Gregory and Nicholas,
The combined rite of ordination for a priest and a deacon of Jesus Christ is one of the most awesome rituals in the church. For you this is a most important moment on your journey through life as you respond in your particular ways to the call to holiness which God, our Father, has planted in your heart. The gospel today reminds us that you are being sent, just as the Father sent Jesus. So his mission becomes our mission.
In responding to this call you now find yourself at this daunting juncture and you may now feel the weight of the church on your shoulders and perhaps you are feeling whether you are worthy to live up to the expectations of your family and friends, of those responsible for your formation and of your brethren who have placed their hope in you. But the Lord will support you as a priest and as a deacon, after all you will be his priest and deacon and this church is his church. So you have no need to worry.
There is much joy to be discovered as you learn to serve God in new ways. The spirit that we will pray for specially to be bestowed on you, Gregory, is the spirit of holiness – a spirit of sanctification. And you, Nicholas, as a deacon you will receive a spirit of ministry, of service. By the way, as a bishop I received at my ordination a governing spirit. This one and the same spirit is the one who gives us the power to carry out our calling, but not as burdens to weigh us down but as a joy that brings us closer to the Lord and his people. And holiness means joy. Saints are very happy people.
First I must speak to Nicholas:
The change which takes place when the sacrament of order is administered the first time by the laying on of hands is to bring about in you a moment of grace which is expressed as service. To be a servant you have to be obedient and humble – these are not your strong points for most Dominicans, but you will need to live out this sacrament in its fullness to allow your encounter with Christ to transform you.
Humility for the deacon begins with the chalice that you are accepting. It is not a cup of privilege. I want to tell you that you this from the beginning. You would think that to drink from the same cup as the Master would ingratiate you with him and give you a special place at his table, the table of the Lord. You might think it will give you status and power, after all you will be standing next to priest in the liturgy, you will be proclaiming the Word of God made present us in the scriptures. You will be preaching as well as proclaiming, making the word fit in to the lives of the hearers. If you are not careful, it could all go to your head.
No, the cup that you will have a special responsibility for in the liturgy is nothing less than the cup of our spirit’s grief – to quote from Fr. Kevin Nichol’s most beautiful of modern hymns. That is the focus of the ministry you are accepting today. The cup for which you have a responsibility is the cup that is full of the tears of humanity: tears of sadness and joy. The cup that you will hold is the cup that contains the blood of Jesus, our Lord and Saviour, which was poured out for us and for the many. It is the cup of the blood that dripped from the dying Jesus into the earth beneath to sanctify it and redeem it. That cup is your responsibility as a deacon. That chalice holds the Word and the Love of God: two aspects of the one Christ and the two elements of your ministry as deacon. The symbolic functions that you will carry out in the sanctuary are but a reflection of the ministry you will conduct as you serve God’s people. That is the reason for your ordination. You are ordained to service, and it is in the case of a deacon a very special service amongst the people of God: when the people gather in church you will have your liturgical role – proclamation of the Gospel and a special care for the chalice amongst other things. When the people disperse into the world outside of church you are to be there as one who serves: exercising a ministry of love, exercising a ministry of the Word. This is where obedience comes in – obedience to your bishop, yes, but also obedience to the cry of the poor, the utterings of the faithless and sobs of those who are lost. You will reach out to those who need human contact, the lost and forgotten, and bring to them a taste of God’s concern for them. You will be able to show them that God’s Love is not simply the love of a God who is with us in sorrow and in our loss, but a God who brings us the joy of the resurrection of his Son. You are to be Christ to such people, a brother amongst the lost. You are to break God’s word with them: show them how reflection on the word of God contained in Holy Scripture is life giving and transforming. I hope therefore that you can see that the ministry you are undertaking is principally a ministry of service amongst God’s people – that is where the emphasis should lay, not in the liturgy. Liturgy falls into place naturally as a celebration of your role in the community. The diaconate is a ministry in its own right and I would exhort you to enjoy it for what it is and not as a steppingstone to priesthood.
This however is the moment when you will remind yourself of your commitment to celibacy: an unmarried life not knowing personal intimacy or the satisfaction of children and grandchildren. That is some of the personal sorrow you will hold in the chalice, the cup of salvation. You take this brave step, which is very hard, almost impossible for flesh and blood to bear (no psychologist would recommend it) – you take it because of your love for our Lord. You take it because you want to witness by your celibacy to the values of God’s Kingdom where our earthly scale of values has little or no meaning, where our unity with Christ is all we have. The cup of salvation holds all our hopes and desires. What shall we do to give thanks to the Lord except to offer the chalice back to the Most High – in your liturgical ministry you will hold aloft that cup. In your hands you will hold the ultimate meaning and end of service: Christ’s blood poured out for all.
Sharing in the joy of the Spirit, as a priest, is not as straightforward as it may seem at first. One thing that those who study theology agree upon when asked, what is a priest? Is that a priest is one who offers sacrifice. Offering sacrifice is how we worship God. That is not surprising, even for Catholics; after all, the Epistle to the Hebrews explicitly defines the priesthood by means of the sacrificial function. It is Christ who both as priest and victim enters through his death into the glory of his father thus making the Father accessible to his people. Divisions are reconciled, barriers are torn down and through Christ we are reconciled to the Father. That is the one and the same sacrifice, which you will celebrate as a priest as you stand at the altar every day of your priestly life. But if, as we believe, where you stand at this same place stands Christ, then you are not only sharing in his priesthood as a priest but like Christ you share in his priesthood as victim. Like Isaac who carried the wood to make the fire ( a priestly function) on which it was intended that he should die, foreshadowing Christ who carried the cross on which he was sacrificed so too you will carry the means of your sanctification, the cross of Christ, so too you will share in the victimhood of Christ. As you offer your life as a priest – the celibacy, the service of God’s people the simplicity of your manner of living, your prayer - you will consecrate yourself, drawing ever closer to Christ.
St. Augustine links priesthood to sacrifice: "because there is a sacrifice there is a priesthood", he says, and "if there is no sacrifice there is no priesthood” In the Summa, Saint Thomas declares that the chief office of the priesthood is to offer sacrifice." In his lectures on the Epistle to the Hebrews, he declares even more emphatically that Jesus is a priest because he offered himself to God the Father.
From today you will share in the quality or should I say character, which makes it possible to present oneself before God in order to secure his favor and so to establish communion with him by means of a sacrifice pleasing to him. You do this not only for yourself but for God’s people, and to establish this communion means to reconcile sinners, and this implies that sins are either covered up or atoned for. It is, then, the sacrifice of atonement that determines the function of the priest.
That may come as a relief to you. There are so many expectations placed on a priest today. You really do have to be all things to all people. But if you cannot sing, run a youth group, pack the church with people hanging on your every word, don’t worry, you might be able to learn these things as time passes, but the reason for you being here today is none of these but to be ordained to offer sacrifice.
Let me put this another way. The priest as priest is a minister of the Eucharist, and because the Eucharist is the sacrament that sums up all the mysteries of the faith, celebrating holy Mass is the principal act of the minister of Christ's priesthood. It is the act that defines what the priest is. In your hands the many grains that make the one bread become the Body of Christ to be broken and shared among his people. As a consequence it becomes imperative that having been fed with the Divine Food we go out and share unblessed bread with those who hunger, as we share the cup it becomes a spiritual necessity for us to quench the thirst of those who yearn for truth and justice. Your actions as a priest compel us all to engage with the world around us.
So you should not stay in church just celebrating the sacraments for such as care to attend. As a minister of Christ you are ministering to the Word made flesh, a Word that needs announcing more than ever before in these troubled times; a Word that brings truth and healing. So you have to be out there with the sheep, as Pope Francis put it, getting the smell of the sheep. That is where what you are doing at the altar gets fleshed out. It is in your service of others that you have to shed so many of the things that matter to the others: pride, honour and riches, and embrace poverty, insults and humility, so that by your self-sacrifice those who are lost may feel the warmth of Christ’s love and through him be reconciled to the Father.
In the priesthood of Christ the two functions of being the victim and being the one who offers the sacrifice are inextricably linked. But being a victim in this sense brings life, and opens up the dreamed of future: eternal life. You will bring hope to those who are downhearted, you will go out to the lost and bring them home, you will give meaning to the lives of those who have no purpose, you will call the people of God into being and you will give them increase.
Today is the feast of our Brother Blessed Robert Nutter; may he take special care of you Gregory, the church's newest priest, and Nicholas the deacon. He understood what sacrifice meant and was prepared to be a victim rather than give in to evil. Many years of imprisonment followed by a short ministry and then execution remind us of the suffering many Christians endure even in these modern times.