Homily preached at the Mass for Jubilarians of Northampton Diocese (including Bishop Peter's Golden Jubilee), 8th June 2018 - Solemnity of the Sacred Heart
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
I want to begin by acknowledging my fellow Jubilarians, Canon Mick Hazell and Father Neville McClement who are Diamond Jubilarians, Canon Bosco Clarke who with me is a Golden Jubilarian, Father Tony Whitfield and Father Kevin O’Connell who are Ruby Jubilarians, and Father Brendan Killeen, Father David Barrett, and Father Dariusz Bialowas who are Silver Jubilarians. Thanks be to God for our combined priestly service of 375 years, and thanks be to God for the service of all our priests ministering in the Diocese of Northampton.
Every Sunday, when I went to church with my father and mother, John and Alice, and with my brothers and sister, Chris and Alison and John junior, I used to look up at the altar and wish that I could be as holy as the priest; and I wished that I could understand the mystery of our faith like him. Now, from the altar, I look at you and I wish that I could be as holy as you are!
Our faith will always be a mystery, the mystery of Christ, but the one thing I am sure that I share with my fellow jubilarians is that I am gradually discovering the love God has for us, for you and for me. The preaching and teaching of us priests, the celebration of the Mass and the sacraments, and all our pastoral care and service of God’s holy people must be imbued with divine love and be a response to that divine love.
The sign and the reality of that divine love we celebrate today in the solemn feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus as we recall the wonders of his love for us poured out on the cross and represented to us in the Gospel of John by the blood and water flowing from the side of Christ pierced by a soldier’s lance.
In his infinite love, Christ the eternal high priest, as mediator between God and human beings, fulfilled his Father’s will and sacrificed himself on the altar of the cross as a saving victim for the whole world. Before he died, Jesus instituted the pattern of an everlasting sacrifice and “with a brother’s love chose men to share his sacred ministry, to renew in his name the sacrifice of human redemption, to set before your children the paschal banquet, to lead your holy people in charity, to nourish them with the word, and strengthen them with the sacraments.” (Preface if the Priesthood of Christ and the Ministry of Priests)
There is an intimate link between the sacred heart of Jesus and the ministerial priesthood. But, in this Diocesan Year of Prayer and Vocation, it is good to remember that men called to the particular vocation of the priesthood are called from God’s holy people, all of whom are called to a life of holiness and service in a multitude of vocations, responding to the love of God. The celebration of every vocation is a celebration of the Church. So, while naturally the focus in this Mass is on the priestly vocation, each of us, whatever our calling is responding to the divine love of the Sacred Heart.
To accept God’s love for us, that God actually loves me with a love that I cannot earn, is a real challenge, a life-long challenge. In the first reading, the Prophet Hosea speaks of that love - “When Israel was a child I loved him ... I took them in my arms ... I led them with reins of kindness, with leading strings of love ... yet they have not understood that I was the one looking after them.” (Hosea 1:1,3-4) The challenge to accept God’s love goes back to the beginning of time. Yet that love is the source of our salvation, the wells of Our Saviour from which we can draw water with joy.
That love of God I have received and experienced through family and friends, through the ministry of Priests, and through countless people in the parishes where I have served and in our beloved Diocese of Northampton. I am sure that that is true, too, for all priests, not just for those of us celebrating jubilees. This Mass is a big “thank you” to God and to a vast multitude of people, living and dead. It is also a moment to reflect on the different ways each of us is called by God, on the joys and sorrows and all the blessings in our years of ministry, and our own unworthiness.
Paul speaks of his unworthiness, “less than the least of all the saints”, in the letter to the Ephesians where he writes of “the infinite treasure of Christ ... a mystery to be dispensed ... through the Church.” As ministers of the Church, bishops and priests are very aware of their own unworthiness and their need for God’s mercy. It is certainly important for me, on my fiftieth anniversary, to ask God’s forgiveness for my sins and my failings and the forgiveness of anyone I have hurt especially in my time as Bishop of Northampton.
It is very appropriate that today’s solemn feast is also designated as the Day of Sanctification for Priests. We are encouraged to foster and live the joy of a loving friendship with Jesus. But because our ministry is not always easy, we can give way to tiredness and discouragement. Where two or three of us used to serve a parish, now there is only one priest perhaps serving two communities. Yet the expectations of ourselves and the expectations of the communities are that nothing should change. Add to that the arid desert of unbelief around us, and we could lose heart. So, to quote Pope Francis, we must go up to the Lord in prayer, to contemplate Jesus and listen attentively and prayerfully to him and then be transformed not into bureaucrats or functionaries but into normal, simple, kind, balanced priests who are also capable of letting themselves be constantly regenerated by the Spirit.
Yes, we are earthenware jars, but all of us, people, priests and bishop, have been called to be channels of God’s love. We can make Paul’s prayer our own. “Out of his infinite glory, may the Father give us the power through his Spirit for our hidden self to grow strong, so that Christ may live in our hearts through faith, and then, planted in love and built on love, we will with all the saints have strength to grasp the breadth and the length, the height and the depth; until, knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond all knowledge, we are filled with the utter fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:14-19)
If I could remember, I would like to draw down the memories and stories of the past fifty years but, fortunately for you my mind is blank but full of thanks. For the present, my prayer is that all of us will live to the full and for the greater glory of God. For the future, let us place ourselves in God’s hands with hope and trust that his will may be done.
Mary Immaculate: pray for us
Mary, Queen of Priests: pray for us
St. Thomas of Canterbury: pray for us.
Bishop of Northampton