Thus this morning’s focus on the ministerial priesthood is centred on Jesus, whom we speak about as the High priest of the new covenant, a covenant with the whole human race celebrated once and for all on Calvary but re-presented, made present sacramentally, when we join the choirs of angels and saints in their unending hymn of praise.
What might our readings tell us about ministerial priesthood at the service of the one “who has made us into a Kingdom, priests for his God and Father” (Second reading)?
Firstly, our opening reading and our Gospel speak about Jesus acting in the power of the Spirit. He is sent out on a mission – and asked to do enormous things, just as so many frightened prophets were in the Old Testament. Ministry in Jesus’ name is not a job, a pleasant way to make a living. It is a call to do God’s work, not ours. And it is a call to do so with God’s strength and not ours. Pride in our status or success misses the whole point of what drove Christ’s ministry. His ministers are to be used to do God’s work. We are not there to use our position to do our thing.
A further implication of this is that the Spirit may well ask his people and his ministers to do things that we don’t want to do.It will be hard work walking in the footsteps of the Suffering Servant. I do not step back when I feel I have done enough and say ‘let somebody else do the rest’. Ministry in Jesus’ name does not allow for the option of me deciding that I’d like to put my feet up. That is why I have such a high regard for those many priests who work hard long past normal secular retirement age and long past 75. Christ and the Spirit are masters of my ministry, not me. And when I think I am doing a poor job, let the Lord be the judge – because so many prophets felt they had laboured in vain, only to discover that those who keep the night watch, those who labour the hard ground in the chilly Spring are essential workers in bearing a rich harvest for the Lord.
Secondly, the Gospel also focuses on good news for the poor as priority. According to the second reading tomorrow, Christ humbled himself to take on human form and then went further, accepting death on a Cross. That is the model of ministry. It is not one that does things for those in need. It is a ministry of identifying with those in need for the first task is to bring and to be good news for those who most need to hear it. Some will argue that we need to put a lot of effort into training the future leaders of our society, the people who can influence structures. They too deserve formation in faith and justice. But a church that recently celebrated the Year of Mercy has to draw its inspiration from the Jesus who washes the disciples’ feet this evening and who faces the Cross tomorrow. He is the uncomfortable model for his Church and especially for his ministers.
Thirdly, our Church has a very strong sacramental emphasis. Jesus is the sacrament of the Father’s love for the world, because whoever has seen him has seen the Father. The Church is the sacrament of Christ, for it is his Body.And our Sacraments are not merely holy events that people can tap into when they feel they want or need them. Sacraments are becoming-events. At Baptism, we are launched on a path of discipleship. Confirmation is where people are given gifts for mission. Matrimony is a call to become signs of Christ’s faithful love for his Church (Eph 5:21-33). The Eucharist is food for the journey and binds us into membership of Christ’s Body. The Sacrament of Reconciliation heals us on our journey and Anointing of the Sick strengthens us to model Christ’s carrying of his Cross.
Thus, ordained ministry is a way of being, not just a job for doing. It is a call to a form of discipleship within the People of God. And it is call to become a sign/sacrament of Jesus’ ministry, which he takes on in today’s Gospel. All vocations, including single life and life-long marriage, are tough today. Celibacy is difficult and many will categorise it as an unnecessary burden on many men. But ordained ministry is about being visible icons of the Jesus who took the hard road and resisted the temptations to take an easier course. We are called to model our lives in such a way that they point to the foolishness of the Cross.
Like Paul, we are called to be fools for Christ’s sake (1 Cor 4:10). In a world that prioritises me and my pleasure, and expects to avoid crosses as much as possible, self-sacrifice is seen as crazy. But the Spirit of God calls us to be guided by divine grace and not by self-indulgence (Gal 5:16-24). What are perceived as the unreasonable sides of priesthood for our frail human nature are actually prophetic pointers to the Cross where salvation is to be found. Jesus still invites heroic disciples to follow the road less travelled. It is that which makes all the difference.
The calls to discipleship and to ministry are marked by the shadow of the Cross. As we journey through these three days of very adult themes, we are reminded that there is no road to Resurrection except via Calvary. Every celebration of Mass is a reminder that part of our lives involves standing at the foot of the Cross, weeping for the loss of what we thought was important and precious to us. And it is there that so many of our generous and remarkably content priests find their joy and consolation.
St Eugene’s Cathedral Derry