Bishop Anthony Fisher’s Homily for Ordination of Rev. John Watkins to the Priesthood
|‘Do your part in the work of Christ the priest with genuine joy and love …’ Photography: Alphonsus Fok and Grace Lu.|
During the filming of a movie in France in which he played GK Chesterton’s famous Father Brown, Sir Alec Guinness returned to his lodgings still dressed in his cassock.
Before he got there a young child ran up and took him by the hand saying, “Walk me home Father!” The trust the little boy showed came from knowing that a Catholic priest should be a second father. Guinness was so moved that he decided Catholicism deserved further examination. So began his conversion.
In his diary he wrote: “Continuing my walk … I reflected that a Church that could inspire such confidence in a child, making priests, even when unknown, so easily approachable, could not be as scheming or as creepy as is so often made out. I began to shake off my long-taught, long-absorbed prejudices.”
Such faith in priests has sadly been betrayed at times, sometimes terribly. Yet still we crave for spiritual fathers. This morning the young man is called John; this afternoon we will call him Father. It is a title of respect, but not, I hope, of distance: indeed, it should be one of endearment and trust.
Yet it is a strange thing to find people your parents’ and grandparents’ age, including bishops, priests and all sorts calling you Father and holding your hand to their forehead for a blessing. Strange because it makes you seem older than you are or feel you are; older, and more responsible. Strange, also, because it makes strangers seem to be your intimates; willing to call you Dad, as it were, and so make you family.
At Baptism Christian mothers give thanks for the safe delivery of their child – and Christian fathers give thanks that they did not have to go through it themselves!
In a sense, for us priests, the labour pains begin only after we have brought forth a child of God from the font. Pouring water and the names of God over the baby, the priest consecrates this child to God for the life ahead. Anointing the baby’s ears and mouth, the priest prays this child will hear and, in turn, proclaim by word and deed the saving truth of Jesus Christ.
Calling that baby to return in due course to the altar to complete initiation through First Holy Communion and Confirmation, and to return thereafter regularly for Confession and Eucharist, and less regularly for marriage, holy orders, anointing of the sick or Christian burial, the priest offers this child a life of encounters with Christ and the surest path to eternity. At every point he is Father to this baby, sharing in the parents’ hopes, the Church’s hopes, God’s hopes for this child, and in their responsibility for its upbringing.
John was little more than a child himself, an altar server, when his parish priest and fellow parishioners suggested his call might be to the priesthood. Though his family’s custom was to serve in the uniform of the armed services, he was already destined to serve in another way, with the helmet of salvation and the armour of light, that is, the priestly vestments.
Christ came as the new Adam, the new spiritual father and head of the human race. He made the Church for Himself as His bride and for humanity as its mother.
When he does those things most central to his priestly identity Fr John will stand in the person of that new Adam, in persona Christi. Priests of Christ exist to raise the children of God to full stature and, like the Good Shepherd, willingly lay down their lives for their flock.
So, my dear son John, how will you care for God’s children, pasture His flock, feed His lambs? Two ways, in particular, lie before you now. I have already mentioned the Sacraments of Faith: know what you are doing and imitate the mystery you celebrate there. Remember that you are chosen from among God’s people and appointed to act for them in relation to God.
The other nourishment you must offer them is the Word of God. Our readings today declare your duty is to speak not your own opinions, not what you imagine your hearers might prefer to hear, but the very words God puts into your mouth (Jer. 1:4-9), the knowledge of God’s glory (2 Cor. 4:1-2, 5-7), the truth for which Christ consecrates you (Jn 17:6, 14-19).
You must hold fast to the mystery of faith, which you preach and express in action what you proclaim by word of mouth. Make of your life a Gospel wherein all may read the Word of God.
Today you offer yourself to God. Your family, friends and diocese join in offering you up for transformation into a new person, a sacred person, a spiritual father. The people of God invite you to share in the most crucial aspects of their lives: their births, marriages and deaths, their sins and aspirations, their moments of touching the sacred and times of feeling God’s absence and their own desolation.
Do your part in the work of Christ the priest with genuine joy and love, and attend to the concerns of Christ before your own. Sharing in the work of Christ, the head and shepherd of the Church, and united with your bishop, seek to bring the faithful together into one family and to lead them effectively, through Christ and in the Holy Spirit, to God the Father.
Like the young Jeremiah in our first reading you are humbled and awestruck by your calling; like him, therefore, you must rely on God’s grace. “It is not ourselves that we preach,” Paul reminds us, “but Christ Jesus our Lord”. It is not our own power that is the treasure in these clay pots of our bodies, these earthenware jars of our lives, but God’s power that can do such great things in us.
Trust in that power, my son, and pray constantly for it. Lean also on your fellow priests and faithful who stand by you this day. We pray that you will have many brother priests as co-workers in the vineyard of the Lord – and so I ask the young men of our Diocese to discern their vocation with prudence and embrace it with passion.
Likewise, we need many more holy religious and I trust that the recent celebrations of St Mary MacKillop will inspire renewal and regrowth for religious life in our Diocese and beyond.
Recently, I was asked by a parishioner: Did I enjoy the ordination of Mary MacKillop? She was not being provocative and I knew what she meant. It is interesting to reflect on Mary’s views on the priesthood. St Mary of the Cross was a realist about bishops and priests: she suffered active opposition from some, passive resistance from others, but support from others again. She knew their strengths and weaknesses. But in her letters and actions her love and reverence for the priesthood was undoubted. This spiritual mother for our nation called the likes of you Father. May our country’s new saint intercede for you. And may that first Mary, the Mother of God, to whom you consecrate your priesthood, protect you always.
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