Priesthood Ordination Homily
Frederick Joseph Wiley
St. Joseph Cathedral, Wheeling, WV
June 1, 2019
Pastores Dabo Vobis
The Scripture readings for today’s Ordination speak to us of our need for shepherds— shepherds who are sound, competent, and holy, after the mind and heart of Christ. We need shepherds to lead and guide us in responding to our call to holiness, to help us live as the Lord’s disciples in the Church and as his missionaries in the world.
In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul warns the Church at Ephesus that, after his departure, there will come shepherds who are in fact savage wolves who will destroy the flock of God which he, Paul, had so carefully built up with his fellow presbyters in the power of the Holy Spirit. How this warning resonates in these difficult days in the Church’s life!
St. Paul also addresses the need for shepherds who are watchful and humble when, in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, he says: “We hold this treasure in earthen vessels”, the earthen vessel of a fragile humanity. But what is the treasure to which St. Paul refers? The treasure of knowing and loving the Trinitarian God who is love; The treasure of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead; The treasure of the Holy Spirit who makes Christ come alive in us and in the Church; The treasure of the Sacraments by which Christ’s redemptive love reaches us; The treasure of the saints who are our friends in heaven. In his inscrutable wisdom, God has chosen to make the shepherd’s frail humanity, an instrument, a means, a channel by which those treasures reach us, and reach us in the Word that is preached, the Sacrifice that is offered, the bread and wine that are transformed into the Body and Blood of his Son, and the word of forgiveness that absolves us of our sins. Clearly, “the surpassing power [of these treasures] comes from God and not from us.”
And in these days when we pray for a new bishop, I was struck by today’s proclamation from St. Matthew’s Gospel. When Jesus saw the crowds, St. Matthew recounts, he pitied them “for they were like sheep without a shepherd.” With you, I earnestly beseech the Lord to send you that shepherd who will love this local church and all of its clergy, religious, and laity with integrity, generosity, a passion for the truth, and a deep pastoral charity. So too, as I have come to know something of the pastoral needs of this diocese, I realize how thinly stretched you, my dear brother priests really are, many of you serving clusters of parishes and missions and travelling great distances. With you, I pray that “the master of the harvest will send out laborers for his harvest”, that is to say, that he will increase greatly the number of our valiant seminarians whom I cordially salute on this ordination day with great affection and respect.
The Joyful Significance of This Day
Against this backdrop of our need for shepherds, I now address you, Joseph, for you have responded to the Lord’s call to serve God’s People as a priest. Today that call and your response are confirmed by the Church – by those who were responsible for your formation, by the lay faithful who are gathered in this Cathedral, and by myself as your interim bishop and a successor to the Apostles. We give God thanks and praise as you pledge to become ever-more a shepherd of souls after the mind and heart of Christ in the service of this local church of Wheeling-Charleston.
But what does it mean to be the kind of shepherd which the Lord wills you to be and the kind of shepherd for which his people long? What are those qualities of mind and heart which identify you as the kind of priest that the Church not only wants but needs, especially in these days when it is buffeted and rocked by scandal? Let us turn again to the wellspring of today’s Scriptures to find three inspired answers to that searching question, namely, Watchfulness; Christ-centeredness; and Pastoral Zeal.
Keep Watch Over Yourself
The first key in becoming that priest whom the Lord wants and the Church needs is found in St. Paul’s exhortation to the presbyters of the Church at Ephesus: “Keep watch over yourselves [he says] and over the whole flock of which the Holy Spirit has appointed you overseers, in which you tend the Church of God that he acquired with his own Blood.”
Keep watch over yourself – what does this mean? Daily you must examine your heart with searching prayer to ensure that you are first a true Christian. Only then are you truly fit to oversee the flock of God. At a minimum this means ruling out of your life and mine those compromises with evil that we all can so easily make, compromises that are the devil’s way of undermining our humanity & our ministry and spoiling the faith of those whose faith we are supposed to be fostering. This means that you must seek out sound and regular spiritual direction and frequently make worthy use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, so as to open your heart again and again to God’s transforming mercy such that all the human and Christian virtues will shine forth in what you say and do. Or, as St. Charles Borromeo challenged the priests of his day: “Are you in charge of a parish? If so, do not neglect the parish of your own soul.” To neglect our own growth in holiness is to neglect the flock God entrusts to us. If you are watchful over your own soul, you are much more likely to watch over the flock so as to protect and nourish it as a good shepherd.
Christ, the Center of Priestly Ministry
Second, your priestly ministry must always be centered on Christ. The ministry you undertake today is not your own but his gift of grace and mercy entrusted to you by the Church in the power of the Holy Spirit. In this Sacrament of Holy Orders the Spirit will fashion in the depth of your being the living image of Christ, the high priest, who died and rose to save us from our sins. Through sacramental ordination, the Lord will share with you his priestly identity and his own redeeming ministry, so that you in turn might share it with God’s People, not only those in the pews, but also with those who have drifted from the faith or who have never embraced it.
For that reason, St. Paul urges you to renounce the hidden malice of sin, so that, with a clear conscience and attaining spiritual intimacy with Christ, you will wholeheartedly allow him to speak and act through you, whether you are preaching a homily, offering Mass, baptizing, hearing confessions, anointing the sick, burying the dead, witnessing marriages, or interacting with others: “For we do not preach ourselves,” St. Paul says, “but Jesus Christ as Lord . . . For God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ has shone in our hearts to bring to light the knowledge of the glory of God on the face of Jesus Christ.” May Christ Jesus be the heart, the center, and the content of your priestly ministry!
A third quality of mind and heart for which you must strive is pastoral zeal. In the Gospel, we find Jesus going out to the towns and villages of Galilee. He is “teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom, and curing every disease and illness.” These few lines of Scriptures, Joseph, indicate the kind of life you are to lead. You are to be a priest on mission and a missionary disciple who is a priest. It is all too easy to bureaucratize the priesthood, to set up shop in a rectory or in an office, waiting for people to come our way, or to go about our ministry with a kind of fatalistic indifference to the many people who are drifting away from the Church, especially the young. But Jesus did not sit at home in Mary’s house waiting for the crowds to gather! Rather, he was an itinerant missionary, going from town to town – preaching, healing, forgiving, imparting hope, bringing people into his Kingdom. So too, reading ‘the signs of the times’ in which you have been called to serve, you must model your life on Jesus who, to be sure, withdrew to pray, but otherwise was ‘on the move’ reaching out to people, encountering them, walking with them, not giving them more of what the world already offered but that which only he could offer them in the power of the Holy Spirit: the truth and love of God which alone satisfies the human heart, that love in which there is healing, forgiveness, and hope.
Watchfulness! Christ-centeredness! Pastoral Zeal! Three qualities of mind and heart which the Word of God calls forth in you not only today but every day of your priestly life, until your last breath. May good St. Joseph, your patron and the patron of this diocese, pray for you as you seek to foster the household of God. May Mary, the Mother of the Lord and the Mother of Priests, pray for you that you might be a priest, a shepherd, after the mind and heart of her divine Son. And may God bless you and keep you always in his love!