“The Priest’s Service of Obedience for the Sake of Peace and Unity in Christ”
Homily – Mass of Ordination to the Priesthood
June 4, 2022
(Readings: Acts 10:37-43; Ps 110; Eph 4:1-6; Jn 15:9-17)
We hear much talk these days about our polarized society, and the need for unity, with many public officials either promising to be forces of unity or decrying those who are causing division. It seems, though, that typically one of two extremes is taken: either focusing on the richness of our diversity as a society and even as a Church and turning a blind eye to divisions that lie beneath the surface, or attaining unity by destroying those who disagree with one’s own ideas of the way things should be.
The Basis of Unity
This, though, is an artificial dilemma, for St. Paul gives us a different solution, the one that works. What did we just hear him tell us in his letter to the Ephesians, proclaimed as the second reading for this Mass of Priestly Ordination? “… live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace: one body and one Spirit.” In other words, the key to unity is virtue. And it behooves us to take note of the virtues that he lists here.
First of all, it is very logical that he lists humility as the first virtue, because it is the primary virtue in the sense of opening the soul up to all of the other virtues. This is a uniquely Christian insight. In the ancient pagan world in which St. Paul was writing, humility was seen as something to be despised. It was understood as something slavish and demeaning, of no value. But in the Christian sense it means seeing ourselves for who we really are, in all of our weaknesses and selfishness and sinfulness, so that God’s grace might work within us to heal, forgive, and bring us into a right relationship with Him.
The opposite of humility is pride, which is likewise the primary vice because it, in the same sense, is what leads to all of the other vices. It seems that we have much more pride in the world these days than humility. That could explain why we have so much polarization and division. Humility, on the other hand, leads to all of the other virtues, which are likewise necessary for building up unity.
Next, St. Paul mentions gentleness. The word he uses here carries the sense of an animal which has been trained and domesticated until it is completely under control. The one who is gentle has attained a mature degree of self-control, and knows how to be zealous at the injustices inflicted on others while knowing how to bear patiently the injustices inflicted on himself.
Hence St. Paul lists patience as the next virtue. This is the virtue that bears insult and injury without bitterness or complaint. It enables one to suffer unpleasant people with graciousness. It refrains from retaliation and taking revenge, even when it is possible to do so.
Finally, St. Paul concludes by listing love as a necessary virtue to unity. This, of course, is the love which in Greek is agape love, meaning that kind of love which always looks to the good of the other. It is acting for the other’s highest good for the sake of the other, without regard for what one is going to get out of it for oneself.
Principal Agent of Unity
All of this is the basic formula for living an authentic Christian life, for all Christians. By living these virtues in a very visible way in their public and private lives, Christians fulfill their calling to be a model of unity to the world. For the priest, however, this takes on a whole new dimension and level of importance, for priests are the agents of unity in the Church. Yes, it is the bishop who is the focal point of unity for the local Church which is the diocese, and the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, who is the focal point of unity for the Universal Church. It is the priest, though, who provides that connection of unity, that is, of communion in the Church. Because of his unique sacramental and canonical bond to the bishop, the priest is uniquely positioned to serve in this role of communion, linking the local parish to wider local Church, and beyond to the Universal Church.
An Instruction issued by Congregation for the Clergy in 2002 entitled, “The Priest, Pastor and Leader of the Parish Community” sheds much light for us on this role of the priest. It calls the priest a “man of communion” in reference to his unique role of imaging Christ, the Head and Shepherd of his Body. It says, “He is charged with promoting and maintaining unity between the members and the Head, and among the members” (n. 9).
This charge is not just theoretical; the theology is translated into practical action through the ministry of priests. And so the Instruction goes on to say:
The particular Churches, in and with the universal Church, must be open to the reality of a true communion of persons, charisms, and spiritual traditions which transcends geographical, psychological or intellectual boundaries. It should be perfectly clear to priests that the Church is one. Universality or catholicity should always pervade the particular [n. 17].
All this is what gives reason for the priest’s promise of obedience to his bishop at his ordination – or better yet, why this promise is repeated at his priestly ordination.
In the Life of the Priest
Recall that those to be ordained priests have already made a promise of obedience to their bishop at their ordination as deacons. In the Church’s Rites of Ordination, this is the only promise that is repeated, and it is repeated in exactly the same way as at the diaconate ordination. There are those who say that, in the last analysis, it is obedience that is the most difficult of the promises to keep. That may or may not be true; I suspect it depends on the individual. But it does not seem to me that that is the reason why it is repeated, as if it were simply a way of giving extra emphasis to this promise.
Rather, the ordinand’s relationship to his bishop is now changed, it is of a different quality because he now shares the same sacramental Priesthood of Christ with and in his bishop. He becomes a “cooperator” with the bishop in a unique way, unlike the lay faithful and even deacons. No one else can be that image of Christ, the Good Shepherd and Head of the Church, and, in point of fact, people still look to the priest as one who represents the Church to them in this way. They turn to him in their times of need and questioning and conversion; his presence is ever necessary for them to know that the Church cares about them and is walking with them.
In this sense the priest’s promise of obedience could be called a service, the “service of obedience.” But let us be careful to distinguish between two kinds of service. One kind is slavish service, that which the ancient pagan world understood to mean humility, the kind that slaves render to their masters through fear. But the other kind of service is free and filial. This is the kind of service that is compatible with friendship. And this is why our Lord could tell his apostles on the night before he died, as we just heard proclaimed in the Gospel, “I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.”
This is the fuller meaning of the priest’s service of obedience, and his service as a man of communion: an obedience exercised in the context of friendship and mutual respect. But for this to happen, he must first and foremost be a friend of God. This is why our Lord began this section of his farewell discourse to his apostles with the commandment, “Remain in my love.” Remain: that is, abide. Abiding in the Lord’s presence. The priest’s life of prayer is always the essential starting point of his service of communion, for cultivating those virtues which enable his communion with God to then flow out to building communion in the Body of Christ.
Fruit that Will Remain
That communion is also dependent on right belief, as St. Paul points out for us: “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” “One faith” means unity in belief. As the Church grew in the pagan world, faith came to be more and more understood as acceptance of authoritative apostolic tradition, which could be distinguished from the false doctrines of the world in which the early Christians were living.
The same is true for us today. Right belief, grounded in a life of prayer, opens the mind and the heart to hearing everything the Lord wishes to tell us from his Father, and it cultivates the virtues necessary for unity. And what is the result? “Preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace,” St. Paul tells us. The result is peace. We are rightly horrified and saddened by the rampant violence in our society, as we have been painfully reminded in recent days. That is the result of absence of right belief and absence of virtue.
On the other hand, our Lord appointed his apostles and their successors for something quite different: “I … appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain.” That fruit is the fruit of the priest’s apostolic labor: unity, peace, holiness, salvation. This is the fruit that remains, because it remains beyond the grave, it remains unto eternal life.
Jerald and Gerardo: we rejoice with you, your families, and our entire Archdiocese at your ordination as priests today. Thank you for your perseverance in responding to the Lord’s call. I also wish to take this opportunity to thank all those who have assisted you by accompanying you to this point in your life, especially your parents and family members, the priests who have had an influence on your vocation, and the faculty and staff of St. Patrick’s Seminary. The Church calls you today to be men of communion, men of prayer and of virtue, who know God and the word He speaks to us. As you set out on your apostolic labors today, may you continue to persevere in what the Lord asks you to do, so that you may bear the lasting fruit for which He has appointed you: the fruit of humility and gentleness, of patience and charity, of unity, peace and eternal salvation.