Ordination of Simon Gillespie.
Simon, you are about to be ordained a priest and, like you, we your brothers and the people of the diocese have been waiting for this moment for a long time. We are waiting in joyful expectation for the many gifts you will bring to the diocese. I know that for you and your family it has been a long journey. Your time of discernment before you left for Spain, and your studies and spiritual growth at Allen Hall, Heythrop College and finally St Anselm’s Institute have brought you to this moment. Allowing for breaks and time served with Countrywide Lettings this journey has taken about fifteen years. If we go back to the time that the late Archbishop Couve de Merville challenged you to think of offering yourself to the sacred priesthood we are probably celebrating your silver jubilee this evening! There must have been many times when you thought it would never come. But now you are here and you must be thinking what lies ahead.
Tonight we must make no mistake; this ceremony of ordination as a priest in the presbyteral order is not about you in the first place. It is to God our Father that we give glory and honour and thanks for calling you to the ordained ministry. It is to his son Jesus Christ who is present to us in the Blessed Eucharist that you must conform your life in all that you do and are. And it is to the Holy Spirit that we call to endow you with the gift of sacred priesthood so that you may assist me and my successors in the awesome work of a priest.
Your name, Simon, means one who hears or listens – that is so appropriate for a priest who first of all listens to the word of God and then to the sighs of his people. A priest is one who must listen attentively with both ears so that neither call drowns out the other. What you hear from god you preach to your people and that which you hear from them you unite with the sacrifice of the mass in prayer and place before our father in heaven.
In the rite of ordination you will be referred to both as priest and presbyter. It would seem that the rite cannot make up its mind what you are and hedges its bets by describing you as priest in the presbyteral order. But the two words are not interchangeable; they describe different aspects of the wonderful ministry you are about to undertake. A presbyter is an elder of the community. It refers to those who are wiser because of their experience of life, and take responsibility as a consequence. You may wonder how this applies to you because you are so young, or at least you looks belie your years. Essentially the word presbyter describes your relationship with the people you will serve. You cannot be a presbyter in isolation it is a word that compares you with others and puts you in a relationship with them. What is that relationship? The Decree on priesthood from Vatican II makes it very clear. It is to bring the people of God into being and to give it increase, to build it up.
Building community is at the heart of what you will do as a presbyter. This will take you beyond the understanding of priesthood that you will have received in your training and studies, and will inevitably involve becoming close to the people and being their servant. You will exercise your priesthood in many and varied ways, and you wonder what you are dong at times. You might think you would have been better off if you had trained as a social worker when you are presented with seemingly intractable difficulties regarding families and marriage breakdown, or as a catechist as you face a class of seven year olds and finding their questions much more difficult to answer than you did in your final examinations at Heythrop, or maybe being a bereavement counsellor would give you the answers you need when you are sitting with a recently bereaved family. Learning to call bingo or do an old time waltz may also be necessary skills for a priest in some of our parishes. But you are not an entertainer, or social worker or a counsellor or any of these things - you will become a priest and you will bring the people of God into being through being a priest. You will make your community into communion, by your presence, by celebrating Holy mass, by placing Christ in the midst of your people and at the centre of your life. It is only by the Apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers that the community is transformed into communion. This has always been so, since the time of the apostolic church and is just as true today here in Nottingham. Simon, your part in that as a presbyter is vital and necessary.
However, as a priest, through the celebration of Holy Mass you will draw the many grains that the one bread into the eternal sacrifice. You will unite the people of God in the Eucharist, the divine food that will nourish their lives. Jesus’ presence in the Blessed Eucharist ensures that we become one in him. Jesus did not give a way to love, a code of practice, a moral code, and then tell us to get on with it on own. He has given us the means to live it and beyond. This grace is nothing less than Jesus’ own life in us. That is why it is truly amazing to be a priest, because through you and your actions you will bring the people of God into being, baptising them in the name of the Trinity, reconciling them when they are lost, and you will build them up through bringing God’s love to them through the healing touch of Jesus, and celebrating the exchange of vows in Holy Matrimony. You will break open the Scriptures for them and show them God’s wondrous and loving deeds. You will become a herald of what you read and believe.
As a Priest of Jesus Christ you will share in Christ’s Priesthood, the one High Priest. But Christ’s priesthood is different from that of priests of other cults and religions. Christ was not just the priest but also the victim. He didn’t just prepare the means of his sacrifice by carrying his cross he died on it too. Being a victim and suffering some of the pain of the crucifixion is also part of being a priest. You cannot be a true priest of Jesus Christ unless you are prepared to suffer. Suffering with Christ for his people is a positive way of bringing Christ’s love to others. You must emulate your Master and live simply making the evangelical counsels your own. Your celibacy will inevitably bring with it the pain of a life lacking physical intimacy with another person. But it will also bring much joy as the freedom you find leaves you available to serve more readily and come closer to Jesus in your prayer and service.
I often use the word awesome, in relation to ordination to the priesthood. It was a word Cardinal Hume used when he ordained me to the priesthood thirty years ago. I think it is the right word, as there is nothing more awesome than making available the gifts of our salvation in Christ and our reconciliation with our Father in heaven. The priest’s role in this is indispensable, and it truly wondrous that God, our creator, should use mere and imperfect creatures as the instruments of his saving work.
I wonder what you feel about all this now, at this moment, Simon? It is awesome, and I hope you are overawed. Remember that what you do as a priest empowers the Church, God’s people on earth. Never reduce what you do to mere functions that may or may not be acceptable according to the fashion of the time. The Word that you preach is timeless, the sacraments you will administer open up for us the way to eternity. You will be the ever-present sign of God’s love. This places a great responsibility on you to carry out your duties with care and sensitivity. In giving up your life for others you put yourself in the firing line. Responding to God’s call will be a cross for you to bear not just to preach. You will have to be strong of character, and tender in your approach to those who are crying out for the love of God. You will be God’s property and his alone, and yet at times you will feel alone and wretched. At these times turn to your people of whom you are now an elder. You are by office a leader, someone who sit in the front benches, and someone who breaks the word for them. They will be your source of strength because they are the body of Christ. You will find yourself wrapped up in this mystery of who Christ is: the Word you preach and whose herald you are, that same Word which becomes the Eucharist for us in your priestly hands in the breaking of bread, the body of Christ which you feed to God’s people – Christ’s body.
May St Barnabas whose feast we celebrate today, intercede for you so that you may, like him, become a great Apostle and give consolation and encouragement to all God’s people.