“The role of the priest is changing, not mainly because there are fewer of them but because the needs of the world have changed.” – Bishop McKeown
The Scripture readings proclaimed today throughout the world, for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time give us great nourishment on this ordination day. They are typical of the Gospel message that is both encouraging and challenging. They present that consistent picture of a God who tells us that we are fit for great things – and who points out to us where we can be betrayed by those forces that tempt us to expect only fun but no real joy, only entertainment but no real commitment, an inhuman belief that everything is passing and nothing is really real.
But all adults know that life is real and it is not merely ‘a beautiful sport’. All our own lives and those of our families and friends are marked by painful scars, regrets, secrets and unfulfilled dreams. It was into the heart of that world that Jesus spoke, telling us that we can become whole and holy – and it is still into that messy reality that Jesus wants His body, the Church, to minister.
It is clear from the Gospel that, within the whole Church of believers, Jesus also urgently calls men and women to make this mission their full-time and life-long mission. Your duty is to spread the news of the Kingdom of God. Christopher has sensed that call and the diocesan Church has discerned that this is a divine call to give your heart and your life to the mission of Jesus in the diocesan priesthood, pouring out the balm of mercy on our hurting world, helping people to see Jesus who is the face of the Father’s mercy.
So what might our readings tell us today?
Firstly, as with Elisha in our first reading, you believe that God has thrown his cloak over you. In baptism, you were clothed in Christ (Rom 13:14). Just as Abraham, Sarah, John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter and other apostles were given names that reflected who they were, so you are a Christopher – a bearer of Christ – not just by name by also by nature. In a special way, the Lord says to you today, I have called you by your name and you are mine (Is 43:7). Of course, throughout the entire bible, calls like that have not been sweet but rather frightening – and that is why the most oft repeated phrase in the scriptures is ‘do not be afraid’.
Christopher, let the Lord throw His cloak over you today. Do not be afraid or ashamed to wear that cloak, or the signs of your calling. Wear the prophetic cloak, carry the Cross with pride. Your only boast is your call to be used in Christ’s mission (Gal 6:14). Bear the burden of Christ with joy of the Gospel in your heart. In His name, be prepared to carry people across the many rivers that block their progress and growth. For as often as you do this to the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters, you do it to him. (Mt 25:40) In all the trials and apparent successes that will be part of ministry: believe that your name is carved on the palm of God’s hand and written in the heavens (Lk 10:20). It is by bearing people in Christ’s name that you will make Him known.
Secondly, ministry in the New Testament is modelled on that of Jesus, who emptied himself, taking on the forms of a servant and being obedient, even to death on the Cross (Phil 2:8). Being an ordained minister of Jesus is a not a job to be done. It is a dedication of all that you are and have to be crucified to the world (Gal 6:14).
Our Gospel passage today shows us that dedication to Christ means giving up everything. Build your rest time round your ministry, not the other way round. Lay your hand to the plough and go where the Lord of the harvest leads you. There are those who suggest that, if only we made things easier, more people would be available for ordination and for consecrated life. As in Jesus’ time, so also today Jesus calls for heroic prophets who take risks for the Gospel. As with St Christopher and many martyrs, your ministry will mean a constant dying to self so that you will decrease and Christ will increase. Don’t be afraid to be a fool for Christ’s sake (1 Cor 4:10). And if you preach what Paul proclaims in the second reading, you will be seen as a fool. We live in a culture which says that liberty is about self-indulgence, that life is too short to say no. The Gospel says that self-indulgence destroys our dignity and makes us slaves of our lowest instincts. Proclaim that spirit of crazy generosity and idealism to our young people, help them believe in better, enable them to fulfil their often inarticulate hunger to ‘see Jesus’ (Jn 12:21), show them how to contemplate the beauty of life and the beauty of God, help them to have eyes for the invisible and not just for the pound on the ground when they are around.
Celibacy is mocked in some quarters as being outmoded and unrealistic, a barrier to people entering ministry, merely the entry to an elite clerical caste. But, like Elijah and the people in the Gospel, you have been called to leave behind many beautiful things, including marriage and fatherhood. You answer the call, not because it is a life-style choice that you fancy but because you have been called to bear the marks of Christ in your body (Gal 6:17). Today you sacrifice to God all that you used to plough your furrow with in the past. Today your life is placed at the service of preparing the ground for a different sort of harvest. And make sure that the sacrifice of celibacy is matched with simplicity of life-style. A pampered celibacy is a counter-sign of Christ’s call. Make sure that you reveal the divine call to witness to the Cross as much by your life-style as by your words. Everyone recognises when there is a gap between what you preach and who you are. Pope Francis has been very strong on the temptation to careerism and self-promotion in priesthood. He is doing no more that repeating St Paul’s words from the second reading If you go snapping at each other and tearing each other to pieces, you had better watch or you will destroy the whole community. We are called to promote, not ourselves but Christ. We have nothing to offer other than our availability – pickled in prayer – to be channels of Christ’s peace. Our talents, our image and our qualifications can often be a barrier to and not a bearer of Christ’s grace. We come to serve and not to be served. So make sure that your celibacy is liberating. Bear the pain and loneliness of it. Jesus did – and you are his bearer to the world.
Thirdly, as with every period in history, this is a challenging time for people in Church, just as it is for many in society, politics, economics and family. We live in an era of fragmentation where fear seems to be driving people to build walls and not bridges, to protect me, to recall what is perceived as our glory days of old. We see that in the British referendum, the US election campaign and Russian self-assertiveness. And we see the same fear in Church as well. There are those who want to flee to a mythical, secure past. They forget that the People of God are always on an exodus journey. The Promised Land is never behind us. God’s future is always in front of us, beyond our comfort zone. Those who worship the true God will never idolise either an idealised past or a simplistic future. You are called to be a leader who will seek to discern where God is calling his Church forward in the concrete circumstances of today. We are called to have confidence, not in our plans, our security or our power, but in Christ’s unreasonable Cross.
So, be prepared for a difficult journey in the service of Christ. The role of the priest is changing, not mainly because there are fewer of them but because the needs of the world have changed. The New Testament Church was constantly changing to suit new circumstances. The Church is Christ’s instrument to heal the world’s pain, not a gated enclosure into which we flee to heal our fears. He calls His people to be out loving the streets, not behind our walls, shouting angrily at those on the other side or calling down fire from heaven to burn them up. The world cannot be hated into knowing the love of God, or the wisdom of the ways. The one from whose defenceless side poured forth blood and water on Calvary will not be satisfied by some theology of cheap grace or angry words in His defence.
Christopher, today we thank God for His call to you that came through your family and friends. We thank God for your generous response to that frightening call to minister in Jesus’ name. We are all blessed because, like Jesus, you are resolutely taking your road to Jerusalem. And we trust that through the prayer and support of the wonderful people of God, you will be used to bear Christ to many people who hunger to know divine mercy and healing.
Notes for Editors:
- Bishop Donal McKeown is Bishop of Derry. The ordination of Christopher McDermott took place in Saint Mary’s Church, Melmount, Strabane on Sunday 26 June at 3pm.
- Christopher (30) is the son of Sean and Rosemary McDermott. He is a former pupil of Saint Colman’s High School in Strabane. In 2010 he entered Saint Malachy’s Seminary in Belfast and in 2012 began studying theology in Maynooth from 2012 until 2016.
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