Saturday, January 21, 2012

It's Who You are, Not What you Do

Homily for First Mass of Fr David Arulunatham

A new priest after his ordination was getting all nervous for his first mass. He was convinced that he would just clam up when it came to the time to deliver his first homily. He then went to consult the senior parish priest and asked for some good advice on how to overcome his fears. The senior priest replied, "When I am worried about getting nervous on the pulpit, I put a glass of vodka next to the water glass. If I start to get nervous, I take a sip."

So next Sunday he took the senior priest’s advice. At the beginning of the sermon, he got nervous and took a drink. Correction – he took several drinks. He then miraculously proceeded to talk up a storm. Quite happy with his own accomplishment and hoping to get some good reviews from parishioners and his senior, the new priest returned to his office only to find a note from the senior priest posted on his office door. It read.

1. Sip the Vodka, don't gulp.
2. There are 10 commandments, not 12.
3. There are 12 disciples, not 10.
4. Jesus was consecrated, not constipated.
5. The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are not referred to as Daddy, Junior and the Spook.
6. When Jesus broke the bread at the Last Supper he said, "Take this and eat it of it for this is my body." He did not say "Eat me."
Yours sincerely,
Revd Fr Michael

The reason why I’m up here at the ambo and not our newly ordained priest, Fr David, is not because he had a little too much to drink. It has nothing to do with alcohol but everything to do with the inspiration of the Spirit. Fr David has asked me to preach at his first mass because this is an ancient treasured custom of the church for a senior priest, which I do not claim to be, preaches at the first mass celebrated by the newly ordained.

Something has changed since last Monday, the day Fr David was ordained to the priesthood. For all purposes, Fr David still looks the same. We do not expect any drastic physical transformation where he will suddenly transform into a one ton lorry or a small mini miner. He still speaks in the same way as many of you had known him before. Fr David’s passion for cooking and flower arrangements has not changed. His strong commanding voice still soothes the wounded soul and send shivers down the spine of those who are up to no good.

So, what are some of the changes that we see today? His clothing would be most apparent to the discerning eye. He has exchanged his deacon’s dalmatic, the uniform of a servant or waiter, for a chasuble, which symbolizes putting on Christ. His name has also changed. He is no longer Mr David Arulanatham or Br David or Deacon David. We now address him as Fr David. He has taken his rightful place at the sedile, or the presidential chair, denoting that he now acts in the person of Christ the King, Christ who is head of his body – in persona capitis Christi. Today, we will witness him consecrating bread and wine and not just merely assisting at the altar.

But there is a far more profound change that has taken place in Fr David. A change which is invisible to the eye but can be recognized by faith. The extrinsic changes that we see, changes to his clothing, roles, functions, and duties, are founded on the intrinsic change which we cannot see with the naked eye. Fr David has undergone an ontological change, a change of his whole being. The priesthood is more than just a profession or a function, it is a new identity, a new calling, a new creation. As St Paul beautifully explains the experience of such change in Gal 2:20, “It is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me.”

Thus, the priesthood and baptism are both intimately link. Both sacraments do not only confer grace but effect an ontological change in the person who receives it. The Church’s catechism speaks of this as leaving an indelible mark, quite similar to the indelible ink that we are speaking of using in the next general elections. But this indelible mark left by the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and holy orders can never be erased. It represents the undying fidelity of God to his promises and his graces, promises that will never be broken and graces that will never be withdrawn even in the face of man’s infidelity.

In baptism, we are made children of God, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people set apart for the worship of God. In baptism, we become a new creation. The old has been put to death on the cross. We experience a regeneration or a rebirth to everlasting life. In Holy Orders, the priest who is taken from the lay faithful who have been baptized, experiences another ontological change. The priest is configured to Christ at his ordination in a way calling for a permanent and lasting commitment, through a share in Christ’s eternal priesthood. The priest does not just emulate Christ. He is not just a substitute or a stand-in for Christ. Through ordination, the priest becomes Christ.

This last statement may sound excessive. But this pales in comparison to writings of St John Marie Vianney, the Cure de Ars, the patron saint of Parish Priests and diocesans. The Cure of Ars was quite humble, yet as a priest he was conscious of being an immense gift to his people: "A good shepherd, a pastor after God's heart, is the greatest treasure which the good Lord can grant to a parish and one of the most precious gifts of divine mercy". He spoke of the priesthood as if incapable of fathoming the grandeur of the gift and task entrusted to a human creature: "O, how great is the priest! ... If he realized what he is, he would die. ... God obeys him: he utters a few words and the Lord descends from heaven at his voice, to be contained within a small host".

In spite of the fact that many of these statements may sound audacious and even narcissistic, St John Marie Vianney’s words of wisdom are a reminder to priests that their ministry is founded not merely on function, talents, personality and abilities. Too often, a priest confuses his function with his identity which ultimately leads to a disavowal of his calling. When priests try so hard to be like the ordinary Joe or just one of the guys, he substitutes Christ whom he represents for the man whom he tries to be for the people. When the image of Christ is erased, what is left is the pure personality of the man. A priest’s worth then depends on his popularity, his abilities and his effectiveness. On the other hand, when priests are able to own and live up to their vocation as holy ministers of God, governing, sanctifying and teaching his flock, then their people will learn to live up to their own respective vocations to sanctify the world through their lay calling.

Now does this mean that you would see a very different Fr David. A Fr David incapable of making mistakes. A Fr David who will always be patient, kind, gentle, holy, compassionate, understanding, loving, and forgiving. In other words, are we expecting to see a new Fr David who is perfect and without sin? Let us not confuse the process of ordination with Canonization! Priests like everyone else remain sinners. But just like everyone else, he is called to holiness and through the sacrament of holy orders, he is called especially to configure himself to Christ who is Priest, Prophet and King. Ordination means that the hands of the sinner priest can be transformed by the Holy Spirit into the hands of Christ when celebrating the Eucharist, or anointing the dying, or absolving the penitent sinner, or offering blessing. God continues to use this unworthy and sometimes broken instrument to be his channel of grace of the world. By the grace of God, the priest offers his priesthood at all times in the name and person of Jesus. The weakness and sinfulness of a priest does not take away the efficacy of God’s grace but rather accentuates the truth that all is graced and that nothing can be accomplished without the grace and power of God.

Finally, dear Fr David, I would like to share with you a beautiful reflection by our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, in his homily at the concluding mass for the Year of the Priest that summarises what I have clumsily been trying to share with you:
“The priest is not a mere office-holder, like those which every society needs in order to carry out certain functions. Instead, he does something which no human being can do of his own power: in Christ’s name he speaks the words which absolve us of our sins and in this way he changes, starting with God, our entire life. Over the offerings of bread and wine he speaks Christ’s words of thanksgiving, which are words of transubstantiation – words which make Christ himself present, the Risen One, his Body and Blood – words which thus transform the elements of the world, which open the world to God and unite it to him. The priesthood, then, is not simply “office” but sacrament: God makes use of us poor men in order to be, through us, present to all men and women, and to act on their behalf. This audacity of God who entrusts himself to human beings – who, conscious of our weaknesses, nonetheless considers men capable of acting and being present in his stead – this audacity of God is the true grandeur concealed in the word “priesthood”

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