“If you have within you this mind and heart of Jesus Christ, wherever you ministry leads you, the Lord will use you to be a blessing on his people in ways that you can never imagine.” – Bishop McKeown
It is almost 42 years since I lay prostrate before Bishop William Philbin in Saint MacNissi’s Church, Randalstown – and was ordained for service in the Diocese of Down and Connor. I was young and enthusiastic – and, having come up through a solid family and school, I thought I had a good idea about why I was being ordained. The following four decades since 1977 in Belfast and Derry have made it clear that I didn’t have a clue about what lay ahead – and, more importantly, that I didn’t need to. Declan, you have no idea what lies ahead of you either. However, you step forward today, trusting not in your own abilities nor in the strength of your convictions, but in the grace of the God who knit you together in your mother’s womb and whose call you have sensed to spend your life as a priest in the service of that God. Within, and with the prayerful support of God’s people in this diocese, be prepared for a challenging journey. Don’t believe too easily that far away hills are greener. Today you accept to being ordained for life-long service whatever that may ask of you. Thank you for that generous heart. The faithful God and the faithful of this diocese ask you to be faithful to them.
Three things will be at the core of your ministry, whatever forms that takes.
Firstly, you are called to be a teacher of the faith – and in a world of fake news, there is a deep hunger for the truth that sets free. But the best teachers are those who are permanent learners. Only a disciple can make disciples. Those who think they have arrived have hearts that are incapable of walking with a pilgrim people, who are still journeying. Your ministry involves accompanying them on your and their exodus from the false securities of low expectations and frail certainties. You are an earthenware vessel holding a divine treasure. You come with humility to teach – and to be taught.
You are not just called to teach theological dogmas. Unless people have come to know the Father who loves them, the Son who takes away the sins of the world, and the Holy Spirit who makes of our bodies his temple, then there is no foundation on which to build doctrinal orthodoxy. As you walk with people on their Emmaus road, your first ministry will be calling people to commit their lives as missionary disciples, learners at the feet of Jesus. Your focus will be, not merely on the in-group who gather around you but on those who are walking away from the Jesus whom you love – and whom many of them have never met. In a culture where there is a deforestation of Christian memory and where a dominant consumerist culture seeks to colonise the minds of the young from their earliest years, in this modern age you will be the teacher of God’s love and mercy. In a ‘throwaway culture’ where young people face many challenges, including mental health issues, you are called to proclaim hope and not condemnation, grace and not anger. Take Jesus as your model, when he faced sin. Like Jesus and the disciples, expect to meet many good people who will laugh at you uncomprehendingly. But that is the context in which you are being ordained to minister. It will never be easy. But it is a hurting society that most needs to hear about God’s graciousness.
Secondly, on this feast of Corpus Christi, you are ordained to call people to sainthood. In our rich Catholic sacramental tradition, Jesus does not just touch people through their ears. God touches all of who we are through all of who we are. And every celebration of the sacraments takes place in the context of a proclamation of the Word. Jesus is the Word of God, the Word who was made flesh and dwelt among us. And he is actively present both in his Word and in the Sacraments.
As the early Christ tried to understand this unimaginable presence of Jesus’ death in the Eucharistic breaking of bread, they referred to celebration of this mystery of faith in terms of sacrifice, communion, covenant, meal, memorial and thanksgiving. It is heresy to believe that one human word or concept imprisons the full mystery of the Eucharistic. We fall on our knees before the love and holiness of the God who calls us all to be holy. We stand in amazement that the eternal God of touches our frail bodies and promises to raise them up on the Last Day. See how Jesus acts in today’s Gospel. There it is clear that Jesus came to be bread broken for a world that is hungry for truth and mercy. There are many broken people in all our communities, people scarred by pain and sin. Know in your ministry how to bring the whole Christ to those who hunger and thirst in deserted places. Do not break the crushed reed nor put out the wavering flame. Resist the temptation to send them away so they can find food for themselves – as the apostles wanted to in today’s Gospel. We are not masters of Christ’s sacramental presence. We are his servants. Make sure that those scarred by life are enabled to meet the Eucharistic Jesus who wants to feed them in particular.
Thirdly, you are being ordained for a leadership role. A good leader bears the burdens of those whom he or she leads. Your task is not to be the Lone Ranger hero who saves the world. Your leadership – as that of Jesus – will prepare the People of God for their common mission of renewing the face of the earth through grace. As Pope Francis memorably wrote, the Good Shepherd sometimes walks ahead of his people, sometimes he walks in the middle with them and sometimes he stays behind to keep pace with the slowest one (Evangelii Gaudium 31). Learn from the leadership of Jesus. Let the Spirit of Christ lead you – and then you will be a leader after his own heart.
And your contribution to leadership is to be carried out in communion with others, clerical and lay. From the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, we see that the one who leads the Church is the Holy Spirit. It is in a prayerful way and with others that you will discern where God is calling you with them. Learn to be accountable and to help others be accountable. In a Church where all the baptised are called to holiness, it is a sinful error to believe that only the ordained have all the gifts. As Jesus did in today’s Gospel, you too are called to enable modern disciples discover that God can do great things with the little that they think they have. The Church of Jesus is dedicated to a ministry of service, not of self-preservation. You are being ordained to serve so that the whole Church can be equipped for ministry. Your ministry will be within the People of God, not over them. In Saint Augustine wrote, with the people you are a Christian, for them you are a priest.
For all of your ministry let this ordination ceremony in the Cathedral on this feast day remind you of three things.
- You are ordained in the mother Church of this diocese to serve the people of God in Derry;
- You are called from the midst of God’ s people so that you can be consecrated to minister to them;
- This feast of the Body and Body of Christ calls you to put the Word made flesh, who dwells among us at the centre of your and their spiritual life.
And, if you have within you this mind and heart of Jesus Christ, wherever you ministry leads you, the Lord will use you to be a blessing on his people in ways that you can never imagine.
- Bishop Donal McKeown is Bishop of Derry.
- This homily was preached on Sunday 23 June in Saint Eugene’s Cathedral, Derry.
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