"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

Saturday 4 June 2011

50 YEARS A PRIEST: A Sermon Preached at my Golden Jubilee Mass

On June 1st, 1961, Fr Illtyd and I were ordained priests in this church by Bishop Petit of Menevia who, he told us, was consecrated bishop by someone who had been consecrated bishop by Pope St Pius Xth.    Thus, he said, we were spiritual great grandchildren of a saint.   Two days later, I celebrated my "First Mass", back there where the altar used to be.   It is on that Mass I wish to concentrate on this Sunday, the feast of the Ascension of Our Lord.    After it, when I went into the"statio" where the monks were taking off their choir dress, one of the monks said to me, "Now all is wonderful and you are walking on air; but soon everything will settle and become normal again",   He could not have been more wrong.   50 years on, I cannot think of anything I could do, in the whole wide world, that even approaches  the marvel of celebrating Mass.

Of course, it was all in Latin in those days.   At quite a distance behind me in the nave were my parents and relatives, some friends and the boys of Belmont Abbey School.   Neither they nor I felt it strange that I had my back to them; and I felt no sense of loss that I was not looking at them.  I would see them later in the reception: Mass was not the time..    Neither did I think it important that I was facing east, nor did I pay much attention to the crucifix in front of me.  Those concerns belong to disagreements that have taken place since Vatican II.  All my attention was focused on the paten and the chalice, on the bread and the wine that were laid out on the altar.  It was there that the great Christian Mystery would be enacted and it was there that the sacrifice of Christ on Mount Calvary would become for us the door through which we enter heaven.

The Aramaic word for sacrifice is Qurbana, and it is based on a verb which means "to approach", "to come close"; because, for the Jews, sacrifice is what they had to do  if they wanted to enter the Presence of God.  Only human beings can offer; but only God can "make holy"    Thus sacrifice needs, in order to function, the synergy (harmony of activities) between the human offerer and the divine action by which what is offered becomes holy.   In this action, he who offers accepts God as his God, and God accepts the person or group offering as belonging to him.  This was especially true on the Day of the Atonement when the High Priest on behalf of the People offered the mixed blood of goat and bull, and God accepted it, so that God remained present in the temple as God of Israel and the Jews were once more accepted and declared themselves to be the People of God.

To understand the Mass we must understand the significance of  the feeding of the five thousand.   When Jesus told the apostles to feed five thousand men, besides women  and children, from their own resources, they could never have done so on their own.   They only had five loaves and two fishes.     Likewise, we knew that bread and wine, by themselves, could never become a means by which we enter into God's Presence.   Nevertheless, we had been commissioned by Jesus to do the impossible, just  as the apostles had been to feed the five thousand.   Our only solution had to be the same as theirs.   We had to hand the bread and wine over to Christ as they handed over the five loaves and two fishes.   He would bless and give thanks in a prayer to the Father through the words of the priest; and what is impossible for us to do by ourselves becomes possible with Christ's prayer.   The apostles handed over the bread and the fish: we hand over the bread and wine to Him at the Offertory by laying it on the altar. 

  50 years ago, for the first time, it was my function to take this bread and wine into my hands, to pray, to bless, to offer thanksgiving to God the Father, knowing that the Holy Spirit would make my prayer on behalf of the Church one with the prayer of Christ, so that he prayed in me and I in him; and what is impossible for mankind became actual by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Christ, our action becomes one with Christ's sacrifice on Calvary; and, in so far as our lives are offered up with Christ on the cross, to that extent we share in the resurrection and his eternal life; and, through sharing in his death and resurrection,  as the Letter to the Hebrews has it - we pass through the veil which is the flesh of Jesus Christ into the Holy of Holies where the Father dwells eternally..

Thus, the death, resurrection and ascension of  Christ are both historical event and eternal reality.   His death is an historical event which became eternal because of the utter completeness of his self-offering: his death became a permanent dimension of his resurrected being.   In the resurrection, he passed over from time to eternity,so the resurrection is primarily an eternal event; but the empty tomb and his appearances to his disciples are historical.   His sitting at the right hand of his Father, making intercession for us and inviting us into his Father's Presence, completes the connection between us and the Father.   It takes place in eternity, in the heavenly liturgy; but his ascent in the presence of the apostles and our eucharistic celebrations take place in time. 

  The death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus as eternal reality form the central core of the heavenly liturgy, with the angels and saints, which is illustrated in the Book of Revelation (the Apocalypse) and is imaginatively described in the Letter to the Hebrews.   In the Church's liturgy, we remember the historical events as a community, but we also participate in their eternal  reality.   Today's feast of the Ascension is not just a memorial of an event that took place two thousand years ago.   It has little in common with England's celebration of the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, safely locked in the past.   As we rejoice in the memory of the apostles' experience at the Ascension, we also remember that our altar is "Heavengate" because our gifts of bread and wine are taken up into heaven by an angel and become the body and blood of the risen Lord, and we join the angels and the saints in singing, "Holy, holy, holy" and become one body with Christ in heaven.

Since my ordination fifty years ago, much has happened.    We have had Vatican II, and the altar which was way back there is now under the tower; and I shall be facing you as I read the Eucharistic Prayer.   But do not waste your time looking at me, even if it is my Golden Jubilee of Ordination.   I shall certainly not waste my time looking at you, even though many of you are very dear to me.    There will be time enough after Mass for that.   With the altar where it is, it is easier for all of us, priest and people, to concentrate on the bread and wine and on the prayer uttered by me and by the other priests by which Jesus himself addresses the Father, expressing his total self-offering both to the Father and to us.   In reply, the Father sends his Holy Spirit onto the bread and wine, transforming them into Christ's body and blood.   He also sends the Holy Spirit onto us, making all who receive communion one body with Christ in heaven. It is an event far greater than the appearance of God to Moses.

   Here is a paradox: the more we are united to Christ in heaven, the more Christ is present on earth through us.   The more I am centred on him, the more am I united to you, and vice versa.   Hence, the more I am absorbed in him, the closer I am united to you, even if we are not looking at each other, even if I am in Peru and you are in England.   This is because Christ has ascended into heaven and, through the Holy Spirit, is intimately present in every event and circumstance in our daily lives, uniting us to him and with each other. 

 I am glad that you have been able to celebrate with me my Golden Jubilee Mass with me in which I am remembering with gratitude the wonderful gift of priesthood, the incomparable gift of celebrating Mass, even though there have been many times I have not responded to God's grace as I should.   


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for publishing your thoughts and insights on the internet, Father. I am finding reading your website both helpful and uplifting. I Thank you for having consecrated your life to the Lord, and for sacrificing the normal comforts of family life in order to serve God and other people as a priest. Perhaps we laypeople do not say this often enough to our priests, but you really are appreciated, and we know that priests have to make big sacrifices in order to say Yes to their vocation, and that you are set apart by God in perhaps the same way as the Levites of Israel were set apart in olden times. God Bless you (and all priests), and I hope you had a joyful 50th Anniversary.

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