This week’s Friday Filing coincides with the eleventh anniversary of my ordination as priest, an event which profoundly changed my life in any number of ways, not least of all because from that moment on I was called to serve God and God’s people, the Church, in a way that was completely different to anything I had ever done before and for which, despite all the formation I had participated in, I was ultimately unprepared. I say ‘unprepared’ because it’s not until one is actually a priest, with all that means and entails, that one can fully appreciate the significance of the calling to the ordained priesthood in the Church.
Looking back, with the advantage of a decade in the vineyard, there are many things that I was never fully prepared for through the journey of formation. It was simply impossible to be fully prepared for them, despite the academic rigours of a theology degree, despite the reflective conversations with senior priests, despite everything because I had never been in the place of the ordained priest. Despite what some might think – and please God, they’re not in formation for ordination! – ordination does not mark the end of a journey, a reward for successfully staying the distance in a formation program or passing a theological degree. Ordination, rather, marks the beginning of a new journey where one, where I, had to work out what being an ordained priest truly meant amidst the cut and thrust of actually being engaged in priestly ministry.
In other words, the real task of entering fully into the ordained priestly ministry requires me to embrace the concept of mystagogy, a process of living, reflecting, and growing into the reality that I have received through the gift of ordination. It is, and it should be, a lifelong task, because I should always be growing in my understanding of who I am in relation to God both as a believer and an ordained ministry and I should always be growing in my understanding of who I am in relation to God’s people both as a fellow believer and as their ordained priest. And I haven’t always got it right. I hope that I have got it right more often than I haven’t, but I haven’t always got it right.
The temptation to relativise the ordained priesthood into something that is mine, and only mine, is an ever present danger yet is something to be avoided. It concerns me when I come across ‘younger’ men, either still in formation or newly ordained as priests, who see the gift of ordination as exactly that, something that they have earnt, something they have worked for, yet something that is not dependent on their relationship with the People of God, the Body of Christ that is the Church in which they will live our their ordained priestly ministry. It concerns because it can indicate a belief that living the life of the ordained priest within the Church is “better” than living it as member of the faithful
My day today, on this eleventh anniversary of ordination as priest, was a day just like any other day. There were celebrations of the sacraments to prepare for and to preside over, which is always a joy and privilege, and there were the usual round of meetings, administrative requirements, and other tasks that had to be completed at the cusp of the weekend. It was, in that sense, another ordinary day in my priestly life.
There can be times when that usualness and ordinariness can be a little draining (particularly if there are too many meetings following immediately on from one another) but more often than not the true peace of my priestly life is to be found at the heart of that usualness and ordinariness. Some days might appear to be a simple replay of what has been before, but in reality there can never be a day like today before or again, because I have, please God, grown since yesterday in my love of God and my understanding of my relationship with God’s people as priest, and, further, tomorrow I will have, again, please God, have a deeper understanding of that than I do today.
And that continuing journey of understanding the significance of what took place eleven years ago is what I refer to when I use the word ‘mystagogy’. It is the continual unfolding of the reality of having been ordained as priest in and for the Church, and the living out of that reality in light of the prayerful reflection on what I have come to know, and what I will continue to come to know, about myself, about my relationship with God, and about my relationship with God’s people as priest. The living out of priestly ministry cannot be – it must not be – just going through the motions. Like any other way of life within God’s grace – baptism, confirmation, marriage, etc – the living out of priestly ministry must be embraced willingly and wholeheartedly, and, with God’s continuing grace, embraced for the sake not of the recipient, not of the priest himself, but for the sake of the Reign of God among God’s people and the world, in the here and now wherever the priest might find himself.
Today, I was asked a number of times whether I ever regretted my choice to be a priest. Apart from suggesting it wasn’t my ‘choice’ but rather my response to God’s choice, I have to be honest and say that yes, there are times when I have regretted it. Like any course of living life, there are bound to be highpoints and low points along the road; they are to be expected and accepted as normative. To think that they won’t be is simply delusional and unhealthy.
But if you ask me if I am content with accepting God’s call to serve God and God’s people as priest, then my only answer would be a resounding yes.
At least for today…