Bishop Anthony B. Taylor delivered this homily for the ordination of Fathers Stephen Elser, Mike Johns, Daniel Ramos and Joseph de Orbegozo June 2.
Stephen, Michael, Daniel and Joseph, with your ordination and the beginning of your first assignment the middle of this month, we will have 70 Diocese of Little Rock priests in active ministry and 17 senior priests — 87 in all, which is more than four Diocese of Little Rock priests in active ministry for every one in retirement, which is really good.
Father John Connell informs me that with your ordination, the median age of priests in active ministry in Arkansas will drop to 49 years of age. Ten years ago our median age was about 65. What a blessing!
We also have 17 priests from other dioceses, 12 of which are from the Diocese of Nellore in India. And 34 religious order priests, 14 of whom are Benedictines from Subiaco, for whom I will be ordaining two more priests this July — 140 priests all together in Arkansas — and to all of them we owe a great debt of gratitude.
Early on each of you had to discern whether your vocation was to a religious order or to the diocesan priesthood. For monks, the monastic vocation is primary and includes a certain withdrawal from the world. The abbot decides later whether a given monk should become a priest. But for diocesan priests, the priesthood itself is primary. We used to be called “secular priests” because unlike Benedictines, our vocation is in the world, but that was before the word “secular” took on the negative connotation of meaning “worldly” — “of” the world, the opposite of what Jesus says in the Gospel chosen for your ordination.
Our job is to infiltrate the world, to change it from within. In the world but not of the world. And how will you do that?
n First, you must be “consecrated to the truth.” If you preach the full truth of the Gospel — not just the easy parts — the world will hate you for it because it hates the truth but don’t worry: “God will guard you from the evil one.” People can recognize the truth even when they don’t like it.
What makes people so angry is that to embrace that truth we have to change, repent, leave behind what is comfortable but false. It is only by changing hearts that we change the world and that requires us to grapple with evil and it isn’t always pretty.
But be assured, if people complain because you’re “consecrated to the truth” and really are preaching some part of the Gospel that they need to hear but don’t want to hear, I’ll back you up.
n Second, you must be men of prayer. Our vocation as diocesan priests may be in the world, but we need to withdraw from the world too, for at least one hour of private prayer every single day, including on vacation.
How else are you going to learn from the heart of Christ those truths that the Lord is trying to reveal to you and to your people? Otherwise you’ll just end up preaching your own ideas ... or else just what you think will please the hearers, but not the challenging Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Besides, where else other than in prayer will you find the patience you need to be Christ for your most high-maintenance parishioners?
n Third, you must die to yourself. That is, you must live God’s challenging truth yourself first, leave behind all that is comfortable but false in your own life first; otherwise your words will not be credible, and that will require getting rid of everything that is not compatible with your vocation as a priest.
I’ve got some bad news for you, if you don’t know it already: we’re a lot weaker than some people think and ordination does not change that.
Today’s reading from Hebrews is right on target when it says, “we are able to deal patiently with erring sinners because we ourselves are beset by weakness.” The silver lining is that knowing our own weakness makes us more compassionate confessors, but still without dying to this world — in the world but not of it — unless you do that, you will not grow into the holy priests God calls you to be — and your parishioners need you to be.
There are things out there which are not necessarily sinful in themselves, but which are nevertheless incompatible with a life of holiness in the priesthood. For instance, diocesan priests don’t vow poverty like a monk, but not taking a vow of poverty doesn’t mean that it’s therefore OK for us to accumulate a lot of material possessions. Remember what Jesus said about the camel and the eye of a needle.
If it looks worldly it probably is, and such a priest is secular in the wrong sense of the term when what started out as a vocation turns into a career and the desire to serve is replaced by a feeling of entitlement ... people expected to serve their pastor rather than the other way around.
So how about it? Are you ready to join all these other men of prayer consecrated to the truth in Jesus’ work of salvation, infiltrating the world and changing it from within, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable because you have consecrated your life to God for the salvation of his people? You will now be an Alter Christus — specially conformed to Christ — such that every time you celebrate the Eucharist, you offer up to the Father your own body and blood too, united to that of Christ — your own self-sacrifice along with that of Christ.
You know, even as Christians, apart from whether one is a priest or not, we don’t just admire Jesus (even Jews admire Jesus) and we don’t just believe in him (because faith without works is dead), no, all Christians are called to follow him, live like he lived — according to the heart and mind of Christ.
And for us priests, that means being especially conformed to Jesus the priest, to Jesus who as both priest and victim offered himself on the cross, to Jesus who in us as an Alter Christus continues to offer himself in our person on the altar of the cross in the unbloody sacrifice of the Eucharist over which we have the privilege to preside.
It also means being conformed especially to the Jesus the Good Shepherd who came not to be served but to serve, and to seek out and rescue those who were lost, following him — and living like him, who died to himself so that we could be saved.
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