Years ago, when I was a senior seminarian, we had a well-known older priest lead a day of recollection. He walked into the chapel, moved to the lectern and began with these words: “It’s a great pleasure, indeed an honour, to be addressing the young men upon whom the future of the Church does not depend”. A stunned silence followed. We had grown so used to being told that the future of the Church – at least in this part of the world – did depend on us that the little word NOT came as a shock.
So let me echo his words here this evening: “It’s a great pleasure, indeed an honour, to be ordaining three men upon whom the future of the Church does not depend”. This doesn’t mean that they as priest or our ordaining them are unimportant. On the contrary: they and this ordination are crucially important and a great gift to the Church in Brisbane and beyond. But there is more to the Church than the ordained ministry, and to reduce the Church to the ordained is to fall prey to the clericalism which is far from the mind of Christ.
The best of the ordained know this. It’s said that another well-known older priest, Pope John XXIII, ended his prayers each night by saying to God, “Well, I did my best today. It’s your Church, so I’m going to bed now”. The sense that the Church belongs to God and not to us, certainly not to the ordained, is at the heart of what we mean by synodality, an exotic word with simple and far-reaching meaning. If the Church belongs to God, then to God we look and listen, as Abraham did on his journey of faith which allowed him no map or GPS. If the Church belongs to God, then we can be less anxious about where we are as a Church, where we need to be and how we might get there. We can be less anxious that structures and strategies which worked well in the past don’t work now as the culture continues to change in ways we didn’t foresee. We can be less anxious in turning to new structures and strategies, better suited to the facts of this time.
Also at the heart of synodality is the sense that, in a moment like this, we need to draw upon the gifts God has given not just to the ordained and the consecrated but to all the baptised. At times in the past the Church’s mission has depended almost totally upon clergy and Religious. That’s why some think that, because vocations to the clergy and Religious life have dwindled, the Church’s mission inevitably dwindles too. But not necessarily if we can draw upon the gifts and energies of all the baptised. This requires an understanding of Baptism as a call to mission, so that every baptised person is sent by Christ into the world as a missionary, though in a thousand different ways. We need to unpack Baptism in a new and radical way, as the Second Vatican Council called us to do. Baptism is where it all begins; and the vocation stories of the three men whom we ordain this evening began in their Baptism. The priesthood will be their particular way of living their baptismal call.
The priesthood is Christ’s gift, and it is essential. You can’t have the Catholic Church without it. But it has taken many forms through the ages, and its forms will continue to change, as they have in my own lifetime. Whatever its form, the priesthood will always be an indispensable part of Christ’s Church; but it will never be enough. Our current mode of providing leadership for our communities – a priest in every parish – is unsustainable, in part because we have too many parishes rather than too few priests. Though we ordain three new priests this evening and pray for more to follow them, we will not have enough ordained leaders in any foreseeable future to sustain the current mode of provision. Therefore, we need to think differently about leadership in the Church.
Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, synodality invites us to think of leadership in terms of a team – a team which will have a priest, but which will also include lay and perhaps Religious leaders. In forming the team, we will ask not the administrative question: where are the gaps and who do we have to fill them, but the charismatic question: to whom has God given the gifts needed for leadership in a community which may well be a larger configuration than the parishes we have known, a community of communities – not an amalgamation cancelling identity but a communion respecting the identity of each community.
It was the preacher of the papal household, Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa, who said that “ordination guarantees apostolic succession but not apostolic success”. We know the truth of that; and we need a form of leadership which looks to apostolic success. That will always include a priest, but the priest himself may not be the team leader, if that is not the gift he has received from God nor the service to which he is called for the sake of the community. His is a ministry of word, sacrament and pastoral care, prophet, priest and pastor.
To know what apostolic success might require, we look to Saints Peter and Paul. In them, we see that apostolic success doesn’t mean sameness: they were very different personalities with very different backgrounds and stories. They had their differences in life – differences enough that they parted ways and took separate missionary paths. Yet their two paths eventually converged in Rome, which is why their memory is revered most intensely there and why we celebrate them on this single feast-day. For all their differences and disagreements, Peter and Paul were united in their final witness to Jesus crucified and risen, that is in their martyrdom. In their death, they were so completely united to Jesus that they found their way to each other forever.
So apostolic success will require that kind of radical witness, even a death; and it will require a unity beyond all the differences and disagreements, which is a far cry from the polarisation which troubles the Church at times these days. It will also require a willingness to leave all that is familiar as both Peter and Paul did and to head out into uncharted territory. Both left home physically; but they also left home spiritually, as they transcended their Jewish origins once they had encountered the risen Lord. They remained Jewish to the end, but in a new and extraordinary way that turned their religious cosmos on its head. There was a dying in that.
They knew in the depth of their being that the Church belonged not to them but to Jesus. But they also knew in the depth of their being that Jesus had chosen to work with them and through them, so radically in fact that they became Jesus. The first page of the Bible makes it clear that God chooses to work with the human being, even though he was perfectly capable of doing it all himself. Having created animals, God calls Adam and asks him to name the creatures, which Adam does (Gen 2:19-20). God could have named the creatures, but he chose to involve the human being in the work of creation, bringing order out of chaos by means of a word, just as God himself had done in the beginning (Gen 1:3). In the same way, Jesus called Peter and Paul into the work of the new creation, and that’s what he does with Isaac, Minje and Gerard.
The one who calls them also sends them out, as he did Peter and Paul. This evening, these three men say yes to the call, as they have through the years of their formation. But they cannot know what that yes will mean; nor did Peter and Paul when they said yes. Still less can they know what the mission will entail. But one thing is certain: all will be well if they keep saying yes in the face of all that’s unexpected and even unwelcome or painful. The God who has called them, who says yes to them this evening and sends them out from here, never disappoints or betrays. “The Lord stood by me and gave me power”, says Paul near the end of his life. The same Lord will do no less for Isaac, Minje and Gerard as they set out on the same apostolic journey through death into life, surrounded by the holy people who belong not to them but to Christ. Amen.