On Saturday, May 16, it was a great joy for me to ordain three new priests for our archdiocese. Ordination homilies are addressed to the men being ordained, but several people suggested that I also share what I said with the readers of the Transcript. The following words apply in different ways to all of us, whatever our state in life, as members of the church in this day and age.
“All Christians, including priests, are Christ’s sheep. We are all part of the one flock that belongs to him. The shepherding role that a priest receives by ordination is only a vicarious one, entrusted to him by the one and only true Shepherd, Christ the Lord. On the church’s earthly pilgrimage, those who are ordained priests are given a share in Christ’s own ministry, as the Apostles were, to teach, sanctify and govern the people of God. Saint Peter writes: ‘Tend the flock of God in your midst. Be examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd is revealed, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.’
“There is another dimension of being a shepherd, however, that is evoked by the prophet Isaiah. The one who is anointed is sent out on what we might call a rescue mission. He is to proclaim good news that liberates captives and prisoners and that revives the lowly, the broken-hearted and those afflicted with a listless spirit. These maladies are not just material, but spiritual, and they call to mind the parable of the lost sheep in Luke’s Gospel. There Jesus says that there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous people who have no need of repentance. Later in the same Gospel he says: “The Son of Man has come to seek and save what was lost.”
“As priests, you will be called upon to meet the many needs of the faithful entrusted to you, but do not forget the unfaithful. Always make time for the lost and the stray. This requires a conscious commitment on your part, and a zeal for souls that may sometimes lead you outside your comfort zone.
“Your pastoral care has to embrace the stray Catholic who has fallen away from the practice of the faith, but who is still favorably disposed to the church and the priestly ministry, despite having been poorly catechized. As good shepherds, be on the lookout for these sheep in the corridors of the hospitals you visit, at funeral homes and in everyday encounters with people whose paths we cross. We who are priests should be happy if someone wants to strike up a conversation with us in these circumstances, and be ready to lend a kindly ear, some advice, the pledge of our prayers for a particular intention, or, if circumstances suggest, even an outright friendly invitation to go to church.
“Your pastoral care also has to embrace the errant Catholic who is alienated or even hostile to the church, to Catholic teaching or to the priesthood. We must make an effort to engage with such sheep and try to win them back with patience and love. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is never wearied in his search for lost sheep, and neither must we grow weary.
“Finally, have a shepherd’s heart for the growing number of people in our country who, when surveyed, are checking the little box that says “no religion.”
As we hear constantly these days, the mission of the church is to evangelize, that is, to propose and re-propose the truth of the Gospel in our time. This is a duty incumbent on every baptized person. We who are priests need to make a conscious effort to foster – by our preaching, example and leadership – parish communities that are not inward looking but evangelizing, deeply committed to seeking out men and women for Christ.
“Our Holy Father Pope Francis makes a great point of this, often repeating that a church that is ‘self-referential,’ that is to say, closed in on itself, fails in its mission to bring people to Christ. And as another Pope, Saint John Paul the Great, told us, the church in our day has to ‘launch out into the deep’ for a catch, which is another metaphor for seeking out and saving what would otherwise be lost.
“You are being ordained for a challenging mission in challenging times, but you need not fear. The first Apostles, with all their weaknesses and limitations, were sent out to the whole world. Thanks to the grace of their ordination and the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, they feared nothing. They knew that the risen Christ was with them, that they were only chosen instruments for his work and not their own.
“You too are being challenged as the Apostles were, to be men of heroic apostolic virtue, to become saints. In just a few moments, in the litany, we will invoke the intercession of many great priests in the Communion of Saints.
“With such a ‘cloud of witnesses,’ and with the love and prayers of all God’s faithful represented here this morning, do not be afraid. Always keep before you the image of Christ the Good Shepherd, who not only stands in the midst of the flock of 99, but also goes out in search of the one that is lost or astray, so that all will listen to his voice, that there may be one flock, one Shepherd.”