When Noah, with family and animals, emerged from the long floating lockdown in the ark, the first thing he did was to build an altar and offer on it a sweet-smelling sacrifice. And the second thing that happened was the divine declaration of a new covenant.
Here are we emerging together this evening, after so many restrictions and much separation. Together, lay faithful, religious and clergy, we are offering the sweet-smelling sacrifice of the Eucharist and renewing the covenant of ministry.
The flood, which covered the whole earth, was a pandemic of its kind; and those first moments outside the ark heralded a new beginning for mankind. There was now a new realism about life on earth – paradise was irretrievably lost – but there was a promise too that the Lord would never leave us solely to our own devices.
Please God, this celebration and this coming Easter will be a new beginning too.
Priesthood is the focus of today, and so I’d like to reflect a little on it. The last two years have not been easy for anyone, not for the Church, not for her priests either, and now the War in the east is adding a new ingredient of horror and fear.
And so a simple question: what is it, as priests, that keeps us going and keeps us right, more or less on track? What keeps us from unravelling and losing the plot? What keeps us salty, priestly?
In the light of the Gospel, three things come to mind.
Forgive me mentioning monastic things, but here we go. Monks may fall into thinking, “I would be a saint – or if that’s a bit rich – I’d certainly be happy if it weren’t for my fellow-monks, my brethren. If there’s an obstacle to my fulfilment, they are it. Centuries before, at the very start of the monastic enterprise, St Anthony the Great had already lanced this particular boil. He did so with a splendidly simple statement: “my brother is my salvation”. A complete reversal of perspective. The question then arises, what is the equivalent for those engaged in pastoral ministry. What is our salvation? Who stands for our brother? Now, I don’t wish in the least to devalue priestly fraternity, the salvation presbyters can mediate to each other. Even less do I want to downplay the need for mutual priestly friendship and support, for confession, spiritual direction or accompaniment, which will normally be provided by our fellow-priests. Vital! Vital! Never not so, but especially in our early days in ministry. Still, I don’t think it’s simply there that St Anthony’s dictum holds good for us. Rather, what his brethren are to a monk, the faithful, the people, are to us. They are our salvation. Canonically, each of us is allotted a portion of the People of God to pastor, a defined sphere for our ministry, and it is that people-portion who offers in return the treasure of salvation. This does not mean there won’t be among them those who seem to have doctorates in being difficult, or parishes which just seem sluggish and unresponsive. Wasn’t that what the Cure of Ars experienced when he began? We are not joining a mutual admiration society. It’s just that our people – terminally human just like us – are our salvation. The people who reply “and with your spirit” to our “the Lord be with you”, and mumble “Amen” when we mumble “Body of Christ”, are my salvation. In their concern or indifference, in their faith or lack of it, in hypocrisy and holiness, they are my salvation. At the sacristy door after Mass, in a testy email or irrelevant post, in their obstinate unhappiness or their joyful generosity, they open the gate to the Kingdom. The old spiritual writers loved to talk of the ladders by which we can climb to salvation; here they are in flesh and blood. If I withdraw from them, I wither; if I accept them, I flourish. It is simple. To be topical, it is synodality. I remember a Westerner, a teacher, who worked in East Africa. If he set off for a walk by himself, he’d find himself surrounded by his students. “Sir, sir, you can’t go for a walk by yourself; don’t worry, we’ll come with you.” “My brother is my salvation.” So, the question for our conscience is, am I adequately open to this? Or do I surround myself with thorn-bushes: routines, days-off, a certain manner? Of course, we need “me-time” (a horrid phrase), better solitude and silence. We need detachment; at the least, balance. But if we read, say, the 2nd Letter to the Corinthians, detachment or distance are not the primary qualities St Paul conveys. We might go a little further. What is the upshot – in us – of a life of steady pastoral care? What will it do to us? Will it make us crabbed and cantankerous? Surely not! It should break our hearts open. In the Isaian passage which Christ proclaims in the synagogue, it’s to the poor, the prisoners, the blind and the downtrodden the Anointed one is sent – not an immediately appealing constituency. A parish priest, says Canon Law (forgive me), is “to strive to know the faithful entrusted to his care…to visit their families, sharing especially in their cares, anxieties and sorrows, comforting them in the Lord” (c. 529/1). Blessed are we when we accept this mission and realise our own poverty and captivity, blindness and downtrodden-ness in those to whom we are sent. Doesn’t hearing confessions, for example, teach us our own sinfulness? Isn’t it, then, our calling to grow together with our people into a shared awareness of our common weakness, and thus of our joint need for mercy? And so we come together to salvation. Priesthood, like fatherhood or motherhood, like any life-defining calling, ends in a certain kind of heart. It is thanks to our people that our heart expands and we become shepherds after God’s own heart. The people we are sent to serve are the ones who take us there. If we saw what we owe them, we would know we’re not worthy to untie their sandals.
I’ll be briefer on two other things which, with the people, keep us going and focussed. Preaching, first. We are bound to this. In Canon Law again the parish priest is tasked with “ensuring that the word of God is proclaimed in its entirety to those living in the parish…[and] to see to it that the lay members of Christ’s faithful are instructed in the truths of faith, especially by means of the homily on Sunday and holidays of obligation and by catechetical formation” (c. 528/1). Pope Francis wrote usefully about homilies in Evangelii Gaudium nn. 135-159, and there are some good prompts in the Homiletic Directory of 2014. But back to ourselves. Isn’t it good for us being faced with the need to prepare a homily week after week, if not day after day? One – maybe more than one – of our priests begins on a Monday and takes the coming readings for prayer and nourishment over the whole week. This encounter with the Word can’t but be wholesome. It’s the same word we pray in the Divine Office, enact in the Sacraments and share in private conversations. Our ministry is always a ministry of the word and it’s this “implanted word”, as St James calls it (Jas 1:21), “which is able to save our souls”. The Word too is our salvation. Our own fantasies or plain laziness allure us in other directions, Netflix draws us, but – by God’s mercy – there’s a homily to prepare and we are saved (hopefully our people too). The Holy Spirit does hover over us as we prepare. And when we have thrown the bottle into the sea or released the bird, well, that’s God’s business. I always enjoy being thanked for something I never actually said. Whatever, the word is something “living and active” (Heb 4:12) and keeps us the same. It is salvation for us all, listener and preacher alike. In the Gospel’s quotation from Isaiah, there is the word “evangelise” and, twice, the word “proclaim”, strong words in biblical theology. It’s for this we are anointed. To “evangelise” means originally to bring the good news of a victory, and to proclaim is often used of victories too. What we have to convey is a victory and conveying it will give us the victory too.
Thirdly, lastly, keeping us going, there is something else quite unscripted: the consolation of the Holy Spirit. For all our weariness and fed-up-ness, for all the unavoidable administrative duties, for all the disappointments and inevitable setbacks, and whatever of the secular air around us, there is some elusive, unpredictable thing that keeps us mysteriously buoyant. Through and beyond the people we serve and the Word we preach, there is the Spirit who anoints. “The Spirit of the Lord has been given me”. By the laying on of hands and the prayer of the Church he actually has been. And so my life is inexplicably seeded or peppered with joyful surprises, touches of grace, insights, moments of laughter and delight, signs and wonders even, not to mention an undergirding sense of worthwhileness. And so, as St Benedict beautifully says, Christ (the Anointed) leads us all alike to everlasting life (RB 72).
So, brethren, let’s step forth from confinement and renew the covenant.
St Mary’s Inverness, 7 April 2022