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A Message to Priests

Here is the full text of Father Hage’s homily delivered on the occasion of a newly ordained priest’s first solemn Mass:

Let’s give a round of applause to the newly minted Father Nathan Brooks.  Nathan, I am moved beyond words at the sight of you dressed as a priest.  To be honest, I think we are all a little alarmed.  I have to admit that I started a Novena for the Church from the moment you received your call to orders because I wanted to be sure the Church was prepared for what was coming her way.  I am sure the Church will be delighted at the number of times her new priest will work in words like “cool” and “awesome” into his homilies.  I can tell you now that we all think you are already an awesome priest, and a really cool guy.  

But in all seriousness, Father Brooks, your priestly vestments seem to fit you quite well.  I think the wonderful thing about your story, about your Christian witness, is that you have tried on a couple of different uniforms before you sincerely considered a vocation to the priesthood.  It all started with with Disney, then the hospitality industry, and then finally moving to management.  You have tried to find your identity in any one of these positions that entailed an attempt to climb the corporate ladder.  And no matter how many times you experienced success in these vocational paths, no matter how many times you were promoted, you have constantly returned to one single theme in your testimony.  That no matter how hard you strove in these positions for fulfillment by pursuing either wealth, pleasure, power, or honor, nothing brought you the sense of satisfaction and contentment that these things seemed to promise.  You found out that these promises were false, and could never satisfy the deepest longing within for a relationship with God.  And even more importantly, none of these things were able to unlock for you the mystery of your own story, of your own identity.

In the priestly promises that you made at your ordination yesterday, you renounced in a formal way your pursuit of, as Thomas Aquinas calls them, the four great substitutes for God:  wealth, pleasure, power, and honor.  You have pledged to truly renounce your self, your own ego, by becoming the seed that falls into the ground and dies so that others may have life, and life eternal.  The unique beauty of your Christian witness is that you found out in an intensely personal way that the only path to self-revelation is by looking into the face of the Redeemer.  For anyone who has listened to your story of coming to discipleship, they have learned from you that only by looking into the face of Christ our Savior can we then see the contours of our own face.  

And the real unique beauty about today, and the profound teaching moment for all of us present here at this your first Mass, is that by pledging to renounce your pursuit of these worldly things for the sake of Kingdom, we now all have the awesome privilege of discovering along with you who you really are, a priest of Jesus Christ!  As Thomas Merton once said reflecting on his own ordination, “As soon as I put on the vestments of a subdeacon and stood in the sanctuary I was bowled over by the awareness that this was what I was always supposed to wear, and everything else, so far, had been something of a disguise.”  Father Brooks, your vestments fit you all too well.  Indeed, these vestments are the visible manifestation of your truest identity.  All other clothes you will wear from this day forward will now simply be a disguise until the next time you return to the altar and your identity is revealed to us once again.  Although you hold this treasure in an earthen vessel, you are now a priest forever in the line of Melchizedek, and this priestly identity can never be taken away from you, not even by God.  For he has chosen you to be his own, and his choice is irrevocable.  

 I can only imagine how your grandfather, who served for years as an ordained permanent deacon in this same diocese, is rejoicing on this solemn day that his grandson has been chosen for this sacred order that points in a powerful way to the place where he now resides.  

Now I would be remiss if I did not put your ordination in its proper context.  There is an age-old curse that says, “May you live in interesting times.”  Father Brooks, you live in one of the most interesting times in the history of the Catholic Church.  Your ordination is taking place in one of the most tumultuous seasons in our Church’s history.  Some are probably thinking out there that this is probably one of the worst times to become a priest in the Catholic Church.  But we must also remember that the pages of history that were filled with tranquility and peace are blank.  They are empty.  Rather, I would say that this is a great time to be a Catholic priest!  Not only that, it is a great time to be a saint!

I remember fondly the story of our great seraphic father, Francis of Assisi, who was also living in the one of the more notoriously dark chapters in our Church’s life, who received this great invitation from the crucifix of San Damiano, “Francis, go and repair my house which, as you see, is falling into ruin.”  Francis responded not with lofty statements or any kind of strategy, but with a wildly unsettling humble impoverished servanthood.  His evangelical witness of humility, transparency, and servitude and his childlike pursuit of holiness was a blinding light in the face of what seemed like an insurmountable evil.  What he taught us then, and the lesson applies today, is that the only credibility the Church can stand upon is her leadership expressed in humble servitude.  Servant leadership is the only credibility the Church should be seeking to lean on.  There is so much wisdom as a priest to stand as a Servus Servorum Dei, a servant of the servants of God. 

And what is the source of servant leadership in the Catholic Christian Tradition?  The Eucharistic sacrifice.  St. Augustine once said while reflecting upon the Eucharistic sacrifice, “One should observe carefully the meal that one is invited to, knowing that he will have to provide the same meal when it comes his time.”  Father Brooks, the Eucharist will be your faithful teacher as to what your priesthood is all about.  Indeed, as Saint John Paul II said, it will be your daily “school of love.” Because as you witness your Beloved being poured out on the altar each day in love for his Church in total vulnerability, so you too, as a priest, are called to do the same.  The Eucharistic sacrifice will continue to ground you in what your priestly service should look like in the eyes of the faithful.  As one who is poured out.  As one who willingly allows himself to be struck by the demands of charity.  As one who allows himself to be mystically wounded by divine love.  

The Eucharist will teach you all you ever need to know about your identity as a priest. Just as what is happening before us in the Eucharistic elements remains largely hidden from our eyes (indeed, our eyes could never bear the full grander of the mystery unraveling before us each time we approach the altar), so too your identity will remain largely hidden from your own eyes.  For the priest himself, his life seems always to remain mysteriously hidden with Christ in God.  While this same mystery unraveling within you may remain hidden from your own eyes, it will be more easily recognized by those that your serve.  For when you look in the mirror, you will only see a man.  But when the people of God look at you they will only see Christ the Good Shepherd in their midst.  The more you personally participate in the saving mystery of the Eucharistic sacrifice, the more the image of Christ the High Priest will be made less and less opaque in the eyes of the faithful.  By praying the Eucharistic Prayer from the depths of your heart you will allow the People of God to see just how close their God comes to them each day.

I would like to point your attention to the last promise you made yesterday in your series of priestly promises.  The bishop asked you publicly before the Church, “Do you resolve to be united more closely every day to Christ the High Priest, who offered himself for us to the Father as a pure Sacrifice, and with him to consecrate yourself to God for the salvation of all?”  This is the only promise that you had to respond in this way, “I do, with the help of God.”  The reason for this special response is that this is the greatest and most demanding promise the ordinand makes in the presence of the Faith community.  In saying yes to this promise, you have pledged to offer yourself along with Jesus in the host in the Eucharistic sacrifice for the salvation of the world.  Your identity as a priest is closely united to the host you will hold in your priestly hands the rest of your ministerial life.  As the Latin saying goes, Imitamini quod tractatis, which is translated as “imitate what you handle.”  If I may be so bold, this means that your identity is closely woven into the the identity of a Victim.

I am drawn to the image of the Eucharistic host as the greatest sign of who a priest is called to be for the sanctification of the Body of Christ, the Church.  The Latin word, hostia, is in the passive voice and literally means “one who is struck.”  It is a victim who willingly allows himself to be struck.  And why would the priest victim willingly allow himself to be struck?  For the sake of love.  “No one has greater love than this, than one lay down his life for his friends.”  The more you personally become a living hostia as a priest, the more you identify your own sacrifice with the host-Victim you hold in your hands, the more you will allow for a tremendous and desperately needed grace to come flooding into the life of the Church.  This is what will properly earn you the title, “Father,” only when you have given yourself totally over to the Cross holding nothing back in complete trust and surrender.  

And, of course, the spiritual fruit of this offering, of this sacrifice, of this holocaust, of this victimhood will be a joy that this world cannot give.  I believe you are already beginning to taste this kind of joy.  And this joy will be the greatest evangelical witness and the most persuasive form of apologetics.   

If you look around any Catholic Church throughout the world you can see a Victim put unabashedly on public display in the sanctuary, typically within view of the altar.  There is an old saying in Catalan that is roughly translated as, “The priest at the altar who does not offer himself as a victim performs a farce.”  Father Brooks, I believe the greatest remedy to the Church’s current troubles that lies within the grasp of every Catholic priest throughout the world is his willingness to stand as a victim with the victim for the victim.  In drawing near to the suffering of the victim, advocating on behalf of the victim, you will demonstrate your true devotion for our Great High Priest who is a Victim himself.  Every time you look at a crucifix, remember that we worship a Victim.  What do I mean by all this?  The more you allow yourself to be struck by the suffering love of Jesus the Victim in all victims, the more you yourself will be conformed more perfectly to the priestly heart of Jesus Christ.  Amen, amen, I say to you, the more you willingly approach the Victim and enter into his suffering, the more you demonstrate your fidelity as a Catholic priest.

All that being said, the greatest joy for me as I speak to you, Father Brooks, and as I look out at our seminarians preparing for sacred ordination, is that you all have chosen to stay within the Church and to fight for her.  You and they could have walked away at any time in this past year, but you chose to stay and fight!  I believe this is the greatest sign and source of encouragement for any Catholic today that these young men are choosing this life of service and sacrifice because they still believe deeply in the mission of the Church.  And what is the mission of the Church?  The salvation of souls.  

Hans Urs von Balthasar, in his book “The Christian State of Life,” speaks of the saving power of the “yes” a young man gives to his vocation, and von Balthasar puts this “yes” in the context of an entire historical trajectory aimed at the salvation of souls.  He taught that when a young man says “yes” to his vocation to the priesthood, there are a number of souls that providence will bring this priest into contact with during his lifetime.  These souls will only come to a deeper relationship with God because of their contact with the personality of this particular priest.  No other priest will be able deliver in the same way in that person’s life.  This is the power of the personality of each individual priest.  This is the power of the priest’s humanity.  The more beautifully unsettling part of von Balthasar’s theory is that without this man’s “yes” to his vocation to the priesthood, these souls will never come to know God and his love. 

Father Brooks, we thank you for your “yes.”  May your priesthood be a faithful reminder that Christ walks in our midst, and that he continues to fulfill his promise to the Church that he “will be with us always, until the end of the age.”  May your life, lived out in self-sacrificing love in imitation of the host you will cling to today and throughout your priesthood, find its greatest expression in humble impoverished servanthood.  May you drink deeply from the fount of the Eucharistic Mystery to instruct your heart in the truest expression of your priesthood as a Servus Servorum Dei, a servant of the servant of God.  And as you pour out your life along with Christ our only High Priest, may many souls be drawn to the Lamb of Sacrifice to feast on this great banquet of love.  And as you feast yourself each day on this mystery, I pray the precious life you have hidden with Christ in God will come to full maturity and bear great fruit, fruit that will remain.  God bless you Father Nathan Brooks.