A sure and certain identity

My brothers, Robinson and Nick, you are being ordained today as priests in an unprecedented time and in unique circumstances. The worldwide pandemic due to the coronavirus has brought about an isolation which has closed our churches, now for six weeks, has engulfed our full attention no matter who we are or what our age may be, has caused serious illnesses, taken countless lives, and has brought about a fear, an anxiety and an uncertainty that are novel and surreal to all of us. You, after many years of preparation and anticipation, are being ordained in a very limited celebration separated from your family, friends and parishioners, in a manner you never would have anticipated. While you now know your parish assignments, you do not know how they will unfold in the coming weeks and in what manner you will carry out your priestly ministry in a rather isolated, even cloistered, atmosphere.

What is very important for all of us to reflect upon today is that you chose to follow the call of the Lord to be priests and that the present or future circumstances do not interfere with your decision but only confirm it. Indeed, you deliberately chose to be ordained priests today, and not at a future time with more attention or ceremony, precisely because you want to be priests. You did not choose to be priests for honor, prestige, recognition or for achieving success. You chose priesthood to follow the call of the Lord to be like Him, in service to Him and others, in good times and in bad. Neither one of you, nor any priest here today, is thinking I should have been a doctor, a scientist or involved in some type of political or social work, so that I could make a real difference today. You chose to be priests because you heard the Lord’s call that your vocation is one that today makes all the difference in the world. Your vocation speaks the ultimate word of faith which is the only one that really matters when all else fails.

I vividly remember that when I chose to follow the vocation to priesthood, it was precisely because of the ultimate difference which the priest makes in the lives of others. I remember when people would ask me, “Why do you want to be a priest? Why not a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher or some other professional in life. Why a priest?” I answered without any hesitancy that it would be nice to be any of those professions but that I noticed when all of them, even the doctor, has no further input in someone’s life, it is the priest who has the final word of God in assuring mercy and opening the gate to our purpose which is eternal life. It is a priest who always has the final say.

My brothers, you begin your ministry today. This is not only because you are formally ordained as priests but because you will actually carry out the most significant aspect of your priestly existence which is the celebration of the Eucharist. Today is not only your day of ordination, it is the day of your first Mass as we concelebrate this Eucharist after your ordination. Perhaps the centrality of the priest’s role as celebrant of the Eucharist has been emphasized during the past weeks when the churches have not been opened to the faithful in order to protect them by preventing the spread of the coronavirus. These have not been days in which Mass is not celebrated. In every one of our parishes the Mass is celebrated every day by our priests and through their action all of the faithful are joined in the action of Christ which is the center of the Church. The Eucharist is the Sacrament of Sacraments from which all of the other actions of the Church flow and to which all of the actions of the Church are ordered. While the role of the priest is one of service to the people of God, that service comes primarily through his celebration of the Eucharist in which he stands in the very person of Christ, not because of his worthiness, but to bring us together in union with the Lord through His Body and Blood.

In his Apostolic Exhortation on the Amazon Synod, Pope Francis made a most affirming confirmation of the identity of the priest especially in regard to his being the ordained celebrant of the Eucharist. The pope explained how the priest is a sign of Christ as the wellspring of grace when he celebrates the Eucharist. He emphasized that, “It is important to determine what is most specific to a priest, which cannot be delegated. The answer lies in the Sacrament of Holy Orders which configures him to Christ the priest. The first conclusion, then, is that exclusive character received in Holy Orders qualifies a priest alone to preside at the Eucharist. This is his particular, principal and nondelegable function.” Pope Francis went on to stress that, “This is his great power, the power that can only be received in the Sacrament of Holy Orders. For this reason, only the priest can say ‘This is my Body.’” As Pope Francis emphasized in his Exhortation, quoting his Encyclical Laudao Si, “In the Eucharist, ‘God in the culmination of the incarnation, chose to reach our intimate depths through a fragment of matter.’ The Eucharist joins heaven and earth; it embraces and penetrates all creation.”

In recent days, Pope Francis has made a number of references to one of his favorite novels which he has read at least three times, The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni, an Italian poet, novelist and philosopher who lived during the 18th and 19th centuries. Manzoni’s work is considered one of the masterpieces of world literature. The pope previously referred to this novel in recommending it to engaged couples for marriage since its plot revolves about a couple who suffered greatly in their engagement before being married. Part of the novel takes place in the context of the great plague of Milan which took place between 1629 and 1632, decimating the city, Manzoni’s birthplace, by causing great illness and loss of life in northern Italy. The novel centers a great deal around the life of the Church in which a number of priests come to the fore. Don Abbondio is a cleric who became a priest not because of a genuine vocation but because of convenience and a desire for a comfortable life. He had a difficult time going against the whims of the rich and powerful. In a Sunday audience during Lent, the Holy Father expressed, “In times of pandemic, priests mustn’t be the Don Abbondio of the situation.” Another priest in the novel, Father Felice Casati, is probably a reason why The Betrothed is one of Pope Francis’ favorite novels. Father Felice was the opposite of Don Abbondio. He was a priest who had the right motivation for his vocation and served the people caught in the suffering of the plague in an extraordinary manner. The contrast between Don Abbondio and Father Felice, with the other Franciscans who ministered with Father Felice, is extraordinary. In the time of the plague, it was the goodness and service of Father Felice Casati and his companions which prevailed and made all the difference. Pope Francis has also recently referred to many of the priests today in Italy who have lost their lives due to the Coronavirus as “the saints next door.” Their ministry makes the ultimate difference even when all else fails.

My brothers, Robinson and Nick, the circumstances of your ordination and the present time only reaffirm the difference which your calling makes. As you are ordained today and celebrate for the first time the center of your priestly ministry in the Eucharist, there is no uncertainty as to who you are. Thank you for following the call of the Lord as you begin your service today. The certitude of your identity truly makes a difference in an uncertain atmosphere of which we are now part. However, uncertainty is a part of all times and we live under an illusion that it is not. We live under the illusion of our omniscience just as we live under the illusion of our immorality. Perhaps the present dispels those illusions. May your prayer before the people be that of the friar, Father Felice, in the novel, The Betrothed : “For me (continued he), and the rest of my companions who, without any merit of our own, have been chosen out for the high privilege of serving Christ in you, I humbly implore your forgiveness, if we have not worthily fulfilled so great a ministry.” My brothers, you have been chosen and are given today the high privilege of serving Christ in others. May you always fulfill, as best as you can, so great a ministry, always keeping to the motivation which brings you here today, knowing the difference it makes. May the Lord who has begun this good work in you continue to bring it to fulfillment