It was wonderful to celebrate the anniversary for Bishop Greg O’Kelly’s 50th Priestly Ordination. It was a great day filled with love, respect and gratitude. We wish him many of God’s blessings as he continues his Ministry.
This is the third Sunday of Advent, known as Gaudete Sunday, meaning rejoice, be delighted, lift up your hearts. The Church has got a sniff of Christmas, the time of the birth of the Lord approaches, so it makes its own the song of the Prophet Isaiah in the first Reading:
Let the wilderness and the drylands exult.
Let the wasteland rejoice and bloom.
Let it bring forth flowers like the jonquil,
Let us rejoice and sing for joy.
Then the lame shall leap like a deer
And the tongues of the dumb sing for joy
Jesus tells John the Baptist in the Gospel to look and note what was happening in Israel; miracles were transforming the lives of the broken. For us now there is all the transforming power of the presence of Christ in our lives, he who makes all things new, who gives to the blind new sight, the deaf hear and lepers are cleansed. All these are metaphors, to take place in our human hearts. Christmas is the time and season of affirmation, that God so loved us he sent his only Son, that we might be saved as human beings from the wilderness and the dry lands, from the wasteland of disillusioned hearts, from any leprosy that disfigures us, from the wilderness of the confusion of voices in the world, voices that speak without the beauty of Christ, from the spiritual homelessness of so many of our sisters and brothers. For unto us a child will be born, a Son will be given. And so ‘gaudete’ says the Church, rejoice.
A tragedy for the world is that we Christians do not seem to telegraph adequately the cause of our joy to our neighbours. Pope Francis says we should have two sets of antennae, one to receive the Good News of Christ and the other to broadcast it to others. We don’t need to do this by yelling from street corners, but by living lives marked by a steady joy, a sense of steady peace, a kindliness towards all (no exceptions, all groups), a compassion that moves our hearts to uphold and support whomever is in distress, a heart that has prayerfulness at its centre. Ordinary lives transformed by Christ, as Cardinal St John Newman prayed:
“I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place,( while not intending it) if I do but keep his commandments. Therefore, I will trust him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve him.”
Today I speak my own note of rejoicing, rending thanks for a fifty year gift of priesthood in the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, a life I see to have been and is a profound gift and privilege from the creating God, and the more I dwell on it the unworthier I assess myself to have been, and I cannot speak sufficiently my thanks and deep indebtedness to you who have helped make up my life. We are all made up of each other. This vocation as priest has brought me into contact with a huge array of people over these fifty years, from all walks of life – families through the schools, families in the parishes, city and country, clergy and religious, the priests of the diocese from overseas, the youth in the schools, their teachers, the farmers and pastoralists, some prisoners and asylum seekers, people in their Homes for the Aged, visits to Mary Potter Hospice, people in the supermarkets.
Speaking to the priests of Rome, Pope Francis once told them:
‘We are not distributors of bottled oil. We have been anointed to anoint. We anoint by distributing ourselves, distributing our vocation and our heart. When we anoint others, we ourselves are anointed anew by the faith and the affection of our people.
‘We anoint by dirtying our hands in touching the wounds, the sins and the worries of the people. We anoint by perfuming our hands in touching their faith, their hopes, their fidelity and the unconditional generosity of their self-giving …’
Pope Francis has also said that the ordained priest is called as a shepherd to remind and reinforce in the Church of priest and faithful the sense of the presence of Jesus amongst us. Also, Pope John Paul II said that the role of the priest ‘is to prolong the presence of Christ amongst us’.
These are overwhelming concepts, daunting. Whoever could be that worthy. Jesus said to us that we should love one another as He has loved us. The love of Christ for us was a love that was steadfast, sacrificial and forgiving. I ask you for forgiveness for the times over these last fifty years of priesthood when my service of the People of God was not steadfast, when I appeared less than forgiving myself, when I became self-centred rather than sacrificial for others. In the positions I have held it is certain that I must have offended or hurt others from time to time, and on this occasion now I ask forgiveness.
Like every baptised person here today, the priest is called to live the mission of Jesus. He then is called by the people to celebrate the most intimate and sacred of moments in their lives – the wonder as a couple vow their love and commitment to each other; the unsurpassed joy of the birth of their baby, and then presenting their treasured child for baptism into Christ; the sacred moments of encounter between Christ and penitent in confession, when sin encounters Christ’s forgiveness; the laying on of hands and the anointing of a young man at his ordination, giving over his life; of being called to anoint someone enduring illness, or another, ending the journey of life and being anointed to return to the Father and the mystery of eternal life. And then there is, with the people, as with today now, the holiest of moments on earth when he says in the person of Christ, “This is my Body; This is my Blood”.
As you may recall, two Jesuits, one just back from overseas studies, the other a deacon due to be ordained a priest two weeks later, were killed on their way to my First Mass. They had made the special trip from Melbourne to be at my ordination and had fitted in an overnight visit to Sevenhill and were returning for the Mass. So that added fire and violence to the commencement of my priesthood; nothing of the human story which includes death and tragedy, is to be absent from the heart of a priest. It is a sacrificial vocation, and those two men have never been away from my inner musing and prayer ever since.
People have allowed me to be part of their lives, often in the intimate moments of family joy or grief, times of exultation or devastation as we have moved through the cavalcade of a human life. The priest has been described as being a “wounded healer”, as with his own inadequacies of heart or mind or body, he attempts to bring something of the compassion of Christ to people in pain, often without words, simply through presence.
The priest is a man of the Incarnation. As Christ was immersed completely in the Jordan, a symbol of human history, the priest must live halfway between the commonplace and the sacred. He must seek to find and show the presence of Christ in all things, or rather the presence of all things in Christ. He must never leave his ordinariness, his own simple humanity, when dealing with people. But he must also be conscious that he has been called to share the sacred with others, in their high times and their low times. That is my prayer for myself and all my brother priests.
The sacred has called us together on this occasion. I thank all who have formed my priesthood in me, starting of course with my parents and family who transmitted the faith to me, to the Josephite nuns, to my parish priest of St Peters, Fr Jim Kelly; to the Jesuits who taught me and then accepted me into their companionship and knocked the corners off of me, to my wider family of cousins galore, and to you all, my sisters and brothers, who have in your own kindness and goodness ministered to me, affirmed me, kept me on the right track, helped deepen my priesthood.
St Paul has stated it so clearly. “We”, all of the baptized, all of us, “are ambassadors for Christ. It is as if God were making an appeal through us”. This God who created us, who sent us forth into existence, who knows our weaknesses better than ourselves, nevertheless still entrusts us to further the work of Christ in this world, to be signs of his presence in our world. May you and I, all of us together as priest and people, continue to live lives worthy of such love and trust, and always hear his appeal. May we love and serve, amare et servire, the phrase of Ignatius, through all the days that we are given. Amen