On Friday 7 June, The Feast of The Sacred Heart of Jesus and the World Day of Prayer for the Sanctification of Priests Bishop David Oakley delivered this homily as four of our priests celebrated a combined 180 years service to the priesthood. Pictures from the celebration can be viewed here 

Today, the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, is the World Day of Prayer for the Sanctification of Priests. It is then, the day when many dioceses most fittingly honour the significant Jubilee celebrations of their priests.

Now for some words about the priestly task, from a man who didn’t quite feel up to it. He tells us, he  ‘ought to be a more showy, bustling man than I am, in order to impress the world that we are great people. This is one of the great wants. I feel it vividly – but it is difficult to find the man who is this with other qualifications too… I ought to dine out every day, and of course I don’t dine out at all. I ought to mix in literary society and talk about new gasses and the price of labour – whereas I can’t recollect what I once knew, much less get up a whole lot of new subjects – I ought to behave condescendingly to others, whereas they are condescending to me – and I ought above all to be 20 years younger, and take it up as the work of my life. But since my qualifications are not those, all I can do is to attempt to get together a number of clever men, and set them to do what is not in my line.’

These words are taken from a letter of St John Henry Newman to the mother of a student in the newly formed Catholic University in Dublin. Newman had been asked by the Irish bishops to become the Rector of the University. But they are words which reflect how many priests may sometimes feel, overwhelmed by what they have been asked to do, filled with a sense of unworthiness, and even though we may struggle to acknowledge this, perhaps even a little unappreciated at times.

John Henry Newman was a parish priest in Birmingham until the day he died. This gifted man whose holiness is now recognised by the Church, was condemned as a failure on many occasions during his life. What a wonderful role model then, for most of us priests today.

There are times, almost every priest will identify with Newman’s lack of confidence. And here lies our true joy, for being a priest is much more than any one of us can imagine, let alone begin to fill. In our weakness, we are invited to rejoice, to sound a trumpet of jubilee because our priestly lives and ministry are the Lord’s doing. Being a priest is God’s work and every priest is God’s gift to the world. This solemnity of the Sacred Heart is not a feast of the priesthood because it celebrates worldly success and achievement, but because priests are men who have joined with Him of whom these Gospel words are written, ‘they will look on the one whom they have pierced.’

The novels of the French writer, Georges Bernanos seem to speak of a distant bygone age. But then again, his fictional priests are strangely contemporary. They are shepherds and not hunters. They have all been sent out into the hazardous mystery of an anguishing pastoral task… They are to go out and win souls. But souls do not always want to be won. Their mind is on something else. The Diary of a Country Priest opens with the familiar contemplation of the village and the community: the little priest looks down on it yearning to discover its countenance, the face of his bride, and he is eager and ready to offer her the ineffable riches the Church makes available in the ordained priest. Everyone will let him know that he should keep his distance: “A priest is like a notary public”, he hears. “He’s there in case of need. You shouldn’t go pestering anybody.”

If all this should sound somewhat bleak, let us remind ourselves of the eternal fruitfulness of Calvary’s sacrifice. The Diary of a Country Priest ends with these triumphant words, tout est grace, words which echo those of little Therese, Doctor of the Church, all is grace. There is no saccharine sentimentality on offer as we celebrate this Feast of the Sacred Heart. And if the apostle Paul should write to the Ephesians of how he has been entrusted with this special grace, the proclamation of the infinite treasure of Christ, then we must also call to mind, he told the Corinthians of how this treasure is carried in an earthenware jar.

The outward pastoral ministry of the priest finds a very focused vision of grace when we move inwards, when we look to the heart of the disciple priest, which can only find meaning in the Sacred Heart of his Master. For the priest too, is called to become a mystic in the image and likeness of little Therese. And this is the summary jubilee speech of her short life, ‘You must imagine that I have been born in a country entirely overspread with a thick mist … And now, all of a sudden, the mists round me have become denser than ever; they sink deep into my soul and wrap it round so that I can’t recover the dear image of my native country anymore — everything has disappeared.’

Too much inner contemplation, I hear perhaps in the guts of some. If these mystics had the bucketfuls of pastoral work on our plates these days, they wouldn’t have time for such navel-gazing. We cannot suggest St Mother Teresa of Calcutta was one for avoiding the pastoral needs of those around her, and yet this is what she wrote in September 1959, ‘If I ever become a saint—I will surely be one of “darkness”. I will continually be absent from heaven—to light the light of those in darkness on earth.’

The priests I admire most, are those who continue in faithful ministry, without the consolation of obvious success or reward, stumbling on at times without any consolation in prayer – I salute you. Today’s priest can serve others in their darkness, precisely because of his own experiences of total dependence on the Sacred Heart, in his public ministry and in his personal prayer. But in all of this, a priest may speak of another reality, again expressed in the words of the apostle Paul, we are bold enough to approach God in complete confidence, through our faith in him. St Paul’s prayer-filled apostolate is not rooted then, in business plans and administrative schemes, but in the power of God’s Spirit which is shown above all in God’s infinite glory, shining from the Cross; the breadth and the length, the height and the depth of Christ’s love.

Today’s Gospel describes how those who asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken away, were wanting to tidy things up, to move away in their lives from that day’s hideous work. Maybe that’s what our world today is trying to do, to move away from the Cross and all that happened on it. As the saying goes, to airbrush Christian faith out of the picture. Our real joy lies surely in this truth, priests are invited to remain standing at the foot of the Cross, finding in this place, that ‘he gave himself up for us with a wonderful love and poured out blood and water from his pierced side, the wellspring of the Church’s Sacraments, so that, won over to the open heart of the Saviour, all might draw water joyfully from the springs of salvation.’