On the feast of Ss Peter and Paul I celebrated the 20th anniversary of my ordination to the Sacred Priesthood. Not a huge milestone perhaps, but it feels like a significant one. A time not for self-congratulation but for a self-examination entirely consistent with the sentiment with which St Paul can say: “By the grace of God I am what I am and his grace to me has not been in vain.” That awareness of what I am retains its original dialectic of an ever-deepening appreciation of the dignity of the priesthood and the accompanying mystery that its grace is conferred on the weak and unworthy.
While it is salutary, in human terms, to celebrate the anniversary of marriages and ordinations, it important to remember that the grace and power of the sacraments are spiritually dynamic. They don’t date. Sacraments are not just discrete occasions of grace – significant moments of intervention – but encounters which alter the nature of our relationship to grace and access to it. They are like the declaration of a betrothal, both making something happen and signifying the something which has happened.
The human psyche makes sense of the world on the basis of the past. That is, every encounter we have is navigated through some previous way in which we have experienced things. We are in that sense limited and destined to repeat past patterns. This is what habitually dictates the trajectory of our relationships. But the sacrament of Holy Orders, as of matrimony, gives grace of state in perpetuity so that the nature of our relationship with God is never merely the sum of the past.
The most wonderful thing about celebrating 20 years as a priest is not some cumulative achievement on my part. It feels far more like arriving back at the beginning and discovering what an immense grace this is, not because of what is past, but because today the Lord offers the same call, in all its pristine beauty and intimacy, despite the many ways in which I have failed to fulfil its radical demands.
St Leo the Great says that what was visible in Christ has passed over into the sacraments of the Church. It’s a beautiful observation, reminding us that these are not simply rites of passage or expressions of some indeterminate religious sentiment defined by their origin in a particular culture or time.
To celebrate 20 years, a priest is really to be like Peter by the Sea of Galilee, confronting that question “Do you love me?” To which the only appropriate response is to say, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you,” touched even more by the vulnerability implied by the question than the failure that would make one focus on one’s unworthiness and fallibility.
The Dominican Fr Robert Ombres once said: ‘Grace is not like putting on new clothes. It’s much more like putting on weight, or losing it. You only notice when it’s already happened.” This is an apt analogy for the past 20 years of my exercising priestly ministry. There have been many struggles and difficulties in the past years, but never a point where I have doubted for a moment that I am doing what I am supposed to be doing with my life.
This brings a great sense of peace. If I were to die tomorrow I would die content, knowing that I had done no more than my duty. The Scriptures for the feast speak more deeply than ever, especially the words of the Psalmist: “Taste and see the Lord is good; they are happy who seek refuge in Him.”