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'Imitate Christ in His total self-giving and service'

By Bishop Terry R. LaValley

June 2, 2021

Editor’s Note: The following is Bishop Terry R. LaValley’s homily from the ordination of Father Matthew Conger, Father John Ojuok and Father Fernando Solomon Jr. on May 29.

Deacon Matthew, Deacon John and Deacon Fernando – each one of you has shown remarkable perseverance in your unique journeys of faith. Your faith-filled response to the challenges each of you has encountered on the way has led to this sacred moment in your lives and led to this most blessed occasion in the faith life of this local Church. Let me begin by acknowledging and thanking your parents, those present and loved ones unable to be here, for their inspiring witness of faith and support of your priestly vocations. Thank you, moms and dads, for your sacrifice.

As your bishop, if there is one theme, one message that I ask you dear brothers to take with you as you begin priestly ministry, it is to imitate Christ in His total self-giving and service. It is not just what we do, but our earnest desire to give of ourselves completely, which reflects Christ’s endearing love for his flock. Such a life stance informs our way of thinking and acting, our way of relating to people. That is how we gain the great privilege of being called “Father.” To be called “Father” implies an intimate, self-emptying relationship with God’s people.

If we are to imitate Christ’s gift of self, priests must live and act in ways that enable us to be close to all the members of the flock. We will want to spend time with them, no matter their economic or social status, no matter their intellectual gifts or political leanings. We will eagerly share their joys and sorrows, not only in our thoughts and prayers but we will want to be in their company, so that through our presence and our ministry they can experience God’s love.

If I am not readily available to all, the hurting will find it so difficult to approach me and to open themselves up and trust me. (JPII Address to Eucharistic Congress, Korea, 1989) As Pope Francis insists, we must smell of our sheep. “Keep watch over yourselves and over the whole flock.” The service to which priests are called must reflect the way God loves and continues to care for His people. In a recent ordination in Rome, Pope Francis referred to this as a “style of closeness, of compassion and a style of tenderness.” We don’t sit in our rectories, waiting for someone to call us, we go out, in all humility, as Christ reached out to others.

Now, of course without prayer, the priest will empty himself out. He will quickly become a machine that makes a lot of clatter as he rusts out. In order to help others, the priest must first ask for help from the Lord. It is the priesthood of Jesus Christ, not ours. Everything that is essential to our ministry cannot be the product of our personal abilities.

What do the people of God demand of their priests? St. John tells us: They want one thing only: “We wish to see Jesus” (Jn.12:21). Our people want priests to lead them to Jesus, to put them in touch with Christ. The baptized want to see Jesus through their priests. They want to hear His Word. They want to see God. They want to learn how to pray. A priest who does not have Jesus in his heart can give nothing. No one can offer what he or she does not possess.

How can a priest lead community prayer if he does not remain constantly in intimate contact with the Lord by taking the time to live a disciplined prayer life? The Liturgy of the Hours, daily Mass, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, all provide close encounters with God. If the priest does not pray, little by little, the faithful go away because the well in which they hoped to find water has run dry. A most important element in our evangelizing efforts is the priest’s persevering prayer.

Priests continue Jesus’ presence on earth. Our hands, consecrated by the sacred chrism, are no longer our own. They are Christ’s for the purpose of blessing, forgiving, and consoling. They must be open and pierced, like Jesus’, so as to hold nothing greedily. Again, priesthood is defined by selflessness and humility.

Lay people expect priests to tell them – clearly, firmly, and with paternal concern – not our opinions, but God’s teachings. A priest cannot, must not take advantage of his authority over the people of God to set forth his personal ideas, be it the way he celebrates the Mass, the lessons he teaches or the homily he preaches.

The mission of a priest is a challenging one: to make all Christians disciples who are willing to die for Christ and His Gospel. It is the priest’s responsibility and privilege to give spiritual nourishment that strengthens faith.

Nothing substantial can be accomplished with the lukewarm and the half-hearted. Do not be priests who are men of routine. Our souls are made for heroism and not for comfortable half-measures.

But don’t think that heroism is always spectacular. There is an everyday, silent holiness for which St. Joseph is the model. Brothers, your genuine prayerfulness will win people over to the Lord. (Cardinal Sarah)

The mystery that dwells within you can give you the strength to live in a society which is undermined by unbelief and religious indifference, even hostility. Your mission is not to save a fragile world. There is but one Savior. Your mission is to live out with fidelity and without compromise the faith you received from Christ. It is not a matter of influencing opinions. It is a matter of living the Gospel passionately. It’s that simple. It’s that difficult.

For a priest, the celebration of the Eucharist does not amount only to carrying out rites, of going through the correct liturgical motions. The celebration of the Mass presupposes that the priest enters with his whole being into the great gift of Christ to the Father, into the great “yes” of Jesus’ self-emptying to His Father. Brothers, don’t say Mass. Enter the event and pray Mass!

Lay faithful: pray for your priests. Pray for vocations to the priesthood. It is precisely in the presence of the Eucharist that we understand and appreciate best the gift of the priesthood, for the two are inseparable. Your participation in the life of the Church and your commitment to live the Gospel are a great source of encouragement and hope for your priests and your bishop.

You not only inspire us, but you also create a fertile field where vocations to the priesthood, indeed all Church vocations, can grow in response to God’s call.

Deacons Matt, John and Fernando, you have shown that you are not afraid to meet challenges that have been placed before you. Let the holiness of your lives be a delightful fragrance to Christ’s faithful, so that by word and example you may build up the house which is God’s Church. Carry out the ministry of Christ the Priest with constant joy. We have no room for listless spirits in the priesthood. Keep always before your eyes the example of the Good Shepherd who came not to be served but to serve, and who came to seek out and save what was lost. Through your faithfulness, your priestly life will experience a joy that no one will be able to deny you because you will know Jesus as your constant companion. Through your priestly ministry, May God be praised…forever may God be praised!


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