Today marks the fifteenth anniversary of St John Paul II. No amount of writings, learned articles, or, biographies can do justice to this great man. From the first words of his pontificate he recognised both are human susceptibility to fear and was not slow to provide us with the remedy: a sure and certain faith. For this giant of a man, of towering intellect and unwavering witness, faith was the means by which we have the prospect of receiving the great gift of hope. Yet, for all of his intellectual ability, oratory and eloquence as a writer, theologian and philosopher, his greatest testimony to hope came through incapacity. Bowed by age and infirmity, unable to express his love and care verbally, he remained steadfast in his dedication. He displayed his resolve by simply being; presenting himself to the world with all his physical restrictions as one who was and remained for the sake of Christ’s love for them; a love which he carried as his own.
Who can forget the image of his restricted and pained physicality; gripping the crozier as a means of keeping him upright and balanced. A real icon for us of the strength in weakness. Paradoxically, it was during this stage of his life that his endurance spoke to so many of no faith; for whom he was a visible sign and symbol of universal fatherhood.
St John Paul II was not slow in demonstrating pastoral care for priests. Many will be familiar with the writings of this great man. But, it is in his annual Maundy Thursday addresses to priests that we encounter the tenderness of the father of the family. In his Maundy Thursday address of 1996, he observed:
“Priestly ordination is in fact the beginning of a journey which continues until death, a journey which is vocational at every step. The Lord calls priests to a number of tasks and ministries deriving from this vocation. But there is a still deeper level. Over and above the tasks which are the expression of priestly ministry, there always remains the underlying reality of ‘being a priest’. …Our priestly life, like every authentic form of Christian existence, is a succession of responses to God who calls…The priest thus becomes a sharer in many different life choices, sufferings and joys, disappointments and hopes. In every situation, his task is to show God to man as the final end of his personal existence.”
To those learned in the world, this statement might be received as both disturbing in the level of responsibility it imposes upon the priest and wholly unrealistic in promoting the view that such a duty could be met. It might be declared that a priest is only human and, being realistic, the statement is setting people up to fail. After all, experience has shown that when we set unrealistic goals and, unsurprisingly fail to achieve them, it is more than the aspiration that is dashed. But does the view of the secular sage properly capture St John Paul’s meaning and purpose? The short answer is ‘no’ and the unenthusiastic reader need read no further. The more important question is why the sage who says in his heart there is no God, is wrong.
The answer is to be found in an authentic understanding of the nature of the priestly vocation. As St John Paul made clear, the vocation requires a personal response and acceptance. It is not and cannot be imposed. But the response articulated in the adsum is a declaration of a state of being: to be present. It is a disposition to receive the grace of priesthood which is given by Christ himself. This requires acceptance of a Divine assurance. In the words of the psalm:
“The Lord has sworn and will not change His mind,
You are a priest for ever
According to the order of Melchiz’edek”
Whilst the Enemy seeks to distract with the accumulation of knowledge, the Lord draws His priests to Himself as participants in His wisdom. It is by means of this same wisdom, that the priest is invited to share in His thirst for souls. This is: to be one with Him. This is no solitary personal enterprise. It is a life-long collaboration; a partnership founded upon a singularity of purpose. A purpose rooted in the victory of the Cross and, to paraphrase St Paul, the assurance of things hoped for. We should not marvel then that St John Paul II continues to counsel us: ‘Be not afraid’. As we continue in our unprecedented circumstances, we would do well in the course of our spiritual communion, to express our gratitude to all of those who have accepted the vocation of priesthood and all of those close to them who made sacrifices to carry them to he altar. Let us pray today that our priests may – like St John Paul II – lean upon the cross for their wisdom, perseverance and hope. We may ask too for the courage and wisdom to never shy away from our own call to be Simon of Cyrene to them.
Our Lady – Queen of Heaven
St John Paul II – pray for us.