Three years ago today, at the conclusion of my ‘First Mass,’ I placed flowers before an image of Our Lady, and consecrated my priestly ministry to her Immaculate Heart.
But immediately before that, I presented my own mother with a special gift. The previous day, the bishop had anointed my hands with the Oil of Chrism. I used a specially bought cloth (an embroidered purificator, I recall) to remove the excess oil from my hands. It was this cloth, perfumed by the Chrism, which I presented to Mum after my First Mass.
This custom is the modern variation of an old and venerable tradition, wherein a newly ordained priest presented to his mother his manitergium.
According to tradition, the mother of a priest is to keep this precious cloth in a safe place. When she is buried, the cloth is placed in her hands. In the case of an open coffin, it serves as a reminder that one of her sons is a priest — a rare honour given to few.
The practice also evokes a pious legend, which imagines that when the mother of a priest finally meets our Lord face to face, and is asked that fateful question — “Did you love me?” — she can reply in the affirmative, presenting as part of her case, her Chrism-fragranced hands. This demonstrates that she loved our Lord so much, that she gave to him one of her sons, to serve him as a priest.
The literal details of that legend are of course superstitious, but I don’t think the gesture can be reduced to superstition. I think the presentation of the manutergium recognises and honours something profound. Not being a mother myself, I can’t very well describe it. (Perhaps I should ask my mum!)
In the meantime, we can consider this very moving footage from the ordination of three priests in Melbourne last June. If pictures tell a thousand words, then a motion picture must tell millions.
This video shows Fr Michael Kong, Fr Matthew Baldwin, and Fr Vinh Nguyen processing out at the conclusion of their ordination, and receiving the congratulations of their brother priests and seminarians. Then it cuts to Fr Michael blessing his mother, who is deeply, deeply, moved. That scene speaks volumes, I imagine, to what every woman of faith experiences, when her son becomes a priest.
Three years ago today — three years already! — I was ordained to the Catholic priesthood.
I have to admit, this anniversary would have passed me by, except that my grandmother called last night to congratulate me. Which meant she also inadvertantly reminded me.
I think if she hadn’t called, I’d have realised today’s anniversary when I prayed this morning’s Office of Readings, which commemorates the Feast of Ss Cornelius and Cyprian. That would have jogged my memory.
But actually, it wouldn’t have come to that because dozens of other friends have also contacted me today, sending me their congratulations. I may have forgotten, but others didn’t. Thanks everyone!
The last few days have been a wonderful way to celebrate. On Saturday, I attended the ordination of three priests and six deacons in Melbourne, among whom are some of my dearest friends.
Here’s some photos taken by Junray Rayna, a Sandhurst seminarian who will himself be ordained a deacon this Saturday:
This was a great way to celebrate the anniversary of my own ordination. I was able to renew my promises and my consecration, and to share with my brothers the joy of priesthood.
In his homily, Archbishop Hart remarked on the value of friendships forged in the seminary, but he added that as important and blessed as this fraternity is, a priest’s relationship with the people entrusted to him is even more important and grace filled. I know what he means. The following day’s First Communion celebrations in Hamilton were another excellent way to celebrate the anniversary of my ordination. Nothing compares to preparing children to receive into themselves the Real Presence of Jesus Christ . . . except maybe all the other sacraments a priest is called on to minister!
Still, Ordinations and First Communions are my two favourite days in the year (after Easter and Christmas). So this last weekend was a great double whammy which has renewed my gratitude for the holy priesthood. Deo gratias.
I bet lots of people have brought cameras today, to take First Communion photos. After all, today is a very important day! People want to remember it, and photos help us to remember special events. They’re also a great way of remembering people.
Think of two people, who love each other, but who are forced to part. They would like to stay together forever, but they can’t. Maybe one of them has to go overseas. Or maybe one of them is dying. For whatever reason, they have to say goodbye. So they exchange gifts, or cards, or a photograph. These are symbols of love, which help us to remember. In fact, they help us to love.
The cross is a bit like that. We can look at this big crucifix in the sanctuary, and remember that Jesus loves us so much, that he died for us. He loves us so much, that “everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
But this cross is just a symbol. Photos are just symbols. It’s not the same as actually being with the person we love and miss. It doesn’t matter how much we love someone. It doesn’t matter how much we desire to be with them. Human power is not as great as human desire.
But God’s power is much greater. What we cannot do, our Lord is able to do. Jesus doesn’t just leave us a symbol; he leaves a reality. Jesus has ascended to the Father, but he also remains with us. He has left us, not simply a gift which will make us remember him, not just a photo which fades and yellows; he has left us himself. Under the appearance of bread and wine, he is with us — body and blood, soul and divinity.
Our First Communicants have been preparing all year for this day. But I know someone who has been waiting even longer. For 2,000 years, our Lord has been present in the Tabernacle, knowing that this day was coming! He loves our First Communicants so much. How pleased he is, that he’ll now be in communion with them.
Two thousand years! That’s a long time to wait, so I won’t preach any longer!
I remember a time when my blog posts were exclusive to my blog. Those were the days when I had much more time to write. Those were the days before I was a priest!
Now that I am a priest, time is at a much greater premium. Anything I write will end up here, sooner or later. So here’s something I wrote today for an entirely different audience.
1. Why did you become a priest?
When I was nine or ten years old, I read The Story of a Soul, by St Thérèse of Lisieux. Thérèse taught me that God wants all of us to be saints, and she taught me how to be a saint. That conviction waxed and waned over the years, but it never left me.
When I finished school and moved out of home, I started going to the occasional weekday Mass as well as Sunday Mass, and soon I fell into a crowd of young Catholics who knew their faith – and knew Jesus Christ – much more deeply than I did. My resolution to pursue holiness was renewed. This had nothing to do with the priesthood though – it just meant falling in love with God, living a good life, and starting again whenever I fell away.
For a long time, I believed I could be a saint and be a husband and father and pursue a professional career. St Thomas More was an inspiring example. When I realised, through prayer, that God was calling me to be a priest I was shocked. This was not something that I wanted, but I knew this is what God wanted, so I signed up for the priesthood. God knows better than us what will make us happy.
2. Have there been many times that you have struggled with your faith?
My faith is shaken when I’m confronted with suffering.
About half way through my seminary training, a film was released in cinemas which related the crimes and cover-up of paedophile priests in America. My bishop saw it, and he recommended I watch it. So one Saturday evening, I went alone. (It’s not really the sort of movie you’d invite friends to watch.) I don’t cry at movies, but this time I did. At the end of the film, as people moved out of the cinema, I overheard a lot of derogatory remarks about priests and the Church. I walked back to the seminary, and sat alone in the chapel. I wasn’t really alone of course – I was sitting in front of the tabernacle. I asked myself why on earth I was giving my life to an institution which was capable of the evil I just watched on film. But I didn’t just ask myself questions – I asked Jesus a lot of questions too.
This is just one example. As a priest, I encounter people suffering in all sorts of different ways. This often challenges my faith, and I have to take it to prayer. If I don’t pray about it, it becomes an obstacle between me and Jesus. I become remote from him. This is my biggest struggle with faith. I think there’s symmetry in that. Goodness – especially the goodness of the saints – inspires my faith and nourishes it; evil and suffering challenge and even undermine my faith.
Two or three times in my life I have doubted the whole thing. “Maybe it’s all made up,” I suddenly think. “My whole life is a lie.” But this is a more superficial struggle. I keep praying and serving the Lord, and as suddenly as those doubts appeared, they just as suddenly disappear.
3. If you weren’t a priest what would you be?
Before I discerned a priestly vocation, I was pursuing a political career. Maybe I’d be working for a politician, or maybe I’d be in parliament myself. I’d probably be married by now, and maybe I’d have a few kids. I was very attached to these dreams once, but now they seem distant and unreal. I may as well imagine living 1,000 years in the future, or 1,000 years in the past.
4. Have you ever regretted being a priest?
When I realised God was calling me to be a priest, I grieved a lot. I had to bury my dreams of a career and family. The day I signed up for the seminary, I was very sad. I met the vocations director in his office, near St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, to start the application process. After our meeting I walked into the cathedral and knelt before our Lord in the tabernacle. I thanked him for the grace of my priestly vocation, but I asked another favour from him. “You’ve called me to be a priest. Now help me to love that calling.” At that time, I had no love for my calling at all.
Eight months later, I finally started my seminary training. By then, my prayers had been answered. God gave me a love for my vocation. In the ten years since, I have never regretted saying yes to God. I only regret those times when I have been less generous with him. It’s not enough just to say yes to God once. It has to be repeated every day, since our circumstances are always changing, and the implications of God’s will change too.
5. What has been your best moment as a priest?
The greatest days of my life were the day of my ordination and the day of my first Mass. That was the culmination of eight years study and discernment, and the beginning of my life as a priest.
On a more day-to-day level, I think my favourite moment of priestly life is hearing confessions. People suffer a lot, but they have so much faith in God, and they come to him with a humility and simplicity that moves me. In a sense, I’m an eavesdropper, listening in on a very personal encounter between God and one of his children. I learn so much from these encounters. I learn how to grow in humility; how to become more child-like. Very often, I find myself giving someone advice which must come from the Holy Spirit, because even as I’m saying it to someone else, I’m thinking, “This is good advice! I’ll follow it myself.” The Holy Spirit is a great teacher.
6. Is there any advice you could give to anyone thinking about becoming a priest?
Anyone contemplating a priestly vocation should first resolve to be a saint. A saint is someone who loves God more than they love themselves. This is what we’re created for, and God gives everyone the means to become a saint. The world needs saints.
Spend time with Jesus. Get to know him – by reading about him and thinking about him, but especially by talking to him.
Fall in love with God. That’s my advice.
Here’s something for Father’s Day! You might recognise the story from Facebook or one of those chain e-mails which makes the round, but in fact it predates the Internet by several millennia.
Here’s Aesop’s take, circa 500 BC:
A farmer being on the point of death, wished to be sure that his sons would give the same attention to his farm as he himself had given it. He called them to his bedside and said, “My sons, there is a great treasure hid in one of my vineyards.” The sons, after his death, took their spades and mattocks and carefully dug over every portion of their land. They found no treasure, but the vines repaid their labor by an extraordinary and superabundant crop.
And here’s the modern take, not so much a lesson on the fruits of hard work, as it is glurge about a father and son. But sometimes glurge is good — especially on Fathers’ Day!
Outside Da Box have just produced a great new video which really captures the existential angst that accompanies the serious end of discernment.
I was 23 before I was anywhere near ready to hear God’s call, so I was spared the double whammy of vocational angst and teenage angst. I think this is an accurate — and light-hearted — portrayal of what that looks like. But it also includes some serious and sound advice.
I also love the depiction of multimedia tasking. How true.
Sydney’s Catholic Weekly featured an article of mine this week, which I had entitled Fools and children speak the truth. The editor, who knows a lot more about attracting readers, changed the title to the above.
Ironically enough, the revised title was out of date the very day it was printed, since I shaved my beard yesterday. (I still have no intention of getting a girlfriend.)
Several months after ordination in 2011, I started my first permanent assignment just in time for the school year. My first official duty was to celebrate the Opening School Mass. Next day, the grade ones were invited to write a story about their weekend. One of the students wrote this:
“On Sunday, I went to church. I was running late. My dad and [my brother] came with me. I was very excited … We sang a song, then I listened to the boy who was talking.”
In the course of correcting her work, a teacher made some enquiries about this boy. Was he one of her classmates chatting during Mass? “No, I mean the boy up the front.”
You mean one of the altar servers? “No. The boy was dressed in Fr Paddy’s clothes.”
News travels fast in the country. By the end of that first week in the parish, the nickname had stuck. I was now ‘The Boy.’
I had also learned one of the most valuable lessons in life: “Fools and children speak the unvarnished truth.”
More recently, I had occasion to visit this student’s class — they’re grade threes by now — and speak to them about the Holy Spirit and the Church’s mission.
The lesson was formatted as an open Q&A, with me in the hot seat. I fielded many of the questions one expects in this situation: “Why did you want to be a priest?” “How long does it take to become a priest?” “Which footy team do you support?”
But there’s always a few curveballs lobbed in such circumstances, and one question especially struck me with its poignancy.
“Why are priests so kind?”
This question was asked by a nine year old who has encountered four priests in his life. There’s Fr Paddy, the parish priest; ‘old Fr John,’ who is a retired priest in residence; ‘young Fr John’ (otherwise known as ‘The Boy’); and Fr Mark,who is chaplain at the MSC secondary school next door. We three diocesans priests make every effort to be in the parish school every week, and the students frequent weekday masses.
So this child’s question — “why are priests so kind?” — was borne from the experience of priests who had only shown kindness to him, to the credit of those four priests I enumerated.
My own childhood view of priests was more complex. I esteemed the priests in my parish because I observed my parents listen attentively to them at Sunday Mass. But I admit I was dark on one priest: Fr George Pell.
Fr Pell was school chaplain when I was in grade prep, and I vividly remember a school mass at which he preached, and preached, and preached some more. Or so I thought at the time — a view I shared with my cousin, who was sitting next to me.
Unfortunately, our teacher caught me in the act, and not content with simply moving me some place else, she humiliated me some more back in the classroom, where I was singled out for bad behaviour. Being something of a goody-two-shoes (just ask my long-suffering brother!), I was not accustomed to such treatment. As hotly as my cheeks burned red, that incident burned into my memory. In my childish malevolence, I absolved myself and blamed Fr Pell’s loquaciousness for my humiliation.
Not long afterwards, Fr Pell was appointed rector of the seminary in Melbourne, so he ceased to be our school chaplain, and it was many years before I met him again. In the meantime though, he was denied any opportunity to demonstrate priestly kindness, so as a grade one at least, my view of priests was not as universally positive as this grade three’s.
Twenty-eight years later, none of this crossed my mind as I contemplated the question before me. “Why are priests so kind?” What did occur to me — and perhaps it occurred to every other adult in the room too — was the question’s correlative: “Why aren’t all priests kind?”
“A priest’s job,” I replied, “is to be just like Jesus Christ. Actually, that’s everyone’s job. We’re all called to be holy. God wants us all to be saints, and we do that by loving as Jesus loved. So if a priest is kind, he’s doing his job well. He’s acting just like Jesus, who was always kind.”
The grade threes and fours faithfully transcribed my answer, and apparently took it to heart. A few weeks later, I returned from my holidays sporting a beard.
The 3/4s whole-heartedly approved: “Jesus had a beard, and your job is to be just like Jesus, so you should keep the beard.”
The grade fives and sixes, however, who hadn’t had the benefit of my theological reflection, were more divided in their opinion of the beard. ‘Fools and children,’ you will remember, ‘speak the unvarnished truth.’ One grade five girl — who’s no fool (in all seriousness, she sometime startles me with her spiritual depth) — ventured her opinion.
“No offence Father John,” she said. No offence? I steeled myself.
“No offence Father John, but if you want to get a girlfriend, you have to shave the beard.”
Fools and children.