Fr Ciaran Dougherty OP
At the beginning of the Metaphysics, Aristotle said “all men desire to know.” And he was right.
But he wasn’t just talking about the acquisition of random knowledge, he had a very specific thing in mind. He wanted to know what was what.
This day after your ordination, it may seem that everything is done and dusted. Your formation is finished, your studies are finished, you have become what you have been waiting to become for so many years. All your questions may appear to have been answered.
But there is a question that might and perhaps must haunt you every day for the rest of your life; What have I become?
The simple answer is ‘a priest’, and everybody thinks that they know what a priest is. A priest is the one who baptises and says Mass and hears confessions and visits the sick and organises the bingo. But if we were to list all the different things a priest does still we would only be scratching the surface of what a priest is.
For there really is no easy answer to that question, because to understand what a priest is would be to understand the height and the depth of the being of Jesus Christ himself. Because as you know, to understand a thing you have to know it in its fully developed state.
But still we and you want to know in this as in everything else we have to start with the things we know best and move on from there to the higher things. We have to start by asking questions.
So, we take all these things a priest does: the things we can see and experience with our senses, the words, the gestures, the anointings and so on and we ask the obvious question as to why he does them at all.
Just as people may wonder why you did what you did yesterday. And to understand this we must investigate two things: we must look at Christ and see why he did what he did, and then you must search your own mind to find out why you did what you did.
The Gospels tell us many things about Jesus. In various ways they tell us who he is and what he did and at the root of it all we find a simple statement of love “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
It was because of God’s love for his own creation that he gave us his only son as Saviour. And we are all familiar with love, it is something we grew up with, something we first receive and in receiving learn how to give. And in those primary human relationships of love we see the image of God made flesh, made real and tangible and easily understood by human beings. And if we think for a second we realise that we learn to love because we learn that we are loved.
So, love is the reason that Jesus did what he did, why he lived and walked among his people, why he died on the Cross to save us, why he rose again to give us the hope of eternal life. As I said, we all understand love, we know what it looks like and what it feels like, but as wonderful as the things that Jesus did for us are, they are only a glimpse of the love that God has for us, because in this life and in these bodies we cannot hope to really understand the immensity of God’s love for us.
Your life as a Dominican has been and will continue to be a preparation in prayer and study for the unfolding of your new reality, your priestly reality. In prayer and study you will learn more of this love that God has for you and hopefully you will be filled with this love that it will strain the limits of your flesh, compelling you to preach the Gospel because you must get out what is within. It will become a source of woe to you if you do not preach the Gospel.
Because you will stand now in the middle of a relationship, the relationship between God and his people. You are a servant of Christ and his people, a channel of grace and love.
You are a channel for being, a way for Christ to be in the world, but not the only way, and not the most important.
But you must humbly acknowledge that you are more than just the man in the middle. God has called you to serve him and his people will need you to serve them. So all your natural human characteristics take on a supernatural character as it is through your humanity, as it was through the Lord’s humanity that people will come closer to the God who loves them.
What you have learned from God, great though it is, is but a taste of the fullness of the all the possibilities of divine love. You have learned that love is kind, that love is merciful, that love does not delight in wrong doing but delights in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Christ knew the fullness of the love that brought him into the world and through everything which he did and said he communicated this love no matter how unable some were to receive or understand it. It is this love that he will teach you in prayer and which you must communicate to those you serve in your preaching.
You have been given your place in the world amongst all the signs and wonders that direct the human heart to its maker. The Lord may call you his friend, but you must call yourself servant in front of His people.
So, never rest and say there is nothing more the Lord or his people can teach me. Always be on the lookout for what more you can be taught and what more you can learn so that you can serve Him and his people better.
They will show you their need for God in all the ways that human beings need God and God will respond to them through you.
You now participate in God’s work of satisfying the needs of his people and if they see God in you they will come closer to him, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot, but even coming a little closer is something to rejoice about/over.
So what is a priest? What are you?
You are a servant, a friend, a brother, a father, one who offers sacrifice and praise on behalf of the people and for the people and as you work and pray for the salvation of others, others will in their own way work and pray for your salvation.
What you are you understand a little, what you are to become you understand not at all, but God who has begun this work in you will bring it to its completion and when he does you will fully understand what you are in the light of God’s full revelation of Himself to you.
Fr Ciaran Dougherty OP is a Dominican friar. This is the text of the homily he preached at the recent first Mass of thanksgiving of Fr Philip Mulryne OP.