Gratitude for the ‘gift and mystery’ of priesthood

First slide

Given by Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde at the Mass of Thanksgiving for his Golden Jubilee of Priestly Ordination at All Saints Church in Manassas.

The scene was a cold December morning, December 18, 1965, inside the Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome at the Altar of the Chair. The Mass of Priestly Ordination was being celebrated. Young men were lying prostrate on the floor as the Litany of the Saints was being chanted. Then, each one stood up, and, one by one, stepped forward and knelt before the Ordaining Bishop. He laid hands on each one of them, and, at the end of the laying on of hands, he then prayed over them, speaking the words of Priestly Consecration. In essence, this prayer affirmed that each one of these men was now, "a priest forever according to the Order of Melchizedek."

Among those young men on that December morning nearly 50 years ago was a man from the Diocese of Norwich (Conn.), a native son of Saint Michael Parish in Pawcatuck, Conn. Yes, that young man was me, ordained nearly 50 years ago, to be a priest forever, striving to be a priest after the Heart of Christ, the Good Shepherd. Indeed, we are here to celebrate the 50th anniversary of my priestly ordination and even more, to lift up and proclaim the "gift and mystery of the priesthood" as Jesus Christ has willed it to be.

There are many symbolic gestures and signs in the Rite of Holy Orders, each one indicating some significant aspect of the ordination itself and of the priest's future priestly life and ministry.

Permit me to share with you one of these symbols, quoting a section of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI's homily at his Chrism Mass in 2006.

"Let us reflect once again on the signs in which the Sacrament (of Holy Orders) has been given to us. At the center is the very ancient rite of the imposition of hands, with which he took possession of me, saying to me 'You belong to me.'

However, in saying this, he also said: 'You are under the protection of my hands. You are under the protection of my heart. You are kept safely in the palm of my hand, and this is precisely how you find yourself in the immensity of my love. Stay in my hands and give me yours.'

Then let us remember that our hands were anointed with oil, which is the sign of the Holy Spirit and his power. Why one's hands? The human hand is the instrument of human action, it is the symbol of the human capacity to face the world, to 'take it in hand.'

The Lord has laid his hands upon us and now he wants our hands so that they may become his own in the world. … by putting ourselves at his service, (our hands) can pass on his divine touch …" (2006 Chrism Mass Homily of Pope Benedict XVI).

Yes, through priestly life and ministry, the Lord Jesus wishes that we priests pass on His divine touch to all those who are entrusted to our pastoral care.

What is this divine touch like? It is the touch of the Good Shepherd. Every priest is chosen, called, consecrated and sent to be in the midst of God's people a good shepherd, making the Lord Jesus Christ present, visible and active. The priest acts in the Person of Christ, so stated the Second Vatican Council. Today's scripture readings summarize for us the call and the responsibility of priestly life and ministry as willed by the Great High Priest and Good Shepherd Jesus Christ.

Moments ago in the Gospel reading, we heard: "Simon, Son of John, do you love me?" Three times the question was asked; three times, the answer was the same: "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." Each time, in response Jesus said, "Feed my lambs, Tend my sheep, Feed my sheep." Yes, Jesus is saying, "If you love Me, then, take care of the people whom I entrust to you. Love them with all your heart!" The call to be a priest necessarily entails the responsibility of loving God's people, laying down one's life, like the Good Shepherd, for their well-being, day in and day out.

Only because of this call from Christ and the responsibility given by Christ does the priest echo the words of the prophet Isaiah, in today's first reading: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me; He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the lowly, to heal the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord," a year of mercy!

Yes, every priest is sent to give his life in service to God's people, by strengthening them with God's Word that gives new hope; by enabling them to meet the Lord Jesus Himself though those outward signs called sacraments, especially Penance where the Lord embraces them with His mercy and forgiveness, and the Eucharist where He feeds them with His very own life; and by caring for them through his presence and service, made tangible in countless ways. Every priest is sent to lead people to Jesus and to enable them to love one another, and, indeed, all people, again, in concrete, visible and effective ways.

Obviously, the call and responsibility of priestly life and ministry is awesome and a mystery. No man deserves or earns this sharing in Christ's priesthood. Rather, God calls those whom He wishes and enables them to respond and to serve by giving them the power of the Holy Spirit through the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Is this not what Saint Paul is telling us in today's second reading: "Since we have this ministry through the mercy shown us, we are not discouraged. … For we do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for the sake of Jesus. … we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surprising power may be of God and not from us."

Nearly 50 years have passed since the morning of December 18, 1965. Many among us have heard me say repeatedly: "I know much more about being a priest now than I did on December 18, 1965. Yet knowing all I know and have experienced, I'd be a priest all over again in a heartbeat." No life is perfect, but the priestly life and ministry is truly "gift and mystery," as St. John Paul II stated himself as he observed his golden jubilee as a priest.

So, today, in your presence, I truly give thanks to God for calling me to be a priest, unworthy as I was and am. I am grateful to my parents, who taught me the basics of faith and who modeled living that faith; to so many mentors through the years of priestly formation, including my cousin Father Michael Giovino, who inspired me when I was about 8 years old; to brother priests, deacons, women and men religious and outstanding laypeople in all the places where I have ministered, including here these past 16-plus years.

It has been such a privilege to lead people to Jesus: to proclaim His Word which is life-saving: to celebrate the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, for what better gift can I offer than Jesus Himself; to care for people in good times and in bad, to stand by them, hopefully allowing the love of Jesus to touch them through my presence and support, however inadequate it may have been.

I am grateful and humbled by your presence here and your prayerful support. The November intention for the Apostleship of Prayer invites us to pray: "That the pastors of the Church, with profound love for their flocks, may accompany them and enliven their hope." Yes, please pray for all of us priests, that we accompany you and enliven your hope, that we be good shepherds and allow Christ to touch you with His love. Please pray also for me as I observe this 50th anniversary, that I become even more a faithful priest, a loving father, an encouraging brother to each of you and to all of you!

Today, I again put my hands at the disposal of Christ, asking Him to take me by the hand, again and again, and lead me to love you with His Heart until the day He calls me home! Again, thank you! In Christ, I love you!

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015