Recently, on March 19, the Solemnity of St. Joseph, Pope Francis ordained three bishops at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. In his homily at the ordination, the Pope spoke clearly and directly on what he considered to be the primary responsibility of a bishop. While he was speaking about a bishop, there is no question that his words equally apply to a priest. He said emphatically, "The first task of a bishop is prayer. A bishop who does not pray, does not fulfill his duty, does not carry out his vocation." My brothers, Frank and Daniel, as you are ordained priests this day, keep always before you that your primary responsibility is prayer and that without fulfilling this fundamental undertaking to which you commit yourselves this day, you will not be able to live your vocation. Not only will you be unable to live your vocation but the essential joy of priesthood will become lacking to you and, as the Pope told the bishops to be ordained, you will begin to become involved in other occupations and matters for which you were not chosen by the Lord and you will succumb to the temptation of considering yourselves more privileged than others. It is obvious from the readings you have chosen for today’s celebration that you do not wish to consider yourselves as privileged but set aside as shepherds and servants. It will be your commitment to prayer that will enable you to be so.
It is quite fitting that Pope Francis spoke these words about the primacy of prayer in the life of an ordained minister on the same day that he promulgated his Apostolic Exhortation on the call to holiness, Gaudete et Exultate, Rejoice and be Glad, even though it was not made public until the completion of the Easter octave when the Solemnity of the Annunciation was celebrated. The Pope reflects in his exhortation that holiness is the call of every person and is lived in accord with the particular circumstances of one's life. In it he quotes the powerful words of the Catholic French novelist, Léon Bloy, "The only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint." My brothers, Frank and Daniel, your becoming a shepherd of the Lord is precisely so that you can become saints and you can enable others to become saints. Your particular path to sanctity does take up a life of prayer which is different from those you may serve and is unique to your service as a priest.
In the Gospel proclaimed this morning, Jesus announces to us, "I am the Good Shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father." Jesus’ proclamation of Himself as the Good Shepherd is intimately associated with His abiding relationship to His Father in prayer. His relationship to His Father and His relationship to us are not exclusive. It is His relationship to His Father which enables Him to be in relationship with us, His sheep. My brothers, this is at the heart of what your particular prayer life as a priest will be all about. The more you come to know the Lord through prayer, the more you will come to know the people you serve and be willing to give yourselves to them. Your prayer is different than that of a contemplative in a monastery in so far as it is intimately united with your people. However, it bears the same nature of contemplation but in the midst of the world.
The center of the priest’s call to holiness and his prayer life is the celebration of the Eucharist. Frank and Daniel, the primary reason for your ordination today is so that you will be able to celebrate the Eucharist for the Church. While you will celebrate the other sacraments for the people you serve, all of them flow to the Eucharist and all of them flow from the Eucharist. As you are ordained today, you will be configured to Christ in a unique manner so that you will be able to act in His very person, most especially in the Eucharist. The more the priest identifies himself with the words of Christ at the Last Supper, the more his heart is united to the heart of Christ. The presence of Christ will always come about through your uttering Christ's words, "This is my body given up for you. ... This is the chalice of my blood poured out for you." However, as these words become your own very words, you will grow in prayer in your relationship with Christ and His priestly identity in your giving of yourself as a shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. This is a unique and lifelong process that permeates every aspect of your daily ministry. Your service to the people you will serve culminates in your giving them the Body and Blood of the Lord in the Eucharist and leading them more and more into His life and presence.
On the occasion of his fiftieth anniversary of ordination to the priesthood, St. Pope John Paul II stated how the Eucharist is the center of the priest’s prayer life and daily existence. He said, "The priest, in his daily celebration of the Eucharist, goes to the very heart of his ministry. For this reason the celebration of the Eucharist must be the most important moment of the priest’s day, the center of his life." St. Pope John XXIII likewise expressed the centrality of the Eucharist in the life and holiness of a priest. In his Encyclical on St. John Vianney, the Cure of Ars and the patron saint of the parish priest, he expressed so poignantly, "If it is obviously true that a priest receives his priesthood so as to serve at the altar and that he enters into his office by offering the Eucharistic sacrifice, then it is equally true that for as long as he lives as God's minister, the Eucharistic sacrifice will be the source and origin of the holiness that he attains and of the apostolic activity to which he devotes himself. All these things came to pass in the fullest possible way in the case of St. John Vianney.”
My brothers, after your ordination today, when I hand you the paten and chalice, I will do so with the words, "Receive the oblation of the holy people to be offered to God. Understand what you do, imitate what you celebrate and conform your life to the mystery of the Lord's Cross." Grow each day in prayer as you prepare to celebrate the Eucharist, as you celebrate it and after its completion. The more you do so, the more you will grow in the holiness proper to you and the more you will serve the people entrusted to your care. Never become too preoccupied or distracted to celebrate the Eucharist without full attention and never hesitate to celebrate it on more than one occasion on a day when circumstances require it. It is for this that you are ordained and it is this which the people most rightly expect from you. You will find a great joy in this.
Immediately before the ordination of the three bishops in Rome and the promulgation of his exhortation, Rejoice and be Glad, Pope Francis met with the seminarians from various countries studying in Rome. It is obvious from all of these occasions that prayer was of primary importance in the mind of the Pope during this period. In one of the questions raised by the seminarians at that meeting, a deacon from the United States asked the Pope about the spiritual traits of a diocesan priest and how they are practiced in daily pastoral work. The question was a very good one as it raises the issue as to what the particular spirituality of a diocesan priest is all about. It is a significant one for you, Frank and Daniel, as well as it is for all us diocesan priests. The Pope responded by maintaining that a priest ordained to serve a diocese is committing himself to a particular relationship with the diocese and the Bishop within that diocese. The Pope joked that this was the case even if the Bishop were a difficult person – how could he ever think such a thing? My brothers, you are committing yourself today to a particular diocese with various needs. You have shown yourselves willing to address those needs. However, you are also making a commitment to adapt yourself in the future for the needs of the diocese even if that requires more flexibility and sacrifice on your part.
Likewise, the Pope expressed that a diocesan priests also has to maintain a particular relationship with parishioners as well as brother priests. Your understanding of your relationship with parishioners, the men and women whom you will serve, is quite obvious and laudatory. However, you are also making a commitment to your brother priests within the Diocese of Palm Beach. You are being ordained into a presbyterate today and one that is a very good one. Your own needs become secondary to the needs of the presbyterate as well as the people whom you will serve. That means in a very special way you commit yourself to the fraternal support and care of your brother priests even when they may be difficult persons as the Pope expressed the Bishop might be. Their well-being is a primary responsibility for all of us as we take care of each other in service to our Diocese. This is not always an easy thing to do. We are ordained as part of a presbyterate and not as individual priests. You are to be good shepherds and servants of your brother priests.
The Pope also expressed how this particular form of service as a diocesan priest is in keeping with his prayer life and call to holiness on the road to sanctity. The Pope said that maintaining these three fronts, relationship with the Bishop, relationship with the presbyterate and relationship with parishioners are what will make priests saints. These fronts are unique to the identity of a diocesan priest.
My brothers, Frank and Daniel, Pope Francis has given us much to reflect upon in his recent reflections upon priesthood and sanctity. You are called to a life of tremendous joy and great expectation. That joy will keep growing as long as prayer, especially in the Eucharist, is the center of your life as a diocesan priest. In his Apostolic Exhortation, as I stated before, the Pope referred to the French author, Léon Bloy, who expressed that, "The only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint." Francis also referred to another striking quote from this author in the very first homily he gave as Pope to the Cardinals the day after his election, "He who does not pray to God, prays to the devil." These are very powerful words and especially significant for us as priests. There is no question that the devil tries to rob us of the joy that is ours as priests and he starts right away. The quickest way to give him success in this regard is to slacken off in prayer. In the words of our Holy Father, a priest who does not pray does not accomplish his duty, does not fulfill his vocation and ultimately prays to the devil.
My brothers to be ordained, may God fill you with great joy as you are ordained priests today and begin to carry out your ministry always in prayer. May He who begins this good work in you today continue to bring it to fulfillment.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
May 11, 2018