The joy of following Christ

Here is the sermon that I preached last night at Addiscombe. The Mass was a Votive Mass of Christ the High Priest offered for the particular intention of praying for vocations to the priesthood.

I am deeply grateful to Fr Joe O’Connor and to you, the parishioners of Our Lady of the Annunciation, Addiscombe, for inviting me to celebrate Holy Mass here on the occasion of my 25th anniversary of priestly ordination.

My very first memories of the Holy Mass are of being carried in my father’s arms at the age of perhaps 3 or 4, listening to the singing of the Credo in the old Church in Brockenhurst Road. In this new Church, I remember regularly coming to confession to Fr McKenna. He always seemed to me very grave but kindly. Mgr Moran was the parish priest at the time of my ordination in 1984 and, as I realise now, as a wizened parish priest myself, greatly cherished the opportunity to have a priestly ordination in the parish. Later, I participated in the funeral of my brother, Gerry, and celebrated the funeral of my own mother and father.

It was in this very Church that I received that call from God, indefinable, uncommunicable but unmistakeable, challenging me to throw over any prospects of a career in the world and instead to take up his call “Follow me!” The example of many good priests helped me, but especially that of Fr Roger Nesbitt who taught at the John Fisher School and who also came here to supply for a Mass regularly on Sunday. Some years later, I was ordained by Bishop John Jukes and celebrated my first Mass at the altar where we celebrate Mass this evening.

Now after 25 years, I feel that along with the various celebrations, I should make an act of contrition. No priest can feel satisfied with the work he has done. We are given responsibility by Our Lord for the salvation of others and we fail. We are asked by Him to celebrate the sacred mysteries worthily and we fail. We are asked to draw close to Him as His intimate friends but we fail. Therefore we take consolation from the gospel that He did not come to call the virtuous but sinners and that He favoured the prayer of the publican who went to the back of the temple and prayed “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

The Holy Mass helps us priests to be aware of this. We come to the altar as men who are not worthy, trembling in the presence of the Lord who nevertheless deigns to come among us to give us life. His generosity to His people is the spur that makes us, again and again, go up to the altar of God.

Pope Benedict has spoken this week of the impact of the gospel in social affairs in his magnificent but quite challenging encyclical “Caritas in veritate.” He offers wise teaching on the ordering of social affairs, development, globalisation and the centrality of the human person. His genius is to make this teaching part of the seamless garment which is the teaching of the Catholic Church. Our charitable work and our celebration of the Sacred Liturgy are not at odds with each other, they are intimately and necessarily linked because the proper ordering of society is only possible when we recognise and live the life to which God has called us.

The vocation of the secular priest is to be at the heart of this inter-relationship between the human and the divine, the sacred and the profane, the Church and the world. In his letter proclaiming the Year of the Priest, the Holy Father pointed out how the spiritual life of the Curé of Ars, centred on the real presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Eucharist, and his ministry at the altar, in the pulpit and in the confessional, flowered also in his care of the sick and his commitment to the education of the poor. These things flowed from his love of the sacred mysteries. Although he was frugal in his personal life, wearing a threadbare cassock and eating mouldy potatoes, he would spare no expense to decorate his Church, to provide fine vestments, and particularly, to ensure that the Blessed Sacrament was housed in a worthy tabernacle.

Our prayer for vocations should be a prayer filled with hope and trust. Our Lord will provide labourers for his harvest if we pray earnestly to Him. We must not despair: in every age there will be young people willing to give their lives for the love of Christ but we must first teach them how loveable Our Lord is, how thrilling it is to follow him wholeheartedly, and how he is never outdone in generosity. Whatever we think in our conceit that we give to him he gives a hundredfold to us – not without persecutions – but always with the deepest consolation of His divine presence.

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