Put Out into the Deep

Priests Are Called to Serve with Humility

My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

The following is the full text of the homily preached by Bishop DiMarzio at the Chrism Mass held Tuesday, March 26 at St. James Cathedral-Basilica, Downtown Brooklyn.

We have passed through one of the most eventful Lents in our lifetime. Six weeks ago yesterday, the great teacher-pope, Benedict XVI, gave the world a poignant lesson in humility by retiring in his advanced age from the Chair of Peter to a life of prayer, in order that he might “remain in a new way at the side of the crucified Lord.”

Then 13 days ago, the Holy Spirit, working through the cardinal-electors, gave us a new Holy Father, the first from the Americas and from the Jesuit order. Our first few moments with Pope Francis, as he appeared on the loggia overlooking St. Peter’s Square, revealed to us the depth of this man’s humility. Few of us will soon forget the favor he asked of the whole Christian world: “Before the bishop blesses the people, I ask that you pray to the Lord that He bless me: the prayer of the people asking a blessing for their bishop.” Then, the new Holy Father bowed before the vast evening crowd that had come out to see him in the rain. It was as if he were reminding the faithful everywhere that as pope he depends on our prayers for all that he will do for us, and that he is and will always remain what St. Augustine understood every priest to be: “a servant of the servants.”

This year in Holy Week, our pope emeritus and our currently reigning pope focus our thoughts on the priesthood as a vocation of humble service. As you know, the functions of ordained ministry have evolved over the centuries. Traditionally, the Church has spoken of the three sacred tasks or munera of the ordained priest, which correspond to the threefold office of Christ the High Priest: to sanctify, to teach and to govern. Of these three tasks, the first one, interpreted largely in terms of the power to confect the Eucharist and absolve sin, tended to dominate the theology of priesthood throughout most of the last 1,000 years.

The Second Vatican Council, which began 50 years ago last October, provided a renewed orientation to the understanding of what a priest is for the Christian people. The priest is not simply the transmitter of grace through sacramental signs, but also the proclaimer of God’s Good News in Jesus Christ and the shepherd of God’s flock. Yet, as the Church looks back on the great springtime that was Vatican II, it is clear that the Council Fathers gave comparatively little attention to the second rank of holy orders; namely, the presbyteral priesthood or those whom we ordinarily call “priests.” High on the agenda of the bishops was the leftover business from Vatican I, which met for only 10 months between 1869 and 1870, and devoted almost all of its energies to clarifying the infallible teaching authority and governing powers of the pope. The Council, summoned by Blessed John XXIII for the fall of 1962, sought a more balanced treatment of hierarchical ministry by expounding the nature and functions of bishops, who were held to possess the fullness of the priesthood and formed among themselves a college that speaks and acts on behalf of the whole Church. Vatican II also went on to teach in an unprecedented way about the lay faithful who achieve holiness by living out their common priesthood in the world.

While at the old Darlington Seminary in Mahwah, N.J. in the years immediately following Vatican II, I used to argue the point with my fellow seminarian, John Flesey, now an Auxiliary Bishop of Newark, that the bishops at the Council had spent so much time debating aspects of their own order that they had nearly forgotten to speak about us, their priests and soon-to-be priests, who are the frontline in the parishes and schools of the local churches. Of course, the discussions over the bishop as teacher and episcopal collegiality would, in fact, spill over to the Council’s later treatment of the presbyteral order, as found in the Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, “Presbyterorum Ordinis.” Yet, this portion of Vatican II’s powerful synthesis of Catholic teaching on the hierarchical or ministerial priesthood received less notoriety in the press and, arguably, insufficient examination in the classrooms that were forming priests for a world that was becoming increasingly secular and hardened to the transforming message of the Gospel.

The decades that have followed Vatican II have certainly not been easy for the Catholic priesthood. The immediate aftermath of the Council witnessed anguishing numbers of resignations from active ministry in the U.S. and other Western countries, even as vocations flourished in the newly evangelized regions of the global south. Many who remained in the priesthood, or in consecrated life, discerned a call to pursue ministries that were essentially secular in character. Bishops and religious superiors sent their priests and consecrated members away to study subjects such as psychology, sociology and economics in order that the Church might better respond to the varied needs of her people and work for social justice in the wider society. I, myself, pursued degrees in social work in the 1970s and ’80s, which I appreciated for the fact that it equipped me to serve my then-Archdiocese of Newark in its outreach to the immigrant communities of our wider region. This same period also witnessed the rise of lay ministerial roles and the permanent diaconate within the Church, relieving priests of some of the sacred duties that had once been their exclusive preserve.

A tension arose at this time within the theology of the priesthood over the very identity of the office. “What is a priest?” many were asking, even in the seminaries. The New Testament speaks explicitly of only one priesthood; namely, that of Jesus Christ. The biblical writers use secular terms for the ministries of bishops and presbyters: “overseer” and “elder.” Drawing on biblical foundations, theologians and pastoral ministers were asking the wider Church: Does the role then of the ministerial priest today differ essentially from that of lay women and men who acquire the same theological credentials and training in pastoral leadership, and often from the same institutions of higher learning? What difference does ordination make if so many of the functions that have traditionally been associated with priestly orders can be done in our day by competent deacons or lay ecclesial ministers?

It would seem that the Council had already answered the key question about the essential difference between the common priesthood of the faithful and the priesthood of the ordained. The Sacred Constitution on the Church said that the two vocations differ “not only in degree but in essence” (Lumen Gentium, No. 10). But at a time when many clergy and religious were acquiring secular competencies and roles, and lay women and men and permanent deacons were becoming full-time professionals in parishes and chanceries, talk of the unique sacramental character of the priest – what he acquires in his very being through the conferral of ordination – seemed like a throwback to an older piety and now obsolete theology.

I want to make a plea at this Chrism Mass, at which we priests and deacons once again renew our commitment to the vocation, that the proper and fruitful functioning of our priesthood depends on the very sacramental character we received at ordination. In this yearly celebration, the Lord summons us back to the day of our ordination when His Spirit took hold of our very being and configured us to Himself as priest, teacher and shepherd of the New People of God formed from the blood of the cross. There can be no separation of the Church’s profound doctrine of the priesthood, confirmed by Vatican II and developed beautifully by subsequent popes, and the way we must live out this vocation in our challenging times.

Our readings tonight from the Old Testament and Gospel repeat the same theme of anointing for a mission. The Spirit anoints Isaiah, Jesus and the ordained for the mission of bringing Good News to the people of God. The Scriptures tell us how blessed are the feet of those who bear the Good News. If we are to bring the Good News of Jesus to the world, we must show that we are happy and believe it.

Let us think for a moment about what it means to have a priestly character. In Brooklyn we have many “characters” in the priesthood, but that’s not what I mean! The idea that Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Orders impart a character or “indelible mark” on the soul of those who receive these sacraments originates in the ancient world. In one of my Confirmation homilies, I compare this to a tattoo, and, believe me, I do get the attention of the young people who tend to see a tattoo as a fashion statement and more. Material objects, animals and human beings (i.e. slaves) were typically branded in order to mark them as being in the permanent possession of their owner. The idea of character came into Christian theology to express a relationship to an owner. Later Scholastic theology would develop the idea to explain how the three sacraments that impart a sacramental character empower the Christian believer to perform actions that advance his or her own salvation and that of other believers. For our purposes, it is enough to recognize that having the sacramental character of Holy Orders means that we priests belong to Christ in a unique way to build up His mystical body, the Church. As St. Paul says, we do not belong to ourselves; we have been “purchased at a great price” (1 Cor 6:19-20).

What are the implications for having a priestly character? My brother priests and deacons, you and I have been ordained for the service of the Lord, and this reaches into our very own being. For us, as for St. Paul, life must be Christ, so that it is no longer we who live, but rather Christ who lives in us (cf. Phil 1:21). But we are His servants only so that through Him, with Him and in Him, we may be servants of the women and men of Brooklyn and Queens who are represented by those who join us here tonight in the pews opposite our own. As Cardinal Ratzinger said 20 years ago in a talk on Vatican II’s theology of priesthood, “To belong to our Lord, who has become a servant is to belong to those who are His. This means that now the servant can, under the sacred sign, give what he could never give on his own.”

Our ordination, far from separating us from the faithful, makes us belong to them in a radical way, so that they, along with us, may belong fully to Christ. At the end of the day, we really have nothing to give our people and ourselves but Christ. In each sacrament, it is Christ who either washes, feeds or reconciles, and we are merely His instruments. But how wonderful it is to witness the power of God flow through our humble gestures and words.

Thank you, my brother priests, for being so generous yesterday, on Reconciliation Monday, by spending hours listening to our people’s confessions. Never hold back in giving them Christ in the confessionals of our parishes in Brooklyn and Queens, nor at the altars of those same communities of faith. As our pope emeritus explained to us a few years ago, the confessional is a place for us priests to “dwell” often, “so that the faithful may find compassion, advice and comfort, feel that they are loved and understood by God, and experience the presence of the Divine Mercy beside the Real Presence in the Eucharist.”

Priesthood is never about a mere set of functions. Our ordination has effected a real change in our very own being so that we now act on behalf of Christ, the Servant, and as the servant of His people in whose possession we remain until our last breath. We have been reconfigured as servants in such a radical way that no secular categories can explain the change that has been wrought by Holy Orders. As leaders of worship, as teachers of the Word of God, and as shepherds of souls, we always pass onto others the gifts that do not belong to us. In all that we do, we are called to be the most humble of men.

In closing, I want to draw your attention to a now-famous photograph of our new Holy Father, Pope Francis, which began to circulate around the Internet within hours of his election. The photo captures a moment during Cardinal Bergoglio’s visit to a children’s hospital in Palermo, Buenos Aires, in 2006. Wearing a deacon’s stole, he kneels during the mandatum before a very sick young boy who holds a handkerchief over his mouth, and whose feet the future pope had just washed. Cardinal Bergoglio holds the child’s right foot in the most tender fashion, as if it was a sacred vessel, and kisses it. The simplicity of the gesture expresses something profound about the priesthood: In all that we do, we imitate the mysteries we celebrate. The encounter with Christ in the suffering and in the poor has been a regular feature of Pope Francis’ episcopal ministry over many years. We have no reason to believe that as Bishop of Rome and Supreme Pontiff, it will be any less so.

On Holy Thursday, the mandatum, or washing of the feet, is part of the liturgy when we remember that Christ at the Last Supper instituted the sacrament of Holy Orders with a clear mandate to serve others and wash their feet. The Holy Father, Pope Francis, will celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper in a juvenile detention center and will wash the feet of both the male and female prisoners.

My dear people, let us pray in this Eucharist for all the Catholic faithful who journey with us during this Holy Week, that we may be always, locally and globally, united in the bonds of faith and charity with one another and with our new Holy Father, Pope Francis. Let us pray no less fervently for the priests and deacons of the Diocese of Brooklyn who in this Mass recall the day of their ordination when they were configured to Christ, the Servant. May they be true servants of you, the holy people of God of Brooklyn and Queens, making of their whole lives an offering pleasing to the Lord.