On the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus – the World Day of Prayer for Priests – Cardinal Vincent Nichols thanked a 400-strong gathering of diocesan priests in Westminster Cathedral for their witness, fidelity, generosity and love of the Lord.
In his homily at the special Mass to celebrate the secular priesthood, Cardinal Nichols offered three points to promote a renewal of love for the Lord in and through the priestly ministry.
Firstly he encouraged his brother priests to live each day in “joyful gratitude for all that they have been given”. Secondly, he said they should rely totally on the mercy of God and, thirdly, the Cardinal said that priests are “always called to be missionary priests, not professional clerics”.
I welcome you all to this celebration of Holy Mass on the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus as we give thanks for the gift of diocesan priesthood and ask for God’s blessing. I welcome especially the representatives of the diocesan priests, who have come here today. Thank you.
In recent days, in the IICSA Report and in the media, there has been sharp criticism of our work of Safeguarding in the Catholic Church, and of aspects of my ministry in Birmingham. I acknowledge this, of course. Yet this not the time nor place for those matters. Rather today is about you, my brother priests, about your faithfulness, your steadfast generosity, your ministry of healing, your endurance, not least under the burden of the grievous damage done to innocent victims by just a very few of our brother priests. I thank you for your faithfulness, your generosity, your perseverance. I thank you, as do each of us bishops, and the people of your parishes. From the bottom of our hearts, thank you!
Today our prayer is for all, excluding and neglecting no-one, trusting in the healing mercy of God.
So let us now acknowledge our sins…
At the end of Mass, each of the priests present will receive two gifts. The first is this publication, written for this day and to mark the 450th anniversary of the founding of the English College in Douai, the foundation which, through its formation of our priests, helped to relaunch the life of the Church in England and Wales. This is a treasure trove, with scholarly contributions, prayerful reflections and a wonderful collection of short life-stories of 50 or more priests, taken from most dioceses, who have served in this great ministry before us.
The second gift is a lovely edition of ‘Meditations and Devotions’ by Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman, soon to be declared a saint – a saint from among us, a priest who served the people of the parish with love and devotion. I thank our generous benefactor who has covered the cost of the publication of this handsome book. We shall treasure it.
This, then, is a true celebration, a heartfelt thanksgiving for this wonderful heritage of which we are proud to be a part. We recognise that along with our failings, which are many, we are blessed to be part of a stream of courage in times of persecution, single-minded determination in adversity, enterprise in times of opportunity, compassion in the face of suffering and need, and of partnership between so many in the service of our Lord, His Church and the good of all.
This moment is also a plea. A plea that we constantly pray for each other. Today is the world day of prayer for priests. Today then we strive for the renewal of heart and mind in our love for our Blessed Lord who called us to this service and who never leaves our side.
I am constantly consoled, in this search for renewal, by words I have always associated with St Francis of Assisi in his last days. Gathering his companions around him, he said, quite simply: ‘Brethren, let us begin to love the Lord because so far we have made little progress.’
Where do we begin to love the Lord anew, in and through our priesthood? Let me offer three starting points.
The first: to live each day in a joyful gratitude for all that we are given. At the close of each day, we do well to spend some time counting its blessings, the ways in which God has touched us, bringing us a moment of inner joy, and maybe an outward smile. There are such blessings each and every day. On the contrary, it is so easy for dissatisfaction to inhabit our hearts. When that happens, resentment, weariness and indifference can dominate our mood and shape our disposition.
This struggle often comes to the fore in moments when we are alone, or actually lonely. How we shape and use this time is crucial to our ministry. It has always been so, whether the priest has been in hiding, prison, or in a remote ministry. Being alone needs to become a creative solitude. And in that space, a joyful gratitude for all we receive is our key companion. Then we are free, joyfully so, to love the Lord.
The second thought comes nicely packaged in the words of St Paul when he says: ‘The human race has nothing to boast about to God’ adding, ‘if anyone wants to boast, let him boast about the Lord’ (1 Corinthians. 1:29-31). Cardinal Hume, the anniversary of whose death we remembered last week, was fiercely determined that he would go to God empty-handed. He would not permit the award he had just received from Her Majesty the Queen, the Order of Merit, to be placed on his coffin. Empty-handed. Nothing to boast about. Relying totally on the mercy of God.
Throughout our history, secular priests have had to achieve a practical self-sufficiency. Indeed, there is no doubt that a priest’s independence of action has contributed hugely to the rebuilding of Catholic life over these centuries. Some saw the re-introduction of diocesan structures as an impeding of that independence and the initiatives that can spring from it. Indeed, some may still hold that view today. Yet the pathway we now strive to take is not the opposite of independence, a kind of reluctant dependence on others, but a spirited interdependence, whether in the parish with the people, or between parishes in closer cooperation, and within diocesan oversight, so emphasised in this age of outside regulation and inspection.
Today our priesthood is lived within this network of relationships. Only a resilient and shared love of the Lord can infuse these relationships, despite their frustrations, with a spirit of service rendered to the wider Body of Christ, incarnate in our communities, expressed in our churches and schools, never to be reduced to functions of the state or simply to conformity to imposed regulation. One of the great achievements of our predecessors was that of keeping that spirit alive through the thickets of the bureaucracy of each age. Let it be ours too, in a simple love of the Lord. Let us do it all for Him, for in Him alone is our boast.
The third lesson I draw from our great story and offer this morning lies at its heart. We are always called to be missionary priests, not professional clerics. The nineteenth-century list of secular clergy in the Catholic Directory was headed ‘Missionary Priests’ and continued to be so until into the twentieth century. For Bishop Ullathorne, this was the highest title a priest could have – a missionary priest – but it had to be earned.
What does this mean today, in an age of established parishes? Perhaps this: that every day, at least once, we find ourselves in uncomfortable places saying uncomfortable things. The word ‘secular’ really means ‘of this age’, or ‘in this world’. That is where we are to be present. We have to struggle against being rendered private (or professional). These uncomfortable places need not be far away, but anywhere where we are made to feel somewhat out of place – even in a hospital, a classroom or nursing home. The uncomfortable things we say need not be judgmental or harsh, but simply counter-cultural. Indeed, at the time of Douai College itself, Cardinal Allen urged priests to be ‘gentle and balanced’, ‘subtle and supple’ in their approach to diffident or fearful Catholics, adding that ‘in most cases the way of mercy is safer than the rigour of justice’ (William Allen, Letter to Catholics in England, 12 December 1592. Judith Champ, page 41). Contemporary words indeed, which increasingly go against the tide of our times.
‘Let us begin to love the Lord!’ There is so much to learn from the heritage we celebrate today, so much that is deeply written in our priestly DNA. It begins and ends in this love of the Lord. Today let us love Him in the depth of our hearts, in our moments of solitude, in time spent alone with Him, without which we cannot flourish. Today let us love Him in all our efforts to serve a good and holy order in His Body, the Church. Today let us again love Him in our readiness to fulfil His mission, given by the Father, to bring this Word of compassion, mercy, forgiveness to our world, especially to His vulnerable brothers and sisters in their moments of need.
My brothers, thank you so much for the witness you give, for your fidelity, your generosity, your love of the Lord. Each day let us begin to love the Lord. Amen.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols
Archbishop of Westminster