Way back in 1966 the German Jesuit Theologian Karl Rahner wrote a short piece about the priest of the future. What he wrote has turned out to be prophetic. It made an impression on me when I was a seminarian and it still makes an impression upon me, more so perhaps now than then. The piece bore the title “The man with the pierced heart”, with echoes of the great feast of today (June 27), the Feast of the Sacred Heart. “The priest of the future,” says Rahner, “may not have a power drawn from the social prestige of the church but will have the courage to carry out his ministry even without prestige and power.” When I entered the seminary and was eventually ordained priest the Catholic priesthood enjoyed considerable prestige and the new priest was applauded far and wide. It was heady stuff – to be a Catholic priest was really to be someone, almost superhuman it seemed at times. In part this was because of the prestige of the Catholic Church and her institutions. We were a very large, successful and powerful community and we had every right to feel proud. In the meantime things have changed. The decision to enter the seminary and be ordained a priest no longer carries quite the prestige it once did. It’s much more countercultural than it was. The Catholic Church in this country has suffered diminishment in various ways, not least because of the sexual abuse issue and its mishandling. We are a church which in some ways has been humiliated by our own, and inevitably that has an effect on the priesthood and those who offer themselves for ordination.
So Leonard and Marty, yours is a humbler and more arduous path. It takes real courage to say yes to that path, not just once but again and again through the years. “The priest of the future”, says Rahner, “will calmly see God’s triumph at work even if he himself feels defeated”. When a man is ordained priest he signs a blank cheque which is filled in as time goes by God. At ordination you can’t know what lies ahead. I certainly didn’t 40 years ago, and nor do you Marty or Leonard. You may think you know, as I did, but in fact you don’t know. The only one sure thing we all know is that your years in the priesthood will bring not only successes and satisfaction, but also defeats and discouragements. What you make of your defeats will determine the power, the true success of your priestly ministry.
In assessing a man’s suitability for the priesthood the question is not so much what are his strengths and successes but what are his weaknesses and failures and what has he allowed Christ to make of them. Only if there is some sign in a man’s life that weakness has turned to strength is he truly ready for ordination. So too will it be with his life as a priest. Leonard and Marty, for you the key question will not be what are your successes but rather what are your defeats, what are your failures and what have you allowed Christ to make of them? Have you been able to see God’s triumph in the midst of your defeats? Have you been able to help God’s people see his triumphs in the midst of their defeats? “The priest of the future”, says Rahner, “will know that he is in God’s service and on God’s Mission, even if he cannot always measure the power of grace”.
Leonard and Marty are ordained tonight to be missionary priests. This will be the context of their priestly service. We used to think that missionary priests were those who left home and went to work in distant and difficult lands where Christianity was new or even unknown. It’s true, Leonard , that you have left your home shores of Nigeria but you will serve as a priest in Australia, which long ago ceased to be regarded officially as mission territory. Yet you are as much a missionary on these shores as any Irish priest who worked in Nigeria years ago to sow the seed of the gospel there. For you Marty, the priesthood will not mean leaving home shores. In fact, you will hardly leave your own back yard. Yet you are no less a missionary for that fact. There is only one kind of priest or bishop these days and that’s the missionary kind. There is no such thing as non-mission territory. Everywhere is now mission territory and the Archdiocese of Brisbane is no exception. The mission belongs to God, not to us. If we think that it is our mission then we are in trouble. Leonard and Marty, if the priesthood becomes for you the service of self rather than service of God then you will be in trouble. The only priest who will ever flourish is the priest who knows he is in God’s service and on God’s mission. He will know that his ministry, indeed his whole life, is totally dependent on God’s grace. His priesthood will be a miracle of God’s grace or it will be nothing and the priest will never be able to take the full measure of that grace. He will be immersed in mystery knowing only a fraction of what God is doing through him.
“The priest of the future”, says Rahner,” will be, like His Lord, a man with a pierced heart.” Pierced with the Godlessness of the life around him; pierced by love that does not count the cost; pierced by the experience of his own weakness – the priest as the man with the pierced heart, the man who has the heart of Christ. A heart that is not wounded cannot be the heart of a priest because it cannot be the heart of Christ. The heart of Jesus is not pierced by accident. It must be pierced! So too, the heart of a priest for he must know the wound of lovelessness, which is what Godlessness means. It is not railing so much against the secularisation but the lovelessness that turns the heart to stone, which can never been pierced. And not just railing, but actually seeking to live the love in the midst of lovelessness. This means not counting the cost; not being too protective of personal space or free time; not seeing the priesthood as a job or some kind of drudgery but as a gift and a vocation in the strongest and deepest sense.
Divine vocation is a mysterious thing. It’s intensely personal yet it could hardly be more communal. The priest becomes public property and this can bring a wound of its own. Divine vocation is also unreasonable in its total claim. God claims the mind, the heart, the soul and the body of these two men and that can seem too much. Yet that claim leaves the priest completely free. Divine vocation leads a man to the heart of his own weakness, yet it’s there and only there that he finds the strength and healing that can become strength and healing for the people he serves. He will be the man who knows that God has chosen to dwell deep within our wounds and that it’s there that God is found.
“The priest of the future”, says Rahner, “will know that his unembarrassed faithfulness to the wisdom of God, which seems foolish to the world, is the real source of his credibility.” We often hear that the church and her leaders have in recent times lost credibility, and in some ways that is true. Yet we have to understand the true nature of our credibility, which is not that of a politician or any other kind of secular leader. The priest is made credible because he holds fast too, indeed he embodies what St Paul calls “the wisdom of God”, which will look like foolishness to the world. Pope Francis has warned against the dangers of what he calls spiritual worldliness, and I echo his warning to you Leonard and Marty. “Spiritual worldliness takes hold when we confuse the wisdom of God and the wisdom of this world; the foolishness of God and the foolishness of this world.” The priest who lives by the wisdom of this world will never be the man with the pierced heart. He will be instead what St Paul calls “an enemy of the cross of Christ”, and there could be no contradiction greater than that. Only the man with the pierced heart will be truly credible in the way that Christ himself is credible. Faithfulness to the way of the sacred heart can be costly, demanding, embarrassing, even humiliating, but it alone can open the door to joy for it is surely joy, the joy of the gospel, which Jesus wants for you, Leonard and Marty, through the years of your priestly service. So my brothers, let the words of Karl Rahner ring in your hearts on this night of your ordination, but let the truth of the sacred heart echo throughout your whole life as you go forth from here to serve and proclaim the Lord, whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light. Come to Him again and again with all your labours and all your burdens and you will find rest for your souls. Shoulder His yoke and learn from Him again and again. Let your heart be humble like His. Let your heart be pierced, like His. Let your heart become a wellspring of life, like His. Amen.
Most Rev Mark Coleridge
Archbishop of Brisbane
June 27, 2014