By Fr Billy Swan
Thursday 21st January 2021:
God encounters us first. He makes the first move and takes the initiative.
‘You did not choose me, no I choose you and I commissioned you to go out and bear fruit, fruit that will last’ (John 15:16).
Scripture Reading: The call of Samuel in 1 Samuel 3:1-9.
The primacy of grace: ‘God loved us first’ (1 John 4:19).
The Rite of Ordination:
‘Let he who is to be ordained priest please come forward’.
‘Present’ or in Italian ‘Eccomi’. Here I am. Like faith of Mary – ‘behold me’. Her total gift of self.
Thank you brothers for responding to the Lord’s call. It is a call that arrives daily.
Thank you for all that you do. This is not an easy time. Host of challenges today we all face.
We affirm and thank others. Who does this for us priests? The Lord is well pleased and grateful to you for all that you do with selfless generosity week in week out with sometimes little thanks and recognition: ‘Well done good and faithful servant’ (Matt. 25:21).
You are cherished by God as priests, as his beloved sons. What you do matters but even more how you are matters. The Church as Mother must reflect this in her care for her priests.
Here I focus on our call and hearing that call again with renewed clarity. Here we explore that call from different angles.
(i) Called By God:
Every call issues from someone and is addressed to another. For the believer, every vocation comes from God who takes the first step in approaching the one he loves. It all starts with him. Yet we must remember that God’s call to us does not start with a demand but with an affirmation, namely of his love for us. He does not start his conversation with “I want you to do…” before he begins with “I want you to know…” namely that “I am with you and I love you”.
We see this essential connection in the Scriptures between God’s love being affirmed for the one he calls. We see it in the lives of the Prophet Isaiah who is forgiven before he is sent (Is. 6:7) and in Jeremiah who is addressed by God in those powerful words: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you came to birth I consecrated you” prior to being told “You must go to all to whom I send you” (Jer. 1:4-7).
Perhaps the best loved and best known example is in the New Testament when the risen Lord approaches the humbled Peter by the lake of Tiberias and first asks him “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these others do?” After Peter responds three times “Yes, Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you”, Jesus reminds him of what he had called him to, answering “Feed my lambs, feed my sheep” (John 21). God calls us because he loves us. He calls us after he loves us. He loves us first. It is always that way round.
God then has first claim on our lives. The Rite of Baptism: ‘Billy/John…the Christian community claims you for Christ our Saviour. I now trace the sign of the cross on your forehead.’
Counter-cultural: concept of someone else having a claim on our lives.
We remind ourselves that God has first claim on our lives, that we belong to him. This claim appears less demanding or frightening because it is always inspired by love. Once we are convinced that the one who calls us loves us first then we can be assured that his call will make us free and happy. In his meditations on the Eucharist, St John Vianney wrote: “God has created my heart only for himself. He asks me to give it to him, that he may make it happy”.
Likewise, Pope Benedict XVI spoke to the world in his first homily as Pope: “Only in friendship with Christ is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in his friendship do we experience beauty and liberation”.
So, let each us not be afraid of the call that arrives to us from God again and again. His call is not a burden but a call to freedom and the fullness of life.
With St Paul, let us repeat “I know who it is in whom I have placed my trust” (2 Tim. 1:12)
(ii) Called by name:
This brings us to the second aspect of a vocation from God, namely its personal nature.
‘He called to him those he desired and they came to him’ (Mark 3:13).
We are called individually and called by name.
‘Samuel, Samuel’ (1 Sam. 3). God calls us many times. His call is continuous, every day.
Like in the Gospels where Jesus called them by name “Peter, Andrew, Matthew…Come and follow me”, so we too, each one of us, are called by name. We are called to do what only we can do. No two calls are the same.
In the words of St John Henry Newman: “God has created me to do him some definitive service; he has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. I have my mission.”
Before he died, St Francis told his brothers, “I have done what is mine to do; may Christ teach you what is yours to do” (From Thomas of Celano, First Life of St. Francis, 214).
When I was discerning a vocation to priesthood many years ago before entering seminary, I fought with God, pleading with him to go and call someone else to this way of life, someone better than me who could serve others better than I could. After much prayer and discernment, I realized that God was calling me to the priesthood not just for others but also for me: that this way of life would be where I too would be at my happiest and so be at my best. Therefore, God is not like a big executive employer who looks for someone else if his first choice does not fill the post. God does not hire or fire. He chooses us and calls us, gently reveals his plans to us and then waits until we accept. Unlike others, he does not lose patience and offer our calling to someone else. Only we can do what he calls us to do and the good work he wants us to do remains undone until we finally give our whole “Yes”. So let each of us hear again God’s call to us personally and hear the voice of the Good Shepherd who gently whispers “Billy, John, Matthew, Kieran, Tony…come follow me not just as a priest but as my priest”.
(iii) Called to be with Him:
The third aspect of our calling is our calling to be with him. In Pastores Dabo Vobis 2, Pope John Paul II compared our time in the seminary to the time the Apostles spent in the company of Jesus before he sent them into the world to preach and to continue his mission to the world.
Using our imagination, we can surmise that these hours together with the Lord were spent in prayer and teaching but because they were human, we can imagine the time spent sharing meals, sharing stories, sharing food, water, basic accommodation, maybe sharing games and laughter. Through all this time, Jesus came to know his friends, their strengths as well as their weaknesses. He came to know them, and they came to know him.
Coming to know Jesus meant for the apostles more than noticing that he was brave, compassionate, merciful and prayerful. It also meant coming to know his great dream for the world: that we would love one another, be one family in God, and know peace”.
This is the dream for which he laboured, suffered and died. This is also the dream he has shared with us and has called us to pursue and dedicate our lives to, just like he did. For us priests in these days of reflection, it is our chance to be with him – to catch the fire again, to discover our first love and capture again the dream of Jesus and his kingdom.
It is about entering into the heart of God’s pathos or passionate love for the world and all that he has made. Today, the world longs for people who can speak to them of God, people who know God and his truth that saves. It longs too for courageous leaders who will show the way, who will guide and lead them to the light of Christ. This is our calling, to lead others to God but it can only happen if we have found him first ourselves. For this reason, we are called to be with Jesus, to know him and to make our own his dream for the world.
‘Let yourselves be totally won over by Christ…this was the goal of the entire ministry of the holy Cure of Ars; may it also be the principal objective for each one of us’. (Pope Benedict XVI, Homily Inaugurating Year for Priests, 25th June 2009).
‘Convinced of Christ: yes, I feel the need to proclaim him, I cannot keep silent. «Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!» (1 Cor. 9: 16). I am sent by him, by Christ himself, to do this. I am an apostle, I am a witness. The more distant the goal, the more difficult my mission the more pressing is the love that urges me to it (Cf. 2 Cor. 5: 13). I must bear witness to his name: Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matt. 16: 16). He reveals the invisible God, he is the firstborn of all creation, the foundation of everything created. He is the Teacher of mankind, and its Redeemer. He was born, he died and he rose again for us. He is the centre of history and of the world; he is the one who knows us and who loves us; he is the companion and the friend of our life. He is the man of sorrows and of hope. It is he who will come and who one day will be our judge and - we hope -the everlasting fullness of our existence, our happiness. I could never finish speaking about him: He is the bread and the spring of living water to satisfy our hunger and our thirst. He is our shepherd, our guide, our model, our comfort, our brother.
Pope Paul VI, Manila, 29 November 1970.
(iv) Called to be Human:
The Letter to the Hebrews: “Priests who are taken from among men and ordained for men in the things that belong to God in order to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins, nevertheless live on earth with other men as brothers” (5:1-3).
‘On the day of Ordination, I always say to priests, to new priests: remember from where you were taken, from the flock, do not forget your mother and your grandmother! Paul said this to Timothy, and I also say it today. This means that one cannot be a priest thinking that one was formed in a laboratory, no. It begins in the family with the “tradition” of the faith and with all the experience of the family’.
Pope Francis, 20th November 2015.
We are called from the worshipping community. We are a brother to others, sons of our parents, before we are a spiritual father.
PDV 43 reminds us that our first call is to be human beings: “The whole work of priestly formation would be deprived of its necessary foundation if it lacked a suitable human formation…In order that his ministry may be humanly as credible and acceptable as possible, it is important that the priest should mould his human personality in such a way that it becomes a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ the Redeemer of humanity”.
Our common humanity is the bond we share with every other person on the planet be they in Iceland or Australia, black or white, rich or poor, believer or atheist. In the plural world in which we live, we meet a huge diversity of people of all faiths and cultures, people who are friendly and people who are hostile. Often, in our encounter with them we seek to find a common link, a bond that unites us together and hence a basis for dialogue. At all times, this common bond is our shared humanity and shared existence on this planet.
‘Grace builds on nature’ St Thomas.
We all have to interpret our existence.
Claim this right to be human! Be yourself. Be human. Don’t let people caricature you or reject you because of the way you dress or what you stand for. A certain amount of realism is lost in formality. Yet we need to be professional.
For us Christians, the Church is called to show how life in Christ leads to the fullness of humanity, based on the words of Jesus “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10). This is also how St Irenaeus understood it, writing that “The human person is the glory of God fully alive”.
God’s grace beautifies the human person from within and illuminates it with the beauty of the divine presence.
At Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes placed the Church at the radical service of humanity and invited the world to a debate on the mystery of what it means to be fully human. This is why Pope John Paul II placed such emphasis on human formation in the life of every seminarian and priest for it will be the gateway through which God’s grace will flow and the conduit through which we will lead people to Christ.
St Teresa of Avila reacted against a tendency in Christian spirituality to by-pass Christ’s humanity to concentrate directly on the divine essence. Cf. St Teresa of Avila, Vita, 22.
Priests today are called to be passionate lovers of God and humanity. Our priesthood is called to be God driven and people directed.
It is only by loving our own humanity in all its beauty and shadows that we can appreciate what God has done for us in sending his Son Jesus to be with us in the fullness of his humanity.
God communicates to us through the human which is at the heart of the mystery of the incarnation.
To be authentic is what it means to be holy. My true self not my false self (Thomas Merton).
‘I thank you Lord for the wonder of my being’ (Ps. 139:14).
(v) Called to be Christian:
Our next call is to be Christian that follows our call to be human because only by being human first can we be Christian second. St. Augustine once famously said to his people in Hippo that: “With you I am a Christian and for you I am a bishop”. This captures something really important for us as priests, namely that before I am a priest, I am a Christian and so am united with the hundreds, and thousands of my fellow brothers and sisters who have been baptised with me, whom I am called to serve. As Christians, we priests have been called from the stock of our lay friends. We belong to them and they to us.
For this reason we must never distance ourselves from the people, from their joys and sorrows, from their lives. To do so would to drift into a clerical world where we run the risk of serving not others but ourselves and answering the questions that no one is asking. I remember once a debate among priest friends who wondered why many priests who leave the ministry stop attending Mass and the sacraments. One theory offered by a colleague was that very often, men became priests before they became Christians and so when they stopped being priests, they did not remain Christians either. Only good human beings make good Christians and only good Christians make good priests.
(vi) Called to Priesthood:
We are called to be human, called to be Christians and finally called to be priests. In order to understand what this means, we can do no better than refer to PDV that clarifies precisely who the priest is called to be. In chapter 22 it says that the priest at ordination is configured to Christ the Good Shepherd and visible head of the Church. It also adds time and time again that the priest is radically at the service of the lay priesthood and is linked to it by pastoral charity.
‘The more the laity's own sense of vocation is deepened, the more what is proper to the priest stands out’ (PDV 3).
When we reflect on these three themes: Good Shepherd, Christ as head and pastoral charity, we begin to understand more what our calling to priesthood means. First, being configured to Christ the Good Shepherd who calls us to be with people, to gather them, to feed them, to suffer with them and for them, to look for the lost and to protect them.
Being configured to Christ the head of the Church calls us to be visible among his people, to lead them in life and especially at Eucharist and prayer. “Thanks Father for being there”. These are the comments from the people of God that may seem trivial but contain a rich theology of priesthood.
Lastly, we are called to put on our aprons of service in pastoral charity of the people entrusted to our care. To be kind and generous and compassionate: to reveal the loving face of Christ. Being called to be priests of pastoral charity means sharing in Christ’s example of being near his people but also being for them.
Just like the Eucharist we celebrate, ours is a life that is offered, broken and shared for others in loving service: “The essential content of this pastoral charity is the gift of self, the total gift of self to the Church, following the example of Christ” (PDV 23).
‘Pastoral charity itself impels the priest to an ever deeper knowledge of the hopes, the needs, the problems, the sensibilities of the people to whom he ministers, taken in their specific situations, as individuals, in their families, in society and in history’. PDV 70.
The Church, as the late Jeremiah Newman once put it must hold on to its ideal ‘whilst leaning attentively over humankind, listening to the pulse of humanity’. J. Newman, Conscience versus Law: Reflections on the Evolution of Natural Law, Talbot Press, Dublin, 1971, 279.
Pope Francis: pastors are to have ‘the smell of the sheep’ and to have ‘an ear to the people.’ The Joy of the Gospel, 24, 154-155.
(vii) Called Now:
Particularly in the Gospel of Luke, there is a strong emphasis on the power of the present moment where the saving power of God is most active: “Today, the Scripture is being fulfilled today even as you listen” (Luke 4:21); ‘Today, salvation has come to this house’ (Luke 19:9); “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). We proclaim our faith in the liturgy and the Mass “Christ has died, he will come again but he is risen”.
The title of a book called The Power of now by Eckhart Tollev.
Evangelisation, the effect of God’s word proclaimed in the present that Jesus is Lord and replacing any ‘rival lordships’. ‘This Word is being fulfilled today, even as you listen’.
God calls us to holiness and sincerity not in the future but now, today, in this present moment. As it says in the Psalm 2:7: “You are my son, today I have begotten you”. The only “yes” that God is interested in is the one we offer now, in this present moment. That is why it is so important for us priests to be ordained every day, renewing the promises we made in the past so that become effective and real in the present. For if our “yes” is less than total now, then it will be in the future too. If it is total today then it will be total tomorrow also.
In the words of Mother Teresa of Calcutta: “Give yourselves fully to God. He will use you to accomplish great things on the condition that you believe much more in his love than in your own weakness”.
Called by God, called by name, called to be with him, called to be human, called to be Christian, called to be priests, called now. Brothers this is who we are called to be, every one of us without exception. May we be generous in responding to God’s call as he has been generous to us.
Not strategies for survival but a firm ‘Yes’ that makes us willingly choose again and respond to God’s call with our whole being.
I conclude with a reference to Mary, she who was also called to be Mother of God, Mother of the Church and in whose life we finds traces of all we have reflected on this evening. Here I make a brief reference to each:
• Called by God: at the Annunciation
• Called by name: “The Virgin’s name was Mary…Hail so highly favoured.
• Called to be with him: the early years of Jesus in Nazareth. Then she too followed him to the end.
• Called to be human: a woman, a wife, a mother.
• Called to be Christian: the first to believe in Christ, the first disciple, the first Christian.
• Called to be with priests and as mother of priests: beneath the cross ‘son behold your Mother…Mother behold your son’. With the Apostles in the Upper Room at Pentecost.
• Called now: ‘Do whatever he tells you’; ‘My soul glorifies the Lord…For the Almighty works marvels for me holy is his name’.
Today we focus on putting our full weight behind those words ‘I am’, of giving our ‘Yes’ again just like we did on the day we were ordained, with Mary, in response to the call of Christ through the Church.
‘The call of God is one of the most beautiful things on earth. Think of the interweaving of divine and human love involved in a vocation. When God calls us to a particular way of life, he looks on us with his love; the moment we become aware of it a new life begins for us. Even before we were born, God was looking at us and loving us in the setting he had always planned for us, In fact, he brought us into being to put his plan for us into operation…
Anyone who hears his call often feels fear, and even doubts or terror, but when he discovers its implications, he also feels joy. So the most beautiful moment is not when a person hears the call, but when he says ‘yes’ making God’s call real, his will clinging to God’s. It is an allegiance for life, a continual ‘yes’ to God who repeats the invitation forever’.
‘Being united to Christ calls for renunciation. It means not wanting to impose our own way and our own will, not desiring to become someone else, but abandoning ourselves to him, however and wherever he wants to use us. As Saint Paul said: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). In the words “I do”, spoken at our priestly ordination, we made this fundamental renunciation of our desire to be independent, “self-made”. But day by day this great “yes” has to be lived out in the many little “yeses” and small sacrifices. This “yes” made up of tiny steps which together make up the great “yes”, can be lived out without bitterness and self-pity only if Christ is truly the centre of our lives. If we enter into true closeness to him. Then indeed we experience, amid sacrifices which can at first be painful, the growing joy of friendship with him, and all the small and sometimes great signs of his love, which he is constantly showing us. “The one who loses himself, finds himself”. When we dare to lose ourselves for the Lord, we come to experience the truth of these words’.
Pope Benedict XVI, Homily at Chrism Mass, 9th April 2009.