This is a homily Archbishop Mark Coleridge gave at the ordination Mass of Leonard Uzuegbu and Martin Larsen at St Stephenís Cathedral, Brisbane, on June 27.
WAY back in 1966, the German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner wrote a short piece about the priest of the future; and what he wrote has turned out to be prophetic.
It made a great impression on me when I was a seminarian, and it still makes an impression on me now – more so now than then perhaps.
The piece bore the title, “The Man with the Pierced Heart”, with echoes of the great feast of today, the feast of the Sacred Heart.
[The priest of the future], says Rahner, may not have a power drawn from the social prestige of the Church, but will have the courage to carry out his ministry even without prestige and power.
When I entered the seminary and was eventually ordained priest, the Catholic priesthood enjoyed considerable prestige in this culture and the new priest was applauded far and wide.
It was heady stuff. To be a Catholic priest was really to be someone – almost super-human it seemed at times.
In part, this was because of the prestige of the Catholic Church and her institutions.
We were a very large, successful and powerful community – and we had every right to feel proud. But things have changed.
The decision to enter the seminary and to be ordained priest no longer carries the prestige it did. It is much more counter-cultural than it was.
The Catholic Church has suffered diminishment in various ways, not least because of sexual abuse and its mishandling.
We are a Church which has in some ways been humiliated by our own, and inevitably that has its effect on the priesthood and those who offer themselves for ordination.
So, Leonard and Marty, yours is a humbler and more arduous path. It takes a real courage to say yes to that path – not just once, but again and again through the years.
[The priest of the future], says Rahner says, will calmly see God’s triumph at work, even if he himself feels defeated.
When a man is ordained priest, he signs a blank cheque which will be filled in as time goes by.
At ordination, you cannot know what lies ahead. I certainly didn’t 40 years ago. And nor do you, Leonard and Marty.
You may think you know, as I did, but in fact you don’t.
But one thing we all know is that your years in the priesthood will bring not only successes and satisfactions but also defeats and the discouragement they bring.
What you make of your defeats will determine the power, the true success, of your priestly ministry.
In assessing a man’s suitability for the priesthood, the question is not so much, “What are his strengths and successes?” but, “What are his weaknesses and failures – and what has he made of them, or rather, what has he allowed Christ to make of them?”
Only if there is some sign in a man’s life that weakness is turning or has turned to strength is he truly ready for ordination.
So too with his life as a priest.
Leonard and Marty, for you the key question will not be, “What are your successes?” but rather, “What are your defeats, your failures, and what have you made of them, or what have you allowed Christ to make of them? Have you been able to see God’s triumph in the midst of your defeats? Have you been able to help your people see God’s triumph in the midst of their defeats? Have you been that kind of witness to hope?”
[The priest of the future], says Rahner, will know that he is in God’s service and on God’s mission, even if he cannot always measure the power of grace.
Leonard and Marty are ordained tonight to be missionary priests: that will be the context of their priestly service. We used to think that missionary priests were those who left home shores and went to work in distant and difficult lands where Christianity was new or even unknown.
It’s true, Leonard, that you have left your home shores, but you will serve as a priest in Australia, which long ago ceased to be regarded officially as mission territory.
But you are as much a missionary on these shores as any Irish priest who worked in Nigeria years ago to sow the seed of the Gospel there.
For you, Marty, the priesthood will not mean leaving home shores.
In fact, you’ll hardly leave your backyard. But you are no less a missionary for that.
There’s only one kind of priest or bishop these days – and that’s the missionary kind.
There’s no such thing as non-mission territory these days.
Everywhere is mission territory and the Archdiocese of Brisbane is no exception.
And the mission belongs to God, not to us.
If we think that it’s our mission, then we’re in trouble.
Leonard and Marty, if the priesthood becomes for you service of self rather than service of God, then you will be in trouble.
The only priest who will ever flourish is the priest who knows that he is in God’s service and on God’s mission.
He will know that his ministry, indeed his whole life, is totally dependent on God’s grace.
His priesthood will be a miracle of God’s grace or it will be nothing; and the priest will never be able to take the full measure of that grace. He will be immersed in mystery and will be at peace in that.
[The priest of the future], says Rahner, will be like his Lord, a man with a pierced heart: pierced with the godlessness of the life around him, pierced by love that does not count the cost, pierced by the experience of his own weakness.
The priest as the man with the pierced heart – the man who has the heart of Christ. A heart that is not wounded cannot be the heart of a priest because it cannot be the heart of Christ.
The heart of Jesus is not pierced by accident; it must be pierced. So too the heart of a priest.
He must know the wound of lovelessness, which is what godlessness means.
Not railing so much against secularisation, but against the lovelessness that turns the heart to stone which can never be pierced – and not just railing, but actually seeking to live the love in the midst of lovelessness. That means not counting the cost, not being too protective of personal space and free time, not seeing the priesthood as a job or some kind of drudgery but as a vocation in the strongest sense.
Divine vocation is a deeply mysterious thing.
It is intensely personal, yet it could hardly be more communal.
The priest becomes public property, and this can bring a wound of its own.
Divine vocation is also unreasonable in its total claim. God claims the mind, heart, soul and body and the man ordained priest, which can seem too much; yet that claim leaves the priest completely free.
Divine vocation leads a man to the heart of his own weakness; yet it is there, and only there, that he finds the strength and healing that can become strength and healing for the people he serves.
He will be the man who knows that God has chosen to dwell deep within our wounds, and it’s there that God is found.
[The priest of the future], says Rahner, will know that his unembarrassed faithfulness to the wisdom of God, which seems foolish to the world, is the real source of his credibility.
We often hear that the Church and her leaders have in recent times lost credibility, and in some ways that is true.
Yet we have to understand the true nature of our credibility, which is not that of a politician or any other kind of secular leader.
The priest above all is made credible because he holds fast to, indeed embodies what St Paul calls “the wisdom of God” which will look like foolishness to the world.
Pope Francis has warned against the dangers of what he calls “spiritual worldliness”, and I echo his warning tonight to you, Leonard and Marty. Spiritual worldliness takes hold when we confuse the wisdom of God and the wisdom of this world, the foolishness of God and the foolishness of this world.
The priest who lives by the wisdom of this world will never be “the man with the pierced heart”. He will be instead what St Paul calls “an enemy of the Cross of Christ” (cf Philippians 3:18); and there could be no greater contradiction than that.
Only “the man with the pierced heart” will be truly credible in the way Christ himself is credible.
Faithfulness to the way of the Sacred Heart can be costly, demanding, embarrassing, even humiliating. But it alone can open the door to joy; and it is surely joy, the joy of the Gospel, that Jesus wants for you, Leonard and Marty, through the years of your priestly service.
So, my brothers, let the words of Karl Rahner ring in your hearts on this night of your ordination. But let the truth of the Sacred Heart echo throughout your whole life as you go forth from here to serve and proclaim the Lord whose “yoke is easy” and whose “burden is light”.
Come to him again and again with all your labours and burdens, and you will enter his rest.
Shoulder his yoke and learn from him again and again.
Let your heart be humble like his. Let your heart be pierced like his. Let your heart give life like his. Amen.