This homily was given by the Bishop, Mgr. Patrick McKinney, on the occasion of the Chrism Mass, held at his Cathedral church of S. Barnabas, the 28th of March, 2018.
A new Diocesan Vocations Pack is being launched today. It contains material for parishes, chaplaincies, religious houses and schools; it’s designed to encourage everyone throughout our diocese to pray for and to support young men and women to consider how God may be calling them to serve him, and whether it might be to the priesthood or religious life. This comes at a providential time when, in the lead up to the October Synod, the Church is asking us to consider prayerfully how best to accompany young people in their vocational journey. We can all play our part by making prayer for vocations a much more central aspect of the prayer-life of our parishes, chaplaincies, religious houses and schools. We should also never forget that many a vocation has grown from a gentle tap on the shoulder, an encouraging word, or a question put to someone who it was felt had the qualities of one whom the Lord might be calling to the priesthood or religious life. Throughout the coming year there will be a number of ‘Discernment Days’ in our new Discernment House here in Nottingham; days when young people can come together to explore, without strings, what God might be asking of them. I thank our Vocations team, Fr. Paul Newman, Canon Jonathan Cotton and Sisters Susan, Maureen, & Dorothy Paul, who have worked hard to produce this pack of resources, and who are available to accompany, to ‘walk alongside’, those who may wish to spend extended periods of time living in the Discernment House. I commend this initiative to the prayers of each one of you, and to the whole Diocese. If there are people here today who would like to find out more about the House of Discernment, our Vocations Team will remain in the Cathedral after Mass to speak with you.
In just a few minutes, the priests of the Diocese, and other priests who minister within it, will renew before God and in your presence, the solemn promises they first made when they were ordained. This renewal each year of priestly promises is important, as we open our hearts afresh to the power, guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, without whom our priestly ministry would have no impact; but so also is the manner in which each priest will do this. Why do I say this? Because many people, including young people, can have a false and very negative impression of our lives as priests. Perhaps that is one reason why we do not have more vocations to the priesthood than we currently do; some young people, and indeed many of their parents, think that the diocesan priesthood is a rather sad and difficult kind of life, when, in fact, we as priests know its just the opposite. But if we as priests are convinced of this, then we must do all we can to preach this with our lives, not just our voices. The face of a happy, joyful and fulfilled priest is certainly our best vocational tool, better than any vocations pack, no matter how good. Because joy is after all one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, so there is no better sign of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives and in our ministry than a face and a heart that is transformed by joy. The joy of which I speak is of course not some passing emotional state. It starts deep within our being, bearing witness to the presence of the Holy Spirit there. Most of the time this joy lies beneath the surface, out of sight of others and, to be truthful, often out of sight of our own conscious selves; but it is there as a fruit of our responding to the promptings of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives! Many priests, if not most of us, may not always be consciously aware of how much this abiding joy brings us a deep sense of peace and contentment in our priestly ministry. As priests, as human beings, who live in a fast-changing world, we all experience, like everyone else, like those we serve, the highs and lows of daily life. Like everyone else, we are encouraged when things go well, we are disappointed when things don’t work out, and we are saddened when we encounter sorrows. The joy of the Holy Spirit, at work in the heart of a priest, is of course more of a spiritual reality. It is an enduring presence that increases as we allow God to draw closer to us, and to work in and through us. So, even in times of sorrow and challenge, this joy is still present in our hearts, bolstering our flagging spirits. There is then no better homily about priesthood than the life and witness of a priest who exudes the joy and sense of fulfilment and gratitude that is the gift to us of the crucified and risen Christ, whose weak and sinful servants we are.
As well as joy, gratitude or thanksgiving is another important part of our lives as priests, and of what we do in Mass today. As a priest we are each called to have a Eucharistic heart; a heart that has the Eucharist at its centre; a heart that is full of thanksgiving. Why do I say this? Because to preside at the Eucharist, whose very name means thanksgiving, and not to be someone with a grateful, thanksgiving heart, would seem to be something of a contradiction. To be fully a priest is to be a grateful person, for we are each conscious of our unworthiness and yet supremely conscious of the many ways this past year in which we have each been privileged to be instruments of the Lord’s love compassion, mercy, healing and forgiveness in our priestly ministry to those we serve. As a result of the National Eucharistic Congress taking place in Liverpool this September, I have been very keen to see this preparation time as an opportunity to deepen, throughout the Diocese, our collective understanding of and appreciation for the Eucharist, and to encourage more and more opportunities for Eucharistic Adoration. It is, after all, so often in times of Adoration that the Lord speaks to our hearts and helps us to discern what he is asking of us, so we shouldn’t be afraid to encourage young people to spend time before the Lord in Adoration. This time of Adoration is especially important for us as priests. In his Encyclical Letter on the Eucharist and the Church, Pope St John Paul II said: ‘The Eucharist is the principal and central raison d’etre of the sacrament of the priesthood, which effectively came into being at the moment of the institution of the Eucharist’. (Ecclesia de Eucharistia 31) Because as priests, especially today, we are engaged in a wide variety of pastoral tasks, it’s easy to become submerged under all these tasks and to run the very real risk of losing our focus. The Second Vatican Council, in its Decree on Priests, saw that the bond which gives unity to a priest’s life and to his work ‘flows mainly from the Eucharistic Sacrifice, which is therefore the centre and root of the whole priestly life’. (14) Understood in this way, the Eucharist provides the foundation, the vision, and the dynamism for our entire priestly ministry. It is in the Eucharist that we encounter Jesus. We encounter Him in his Word, in the scriptures proclaimed. We encounter Him as our Saviour, who gave himself for us in the sacrifice on the Cross. We encounter Him as the Bread of Life which nourishes us spiritually. This Eucharistic encounter with the Lord in Mass and Adoration is necessary for the spiritual well-being of all of us, God’s people; but it gives special meaning and direction to our lives and our ministry as priests. Because the Eucharist, if we allow it to have its full effect in us, will never allow us to grow stale or complacent in ourselves as priests, or in our ministerial relationship with others.
Alongside all that I’ve said, I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t acknowledge that the priesthood can at times be a challenging life; but it’s an intensely rewarding life. Those who generously commit themselves to priestly ministry find it to be a life that offers much satisfaction, and a sense that one’s life, through God’s grace, can makes a difference to the people we are sent to serve. I ask you to pray particularly for Deacon Jonny Whitby-Smith, who will be ordained a priest this summer, and for our other seminarians as they continue to discern what God is asking of them.
My dear people, religious and deacons, there isn’t a priest present who is not sustained by your prayers and your lives of faithful witness to the crucified and risen Lord. So I ask you now to pray for all the priests within our Diocese, myself included. Please pray that the Lord will continue to bless and sustain us in generous service to those in our care. My brother priests, thank you for your priestly ministry, for the care you show each other, and for your kindness and support towards me. Let us now each prepare ourselves to renew the promises of our priesthood, relying utterly on the love and mercy of God, the inspiring help of the Holy Spirit, brotherly support, and the generous prayers of the people of this Diocese.