Jesuit Ordination Milltown

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Homily notes of
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin


The Chapel of the Milltown Institute, Dublin, 14th May 2017

At the wonderful occasion yesterday of the Beatification of Father John Sullivan, Cardinal Amato drew attention to two fundamental dimensions of the life of the new Blessed precisely as a Jesuit priest. He spoke of John Sullivan’s practice of poverty and obedience. Edward, these are also two dimensions of your future life as a Jesuit priest which you must always allow to be dominant in your life.

First of all, poverty. The context of our first reading taken from the Acts of the Apostles was that of a dispute within the early Church, as the community of Christians underwent a rapid expansion numerically and began to take root different cultures.

The predominantly Jewish community in Jerusalem was marked from the very early days by a sense of intimate gathering. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that the Christians gathered to listen to the word of God, for the prayers and for the breaking of bread. Springing from the manner in which they celebrated their communion with Christ in the breaking of bread, the early Christians built up a unique life-style of fellowship and communion with each other.

The dispute which arose in our reading could seem to be about a simple practical matter. At the time of the writing of the Acts of the Apostles, the Church was growing and moved from the intimacy of the Jerusalem community to a broader and culturally more mixed and complex community.

The dispute arose from a complaint from some Greek widows who felt that they were not being treated in the same manner in which the deprived of the original Christian communities had been and were not getting their proper share in the distribution of food and support. They felt that true fellowship and communion which characterised the Church in Jerusalem was not being realised with the same vigour elsewhere.

How did the apostles react? The easy way to interpret their action in designating seven men to assist in the distribution of food is to think in the business terms of our times: that is to say that the twelve decided that this was simply a problem of dysfunctional administration. In that case the problem could be resolved by introducing new systems: the sort of win-win situation we often hear about in business terms. The distribution of food would be more efficient and the apostles would be freed to carry on their ministry of prayer and preaching and presiding.

But this would be a very superficial reading of the text and of the problem to be addressed. What is at stake here is not just better administration. It is about the very nature of the Church. When the sense of service and sharing within the Church is obfuscated in any way, then the Church is no longer realising its witness. It is not that systems are not functioning; it is that the very ministry of service, which reflects the Jesus who serves, is weakened in the Church and thus the Church itself is damaged and the message of Jesus concealed.

Edward, if ministry in the Church is about power, it is only about that special power which comes from emulating the Jesus who serves. Jesus become poor for us. Jesus emptied himself and gave himself up for us. Every Christian is called to witness to the of Jesus who serves. The call to emulate the Jesus who serves is a defining part of the ministry of the priest and indeed also of the bishop.

Through priestly ordination today, your configuration to the Jesus who serves becomes more deeply a dimension of your identity and is something you must continue to integrate into the way you live from this day onwards. Whenever ministry loses the characteristic of service then it can quickly degenerate into the opposite to ministry, to that “self-indulgence which is the opposite of the spirit” (Gal. 5:17). Your calling is to renounce any temptation towards self-centeredness, towards using ministry and using others really for your own needs. When sacred authority is exercised not as ecclesial service, but in our own interest, then a betrayal of sacred authority takes place.

I was struck by the fact that one of the first gestures of John Sullivan’s in his growing commitment to poverty was a simple concrete one: he got rid go his expensive clothing and any worldly ostentation and opted for a life of radical simplicity. I was reminded that Saint Francis also began his mission of poverty by selling his coat and donning a simple habit which became a symbol of what “being Franciscan” means. It is curious but in our sophisticated, wealthy and celebrity-driven world, poverty in a priest still touches hearts, while ostentation always alienates.

Secondly, obedience. Many is today’s world find obedience in the Church difficult to understand. This may be because we often misrepresent obedience as blind acceptance of even unreasonable and unjustified demands.

In the Gospel reading we have just heard, we encounter disciples who had been with Jesus for many years and who had watched and experienced the great deeds that Jesus performed and who had shared their lives with him. The one thing that had failed to understand, as our Gospel reading notes, was the relationship of Jesus with the Father. They had heard Jesus talk about his Father but had failed to understand who that Father was.

This failure was once again a failure to understand authority. Just as the authority of Jesus was an authority which serves, the authority of Jesus’ words and actions depends on his closeness to the Father. Those who exercise authority in the Church must act like Jesus. The authenticity of those who exercise authority in the Church depends on a different understanding of obedience. Rather than an arbitrary obedience to rules and regulations, authority in the Church springs from an obedience which through prayer seeks to enter into the mystery of the bond between Jesus and his Father. The priest can never become obsessed with his own authority but possessed by the extraordinary promise of Jesus that “whoever believes in me will perform the same works as I do myself: he will perform even greater works”. Poverty and obedience in the life of the priest are attained through closer configuration to Jesus Christ. Poverty and obedience are not mere renunciations, but rather a path towards releasing a new strength in our ministry through configuration to Jesus.

The secret of the holiness of Blessed John Sullivan was marked by a continual conversion in his life of poverty and in a life of configuration to Christ through prayer. The Church is called to continual reform. The Church is called continually to identify sinfulness in its ranks – each of us is called to identify sinfulness in our hearts – and to repent and to return in all humility and purification to our true calling.

Edward, you become a priest at a new time in the history of the Irish Church. My generation may seem to be handing your generation a weaker and more fragile Church, fewer in numbers, weakened by scandal, less credible due to our life style. We look to your generation now to call the Church to renewal and we pray that your ministry will be marked by an ever closer configuration to Jesus Christ and a style of life and spirituality appropriate to your calling. The Rite of Ordination will remind you of your mission “to imitate the mystery you celebrate and to model your life on the mystery of the Lord’s cross”, especially in celebrating and emulating the self-emptying of Jesus in the Eucharist.

May God who has begun the good work in you bring it to fulfilment.