Later this month, on May 19, I’ll ordain new priests for our local Church. This is a special moment of joy for me, since these new brothers will be the first I welcome into the priesthood as Archbishop of Philadelphia. But every new priest is a source of joy and hope for all our people. In the wake of so many difficulties for our Church over the past 15 months, we need to pause and reflect.
Every genuine love story is a great love story; and every great love story creates new life. Real love is always fruitful. The love of husbands and wives bears fruit most obviously in the lives of their children, but also in many forms of Christian service … and also in the witness which their love provides to other people.
So it is with the priesthood. Priests are called to be fruitful, but in a different and profoundly important way. They nourish the Church with their lives. They create a witness of radical service, and a legacy of spiritual children and apostolic works.
The point is this: The community of faith is not so different from the individuals who live and love within it. The Church is the bride of Christ — and that love needs to bear fruit. The new life which the Church brings into the world is salvation in Jesus Christ, through preaching and teaching the Gospel, and offering the sacraments. This is why, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells us, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit….”
Jesus was talking to us — to all of us; but in a special way, to His priests. If a priest does not actively share his love of Jesus Christ with others, then it diminishes in his own heart. Priests who fail to witness that love with purity and integrity, lose it. And no priest can be happy without it. That’s what St. Paul meant when he wrote, “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel.”
It’s not that God punishes those who do not preach God’s word; instead, they steal joy from themselves, because the joy of Christ’s presence can only be had by sharing Christ with others. The priest, like any parent or anyone truly in love, “gets” by giving away. So if Baptism indelibly marks every Christian as a missionary, Orders takes that vocation even further, intimately and permanently configuring a man to Jesus Himself, the greatest Love of them all.
Take a look around. The world needs Jesus Christ as never before. As a Church in the early years of a new millennium, we find ourselves in the midst of a powerful, skeptical and sharply divided society – a culture fueled by both pride and anxiety.
In today’s America, we live in mission territory. This is the new Areopagus. Philadelphia is no exception. The legacy of Catholic achievement in our Archdiocese is extraordinary. But it can easily blind us to the new work that God now calls us to do.
Each of us should reflect long and deeply on the meaning of the “new evangelization.” Those words have weight; they’re not just a slogan. A new missionary spirit needs to be born in each of our hearts, both lay and clergy; and if it is, then God will use it to win the soul of the world around us to Jesus Christ.
In a special way, we should focus on forming and supporting our priests as effectively as we can. The reason is simple. There’s no Gospel witness without the Church; there’s no Church without the Eucharist; and there’s no Eucharist without the priest.
We need more priests — good men who are well formed; men of courage, zeal and genuine humility; men who love Jesus Christ and his people, and prove it with their lives. This is the first and most urgent step in renewing our Church.
Of course, if it stops there — no matter how many good seminarians we attract — we fail. Ultimately, while there’s no Church without the Eucharist, and no Eucharist without the priest, it’s also true that there are no priests without families on fire for Jesus Christ. Families who help their sons to hear God’s call; who affirm and support and encourage the priests who already serve them; who live their lives in a way which proves to our priests that their own sacrifices make a difference.
What I pray God builds through us in our Archdiocese over the next decade, is not just an old way of seminary formation with a new vocabulary, more numbers and an updated marketing strategy, but something true to what the “new evangelization” really is — a communion and mission of the whole Church, ordained, religious and lay, each respecting the other, each serving the other, all serving the Lord by bringing the Good News to the world, and the world to the Good News.
That’s the equality of the faithful: each vocation unique and invaluable in dignity; each complementing and completing the other in the Lord; altogether in service; and on fire with the love of God. May 19 is an invitation to grace; but so is every ordination, every marriage, every baptism.
I hope that in the years ahead we can look back on 2012 and say, this is where our hearts changed. This is where God began something new. And if we can, then like Simeon, we can go home to Him in gratitude and peace.
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