The Eternal City keeps careful track of dates. If a bishop arrives for an audience on his ordination anniversary, you can be quite sure that the Holy Father has been briefed. Papal dates – birthdays, priestly ordination, episcopal consecration, papal election – are devotedly observed, the occasion taken for elaborate good wishes to be offered all around.
So when the Pope’s 50th anniversary of priestly ordination comes, as it does this December 13, and Rome does nothing, it is surprising. Well, not exactly nothing. The Diocese of Rome, which traditionally takes the lead on such events, put out an announcement requesting an inclusion of the event in the Bidding Prayers at Holy Mass.
It was, literally, the least it could do.
It’s possible of course that there be a surprise on Friday. In 2017, Pope Francis celebrated his morning Mass in the Pauline Chapel of the Apostolic Palace, together with the cardinals resident in Rome, to mark the 25th anniversary of his ordination as a bishop. Given that the Holy Father will, as is his custom, offer Holy Mass in St Peter’s this Thursday for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, perhaps something will be said then. But there is nothing for December 13 itself on his public schedule.
Is the Diocese of Rome simply respecting papal humility, giving pastors an example of not drawing attention to themselves? Or is it stripping down the papal office itself, denying the Church an opportunity to celebrate the priesthood in the person of the chief shepherd?
The contrast with previous golden jubilees is striking. In 1970 at Pentecost, St Paul VI marked his 50th anniversary by ordaining 278 priests in St Peter’s – a powerful, if somewhat unwieldly, celebration of the priesthood. (In the heady early days of the liturgical reform such massive ceremonies had a certain novelty. For the 1975 Holy Year, Paul VI ordained 354 priests in one ceremony on June 29, the feast of SS Peter and Paul. That practice did not endure.)
In 1996, St John Paul II had a large concelebration with all the priests of Rome for All Saints, his ordination day in 1946. All the cardinals were invited. The golden jubilee included moving testimonies from long-serving priests, and there were two enduring legacies.
The cardinals gave the Holy Father a gift which was used to renovate the Redemptoris Mater chapel in the Apostolic Palace, then the location of the curial retreat. And John Paul released autobiographical reflections on his priestly vocation, Gift and Mystery, a book still read by many priests on their retreats and given to young men thinking about the priesthood.
In 2001, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger celebrated his golden jubilee. He had been ordained on June 29, 1951. St John Paul gave him the unique honour of being the principal celebrant for the papal Mass in St Peter’s Square, in the Holy Father’s presence.
Ten years later, Ratzinger himself was pope for his diamond jubilee of priestly ordination. On Peter and Paul, he devoted a good deal of his homily to the anniversary and what his own priestly vocation had taught him about the priesthood in general.
He began by recalling that on the day of his ordination the bishop addressed the new priests with the words of Jesus: “I no longer call you servants, but friends” (cf John 15:15).
This saying contains within itself the entire programme of a priestly life, Jesus’ words on friendship should be seen in the context of the discourse on the vine … Jesus continues: bear fruit, fruit that abides. What fruit does he expect from us? What is this fruit that abides? Now, the fruit of the vine is the grape, and it is from the grape that wine is made …
For good grapes to ripen, sun is needed, but so too is rain, day and night. For noble wine to mature, the grapes need to be pressed, patience is needed while the juice ferments, watchful care is needed to assist the processes of maturation. Noble wine is marked not only by sweetness, but by rich and subtle flavours, the manifold aroma that develops during the processes of maturation and fermentation.
Is this not already an image of human life, and especially of our lives as priests? We need both sun and rain, festivity and adversity, times of purification and testing, as well as times of joyful journeying with the Gospel. In hindsight we can thank God for both: for the challenges and the joys, for the dark times and the glad times.
The long-serving priest is like the best wine which is only served late in the feast. Such is the joy of priestly jubilees, for the priest himself and more so for his flock. And when it is the universal shepherd, the joy is for the entire Church.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca
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