I was very honored recently to have been asked to preach for my friend’s Mass of Thanksgiving following his ordination to the sacred priesthood. The following is the homily I preached at his Mass, which was the extended vigil of Pentecost:
“Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant”
(Avē Imperātor (Cæsar), moritūrī tē salūtant.)
“Hail Emperor, we who are about to die salute you!” These are words ascribed to gladiators and even christian martyrs as they stood in the coliseum before they met their death. Perhaps Fr Joachim had something like this going through his mind as he prostrated himself on the cool marble floor today while this glorious building resounded with the litany of the saints. What a hauntingly profound moment, something that you will always remember. Keep the sounds, the smells, the sights of today always in your mind! Indeed, dear brother father, to be a priest is to die. Yet, our emperor is not the cold calculating emperor of Rome, but a merciful savior whose triumph was the victory on the cross. He calls all of us, and in a particular way, His priests, to die to self. When a man is ordained a priest, that man is no longer his own. Like the gladiators, the priest must often fight beasts, and is often misunderstood and mocked. Like the gladiator, a priest needs great courage, which for the priest does not come from his own strength, but the strength that the Holy Spirit gives. The world in which we live might even feel like Ancient Rome, or even France right after the Revolution. It seems that the Faith is mostly rejected, and that people are turning away from God. This should not discourage us, but rather it should fill us with great zeal. People are looking for God! People are looking to find the deep meaning of their lives, but they need somebody to help them.
Perhaps we could look to Saint Peter Chrysologus’ words urging us to pray always and to offer our bodies to God. “Each of us is called to be both a sacrifice to God and his priest. Do not forfeit what divine authority confers on you. Put on the garment of holiness, gird yourself with the belt of chastity. Let Christ be your helmet, let the cross on your forehead be your unfailing protection. Your breastplate should be the knowledge of God that he himself has given you. Keep burning continually the sweet smelling incense of prayer. Take up the sword of the Spirit. Let your heart be an altar. Then, with full confidence in God, present your body for sacrifice” (Saint Peter Chrysologus, Sermon 108: PL 52, 499-500).
Always keep in mind also, the words of Abbot Boniface Wimmer—your favorite quote of his: “I do not know the future. I only show you the cross. If you take it upon your shoulders, very well. Do not, however, complain afterwards when from time to time you feel its weight. Jesus said to his apostles, ‘Behold, I have told you beforehand,’ and ‘Behold, I send you as lambs among the wolves.’”
The harvest is truly ripe, and the world is deeply in need of good priests who will work in the vineyard, who will do battle against evil, in order that Jesus Christ may triumph. When Saint John Vianney was ordained a priest, the Revolution had all but decimated the Faith in France. Through his blood, sweat, tears, constant prayers and sacrifices, we can see that he brought the Faith back to his little corner of Ars.
Remaining close to our Lord on the cross will give strength.
There is very little that is glorious about rushing to the hospital at one in the morning, reaching over machines and hospital beds to anoint a dying woman. Or finding tissues to give to a sniffling server before Mass begins. Not much that is glamorous about pulling weeds from a garden. Perhaps you will suffer most when you meet something which causes great pain in the heart of a priest: indifference. There is a certain physical exhaustion after a weekend of Masses, yet we know this death to self is truly where Christ is victorious. There is also little that is very glamorous about holy obedience. Perhaps you will be assigned to teach in the seminary or clean toilets. Who knows! Our Lord works miracles and rivers of life flow through the priest despite the fact that the priest is truly a vessel of clay and he feels as if he is accomplishing nothing. Despite being physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausted, you will be the happiest priest if you are faithful to our Lord’s mandate to remain with Him in prayer.
How does a priest handle those very challenging days? He must never neglect his prayer, and he must never neglect his friendship with other priests, and always remember the closeness of the Communion of Saints.
Hear the words of one of your favorite French Saints, a certain Carmelite (St Therese of Lisieux):
“I pray for everyone and do not forget ordinary priests whose ministry is sometimes just as difficult as that of missionaries preaching to the heathen.” We are never alone, and we stand arm to arm as gladiators in the battle facing the beasts of modernism, relativism, secularism, and all the other beasts that a priest must face in the twenty first century. The fraternity of the priesthood is very helpful and important. Do not ever neglect it.
We must go to our savior to drink, and we will find the rivers that refresh us. A priest must live very close to our Lord: offering Mass everyday and spending time with Him in the Blessed Sacrament. How much we priests can console the heart of Jesus by spending time with him in Eucharistic Adoration—interceding for those who beg our prayers, offering reparation for the cold indifference of so many, thanking Him for pouring down so many blessings and graces upon us, and simply adoring and honoring the one who loves us so much. He has shown us priests such great love and affection in sharing His priesthood with us—we cannot treat him coldly. The people of God expect, demand, and need their priests to love Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. We show our Blessed Mother the affection she deserves as our mother by praying the Rosary everyday. What a great consolation our mother is to a lonely, frustrated, worn out priest! Think of the beautiful image of our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, with the Christ child in her lap. She helps restore that spark of love in our hearts. As her sons, she holds us there on her lap as well. Make regular use of the sacrament of Confession-every week, and always allow yourself a daily respite in the rivers of good spiritual reading. “The more generous you are for God, the happier you will be.” (St Josemaria Escriva, The Furrow, 18).
People will look to you for those refreshing waters and they will find them, but do not be disturbed by those who hate you because you are a faithful priest. You will experience the deep joy that the sacraments bring to people: whether it is the joy that people experience in coming to Mass, the quiet joy in a married couple asking you to bless them on their 67th wedding anniversary, or the deep relief, expressed in tears of joy as you walk into a hospital room where a dying woman and her family have been praying that a priest arrive. The tears of joy and relief as you absolve sinners. The comfort in being with a family who has lost a loved one. The simple joys in a lighthearted joke as people see you during the day. Why this deep joy? It is because in the priest, the people of God find Jesus Christ, who is the true desire of all souls.
Saint John Vianney, in a beautiful catechesis on the priesthood, notes that “oh, how great is a priest! The priest will not understand the greatness of his office till he is in Heaven. If he understood it on earth, he would die, not of fear, but of love. The other benefits of God would be of no avail to us without the priest. What would be the use of a house full of gold, if you had nobody to open [you] the door! The priest has the key of heavenly treasures; it is he who opens the door; he is the steward of the good God, the distributor of His wealth. Without the priest, the Death and Passion of our Lord would be of no avail..the priest is not a priest for himself; he does not give himself absolution; he does not administer the sacraments to himself. He is not for himself, he is for you…what joy did the Apostles feel after the Resurrection of our Lord, at seeing the master whom they had loved so much! The priest must feel the same joy, at seeing our Lord whom he holds in his hands…the priesthood is the love of the Heart of Jesus. When you see the priest, think of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (St John Vianney, Little Catechism)
The people of God demand and expect their priest to be holy. However, holiness is not only expected of a priest, but all the people of God. Their great love for God and holiness will then challenge and encourage the priest to continue fighting the spiritual battle everyday with great fervor and zeal. In this we truly help one another. Please pray for your priests, and pray for Father Joachim. The first year of priesthood can be severely trying and tiring at times, so he needs all the help he can get.
If the priest is the holder to the key, it could be said he is the porter of heavenly treasures! Father Joachim, how much you wanted to be a porter like Solanus Casey. Well, now you are a porter. Your soul and the very depths of your being have been configured to Christ the Priest. With what great joy this should fill you, Father Joachim! No longer are you your own, but you belong to Jesus, totally. You will never be the same. You are a priest forever, in the line of Melchizedek. It is not about WHAT you do, but about WHO you are. You are a priest of Jesus Christ. How much trust he has placed in you-you will absolve sins and consecrate the Eucharist in the first person: “I absolve you” and “this is my body…this is the covenant of my blood”. This is a great vocation that demands much, but do not be paralyzed in fear.
Remember the great solemnity we celebrate: the coming down of the Holy Spirit.
In a letter to priests in 1998, Pope Saint John Paul II describes how the gifts of the Holy Spirit are active in the priest. Wisdom leads the priest to evaluate all things in the light of the Gospel. Understanding gives the priest a deeper insight into revealed truth. Counsel gives the priest strength to not be swayed by the judgments of the world but rather the perspectives of Providence. Strength will sustain the priest in the hardships of his ministry and he will be given the boldness necessary for the proclamation of the Gospel. Knowledge will allow the priest to understand and accept the mysterious events of life as part of God’s providence. With Piety the priest will experience intimate communion and trusting surrender. With the gift of fear, there will be a stronger sense of his own human weaknesses and the role of grace.
Stay close to our Blessed Mother, as she will keep you safe wherever our Lord sends you. Let her fiat always be a model for you. With her help you will be able to renew your consecration each and everyday. She is often referred to as the spouse of the Holy Spirit and the mother of priests. We should not forget Saint Joseph, either. What a great witness to manly spirituality. He can provide a good example to priests to work hard, trust in God, to always pray, and to live that discretion of silence that is often demanded of us and which he lived exceptionally well.
To be a priest is a marvelous vocation that a man will spend his entire life meditating upon. As the time goes by, he will be always more and more in awe of the great vocation to which he has been called. It is truly a battle, and the priest must die to himself entirely so that the true victor may shine more and more through him.
“Let us work together for the salvation of souls! We just have the last day of this life to save them and thus offer the Lord the proof of our love. What we are asking him for is to work for his glory, to love him and make him be loved.” (St Therese of Lisieux). Amen.