Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, Vigil Mass
[Acts 3:1-10; Galatians 1: 11-20; John 21: 15-19]
June 28, 2010
Tonight we gather as God's people shortly after the official close of the Year for Priests. Over the past twelve months the universal Church has reflected deeply upon the mystery of the priesthood, given thanks to God for those who hold this sacred office, and prayed for their continuing sanctification. Now we have the blessing and joy of surrounding with our prayer a man who is about to be admitted to the order of presbyters. Dean, you are here tonight in the presence of family, friends and parishioners, together with those who are about to become your brother priests. Many have observed your journey of discernment for quite a few years years, and rejoice tonight to hear the Church confirm what they have long expected is your vocation to the priesthood. I and the Archdiocese share that joy. We thank you for opening your heart and life to the Lord and responding generously to his call.
The ministerial priesthood is a wondrous mystery. It is a most precious gift of the Lord to his people. Something of the wonder and sacredness of the priestly life is manifested for us in the readings from Scripture for this evening's liturgy. As we celebrate this Vigil Mass for the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, reflection upon the experience of each of these great apostles will unveil important dimensions of the mystery and help us appreciate anew the gift that the Lord intends for his Church when a man is ordained a priest.
In the reading from Acts we have the narrative of the encounter between St. Peter and a man who has been lame from birth. Each of them does the impossible, humanly speaking, and does so by the grace of Jesus Christ. Peter speaks in the name of the Lord and brings to the lame man not his own power but that of the Lord. The lame man gets up and walks, not on the basis of his own ability, but by the strength given him by Christ through Peter. The experiences here of both Peter and the lame man unite in the life of every priest.
The priest is one called to do by Christ's power what he cannot do on his own. Like the lame man, he is called to rise and walk, to live by the grace of Christ, apart from whom he cannot move. Like Peter he is called to be the instrument of Christ's love and mercy as he celebrates the sacraments of the Church, preaches the Word of God, and governs the people with the heart of the one true and Good Shepherd. This is why the priesthood, together with the other degrees of Holy Orders, is recognized as a sacrament, conferred by prayer and the laying on of hands. Divine grace transforms and works through human weakness so that in the priest's life and ministry Christ's own action is at work to bring to fulfillment the Father's saving purpose.
This mystery of grace working through human limit and weakness is taken up by St. Paul in the passage we heard from his letter to the Galatians. He is clear that he is called to speak not a human but a divine word, the Gospel. This, he tells us, was conveyed to him through a revelation of Jesus Christ. Paul is not speaking here of a simple handing on of information. No. His encounter with Jesus changed his life entirely and gave it clear and definitive direction. He was to be the herald of the Gospel by which he himself had been thoroughly transformed. We can hear St. Paul's deep sense of wonderment and awe in the words of his letter. Not only had God called him in spite of his unworthiness, but also God had set him apart even from his mother's womb. He sees that the grace of God had been at work throughout his entire life to prepare him for his call, turning to the good the mistakes of his life and transforming them to serve the divine purpose.
Paul's experience is echoed in the life of every priest. For the priest, too, the encounter with the Lord transforms and gives a new horizon to his life. It lifts him out of himself and disposes him to serve with his entire life the mystery of God's saving purpose. Inescapably the priest must come to terms with his weakness, his limits, his mistakes, and decide to trust fully in the wisdom of God, who prepares and calls as he wills, and who gives his disciples the gifts they need.
This is what St. Peter is going through in the Gospel narrative for this evening. In this his first meeting with the Risen Lord after he had denied him, Peter is only too well aware of his unworthiness and betrayal. So is Jesus, of course, but he asks Peter just one question: "Do you love me?" It is only when Peter professes his love that the Lord issues the call to feed his sheep. What matters to Jesus is that Peter is open to receive his love and offers his own love in return. The Lord will look after all else. It is as if he is saying to Peter: "I am well aware of your sins, but I am God and I can and do forgive you. What I really want to know is ‘Do you love me?' Don't worry about your mistakes and failings. I can right any wrong and turn it to the good. Do you love me? You're anxious about your weakness? I am well aware of your limits, and I will bring about by my power what you could never do on your own. The only thing that matters to me is ‘Do you love me'."
The priest will live his call with joy and effectiveness only if this very same dynamic and dialogue is repeated often within his own heart. The many and varied needs out of which the people turn to the priest remind him daily of his limits. The source of his strength and hope is the love of Christ and the answer he gives to that one all-determinative question the Lord poses again and again deep within: "Do you love me?" At its heart, the priesthood is a mystery of love. Encountered, seized, by the truth of God's love, the priest offers his love in return and gives it expression through his own complete self-gift for the sake of the people of God. The communion of love with the Lord is the wellspring that gives fruitfulness to the priest's ministry.
Dean, for many years that dialogue has been taking place within your own heart. Long ago you came to know Christ's love for you and you responded with your own by seeking to know his will. Tonight Jesus renews his pledge of love and asks once more "Do you love me?" This evening your answer of love, your own "Yes, Lord, you know I love you", is given expression in your acceptance of the Lord's call to be made a priest. Live always on the strength that his love will provide. Now, trusting not in yourself but in the goodness, mercy and power of Christ, step forward and profess your readiness to assume your sacred duties.
Richard W. Smith
Archbishop of Edmonton