfortable day.” Perhaps, the Pope’s ordination was on a warm day, like ours, and the church was stuffy and hot? I know I’m a bit uncomfortable in all these vestments. But I think not. St. John Paul is reminding the priests that, if they are honest with themselves, they need to recognize the burden of the office of service and sacrifice they bear as ordained ministers of the Church and that should make them “uncomfortable” or uneasy as they consider their own human fraility.
Curtis, Matthew, and Joseph, this is an awesome responsibility that you are taking on today. I can remember the days leading up to my own ordination to the priesthood constantly thinking to myself, “Can I do this? Can I really be a good priest?” My spiritual director at the time, reminded me of the line from Mark’s gospel, “For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.” He was absolutely right. In all Christian vocations – marriage, the single life, parenthood, widowhood, consecrated and religious life – if we do not place ourselves in God’s hands and rely on his mercy and love, we shall fail.
Brothers, soon you will stand before this community and answer “I do” to the promises and vows of the priest and the deacon. It is interesting to note, as it for a bishop when he is ordained, that the last “I do” ends with an additional phrase, “with the help of God.”
“With human beings it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible with God.”
Do not forget this. When a priest or a deacon loses his reliance on God and sees himself as the source of his success, when he stops yearning for that deeper relationship with Jesus Christ, when he listens to the voice that says, “It’s all about you,” he becomes a self-made man who worships his maker. He stands atop a pyramid that is built of his own conceits and it only takes one small shove to push him off the top. But when we rely on God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, when we say “it is not about me” but about Him and His people, then our lives – but most especially the life of deacon or priest – are built on a solid foundation. This foundation is built of the bricks of daily prayer, especially intercessory prayer for the needs of others, the Liturgy of the Hours, the reading of Scripture, and the celebration of the Sacraments, the font and summit of which is the Eucharist, all of this being Christo-centric, relying on Him who alone is our rock and our fortress.
Allow God’s grace and mercy to build upon your humanity. Within our Catholic faith we often hear the phrase, “grace builds on nature.” As ordained men relying on God means to freely ask God to take our broken but redeemed humanity so as to use it as means to be a bridge between God and others. In the optional instruction that the bishop may use in this rite, the text reads, “Remember that you are chosen from among God’s people and appointed to act for them in relation to God.” You are at the service of God’s Church precisely as a man called by God and by the Church, not to be separate from the people of God but completely immersed in the people of God, one with them.
Stay the good men that you are. Engage people where they are. Go out to the margins, as Pope Francis said, and be with them. I can remember when I was first ordained. I used to play basketball in a number of men’s city leagues in and around Boston. In the beginning, no one really knew that I was a priest but as time went on they did. Over the months of playing in the league, more and more of the men would talk to me about their faith and about their families. They would ask me to do baptisms, to help them with annulments and/or to get married in the Church, even to go to Confession. I’ll never forget that. I was just out being myself, a priest who happened to do a lot of good priestly ministry but also liked to play basketball, at least until a broken ankle on one leg followed by a torn Achilles tendon on the other leg put an end to that. (I remember my pastor saying to me, “Look Wilt Chamberlain, time to decide if you’re a priest or a basketball player.”) My point is that I was not one of the guys, but I was one “with the guys.” Go out and meet the people where they are and be who you are, a priest or a deacon, yes, but also a good guy to whom people will be attracted because of your smile and your love of life and your kindness and charity. Let grace build on that nature, that humanity and grace will flow out of you in a great font of God’s mercy.
I’ll conclude with these words from the instruction found in rite of ordination:
Share with all mankind the word of God you have received with joy. Meditate on the law of God, believe what you read, teach, what you believe, and put into practice what you teach.
Let the doctrine you teach be true nourishment for the people of God. Let the example of your lives attract the followers of Christ, so that by word and action you may build up the house, which is God’s house.
Curtis, Matthew and Joseph, on behalf of your soon to be fellow priests and deacons, I welcome you with joy into the order of priests and the order of deacon and know of our prayers for you as you begin this work in Christ.