Homily of Bishop Noel Treanor, Bishop of Down and Connor, at the ordination to the priesthood of Rev Conor McGrath, St Bernard’s Church, Glengormley
Readings : Jer 1:4-9; Psalm 110; Eph 4:1-7,11-13; Jn 20: 19-23
Conor, we gather with you on this Sunday, the domenica, the Lord’s Day, when you are to be ordained a priest of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of humankind. All gathered here in your native parish Church have in one way or another made an imprint on your life and training for the priesthood. You have chosen the readings for the Liturgy of the Word : the call of the prophet Jeremiah (Jer .1 : 4 – 9), Psalm 110 and extracts from St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (Eph 4. 1-7, 11-13) and from the gospel according to John (20.19-23).
The very opening verses (Jer 1:1-3) of this chapter one of the book of the prophet Jeremiah emphasise the context, the historical and community setting, in which Jeremiah came to know the Word of God. These lines link vocation and community ; they link vocation and parish. Like Jeremiah, you, indeed all of us, come to know the Word of God, we come to know Jesus Christ, over time, in a community of fait – our family, our parish, and through contact and exchange with many people.
Your family, Conor, your parish, St Mary’s on the Hill, Glengormley, and the schools you attended were the cradles and smithies of your faith. We greet your parents, brothers and sisters, your uncles and aunts and wider family.
The diocesan Seminary, the Pontifical Irish College, Rome, the many parishes of our diocese, especially the parish of Antrim, in which you have assisted during your years as a clerical student were the laboratories in which you grew in your understanding of the Christian faith, the Church, Christian thought and culture. Together with you I greet and welcome the priests and staff of our seminary, Monsignor Ciaran O’Carroll, the Rector of the Pontifical Irish College Rome, teachers, lecturers, parishioners and fellow priests of our diocese, all of whom have contributed to your training and personal development.
And as you know, Conor, challenge, correction and encouragement in the years of training come particularly from one’s fellow students and friends. With you I welcome all of them, seminarians, your contemporaries at Queen’s University and personal friends who join you today.
Now as we approach the moment when you are ordained a Priest of Jesus Christ I know that you are aware and grateful to all who have assisted you in reaching this day. Indeed your choice of readings for the liturgy of the Word – readings from Jeremiah, St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and from the gospel according to John – enable us to see a little into the soul and mind of one who takes on priestly ministry as their way of life, their profession.
In the first instance there is the mystery of the sense of being called, as Jeremiah describes it, or of being a prisoner of the Lord, as St Paul describes his calling. This sense of being called, this attraction to the service of the transcendent, quickly clashes with the human sense of inadequacy, weakness and apprehension. This tension is found in the biographies of all vocations. Then through training, prayer spiritual guidance, trial, error and correction, the sense of vocation grows, strengthens and consolidates. Apprehension is understood, tamed and rendered manageable and one learns time and again that one is a minister of the dynamism and power of God’s Word and Grace, of the self-sacrificing and healing love of Jesus Christ, not of any personal accomplishment, nor of institutional power. One is a servant, a channel of divine grace, a bridge-builder, a pontifex, to divine mystery and its workings.
The scene you have chosen for the Liturgy of the Word from the gospel of John recalls the appearance of the Risen Christ to his disciples. The primary recollection of the author is of the words he spoke : Peace be with you. They are addressed to these disciples, fearful, disoriented, let-down, drained of morale after the arrest, trial, torture, and death of God in Jesus of Nazareth. This risen Christ does not deny their horror, nor chastise their weakness – he shows them the wounds he bears, as he reveals and makes present among them the new life, the new power of hope he offers, a new life and a hope he asks them to proclaim and hand on.
Conor, today, you become a priest, a minister, of that peace of the risen Christ. Like all clegy and religious you become that minister in and to a broken, wounded humanity, as you share and bear, Christ-like, its frailty, violence, contradictions and its greatness.
This peace of the risen Christ calls Christians to form communion and unity in faith. As a priest of Christ, Conor, like all other priests, you are called to serve, build, and re-build, where it is broken, that unity of Christ’s peace.
This you will not, indeed you cannot, accomplish alone. The priest’s is not a solo act. St Paul, in this extract from the letter to the Ephesians that you have chosen, hails the contribution of all charisms and talents in building a vibrant community of faith. This collaborative ministry, this active partnership, is the heart and core aim of the Living Church project in our diocese and with which you will become involved as a priest here in our local Church.
You enter the priesthood in Ireland, Conor, at a time of significant promise in the history of the Church. We have just experienced the spring of the Fiftieth International Eucharistic Congress. In the autumn, on 11 October, the Year of Faith will open and the New Evangelisation for the transmission of faith will be the focus of the meeting of the Synod of Bishops in Rome in October. Here in our local Church the Living Church Project with its initiatives is working in the same register of a re-vitalisation of faith for the individual believer and for our parishes.
It is a time to get to work with parishioners, with youth, with religious and fellow-priests. It is a time to mould and try imaginative initiatives in catechesis and the provision of pastoral care. It is a time to work towards and invent moments to build and shape Christian identity in response to the demands and pressures of contemporary life.
For it’s also true that we all live in a time and context of uncertainty and opacity in society. Economic uncertainty and fear for the future, mistrust of institutions, including the institutional dimension of the Church, the erosive force of waves of secularism : all of these colour the context of our lives and the context in which we show forth the meaning of faith in Christ and celebrate its grace and its power to give new life and hope. These ambiguities and sources of stress, so present to families, can erode faith.
In our somewhat new-found cultural context, we have become a missionary Church on the shores of our own future. It is on this challenging shore, Conor, that you take up your mission today as a priest of Down and Connor. It is on this shoreline that Christ’s words, “As the Father sent me, so am I sending you”, relayed in the extract from John’s gospel that you have chosen for your Ordination liturgy, are spoken to you … and to all of us, for we are all co-responsible for the vitality of the our parishes, our faith communities, for the Church, and for the impact it makes on life.
In the face of this missionary challenge from our own society, the engagement, the generous and voluntary work of thousands of lay men and women in parishes, catholic organisations and movements gives life, energy and witness to our parishes. Their essential involvement cannot however replace the mission and ministry of the priest. Indeed the contrary is the case. Our Church needs to produce more priests. It is becoming more and more difficult to assure an adequate priestly presence in each parish in our diocese, to provide chaplains in our hospitals, universities and prisons, to provide priests for academic and specialised ministries. And yet, when that shortage makes its effect felt locally, people rightly cry out or even protest.
Is it possible that we have become blind to the risk for faith, community and society being generated by the falling numbers of clergy? Do we unwittingly think that the pursuit of professional and financial success will make our sons more fulfilled and happier than in lifestyle of personal and professional service to proclaiming the gospel, teaching the ennobling beauty of faith in Jesus Christ and celebrating the saving mysteries of His life, death and Resurrection for communities of living faith?
We have also to provide for the future of Christian faith and we need to think and pray not just for vocations but also about the significance of the priestly ministry for Church and for society. I am sure that we can respond to this responsibility with the generosity that we saw among the thousands of volunteers who graced the week of the recent International Eucharistic Congress and the generous involvement of so many in preparing this day here – the members of the Prayer groups, the Cell Group, the Third World Group, those who decorated the grounds, the Church, the Centre.
Thirty-six years have elapsed since Fr James O’Kane, a son of this parish, and Fr John Murray were ordained here in the summer of 1976 – a summer that also saw the ordination of your parish priest, Fr John Forsythe and of Fr Edward O’Donnell. Let us pray today that otherfamilies in this parish and elsewhere will reflect supportively and pray about the Christian responsibility of each local parish to nourish and support vocations. And let us never cease to pray that young men of experience will be moved to respond to the call to priestly ministry.
And now as we move to the Rite of Ordination, Conor, I thank your parents for their example to you in faith, for their support and that of your brothers and sisters to you in your years of study and training. With you I thank the priests, teachers, lecturers, priests of this diocese, and the parishioners who have supported you and made you the young man you are. I thank the priests of this parish, Fr Danny Whyte, Fr Brendan Began, Fr Eugene O’Neill who by example, word and friendship have supported you. I thank numerous others who have guided you, particularly Fr Sean Emerson and Fr Felix Mc Guckin with whom you worked in Antrim, the St Joseph’s Young Priests Society and the many faithful who have supported you with their charity and their prayers.
We give thanks for you, Conor, for your gifts and talents which you put at the service of the gospel and the people of the diocese and we praise God for the vocation he has given to you. May the Risen Christ ever strengthen, guide and inspire you in your priestly ministry.