HOMILY – CLERGY JUBILEE MASS – 20 JUNE 2017 [2 Cor. 8:1-9; Matt. 5:43-48]
St Paul identifies suffering, cheerfulness, poverty and generosity when he describes his experience of the Christians of Corinth. Two sets of opposites: suffering/cheerfulness; poverty/generosity. And he matches them to the qualities found in the life of Jesus, who was rich but became poor for us, gifting his life, that we might become fully alive.
This combination of seemingly incompatibles becomes even more challenging when we hear Jesus calling his followers to pray for their enemies; not to hold grudges, not to seek revenge; to love, not just friends but all people, even – and perhaps especially – those least lovable. A tough call! If Christians generally are expected to buy into this recipe for living, the ordained ministers are called to be exemplary models.
The priests honoured today have been on stage for 25, 50 and even 60 years. Our separate ministries have known a variety of twists and turns. Sixty years ago the Second Vatican Council was not on the Church’s agenda; fifty years ago, the ordination ceremony was one of the last before the reforms of Vatican II took effect; 25 years ago there was confusion and disillusionment among the People of God and many were wondering if the Council had been a mistake. Some were calling for a return to how things used to be.
But these generations of priesthood, exposed to multiple and continuing upheavals throughout the whole of society, have been given an enormous privilege: the opportunity to understand the dynamic qualities of suffering, cheerfulness, poverty and generosity as anchors to hold every priest against the swiftly changing currents of our 20th-21st century Church.
Many ordained with us no longer serve as priests and we suffer both their struggle and their loss; the sexual abuse scandals have shattered and scarred respect for priesthood and we suffer with both victims and perpetrators. We are witnesses countless times to the sadness of farewells. We suffer, too, at the failure of many to grasp, even now, the opportunities the gospel offers for joy and hope for individuals and communities.
Yet that suffering is uplifted by the cheerfulness of being loved and supported by our people, witnessing the sheer delight in the meeting eyes of bride and groom, in a group gathered for baptism, in the laughter and friendship of our many relationships, the wonder and beautiful quiet before the Tabernacle, the happiness of being welcomed into the lives of those we serve.
Poverty visits the priest from many directions. He knows that, materially, he’ll not have much to show for his life; in his celibacy he’ll never know the love of wife, or children born of their love; he will try to hold on to a poverty of spirit, for only in this poverty will he recognise the power and richness of God’s presence in his life and work; he will experience the humiliation of poverty when immersed in the struggles of his people.
But it is in the affection of those with nothing else to give that the priest will discover the meaning of generosity. A priest told me he felt “suffocated” by the goodness and love of his people, and it is certainly overwhelming to feel the love and faithfulness of those entrusted to our care. We are called to show the way, but our people are models for us. Living their suffering with cheerfulness and their poverty with generosity, they light our way!
Perhaps we can now see how Jesus’ vision of making forgiveness our identifying mark becomes the cost of discipleship and purifies our vocation.
It buys us into the mystery of God’s unfathomable love. Then it becomes much easier to pray for enemies. Suffering and cheerfulness, poverty and generosity are gifts from the people we serve and from the God who is love. Receiving them is very much the reward of priesthood.
The final words of the once popular priesthood prayer of Lacordaire are – this life is yours O priest of Jesus Christ. I rephrase them today, not just for the jubilarians but for every priest here: this gifted life, wrapped in the beauty and challenge of God’s love, is ours, priests of Jesus Christ! Would we want it any other way?