Bishop Anthony B. Taylor delivered this homily June 25 at the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Little Rock.
We are gathered here today to celebrate our shared priesthood, our “pearl of great price.”
Do you remember Jesus’ parable that the kingdom of heaven is like a man searching for a fine pearl who upon finding it “goes and sells all that he has and buys it”? Well we priests spent years searching for the pearl that God has chosen for us, discerning our vocation. And upon finding it, we gave up everything to make it our own. This pearl is truly “of great price” — celibacy is costly, obedience is costly, death to self is costly, which is why it is also so valuable.
Thieves steal what is valuable and so Satan tries to steal our priesthood. Hence Jesus’ warning in today’s Gospel: “Do not give what is holy to dogs, or throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them underfoot, and turn and tear you to pieces.” We have seen this drama played out in the scandals of recent years, devastating the lives of vulnerable children and adults. Not only did those criminals trample what is holy, their own priesthood ended up torn to pieces.
Hence the importance of protecting this pearl from all that might put it at risk. It is helpful to notice that a pearl is the product of irritation, which reminds us that faithfulness to our priesthood is not always easy. You know how pearls are made: a grain of sand enters the oyster when the shell’s valves are open for feeding and becomes imbedded between the shell and the soft skin of the oyster. The oyster then secretes a substance which coats the irritant, forming a pearl.
Many of us experienced a call to the priesthood that was like that: Jesus wouldn’t leave us in peace — especially when our shell was open and we let down our guard. He kept tugging at our heart. Sometimes this was pretty irritating. But the Lord persisted and began to form a pearl within us. This process began before entering the seminary and has continued since ordination.
Jesus turns every new challenge into an opportunity to make our pearl more beautiful. Even our stumbles, once we learn from them. Hence the importance of availing ourselves of all the spiritual help available to us: a good confessor and spiritual director, a daily Mass and holy hour, healthy friendships and avoidance of the near occasion of sin, etc. Today we thank God for the opportunities he gives us to grow in holiness — and also for the challenges he uses to form us into the kind of priests he wants us to be.
This experience equips us to help others search for their “pearl of great price.” And also for them, it is precisely amid irritating things — the crosses they bear — that their pearl is to be found. They open their shell to us and let down their guard, sharing very private matters with us. Their trust and vulnerability is not only deeply touching, it also challenges us to serve them with a love that is ever more pure and innocent, and thus our own pearl grows more beautiful.
We priests have the honor of serving the people Jesus entrusts to our care, which is why the Church asks us to die to ourselves as a condition for ordination. That was the great price Jesus paid for us.
We lay prostrate before the altar during the litany of the saints as a visible sign that through ordination we die to this world so that, like Jesus in whose priesthood we share, we might bring life to others. In baptism we died sacramentally so that we might live. In ordination we die so that others might live.
And then Jesus sends us out into the world with a mission to redirect people to the narrow path that leads to life, which will only happen if we remain on that narrow path ourselves. As Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few.”
This year is unique in that for the first time in memory we have only one jubilarian, Father Phillip Reaves, who celebrates his 25th anniversary of ordination this year.
Phillip, we thank you for responding to the Lord’s call and for treasuring the pearl of great price which the Lord has entrusted to you for our benefit — and your own benefit — 25 years ago. And I think we all know that your vocation story is remarkable and quite inspiring, in particular your willingness to put your life on the line and undergo dangerous surgery to correct a medical problem that would otherwise have prevented you from serving as a priest. You didn’t know how it was going to turn out, but you knew that if God was calling you to the priesthood, he would provide a way, and he did, and for that we are all grateful.
Phillip, thank you so much for your faithful service these last 25 years and now especially for your work as director of prison ministry for the diocese. You are serving some of the most marginalized men and women in the state of Arkansas, the very people whom the Lord most wants us not to forget. Thank you so much.
So as we gather today, let us praise the Lord for the priesthood we share, thank the Lord for all the blessings we have received through our shared priesthood and pray that the Lord will enable our pear l — the pearl of our shared priesthood — to continue to grow ever more beautiful in the years that lie ahead.
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