‹ back to previous page

The Priestly Ministry

For information on the priesthood in the Order of Carmelites, visit http://www.vocationcarmelites.ie/.

For information on priesthood in the Archdiocese of Dublin, visit http://www.priest.ie

Pope John Paul II's Vocation

This is a summary of the talk given by Fr. Philip Brennan O. Carm. for the Novena of Grace 2004, on the topic of Holy Orders/Ministry.

Every year, on Holy Thursday morning, only one mass is celebrated in each diocese. It takes place in the Cathedral Church or in the case of Dublin, the pro-cathedral, and the principal celebrant is the Archbishop or the bishop of the diocese. During that Mass, known as the “Mass of Chrism”, the holy oils, which are used in the sacraments throughout the year, are blessed. With these oils the ministry of Christ’s service is continued in the Church: the oil of catechumens is a sign of the Church’s strengthening of the weak; with the chrism the Church seals with the Spirit those who are to bear witness to him in the world through baptism and confirmation, it commissions those whose lives are specially consecrated to Christ’s sacrificial service through ordination, and finally brings his ministry of healing to the sick through the sacrament of anointing.

Last Holy Thursday I was delighted to receive a text from a friend who was in Rome for the Easter Triduum. She just wanted to let me know that she was praying for me on the day when priests all over the world renew their personal commitment to priestly service. It’s interesting that the Gospel for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on that day is not about the institution of the Eucharist but about service – the Lord’s washing the feet of his disciples. “He is the true and eternal priest” as the preface of that mass reminds us, and every priest who acts in his name is called to imitate his example.

In my own ministry I am always conscious of the fact that Jesus himself wasn’t ordained. He was sent to establish a priestly people; he came as a humble servant, and he left us an example by washing his disciples’ feet.

I remember a confrere telling me about a wise old teacher of his who, when he wanted to make a point, would go to the board and draw diagrams. One day when talking about the Sacrament of Orders he drew a line across the board. Above this line he placed all the people of God. But he indicated that by the Sacrament of Orders a person made the choice to go beneath the line and serve God’s people.

Since Vatican II we have begun to rediscover and slowly recapture the vitality of the early Church’s understanding of ministries and offices in the Christian community. We have begun to understand that the sacrament of orders is not conferred primarily for the benefit of the one who receives it, but for the benefit of the community which needs the service of the one being ordained.

The priest is a Christian among Christians, and is not higher or above his sisters and brothers. He has a special ministry within that community. As a helper of the Bishop he works to build up the Kingdom of God. He preaches the Good News, celebrates the Eucharist with the people of God, baptises, and celebrates the sacrament of reconciliation. He is present as witness when a man and woman administer the Sacrament of Matrimony to one another, he anoints and comforts the sick and leads the funeral rites for the dead. He is a man for the people. He is not some kind of “Jim’ll fix it” character, a kind of spiritual or social superman. Although a priest is intended to be the bearer of an extraordinary message, he is first and foremost an ordinary human being. By processing through the gathered assembly at the beginning and end of Mass, the priest reminds us that he comes from God’s people. Like a sower sowing seed he is called to sow the Word of God and mingle his gifts with the gifts of the people he serves.

The Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, Carlo Maria Martini, once said about the role of bishop: “If we were to ask what a bishop should be as we enter the third Millennium he would be just such a person as Basil Hume.” I was a great admirer of the late Cardinal Hume; he was one of those rare, outstanding leaders whose unassuming style and ordinary-ness of his spirituality made his vision of the Christian life accessible to all. Reflecting on the role of priesthood today he wrote: “I have often thought that Our Lord chose a lot of ‘Division Two’ people as priests. We can all think of better people among the laity than ourselves, and we all know our frailities and our weaknesses. I sometimes think he has deliberately chosen the earthenware vessels to be quite certain that the strays and failures will have someone who will understand and be sympathetic, and not condemn. For who of us would dare to condemn others when we know our real selves? So he made those who were going to be shepherds of his flock themselves rather frail precisely so that they could have sympathy and compassion in order to help the lost sheep.”

In 1964, Loren Eisley wrote a book entitled “The Unexpected Universe”. I’d like to conclude with the following story from that book which I often share with those who come to me seeking help in discerning God’s will:

A young man was walking along a beach when he saw in the distance an old man picking things up from the sand and throwing them into the sea. As he came closer, he could see that the things were starfish that had been stranded on the beach. He asked the man why he was throwing the starfish into the water. “ These starfish will die if they’re left here on the beach,” said the man, “and I come out here every day and throw as many back into the sea as I can.” “ But there are hundreds of starfish on this beach,” the young man said. “And there must be millions on beaches around the world. What difference does it make if you throw a few of them back into the sea?” At that, the old man picked up another starfish and said, “it makes a lot of difference to this one,” and threw it back into the water.

The obvious moral of the story is that one person can make all the difference. There is no one who isn’t needed. Whenever we come to celebrate the Eucharist, as sisters and brothers in Christ let’s give thanks and praise to God who calls us to serve in different ways within the Church. Above all, pray that we may be faithful to our Great High Priest, for he calls each one of us to the Father’s love.

- Philip Brennan, O Carm.