This is my homily preached at the First Holy Mass of a newly ordained priest. The name of the priest has been changed.
Homily for the Sixth Week of Easter, Ordinary Form
Acts 8:5-8, 14-17
My dear brothers and sisters,
I am honored and delighted to be the homilist for the first Holy Mass of Fr. Athanasius. I extend my congratulations to you, Father, to your parents and family members, and to your friends gathered here today to support you as you begin your priestly ministry. Fr. Athanasius and I, both, are ending our tour at the seminary at the same time. The difference is that it took him 5 or 6 years; it took me about twenty! In all seriousness, I can say that Fr. Athanasius and his classmates are part of a new generation of priests that gives us much hope for the future. These men are dedicated to the knowledge of Truth. Most people know that we have hope because of the Truth which the Lord Jesus Christ has graciously given to us. Thus, as Blessed Apostle Peter writes, we are to be ready to explain what we know. What we know is the reason for our hope. Our Truth is Christ who “suffered for our sins and leads us to God.”
You might have noticed that our young priests are indeed ready to explain the truth and to defend the faith. (Defending the faith is one of the goals of priestly formation according to the bishops.) They want to be authentic teachers of the faith and genuinely priestly in their daily lives. I don’t know if you know this, however: More than a few people say they are “concerned” about the priests coming out of the seminary today, in spite of the fact that the feedback the seminary receives from the people in the pews, in other words, you, is glowingly positive. Indeed, some today are even threatened by these new well-educated, genuinely formed, integrated, balanced men being ordained. Sadly, even some of their brothers in the priesthood have not been very welcoming of our new priests. This is sometimes due to confusion resulting from vicious charges and suspicion that these men seek the priesthood for the privileges of an alleged clerical caste. Interestingly, once you meet them, it is difficult to think those negative things of them. The truth is that the priests who seek the priesthood for its privileges today are few and far between. The problem really lies elsewhere.
I was speaking to an older priest a while back about this challenge faced by the younger priests. He told to go back and read the book, The Cardinal, published in 1950 and written by Henry Morton Robinson. The book was made into a film in 1963. The priest wanted me to understand that the issues involving generational differences in priests is not something new. In fact, it has been around forever. It looks to me like priests generally try to do what the Church expects as they come to see it in each generation. In some cases, because the new priests have a different focus, they are somehow threatening.
In a self-proclaimed Catholic publication from Great Britain called the Tablet, a recent editorial stated something to this effect: This new generation of priests represents a clericalist backlash. How does the Tablet know this, we ask? Well, translated into my own words, the reasons are as follows: The new priests like the hierarchical and Divine structure of the Church and the proper role of the priest as it is described in the documents of the magisterium. They like to look like priests, i.e., they wear priestly garb. And they like the whole tradition of the Church extending back to the foundation of the Church and all through her history. Allow me to elaborate on this a little more. Essentially what the editors are admitting is that they think our young priests should be more like the editors’ vision of the Church which is exclusively generated from a limited pragmatic vision of ministry formulated in the last few decades and not so much like the Church understands herself, particularly in the teaching of the popes and doctors of the faith going back to the beginning. One cannot, however, come to realize the depth of the problem that the Tablet has with the priesthood, without recognizing the error it makes about the Church and about Christ, in a more fundamental sense. You see, the Church is the body of Christ, and Jesus Christ continues to exercise his saving work in the Church as her head, as he did beginning with his first day of public ministry through the ministry of the priest. The priest is the visible sign of the ministry that Jesus Christ exercises here and now as the head of the Church. There would be no Church, as Christ formed it, without the ministry of his leadership as head of the Church visibly and sacramentally represented in the vocation and ministry of the priest. The mistaken thoughts that some have about the priesthood represent fundamental errors concerning the priesthood and ministry of Christ, himself.
Over the years I have been at the seminary, I have seen the response of the Holy Spirit to our present situation in the Church and the World. I have been edified by the zeal and love which our seminarians have for the people of God and the desire they have to be genuinely holy priests. I believe most of our young priests have a deep desire to “sanctify Christ as Lord in their hearts,” following St. Peter’s command. This is not merely reactionary against the evils they perceive in the world. I have come to know that in many cases these men have shaped their paths out of love of their families and out respect for someone, a parent, a close relative, or a priest, for example, who had a special impact on them in their earlier years. They are faithful to that inspiration. We should not misrepresent their motives. We must come to understand and appreciate this for the gift to the Church that it is. These men are formed in holy families and in communities of faith which have been instructed by the Spirit of the Living God to respond to the circumstances of the day. This is the work of the Spirit of God. I would urge you to listen to the words of St. John in the Gospel: “I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it neither sees him or knows him.” The Spirit of God is at work in the Church teaching us today, correcting us, and purifying.
As I was listening to people talk last night at Fr. Athanasius’s reception, the subject of faith formation of our young people came up several times. The crucial factor that was highlighted was how much of an impact the family plays in the development of the character of the child. We don’t usually see this until a person grows into adulthood, but it is there like a seedling. The inspiration of authenticity from earlier generations is powerful because it resonates to the tune of the truth proclaimed by the Holy Spirit.
The reading from the Acts of the Apostles today makes a very simple case for fidelity to the truth about the priestly office found in the Church. In the most direct way, the book says, “Philip… proclaimed Christ to [the Samaritans]. With one accord, the crowds paid attention to what was said by Philip when they heard it and saw the signs….There was great joy in that city.” In terms of the spiritual life of the people to whom he witnessed, Philip was exercising a sacramental ministry in the name of Christ, performing the great works that he was given to do by virtue of his priestly office. What did it yield? Great joy in the city.
Fr. Athanasius is someone I am proud to call a brother priest. I know that he is well-educated and well-prepared for the work ahead. I am struck by his great humility, his deep love for the Church and his stalwart sense of being sent by Christ to proclaim the good news of our faith. To you Father, I repeat the words of St. Peter: Carry out your mission with “gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, [as is too often the case in the Church today] those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that be the will of God, than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once, … that he might lead you to God.
Ad multos Annos, Fr. Athanasius.
May Jesus Christ be praised.