Bishop Denis Brennan homily at ordinations to the priesthood of Pat Duffy and James Cullen in St. Aidan’s Cathedral, Enniscorthy on Sunday 24th June 2012.
Some years ago a little book came out called ‘’ Letters to a Young Priest.’’ It was written by a German priest, Anton Grabner-Flaider, who some years earlier had left the ministry.
Looking back now he could see clearly what he couldn’t see at the time.
He could see that he had an inferiority complex about his priesthood. He was ministering in an affluent, largely secular society. All his contemporaries were making their mark in business and the professions and he seemed to be going nowhere.
He wrote ‘’ our society differs from that of St Paul’s time in that external persecution is rare. Yet the priest of today can still suffer deeply…….for some……his particular office and service are regarded as superfluous; there are those who look upon him as a species of pious fool……I hope you are prepared for this and have no illusions.’’
Looking back years later he is older and wiser, he can see that he was allowing the world to define his vocation for him. He wrote the book to help those in ministry who might feel now as he felt then.
Addressing young priests he wrote ‘’ we greatly need you to live your particular form of life; it accompanies the word you preach and, indeed, prepares the way for it. We need that Word for it has the power to change us, to change the world.’’
‘’By living as you do ‘’ he says ‘’ you sustain a world of meaning for many people.’’ He goes on to speak of what he calls ‘’ the anguished loss of meaning ‘’ that many people experience today.
‘’ As a priest ‘’ he says ‘’ you are helping to maintain a world of meaning for many people ‘’ though he says ‘’ this is seldom recognised by society.’’
A few years ago a French painter called Dubuffet died. He described his approach to his work in this way ‘’ in my paintings ‘’ he said ‘’ I try to reveal the beauty of that which convention regards as negative. I try ardently to celebrate scorned values.’’
Those words could well be applied to the priesthood today.
Without being paranoid I believe that many of the values we celebrate are looked upon by the conventional wisdom of our age as scorned values.
This is where the rubber hits the road. This is the moment of truth. This is where the Gospel engages with the world. This is where priesthood becomes real.
Some years ago Rosemary Haughton, an English spiritual writer made a telling remark. She said that ‘’ many priests nowadays are uneasy because all that’s left for them to do is to represent God.’’
Sometimes that may not seem enough. It may make us feel irrelevant and we look around desperately for something that will shore up our credibility.
James and Pat, in the Ireland of the 21st century I think you will find that being a priest is enough! I hope you won’t ever feel the need to collapse your priestly identity into any other area of activity to give it credibility.
Sometimes you will be a sign of contradiction, sometimes you will feel the anger/hostility people have for the church in general directed at you.
Sometimes living out your priesthood may involve you in suffering, sometimes it may challenge you in ways you cannot now imagine, but overall it will be a sign revealing God.
A vocation is a mysterious thing, it’s an affair of the heart. We never understand it fully, we never own it or control it. The Holy Father calls it ‘’ an intertwining of love between the divine initiative and the free human response.’’
In our innocence we sometimes talk of ‘’ choosing priesthood.’’ I think it’s more a case of priesthood choosing us!
The man who found the Derrynaflan Chalice in Killenaule, Co Tipperary in 1980 Michael Webb, was on T.V. some time ago. He described the finding of the chalice, first they found something here, then they found something there, then other bits and pieces which led them on to finding the chalice itself.
Scratching his head and thinking back he said ‘’ I don’t know whether we found the chalice or the chalice found us.’’
A vocation is a bit like that. I’m sure everyone here will understand and indentify with what that man was trying to say. Thinking of our own vocation, whatever it is, did we find it – or did it find us?
In his book ‘’ Called by Name ‘’ the Dutch writer Van Breemen speaks of what he calls the ‘’ heroism of the ordinary.’’
This is certainly a quality needed in the priesthood today. A strong sense of being sent, of being called to serve the People of God.
James and Pat, you are not being ordained today, you are being ordained for service! Ordination is not a personal honour, it’s for service, it’s for people, if it’s not what’s the point?
This is where the ‘’ heroism of the ordinary ‘’ comes in. We often think of the Kingdom coming in apocalyptic events. Mostly it doesn’t happen like that at all, often the Kingdom comes in small ways, in being with people wherever they are, helping them, consoling them, encouraging them, walking with them, reminding them in a million small ways that they are precious in the sight of God.
This takes a special kind of courage and plenty of staying power. Anybody can do it for a time but to do it for40, 50, 60 years demands great strength of spirit.
The Indian poet Tagore captures this mood in his lines ‘’ I spent my days stringing and unstringing my instrument while the song I came to sing remains unsung.’’
Today, at your ordination both of you are being commissioned to sing a song, the Song of Songs, the song of God’s love.
Sing that song, sing it with enthusiasm, sing it because you want to, not because you have to!
The First Reading from Jeremiah at the Vigil Mass last evening could be addressed to you both ’’ go now – say what I command you – do not be afraid – for I am with you.’’
It’s like a Mission Statement for a priest!
Priesthood is often described as a ‘’ gift.’’ Just as you can’t demand to be given a gift neither can you demand to be given priesthood.
Forty two years ago I was given that gift, today James and Pat, in the presence of your family and friends, I happily give that gift to you, saying in the words of the Eucharistic Congress ‘’ Become what you Receive.’’
+ Denis Brennan
Bishop of Ferns