A sermon at the Ordination of Priests by Brother Samuel SSF, Guardian, at The Friary in Dorchester
on Saturday, 28 June 2014
What are priests for?
Well, here they are, all eleven of them. I have been with them for these past three days, alongside them as they have prepared for their ordination as priests in the Church, to serve you in priestly ministry. I can report to you that they have behaved themselves, that none of them have absconded, and that they are ready – as ready as anyone can be – for the laying-on-of-hands by Bishop Nicholas. In fact, I think you are lucky, you are blessed to be receiving the offering of their lives as priests.
But before their ordination actually happens it would be worth our while to consider why we need priests at all; why the Church needs priests and why the world needs priests; for to many in the wider world, and perhaps also to some in the Church, it may not be obvious why they are necessary. The Church has many needs at this time which could arguably be met by others – other professions, other skills - than that of priests. I mean, the Church needs managers. It is such a peculiar and complex organization that we urgently need managerial skills to sort it out, to get the structures and administration right. I’m not being insincere here, good administration is very important. I’m sure that some of the responsibilities for liturgy, for preparing worship, could be undertaken by those whose business it is to run ‘events’, to get the lighting and sound right – events organizers who would ensure that the worship is properly staged and to the best effect. And of course we need a good communications team. The whole job of the Church is evangelism, communicating the Gospel, so let’s bring in people who can get the message across. And so we could go on. The Church needs finance officers, people who know how to raise the money so that we can do the stuff. And it needs Human Resources people to establish good practice among us. And we need carers for all the pastoral work that is crying out to be done.
We need all these, and some of you may be fulfilling these roles. Thank you for your ministries. But why do we need priests, for goodness sake – eleven of them – and all at the same time? Well, I’ll tell you why, why above all we need priests: because we need Jesus Christ. For us as Christians there is only one priest, one true priest, Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ who offers himself for the life of the world; Jesus Christ, through whom comes healing, forgiveness and life in all its fullness. Jesus Christ, the great High Priest who ever intercedes for us with the Father, who shows us what God is like and who we are in God’s eyes – his beloved sons and daughters; Jesus Christ who calls the Church into being to share his life and his priesthood. Today in the Church’s calendar we remember St Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon in the early days of the Church. Irenaeus was a great theologian and teacher and wrote that Jesus Christ ‘has become one with us so that we might become one with him.’ We, the Church, are called to participate in the priesthood of Christ and to become his priestly people. That is why we need priests, women and men ordained by the Church: to remind us who we are, the priestly people of God, and to help us to be renewed in that priesthood day by day, Sunday by Sunday; a Church shaped in the way of costly self-offering, the way of mercy and compassion, of forgiveness, reconciliation and peace – which what priesthood is essentially all about.
The Church could be the best managed organization in the world, could have the finest communications network and the largest of financial reserves. We could wipe Apple and Google, Microsoft and News International off the board. But it would all be to no avail if the Church did not reveal Jesus Christ to the world, Jesus Christ in his vulnerable, costly, self-giving priesthood. That is why we need priests, every one of these eleven, and the hundreds more being ordained around the dioceses today. We need priests to keep us focussed on Jesus Christ, to keep us shaped to, participating in the life of Jesus Christ.
And why does the world need priests? Again, I’ll tell you why. One hundred years ago today, Gavrilo Princip, a young Serbian nationalist who had earlier crossed the border into Bosnia with six accomplices, assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro Hungarian Empire, and his wife as they were visiting Sarajevo, then part of the Empire. It was Franz Ferdinand and Sophie’s wedding anniversary. As we know, those shots triggered a war of huge, catastrophic, cataclysmic proportions; a war in which eighteen million are estimated to have died, followed in its closing months by an influenza epidemic which wreaked death on twice as many again of the world’s by then weakened population. It was a war which, once unleashed, the nations caught up in it were unable to end until exhaustion had brought them to their knees. In fact, the war didn’t really end in 1918; there was a pause and then a second World War which claimed another forty million lives. The two wars involved the most terrible brutality on all sides, including the massacre of six millions Jews in death camps. The world is still feeling the shock waves of those shots in Sarajevo today.
Christopher Clark, the Professor of Modern History in Cambridge, has written a book entitled ‘The Sleepwalkers’ which looks into the background, the mindset, of the initial protagonists of the First World War: the nations of Serbia, Austro-Hungary, Russia, Germany, France and Great Britain. It explores how they were thinking, both the minds of the leaders and the world-views of their people. Christopher Clark comes up with what I think is an interesting conclusion: that each nation which went to war in 1914 felt itself threatened and in some sense a victim of its neighbours. Serbia was a nation which aspired to unite all ethnic Serbs in the Balkans, but felt blocked by Austro-Hungary, its much larger neighbour to the north. Austro-Hungary felt threatened by the Serb nationalist movement which could trigger the disintegration of its multi-national empire. Russian had been humiliated only nine years before in a war with Japan and its autocratic government needed to support the Slav peoples (which included the Serbs) in order to satisfy its own restless population. France in 1914 was still smarting from the loss of its Eastern provinces, Alsace and Lorraine, to Germany forty years before, and was intent on recovering them. Germany felt surrounded by enemies on either side. Great Britain felt threatened by Germany’s growing industrial strength, and its challenge to Britannia’s rule of the waves.
Everyone was a victim. Everyone felt that there was just cause for war, and that right, and God, were on their side. And, despite all five protagonists being overtly Christian nations, there was no priest to stand between them and to intercede - by which I mean there was no priestly mindset among them, no willingness for costly self-offering in order to avert war. For that is what Christ-like priesthood is about. Christ stands between, in vulnerable self-offering, taking on and bearing the cost of our fearful victimhood. The buck, the victimhood, stops there.
The world today is in some ways a safer place than it was in 1914, although to those around then in seemed unthinkable that the nations would actually go to war. Today there are some structures, some institutions – the United Nations and the European Union for instance – which play that go-between role, but these are fragile and so is the peace between the peoples of the world. As nations, as groups and as individuals we too easily run to victimhood, and as victims tend to do, in turn become the victimizers. Our society, our world today urgently needs the priestly model of Jesus Christ, who stands in the gap, who intercedes and who bears the cost of intercession. Which is why we need a priestly Church. Which is why we need priests.
As the eleven of you are ordained into the priesthood of Jesus Christ today, and as you continue to grow into this vocation, may you receive the life, the pattern of Jesus Christ our great High Priest, that the world may believe and that we may know ourselves through him to be reconciled, redeemed and renewed.