The Gospels tell us how Jesus called certain men, saying to them, “Follow me.” Each year with great joy, we celebrate the priestly ordination of those who heard that call and affirmatively responded with love.
More than anything, the vocation to the priesthood – in its discernment, preparation and realization in the day-to-day unfolding of the priestly ministry – is all about love. It begins with the love of God who came to dwell among us in Jesus Christ, the one and eternal High Priest, who sent us his Holy Spirit and whose sacred ministerial presence continues in the ordained priesthood. The fruitfulness of this love is seen in the loving prayer of the Church, “Lord, send more workers for the harvest” (cf. Matthew 9:38), and in those men who answer, promising to live up to the responsibility to be faithful in shepherding the Lord’s flock for the salvation of souls.
The priests of this local Church who were ordained in the past report that great satisfaction and humble joy is found in this work of bringing God and the human person closer. This happens in a host of expressions of priesthood – proclaiming the word of God, celebrating the sacred mysteries, and ministering to people in so many other settings, such as schools, hospitals, counseling rooms, youth rallies and prayer gatherings.
This apostolic work takes place too in outreach. It is seen in the way that priests seek to build bridges between the kingdom of God and a secularized world, between Christ’s Church and those who have drunk deeply from the waters of our culture with its emphasis on self, money, enjoyment and gratification. Establishing such meaningful contact is an essential part of ministry and it benefits all. So that the bridge will last, the effort includes continuing presence and pastoral accompaniment beyond pro-active engagement and welcoming.
As a shepherd, explains Pope Francis, the priest guides his flock by walking before them to lead them, in the midst of them to be with them closely, and behind them to see that none get lost (Homily of June 3, 2016). So many people today are hurting, or feel as if God is distant, or feel separated from others, invisible even, unloved within society or within their own families. The priest must reach out to them and be the shepherd who accompanies them in their pain and emptiness out of the darkness and into the light, from the desert to the land of new life, from an existence without meaning to an identity as an adopted child of God.
After many years of academic study in the seminary, together with practical pastoral experience in parishes and elsewhere, our new priests are well prepared for this task. Even more important is that the Lord gives priests the building blocks for the bridge which extends the warmth of his saving love and liberating truth to a wounded humanity, and for the road upon which to walk with people in their journey.
The first of these gifts is the sacramental grace of Holy Orders, which configures men, with all the limitations of their human nature, into “living instruments of Christ the eternal priest,” so that they may be able to “accomplish his wonderful work” (Presbyterorum Ordinis, 12). Christ’s words, the Gospel message, the sacraments of initiation, healing and service – these too are entrusted to the priest to help him help others to encounter the Risen Lord and his grace.
At the heart of priestly ministry is, of course, the celebration of the Eucharist – that mystery of our redemption that bridges time and the material world and the transcendent – which always has the power to touch wayward souls. In fact, the priesthood “effectively came into being at the moment of the institution of the Eucharist” at the Last Supper (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 31). This center and root of ordained life offers priests “the spiritual strength needed to deal with their different pastoral responsibilities,” thereby making all of their other activities truly Eucharistic (Id.).
While our Catholic faith and the priesthood remain the same from generation to generation, it is also true that the priest who serves in the current culture must be prepared to be an agent of the New Evangelization. A blessing of the Church of Washington is that this love and joy of the Gospel is so evident in our priests, both new and experienced. Each day, they build bridges, fill in gaps, and walk with people to guide them closer to Jesus. Thanking God for them, we also know how great the need is, and so we pray as well: Lord, send more workers for the harvest.
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