I am writing this column on May 20, the 45th anniversary of my ordination as a priest for the Archdiocese of Boston. Never did I imagine then that today, 45 years later, I would be bishop of Buffalo, preparing to ordain four fine young men as priests for our diocese of Western New York. Over and over again I have learned that when we pray "Come, Holy Spirit," we had best be prepared for surprises!
The ordination of priests is one of the happiest days in the life of every bishop. Every year at this time, I recall so clearly my own ordination as one member of a class of 25 men. Along with the laying on of the archbishop's hands and the prayer of ordination - the heart of the sacrament of Holy Orders - what stands out in my memory are the words spoken to the just-ordained priest when, after the anointing of his hands with sacred chrism, he is handed a paten with bread and a chalice of wine and hears these words: "Receive the oblation of the holy people, to be offered to God. Understand what you do, imitate what you celebrate, and conform your life to the mystery of the Lord's Cross." That second sentence has formed the basis of my examination of conscience these several decades. I thank God for any ways I have been able to respond to those challenges. I ask God's forgiveness for the ways I have failed.
Priesthood is a gift given by Christ to a few for the good of the many. The priests' mission is to serve Christ, the teacher, priest and shepherd, by whose ministry the Church is built and grows into the People of God and is empowered for its mission. So it is that each priest is consecrated to preach the Gospel, shepherd God's people, and celebrate the sacred liturgy, especially the Eucharist. He will initiate people into the church through Baptism, forgive sins in the name of Christ and the Church, comfort the sick with holy oil, all while offering prayers of praise, thanks and petition to God for the Church and the world.
In our time (in every time, in fact), the Church's highest priority is evangelization - the work of bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to humankind, to the world. As Blessed Paul VI declared, the Church exists in order to evangelize. And, under the power of God's grace, evangelization happens by the witness of a Christian's words and example of life. It is the priest's sacred task to equip the faithful for this mission, which requires him, of course, to witness to Christ by the example of his own life and ministry.
It is a daunting challenge to be a priest in our time. Our culture and political world are resistant to many dimensions of the Church's message, from our teaching that human life must be reverenced and protected from conception to natural death and at every moment in between, to the nature of marriage as the union of a man and a woman, to the mandate to welcome migrants, to Pope Francis' call to care for the earth, our common home. Yet priests are not the only ones called to bring the truth, joy, hope and healing of the Gospel to the world. This is the mission of all of the baptized. Priests are, however, critical to this task as servant-leaders of God's people.
The Eucharist, the Second Vatican Council teaches, is the source and summit of the entire Christian life. It is the heartbeat of every Catholic, every parish, every community of the faithful. Without the Eucharist, there is no Church. Without the priesthood, there is no Eucharist.
Pray for your priests, especially our newest priests - Fathers Robert, Martin, Luke and Cole. May they have long, happy, fruitful years of generous service to us, God's people. Please pray also for me. I invite our newly ordained priests and all of my brother priests to join me in reflecting on the following excerpt from St. John Paul II's prayer of thanksgiving for the gift of vocation and of the priesthood:
"We praise you and we thank you, O God: all the earth adores you. We, your ministers, with the voices of the prophets and the chorus of the Apostles, proclaim you as Father and Lord of life, of every form of life which comes from you alone.
"We recognize you, O Most Holy Trinity, as the birthplace and beginning of our vocation; You, the Father, from eternity have thought of us, wanted us and loved us; You, the Son, have chosen us and called us to share in your unique and eternal priesthood; You, the Holy Spirit, have filled us with your gifts and have consecrated us with your holy anointing. You, the Lord of time and history, have placed us here, in order to be witnesses to the salvation which you have accomplished for all humanity. And you, Mary, Mother of Christ, who at the foot of the Cross accepted us as beloved sons with the Apostle John, continue to watch over our vocation. To you we entrust the years of ministry which Providence will grant us yet to live. Be near us to guide us along the paths of the world, to meet the men and women whom your Son redeemed with his blood. Help us to fulfill completely the will of Jesus, born of you for the salvation of humanity. O Christ, you are our hope!"