Thoughts on priesthood and faith
Priests as magicians?
I was in Birmingham (St Mary’s Harborne) during the week. We were celebrating 402 years of priesthood: Eight Golden Jubilarians. I was the Homilist. It was quite nostalgic and rather emotional to reflect back on those long years of ministry which we had shared. It seemed urgent to think on Priesthood; on Church; of the Faith Community. Where is God to be found, and how is God to be celebrated among us, in these new times? Covid has changed us. Church has been changed. Our Communities have been changed. We are challenged to rethink the whole edifice of faith-life. We are not purveyors of ju-ju and cannot be robotic performers of Ritual. The convenient and the habitual won’t do. We have all adapted and Liturgy on-line became an alternative. But some of it was passive and rather dead. We needed theatrical imagination to let our Liturgy go live and be alive. It was also a test for our understanding of Liturgy.
What does the future parish look like?
Many of our managers (bishops) are attempting to restructure parishes with fewer priests. For some, the aim is to find priests who can ‘say’ Masses. That won’t do. This isn’t the way forward. Lumping parishes together is not an answer. We are and they are expected to think theologically – outside the usual boxes. So what can be a response? We need a New World Symphony. Our music has to be very creative. Note how many outspoken voices, got worked up about postponed Baptisms, First Communions and Confirmations. There is something deeper and more profound needed. The simple version of taking sacraments out of schools is only a quick and cheap thought. There is much more. Our challenge is not to reconstruct the same system with fewer men! It is not real to think that we can pass on all the jobs to the lay folk because we don’t have priests. There is a bigger demand on us. What is faith? Where is God? How do we worship? What is priesthood?
The communion of a shared conversation:
I joined the ACP because I felt we were attempting to use our comradeship to support each other and to escape some of the accretions of history which has distorted faith. We wanted to tap into the energy and vision of Vat 2. We needed the power of the scrum, to move forward together. Some of that has happened and helped. But we can easily get caught up the frivolity of trivia and then the fraught of negativity takes over. It is very difficult to get a conversation going on priesthood itself or an emerging new formulation of ministry. It is easy to complain and the rust of weariness can suffocate our energy for God. For many of us, our time is almost up and we incline to leave the future to whoever and whatever emerges. That is not an option.
The spoken word and the written word:
I spoke at the Golden Jubilee celebration. I found it disturbing and delightful to venture back over those 402 years of ministry. The incarnation evolved and was revelatory. It does matter deeply if others would now join into the adventure of faith and ministry. Most of the words of the Homily are here. The Homily is not meant to be read but if it does help; the spoken word is on St Mary’s Harborne, Birmingham. Website. Live streaming. It is at the bottom of the page on the left where YouTube is. The Mass is there for the Jubilees – if anyone is interested. So here is my effort. I hesitate to share this but if it stirs even one; then it is worthwhile.
Words. Words. Words. Homily. At St Mary’s Harborne.
On 402 years of priesthood. 26th August 2021.
I feel nostalgic and emotion. It is a big moment. You will have to humour me. I am not used to being confined to one spot. I like to wander; to evoke and provoke. Here is my plan: I will give context; link with some historical figures; sprinkle some Scripture; and then come to the personal. This is about God, Faith and Church.
You are a brilliant Community here. Everything is about you and what you have made these Augustinians become. We recall 1973 with Malachy, Mark, Laurence and Tom. We think of those who have died associated with this Community:
Ben O’Rourke (2nd today). Ben Hackett. Philip Corcoran. Joe Gorman. Michael Roche. Brian Lawlor. Bernard O’Connor. This is a parade of characters who lived and died here. And now we have here – not the dead, but those who are fully alive: The Exhibits for our present Gallery of the Jubilarians: Here is a summary of those old codgers. We all are… ancient!
Brendan Carrick: 15th March 1970. John Reid 19th March 1970.
Francis Aherne 20th March 1971. David Slater 20th March 1971
David Middleton 3th July 1971. Bernard Rolls 16th September 1971
Michael Campbell 16th September 1971. Des Foley 9th October 1971.
“If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.” “Be willing to be a beginner every single morning.” ― Meister Eckhart That is my starting point. Gratitude. Thank you.
Mary Oliver (American poet) features often with me. Gratitude: Those questions. What impressed you? What was most admirable? What was most tender? What lifted your spirit? Mary says: That is the way God wakes us from sleep. Our celebration today also is a wake-up call. Really. It is about the eight. But it is very much more about what God has done through them. It is about the Communities in which they worked. It is about you.
I remembered it well. I go back into the distant past. Student days. And then ordination. These men. Their work. Their differing ways of ministering. It is humbling and it is wonderful. I could also use that common line from Dickens, “It was the best of times. It was the worse of times. It was the age of wisdom. It was the age of foolishness.” (A Tale of Two Cities). Who could ever have believed how life has turned out? How faith has become. How church today can be compared to the church of enthusiasm and excitement back in those faraway days. Of the 60s and the 70s. Who would have thought that priesthood, church, faith, religion would become ancient and almost a museum for looking at? Or held up to ridicule? We are exhibits of a bygone age. And yet there is much more. We have to explore the more.
I like to think of today as a Gallery. Full of extraordinary paintings. Or a concert of evocative music. Or even these priests and you, as a jazz metaphor. And why? A priest has to be a poet. Has to be an artist. Has to be a clown. Has to be a creative genius. I’m not saying these ones are all of that but are indeed some of the above. Every day is a challenge to be just that. They have been in differing ways. You have made them. Priesthood. Church. Faith. Cries out for flexibility, for adaptability, for imagination, for creativity. We stretch language. We are lost for words. We are expansive and explosive. Yes. We have to be. This is God talk. This is the depths of humanity and the highs of beauty. We are flexing every fibre of our being each day to touch something of the presence of God. It is humbling. It is exciting. It is frustrating. It is delightful. It is frightening. What these men could tell if they were free to speak of their special moments in life, would be very moving. We are dragged into the sacred moments of life and death. We are lost for words. We are totally inadequate. And yet somehow God breaks through. We are very little people and yet grace seeps through. And Grace is being touched and in touch with God. And recognising the God in each person. And in the excitement of nature daily. What else can priesthood be? What else is a faith community? What other can Church be?
Here is a fistful of Scripture to colour in the exhibition of priesthood. Of a faith community. I won’t explain them; they speak to us all. These men have 402 years of priesthood. They are nothing without all of you. Nothing. Those gongs booming (of Cor 13) is true. Nothing. Unless they have shared God. Here are some Scriptural pieces to sprinkle around:
Jacob. The ladder. The pillow of stone. God is in this place and I never knew it. (Jacob Gen 28;10 and following.) Elisha then (1Kings 19) the gentle breeze. Jonah. The castor oil plant and the sulk. Job 38 and following. Who do you think you are? And of course the Transfiguration. Where it is good for us to be here. The burning bush with Moses. What else can we be? But humble. The privileged one. Our daily pilgrimage into the wilderness of life. The trust. The invitation into the hidden secret life of the people. The most humbling moments in life when we don’t know what to say and cannot grasp something that may help. So our readings today: God’s chosen race; his saints. Always be thankful. Let the word of God find a home in you. And then the fears of the Gospel. Locked doors. Christ drops in. Sending you out as Christ was sent. This is true and still true. It has happened. It is happening.
I need another character of our past to help. I have to mention Teilhard de Chardin. Scientist, philosopher and theologian. His book Hymn of the Universe was published in 1961 Chapter One of the book was entitled The Mass on the World, Here he is: THE OFFERING “Since once again, Lord — though this time is in the steppes of Asia — I have neither bread, nor wine, nor altar, I will raise myself beyond these symbols, up to the majesty of the real itself; I, your priest, will make the whole earth my altar and on it will offer you all the labours and sufferings of the world. Over there, on the horizon, the sun has just touched with light the outermost fringe of the eastern sky. The living surface of the earth wakes and trembles, and once again begins its journey.” This is our daily story. This has to be our Eucharist.
Pádraig Daly is our Augustinian poet. He is gifted with succinctness and clarity of expression. However, he writes with a description of a priest in the following manner:
You have many acquaintances, few friends;
Besides your unreplying God you have no confidant.
You are guest at many celebrations, a must at birth and death
Sometimes you wonder is this how God intended it. Pádraig Daly.
I don’t agree with Pádraig. His view in this poem is too restricted and tight.
What about these men? I recall Brendan – From Wigton to St Anthony of Padua in Wolverhampton. From St Augustine’s in Carlisle to Hammersmith, to Great Yarmouth and Quinton. A man full of heart. He made us jealous. He used to amaze us. He called out the name of everyone as they came to Communion. We felt disappointed that we couldn’t do that.
John. We were often partners in crime. You know him well in this Community. He dredges into the most obscure places and finds hints or whispers of life and God. He did a brilliant job in the University here in Birmingham; he was great in Hammersmith, Great Yarmouth, in Broomhouse (Edinburgh). You know what he is like. You are blessed with him here.
David. I remember worrying how you would ever cope when you left the school at Austin Friars. He was totally absorbed in that place. He was forever at work and brilliant. He was even coaxed into being Head. And then he went to Clare and a new world opened up. Because he was alive. He even went on to be Provincial and surprised everyone.
And Bernard also moved on from Carlisle. To Clare. He was deeply involved in building a new church and then had the most difficult job in preparing everyone for the Augustinians to leave Woodvale. To this community. I almost want to have his mother Madge here to celebrate this great moment.
Gentlemen. Thank you. God has been alive in you and you let him loose. Thank you. You have indeed been companions on the journey of life and faith. You have built up the language. You have been the poets. You have painted on the canvas. This gallery is magnificent. And it is the people around you, who have released the wonder of you. What did Irenaeus say? The Glory of God is a human being fully alive. You are. You have been. You will.
Last word: Stephan Hawkings (scientist) once, on being interviewed by the BBC, had said that all science and scientists of the future would be mystics. He was asked why he didn’t believe in God. His reply: Your God is too small. Well these men. This place. This community has never made God small. And you never will.
The final thought is the same as the starting word: If the only prayer you say is Thank you. That is enough. This is our prayer for you as a community and to you. To these men and to God.
Seamus Ahearne osa