My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
As we look toward the priestly ordinations on June 1, my thoughts turn toward all those I have ordained to the priesthood since I have been the Bishop of Brooklyn. I have been fortunate to be able to impose hands on 88 men for the service of the faithful of Brooklyn and Queens. The process of discerning a vocation to the priesthood for most is a long and arduous one. No one decides overnight that they have been called to be a priest of God. How important it is that we assist all those who believe that they are called to a vocation as a priest in discerning their call and making the final decision to go forward.
This year, we are fortunate to ordain four men to the priesthood, and most probably two more before the end of this year sometime in late autumn. The Lord, Himself, told us that the harvest is great but the laborers are few. This certainly is true in our own case here in Brooklyn and Queens. We have been fortunate to have many ordained to the priesthood; however, there are always more needs to fill than those available. This is why the work of praying for vocations is so important. The Lord has told us that we must pray to the Lord of the Harvest for those to do His work.
Priesthood is essential to the life of the Church. Without the priesthood, the sacraments cannot be celebrated. The sacraments are the true living presence of Christ among us; they are the actions of Christ, Himself, that the priest undertakes on behalf of the Lord, Jesus.
The priest is identified with Christ in the mind and the hearts of the faithful. The priest for them is a living icon of Christ in our midst. It is Christ who baptizes us. It is He who forgives sins. It is the Lord, Jesus, Himself, as the priest pronounces the words He gave to us that make Him sacramentally present in the Eucharist. Yes, all the sacraments make Christ present to God’s people. The priest has an overwhelming responsibility to be the one who acts as the person of Christ, or as we once said, “To be another Christ.” Identification with Christ is certainly essential to the life of a priest. God’s people expect first that the priest be a man of prayer; otherwise, how can he reflect Christ to them. Secondly, God’s people want the priest to be the good shepherd who reflects the kindness of Christ to all who follow Him. Simply, these two characteristics are what God’s people expect of the priest.
We need to pray for our priests, that they can live up to this sublime vocation. The current clergy sex abuse scandal seems to never leave us. Our Holy Father reminds our priests, and as I did in my homily at this year’s Chrism Mass, that they must live up to the responsibility of their vocation. This is especially in regard to chaste celibacy. The fascination that the world has with the priesthood is precisely because the priest has renounced everything, especially that which our society seems to make essential. For the sake of Christ, the priest is willing to follow Christ. The priest sacrifices himself, while at the same time being a loving shepherd to his people.
The freedom that celibacy allows the priest must be put to good use so that they are open to express the love of God for His people in all circumstances, without regard for their own comfort or advancement.
The Ordination ceremony is both at the same time elevating and humbling. The ceremony is humbling as the men lay prostrate on the floor of the cathedral. As we pray the Litany of the Saints invoking all of God’s saints to come to their aid and protection, and as they rise and have the bishop impose hands, as well as those of all of the priests present, they recognize that each is called to grow into the image of Christ in all ways so that they can serve God’s people.
Each Ordination at which I have presided over is different in some way. The ordination ceremony never becomes routine. Each Ordinand is different. The mood of the cathedral is different. The number of priests who attend the ceremony is always somewhat different. Each ceremony is a new and ever moving experience to make a new priest. I remember an ordination in my former diocese when my mother was still alive and she came with me to one of the ordinations that I performed. On the way home in the car, it was just she and I. My mother told me something that I never will forget. She said, “Now I understand what a bishop is supposed to do; to make new priests.” My mother cut to the chase and annunciated that this is my principle responsibility; to pass on the deposit of faith to new priests who will then evangelize the world with what they, themselves, have received.
One of my customs has been to give a small sign of my concern and affection for all of the priests who I ordain. I give each a plant commonly known as the Crown of Thorns. This is a spiny-irregular growing tropical plant that periodically produced small red flowers. The plant is special to me because it belonged to my maternal grandmother, and has been in my family as long as I can remember. Over the years, I have propagated new shoots and have presented them to those to be ordained at the day of recollection with them the day before Ordination, reminding each of the responsibility of the Office. Not only of its pain, but also of its satisfaction. My paternal grandfather used to say that there is no rose without a thorn. And so, the greater the difficulties we bear, the greater the satisfaction that is ours. From the thorn is produced a rose with all its fragrance and beauty.
Our newly ordained will put out into the deep on the day of their Ordination to the Priesthood. They are called to teach, sanctify and govern God’s people of Brooklyn and Queens with great love and compassion. I ask the Church of Brooklyn and Queens to join me in praying for these men to be ordained, that their service will be fruitful.