Text: Cardinal speaks on the ministry of the priest

 Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Archbishop of Westminster and President of the Bishop's Conference of England and Wales, was the chief concelebrant and preached the homily at Mass at the Eucharistic Congress, in Birmingham, on Friday evening. Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ I am delighted to be with you today and to speak to you about the ministry of the priest. As it happens, I have just returned from the celebration of the 50th anniversary of ordination of a priest friend of mine. There were present fifty priests, the bishop of the Diocese, and hundreds of lay faithful the whole celebration centred round the Holy Eucharist and seemed to me to sum up the life and ministry of a priest. For fifty years, this priest had ministered the Word of God, the sacraments, and especially the Holy Eucharist, and been a shepherd in good times and in bad, to the People of God. And there, to give thanks to God for that life, were fellow priests united with the bishop and hundreds of people who exhibited in such a faithful, wonderful way, their love of the priesthood and their affection for this particular priest. It seems to me one does not need over much to instruct lay people about the ministry of the priest because in their heart of hearts and in their faith they know it. I once had a questionnaire in a former diocese of mine in which I asked the people of the diocese what were the best things in their parish and what were the things that could be improved. Eighty per cent of the replies said that the best thing in their parish was their parish priest. This is because the lay faithful know in their heart of hearts that the ministry of the priest is essential for the life of the Church. The priesthood has taken a bit of a knocking in these past few years and I suppose many people will have the impression, perhaps not entirely wrong, that we are, on the whole, a pretty poor lot! Of course, in one sense it is true because we priests know we are weak and sinful and do not live up to the promises that we have made. I am always moved, on the Feast of St Gregory, when I read in the Office of Readings how Gregory reflects on his ministry. He goes on about his weaknesses and he ends up with this wonderful passage: Who am I? What kind of a watchman am I? I do not stand on the pinnacle of achievement. I languish rather in the depths of my weakness. And yet the Creator and Redeemer of Mankind can give me, unworthy though I be, the grace to see life whole and the power to speak effectively of it. It is for love of Him that I do not spare myself in preaching Him. I think it is a marvellous description of who we are as priests and the way in which we try to see life 'whole' and to give ourselves in preaching Christ's truth and endeavouring to live it. Still vividly in my mind are the events of three months ago, when I was in Rome during those eventful days between the death of Pope John Paul and the Inauguration of Pope Benedict. Those were days when the world saw in a unique kind of way the faith of the Church as exhibited in the countless thousands of men and women, in the Square of St. Peter's. This was no ordinary spectacle. These were faithful people expressing what is at the heart of our Christian life, their faith in God, their thanksgiving for the life of a great Pope, belief in a life to come their living faith in Jesus Christ, risen and with us still as our Guide and Shepherd. No wonder Pope Benedict, on seeing the faith and enthusiasm of that multitude exclaimed, "The Church is alive!" And the Church is alive because through the ages, and today, Christ ensures through the ministry of bishops and priests that the faithful people have the Word of God preached to them and that the sacraments, and especially Baptism and the Holy Eucharist, are celebrated for them, and that His ministry, guiding and shepherding the people of God is continued in the Church. Above all, what we celebrate this evening is what is at the heart of the Church, because from the very beginning the Church draws her life from the Eucharist. This sacrament is the reason for her existence and the source of her holiness and the power of her unity and the bond of her communion. This Holy Sacrament is the source of her strength in preaching the Gospel, source of love, and gives us the promise of Eternal Life. No wonder, my dear people, Catholics say that it is the Mass that matters because in the Mass is celebrated the mystery of our salvation in Jesus Christ. No wonder the celebration of the Holy Eucharist in these Dioceses provokes such a response of faith on the part of priests and people. How often do we priests say those words, noted in the Gospel that has just been read to us, the words of Jesus Christ at the Last Supper when He took bread and gave thanks and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body which will be given for you; this is my blood shed for you. Do this in memory of Me". For us priests, our hope, our ministry is in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. For that we give thanks to God today. But I must be honest and say that it is not easy to be a priest today and one should not deny the struggles and sometimes the trials we have to suffer in our life as priests. Some time ago, I met the present Archbishop of Prague, Cardinal Vlk, and during the meal we had together he told me about his experiences during the Communist era in Czechoslovakia. He told me how for ten years of his life he was persecuted by the Authorities and his licence to practise as a priest was removed. He was thrown out of his parish and told to earn his keep and make his own hidden way in the world. He became a window-cleaner in the City of Prague. One day he was cleaning windows and, high up on a ladder in one of Prague's beautiful streets, he heard a group of German tourists below him, window-shopping. He could hear them laughing, joking and chatting about what they wanted to buy. And then it struck him. A voice deep within him said, "Nobody knows who you are. Nobody cares that you are a priest, nobody cares that you have faith, nobody is interested in the message of Jesus that you preach." He shared with me his sense of abandonment and isolation. But then he said, very beautifully and very profoundly, "But it became clear to me that the cross is not a pious object out there, but the cross is a living reality in my life, for on the cross God is present but hidden." His story reminded me in my own priesthood that we are all called in a very real way in our own humdrum lives to share in the cross, in the suffering of Jesus, in our world today. For you, my dear brother priests, I want to give words of thanksgiving and encouragement. There are two particular thoughts I would like to leave with you. For my retreat last year I went to a monastery where I noticed a plaque with the image of an owl on it, and beneath was a saying, "An owl was perched on an oak tree. The more he was silent, the more he knew, the more he knew the more he was silent". The message to me was, "Do not neglect your spiritual life". Let us not neglect that time of prayer when we stay silent before the Word of God and listen. It is impossible for us priests to speak about God, about Jesus, unless we are in communion with Him and unless we listen to Him. How necessary it is to speak out of our hearts, our own faith, our own life, our own experience of Him. Do not forget that the whole of your life is in a real sense your spiritual life. The Word of God, the liturgy, and especially the Holy Eucharist, the building up of your community, your parish, your service of your people, are all part of your discipleship. This is the particular way in which the spirituality of the priest is lived. It is a spirituality, an identity involving the dedication of our whole life, with all its variety and all its joys and sorrows. The Lord has promised us, "You will have your reward". The second thought I want to leave with you is that of St. Paul when speaking to the Ephesians and also in his Letter to Timothy when he says in so many words, "Look after yourself". So I want to say to you this evening, look after yourselves. I am not thinking so much about food or house or clothing, or even rest and recreation. I want you to make your priestly home a home that speaks of life. Have meals occasionally that are convivial with fellow-priests or friends. Have healthy interests, whether it is music or art or books or sport or whatever. We are called to live a human life because the priest evangelises by the human person that he is, not just by the words and actions that he performs. It seems to me that is what it means to be an alter Christus, another Christ, and to live a ministry in persona Christi capitas. We do so not so much by what we say and do but in virtue of who we are. So I want to thank you for all that you do in your life as shepherds, as priests of Jesus Christ. Do not be afraid of the times in which we live. The Lord is with us. We are there to commend new initiatives, encourage them, share them with others. We would love our priesthood to be full of eagerness and joy and hope in the Holy Spirit. And I think it can be if we open ourselves to God, if we pray, if we share ourselves as human beings with our people, if we care for the sick and those who are specially in need of our shepherding. Never doubt the gift of God in your priesthood. For we are close and minister the Bread of Life, who is Jesus Christ. He is our Hope. He is the Promise of Eternal Life. As the Letter read to us today says, "Christ has come as the High Priest of all the blessings which were to come. He has passed through the greater, the more perfect tent, which is better than the one made by men's hands, because it is not of this created order. He has entered the sanctuary once for all, having won an eternal redemption for us". For all this, we give thanks to God today.

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