We gather today, to bless the oils and to renew our priestly call. It is very strange sitting in an empty church, without you my brothers here, and having to greet you and the faithful, virtually. But we know in prayer, that we are united as the body of Christ. That where the head is, there is the body. And we are spiritually one with one another.
I again thank you my brother priests for your ministry during this time and the creative ways that you have reached out to the faithful. Whether it has been through live streamed Masses, through telephone calls to the faithful, through distributing food to the elderly, hearing confessions, and in so many other ways that you have helped them. I thank especially the younger priests, who have gone to the hospitals, following the protocols of the hospital but also being present to those who are dying. Your ministry is a great gift and a gift given by Christ to the Church.
Certainly, during this time, it has been a time of prayer and reflection. I have gone back in my own prayer to the call of holiness and what it means to live that call. In March of 2018, Pope Francis issued his Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete Et Exultate, “Rejoice and be glad.” He gives to the Church an exhortation to the call to holiness in today’s world. My brothers, if you have not read it, I encourage you to find it, it is very easy to find as it is on the internet, at the Vatican website.
Pope Francis reminds us, God wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland mediocre existence. Just as your call to the priesthood, the call to holiness is personal. Every disciple, lay, clergy and those in consecrated life, is called to holiness. God speaks to each one of us personally, “Be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:44). This is especially true for us as priests. If we ourselves are not holy, how will we lead our people to holiness. We must be holy.
In speaking of the uncompromising demands of Jesus in the Gospel and in Matthew 25 in the parable of the final judgement, Pope Francis states: “It is my duty to ask Christians to acknowledge and accept them in a spirit of genuine openness, sine glossa . In other words, without any ‘ifs or buts’ that could lessen their force. Our Lord made it very clear that holiness cannot be understood or lived apart from these demands, for mercy is ‘the beating heart of the Gospel.’” In embracing the gospel, in believing in the gospel, and in living the gospel we will become holy.
That means first, my brothers and sons, that we be men of prayer. We are invited to enter into intimacy with the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The identity of every disciple, as I have stated many times, is that we truly become the beloved sons and daughters of the Father. We are the children of God (1 Jn 3: 1-2). The spirit lives within us and we are able, as St. Paul reminds us, to cry out “Abba”, Father (Gal 4:6).
God is truly a Father of tenderness and mercy, as imaged in the story of the Prodigal Son. The Father lets us go off, the Father lets us wander in desolate places, the Father even lets us enter the depths of chaos when we leave him and desire to go our own way. The Father even lets us enter the depths of sin and to forget his commandments. The Father though waits patiently and tenderly, longing for us to come to our senses and to return to the One who loves us most.
Pope Francis reminds us, “At it is core, holiness is experiencing in union with Christ the mysteries of His life in a personal way constantly dying and rising anew with Him”. Yes, we are sinners but, we are first loved as St. John reminds us, by the Father, by the Trinity. Love and mercy transform the human heart. St. Paul readily admits, in his great humility, that he was “the worst sinner” (1 Tim 1:15). But he also recognizes the mercy of the Father, he recognizes that he is loved by Jesus and forgiven. And in his prayer, he discovers, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).
In his exhortation, Pope Francis cries out to us, “Allow yourself to be loved and liberated by God”. My beloved sons and brothers, we do that in prayer, and if we do not that, receive that love, believe in the love of the Father, we will become like Judas. In the reading of the Passion this past Sunday, it struck me when I heard the words in the gospel in the passion narrative, Judas “repented” (Mt 27: 3-5). The words leapt off the page, “he repented” but, then he goes out and kills himself. He commits suicide, and why? Because he did not believe that it was possible for him to be loved and liberated by Jesus, by the Father. We, my brothers, must open our hearts to the truth, that Jesus frees us from every sin no matter how grave, and from every vice. It is God’s work, allow yourself to be loved and be liberated by God! This takes place most fully in prayer.
In the second reading for today from the book of revelation, we are reminded “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood who has made us into a kingdom, priests for His God and Father. To him be glory and power forever”. In prayer, we discover the eternal love of the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit for me in a personal way. We discover the truth of the gospel that “for God nothing is impossible” (Lk 1:37). And the truth of the words of Jesus, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (Mk 10: 27). By the grace of God, his grace and his love build on nature, and in prayer we understand grace comes first and transforms our human nature.
In my own prayer life, I have discovered more fully, and it has taken years, that the three persons of the Trinity, personal divine persons, are more real than any human person. The love of every human person, of every human being, is always limited. And it is impossible for any human being to be present 24/7. But with the Father, with Jesus and the Holy Spirit their love for me is perfect. Their love for me is real and they are present 24/7. Even though at times there can be a feeling of emptiness, it is only a feeling that comes and goes. Faith and confidence tell me the truth, that the Father holds me in his hand and will never let go of me (Jn 10: 29). Receiving their love for me leads me to love others as they love me. Only in receiving their love first, can the words of Jesus be fulfilled. “Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34). It is only in receiving the love of each person of the Trinity that I can see Jesus in the homeless, the person in prison, in the sick, the hungry and in every person, including my enemy.
Second, we are called to live the virtues. We are called to be those who are prudent, who are just, who are tempered, who live fortitude, humility, charity, chastity, perseverance, compassion, gentleness, patience and all the virtues.
At times when we look at the virtues, we may say, they are impossible. Pope Francis reminds us frequently, when we say “impossible” it is the voice of the devil. The Lord tells us it is possible if we depend on Him. And if we fall, we pick ourselves up and run to Jesus. St. Thérèse of Lisieux reflected, that in her weakness, in her little sins that she may have committed, she always knew that she could run to Jesus and cover his face with kisses, trusting in his love.
Pope Francis reminds us of this great truth, when it comes to living the gospel “depend on God, to set us free from every form of enslavement.” He reminds us, depend on God for the virtues as our vices enslave us. That is what the saints, many of them who were enslaved to sin discovered when they put their faith in Jesus. Whether it be Augustine or Ignatius or others, they discovered in their encounter with love and mercy that they were set free by Jesus.
Pope Francis reminds us, “holiness is nothing other than living charity to the full.” To the full means loving God and our neighbor. He reminds us in the church, as he reflects on Matthew 25, in the final judgment of feeding the hunger, clothing the naked, “that we have often erred by not embracing the demand of the gospel.” The demands of the gospel are real, at times they may seem impossible but, that is because we depend more on ourselves than on God – the Father, on Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. If we truly depend on them, we can begin to live the virtues, receive them as gifts, and we can be set free from every form of enslavement and recognize our great dignity as beloved sons of the Father.
Finally, in our preaching and in the sacraments, we too must look at the call to holiness. As I have shared with you frequently, the sacraments of discipleship for every disciple whether it be the Pope, the bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated, or laity, the two great sacraments of discipleship are the Eucharist and confession.
My brothers, we must be living these two sacraments, we must be faithful to them, if we are truly to become holy. Pope Francis reminds us “The path of holiness is a source of peace and joy given to us by the spirit at the same time it demands that we keep our lamps lit and be attentive, abstain from every form of evil keep awake, let us not fall asleep. Those who think they commit no grievous sin against God’s law, can fall into a state of lethargy. Since they see nothing serious to reproach themselves with, they fail to realize that their spiritual life has gradually turned lukewarm. They end up weakened and corrupted.” Yes, these are strong words, but they speak the truth.
This “state of lethargy “can happen to us as priests. My brothers if you are not confessing your sins, at least once a month or every two weeks, I encourage you return to that sacrament in order to come to know personally the mercy and the love of the Father. Confession is never meant to be a sacrament to beat oneself up with. Rather it is a sacrament that helps us to grow in holiness as we receive the mercy of the Father. Confession helps us to become like Jesus, as we grow in holiness and die to ourselves, and die to lethargy.
We too must reflect upon how we approach the Eucharist. We must open our hearts to the truth of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is a share of the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The Eucharist nourishes the charity of every disciple. It is a communal worship of the Father. It is the community, head and body gathering as one in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the head of the community and we have the privilege and gift to be his sacramental re-presentation in the one sacrifice offered.
As we pray the prayers in the Eucharist, we must remember that they are addressed to God. This is most especially true of the Eucharistic prayer, which is addressed to the Father. The Eucharistic prayer is never addressed to the congregation. It is a prayer that is addressed to the Father as we join ourselves in the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ. We as a community worship the Father by offering our lives to him with Christ’s one sacrifice. Every time we celebrate Eucharist, as we priests conclude every Eucharistic prayer with the great doxology, we are reminded of that truth. “Through him, and with him, and in him, O God, almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit all glory and honor is yours forever and ever.”
My beloved sons and brothers, every time you and I celebrate the Eucharist, and that is why the Church encourages us to celebrate the Eucharist daily, we bring our people with us. We worship the Father and give him glory. That reality has been evident especially in this pandemic. We are never truly alone. We carry our people in our hearts in every Eucharist we celebrate. We are called to serve the faithful and to lead them to encounter Jesus and grow in holiness. We are called to help our people stay awake, and not fall into lethargy or become lukewarm.
When we celebrate the sacraments of the Eucharist and reconciliation, they strengthen us so that we can lay down our lives for our people. We say to the faithful and to those we serve “this is my body given for you, this is my blood pour out for you.” These sacraments strengthen within us the virtue of charity towards our people, whether they be the homeless, the immigrant, whether it be the one who has not confessed for decades or the person who interrupts us in the middle of the night to be anointed. We go as Jesus went, because it is his love that lives in our hearts. Saintly priests are possible, we can look at like John Vianney, John Eudes, Thomas Aquinas, Francis Xavier, Ignatius of Loyola and so many others.
In closing, my beloved sons and brothers, my deepest hunger for you, is that you become saints, that you grow in holiness. Your personal holiness can change your parish, the diocese, and the world. Hold on to the truth of Jesus. Hold on to the words in the letter of the Hebrews keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, who perfects our faith and perfects our love (Hb 12: 2).
As diocesan priests we are not called to live in monasteries but, we are called to be men of holiness and men of prayer. The more we receive, the love of the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, the more we will love others and follow His command; “Love one another as I love you” (Jn 13: 34-35). That means living the demands of the gospel fully and having confidence that for God all things are possible. Even in times of trial and struggles, our hearts will be filled with joy, for Jesus has told us “All of this I have told you so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete” (Jn 15: 11).
As we preach the words of the gospel may the words of Jesus burn within our hearts, “for today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4: 21). The gospel is fulfilled even today in our hearing as we grow in holiness. My beloved sons, as you renew your priestly promises today, renew the call to holiness in your hearts, to be the light of Christ in the darkness of this pandemic and in the darkness of the world. Jesus and he alone makes all this possible!