The following is the last of three assignments I submitted for my course entitled “Thought of Vatican II” at the University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto, ON Canada (MDiv Year II, Semester I, dated 7 December 2010). One of the options for this “integrative” assignment for those who foresee entering ordained ministry was to write a “homily,” taking into account one of the Decrees or Declarations (not one of the constitutions: Sacrosanctum Concilium, Dei Verbum, Lumen Gentium, or Gaudium et Spes) of the Second Vatican Council as well as liturgical readings for the day on which the homily would be preached (It was not actually required to deliver the homily orally; only to write it). As I had presented earlier in this course on the Decree on Priestly Formation, Optatam Totius, my homily assignment focused on the same document. The original preface I wrote to explain the imagined liturgical setting and readings appears before the homily itself, and an appendix with the readings appears after it.
The liturgical setting of the following homily is a Mass of ordination to the presbyterate. In this homily assignment, I will correlate the core teachings of the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Priestly Formation, Optatam Totius, with the Scriptural readings I have selected for this Mass. The first reading, Isaiah 61:3a, focuses on the universal divine commission to serve persons most in need. The Gospel acclamation, Luke’s quotation from Isaiah 61:1, carries forward this notion of service into the Gospel reading, Luke 22:14-20, 24-30, which joins the imperative of humble service given by Jesus to his apostles and to their successors with the institution of the Eucharist. Likewise, Psalm 116:12-13, 17-18 and its responsorial verse, 1 Corinthians 10:16, relate the themes of service in God’s name an Eucharist as both communion– among human beings and between humankind and God– and thanksgiving for God’s goodness. The second reading, 1 Peter 5:1-4, applies the Christian obligation of humility specifically to presbyteral ministry; a presbyter is not to work for his own gain, but for the good of all among whom the presbyter ministers.
The Fathers of Vatican II were highly attentive toward the significance of formation for ordained priesthood and toward presbyteral ministry itself. Two Conciliar decrees, Optatam Totius and Presbyterorum Ordinis, focused on these respective subjects. Vatican II as a whole was primarily a council of renewal of the Catholic Church, a council at once of aggiornamento, or bringing the Church up to date, and of ressourcement, a return to sources– to tradition both Biblical and extra-Biblical, with a special esteem of the early Church Fathers– and ultimately to God. This need for renewal of the Church is acknowledged in the opening sentence of Optatam Totius, the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Priestly Formation. This document begins by entrusting much of this ecclesial renewal to its priests and those who form men discerning the Sacrament of Orders. Optatam Totius declares: “This sacred Synod well knows that the wished-for renewal of the whole Church depends in large measure on a ministry of priests [that] is vitalized by the Spirit of Christ.”
The foundation of all priestly formation, then, is Christ, in whose priesthood the ordained participate. The priest is called, says Optatam Totius, to be vitalized, that is, enlivened, by the Spirit of Christ. In Christ’s Spirit– as our first reading from Isaiah puts it, “the Spirit of the LORD God”– the priest is anointed for service to God and to the Church, the people of God. During this very liturgy of priestly ordination, the priests, once vested with stole and chasuble, will be anointed with chrism on the palms of their hands. The Holy Spirit of Christ, begotten of the Father, is at this point called to rest upon the candidate for Orders, through the prayer from the Rite of Ordination that coincides with the anointing of hands: “The Father anointed our Lord Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. May Jesus preserve you to sanctify the Christian people and to offer sacrifice to God.” Together, the anointing with chrism of the hands of the newly ordained and this prayer recall the constant presence of the Holy Spirit among us. Not only in Holy Orders, but in our Baptism into the priesthood of the faithful, in Confirmation, and in the Anointing of the Sick recipients of these Sacraments are anointed with chrism. Thus, from our reception into the Church until our reception into the company of the saints in heaven, the Spirit of the Lord is upon us as God’s Spirit is on the prophets and upon Christ. In the Holy Spirit, “the Lord, the giver of life” (cf. the Nicene Creed), we are perpetually vitalized.
Renewed by the Spirit of the Lord, the Church and priesthood within it are by nature transcendent of earthly borders, such as those between nations, languages, cultures, and social classes, yet at the same time God shows preference toward the poor, the captives, and the oppressed. To these, Isaiah writes, he had been “anointed to bring good news… to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour.” Jesus made Isaiah’s mission his own from the beginning of his ministry, as we have heard in today’s Gospel Acclamation. That verse is drawn from Luke who, uniquely among the Gospel authors, includes Jesus’ quotation from Isaiah 61 before the Synagogue assembly in Nazareth on the Sabbath. In Luke, this is Jesus’ first act of public ministry. Jesus begins, as had Isaiah before him, by announcing that he had been sealed by the Spirit to evangelize, to free those held captive by that which is not of God, to restore sight to the blind, and “to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour.” We might recall that Jesus’ first act of prophecy, the words of Isaiah from the scroll, was well-received by his audience. However, for declaring that his message of reconciliation and of healing would extend to those most in need, whether Jews or Gentiles, Jesus draws the assembly’s rejection. Undeterred, Jesus continues his mission, as the concluding sentence of Luke 4 illustrates: “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also, for I was sent for this purpose.”
The same proclamation of the kingdom of God for which Jesus was sent is also our purpose and our imperative in priestly ministry in Christ’s stead. An entire chapter of Optatam Totius is devoted to “matters [that] have a special bearing on the sacred ministry” of the presbyterate, namely those of pastoral service: “catechetics, preaching, liturgical worship, the conferral of the Sacraments, works of charity, [and] the duty of seeking out the straying sheep and unbelievers,” according to article nineteen of this decree. Not to be disconnected from the intellectual and spiritual formation for priesthood treated in previous chapters of Vatican II’s Decree on Priestly Formation, nonetheless “the promotion of strictly pastoral training” for priests-to-be is given a special place as the title of the sixth chapter of Optatam Totius. Without this pastoral dimension, the import of the Catholic priesthood and of priestly formation is minimized. As pastoral training is necessarily linked to intellectual and spiritual formation of clergy if priestly formation is to be considered holistic so, too, I go as far as to say that those pastoral services enumerated in article nineteen of Optatam Totius all ought to be understood as works of charity. Here I do not read into Optatam Totius a concept not in the document; the same article nineteen of this decree underscores the chief “qualities to be developed in seminarians,” such as promotion of dialogue, and “a capacity to listen to other people and to open their hearts in a spirit of charity to the various circumstances of human need.”
My emphasis on the pastoral aspect of the presbyterate and of priestly formation, and on all pastoral works as works of charity, comes from my experience as an associate of the religious community of priests to which I belong, the Basilian Fathers. I was sent early in my priestly formation to Cali, Colombia, to teach high school French and English and to learn Spanish. As I gradually learned not only a new language but a new culture, I noted that, in addition to abject poverty, most people of the Basilian school and parish had received little catechetical instruction. The mission of the Basilians in Cali, then, was at once to alleviate the material poverty of those whom we served, as well as to provide an education– often entirely subsidized– to these people in both religious and secular disciplines. From that, there developed a deep bond of love between the Basilians and the residents of our parish neighbourhood. This was impressed upon me one day when, as a community manual labour exercise, I was washing clay roofing shingles in our schoolyard. A poor man on the street approached the schoolyard gate and greeted me with a smile, “Hola, Padre”– “Hello, Father!” Not yet ordained at that time, I had difficulty then– and I still do– with being called “Father,” for the pastoral responsibility that this title denotes, yet if I were to be called Father, all my works, I prayed, would be acts of charity. My priesthood, modeled after that of Christ, would be pastoral by definition. Priesthood is an anointing to pastoral acts of charity, whether one is a parish priest, a high-school, university, or seminary instructor, a scholar; whether one is praying, in recreation, or is washing shingles in a schoolyard. Priesthood is pastoral charity, oriented toward the good of human community and finally toward God.
My appointment to Colombia increased my awareness that priesthood, as a ministry of ecclesial leadership in charity, takes into account both the universal Church and the local church. At the same time, the universality– the catholicity– of the Church became more evident to me as did the particular needs of local churches, regions, and nations. I was sent from Edmonton to Cali, after only six months as a Basilian associate, the earliest stage of formation in our religious community. The differences between the two churches are remarkable; the relative affluence of Edmonton over Cali, the religious devotion inherent in Colombian culture, and the linguistic dissimilarity between the two places are but a few of these distinctions. Nonetheless, the same Mass is celebrated in both Edmonton and Cali; Edmontonian and Caleño Catholics belong to the same Church in communion with the See of Rome.
Regarding priestly formation in particular, Optatam Totius holds in tension the recognition of the necessities of local churches and of those of the universal Church. The decree begins with an accent on the former: “Since the variety of peoples is so great,” says article one of Optatam Totius, “only general rules,” such as the establishment of “Program[s] of Priestly Formation” by regional bishops’ conferences, “can be legislated.” In Optatam Totius’ next article, though, which begins its chapter on “the intensified encouragement of priestly vocations,” the document is clear that “the task of fostering vocations devolves on the whole Christian community.” The encouragement of vocations to ordained priesthood evidently begins at the local level– in homes, in schools, and in parishes– yet it extends universally. To those who will be ordained shortly: The best way to encourage vocations, not only to the priesthood but to the specific vocation to which God calls each Christian, is to live your own divine calling to Holy Orders joyfully. In today’s second reading, the author of 1 Peter acknowledges that his vocation as an elder– literally, a presbyter– is not easy. He is “a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed.” Articles nine and ten of Optatam Totius echo this eschatological balance of 1 Peter of the “obligations” and even “hardship of the priestly life” with joy “in the blessedness promised by the Gospel” and by a “profound identification of” the priest’s entire life with that of Jesus Christ.
Priesthood, configured to Christ, is more than the power to confect the Eucharist, although this sacerdotal privilege is not unimportant. As per article eight of Optatam Totius, the priest must “be taught to look for Christ in many places: in faithful meditation on God’s word, in active communion with the holy mysteries of the Church… in the bishop” whom they assist, “the poor, the young, the sick, the sinful, and the unbelieving.” The Eucharist is only the beginning of Christian service; the priest who confects it for and receives it with the people of God must not, as today’s Gospel and second reading both affirm, “lord it over” those whom we serve as leaders. The Eucharistic feast must be united with and must give way to service. Moreover, as we heard in today’s Responsorial Psalm, the Eucharist, over which the priest presides, is at once an act of thanksgiving and one that draws human beings into ever-closer communion with one another and with God.
Let us pray, then, for the priestly candidates present before us here, and for all priests and those in formation for Holy Orders, that they might be joyful instruments of and participants in the priesthood of Christ. In this Eucharistic celebration we thank God for the gift of priests, “the hope of the Church,” as concludes Optatam Totius, and for those entrusted with their formation.
Appendix: Readings for Homily Assignment on Optatam Totius
Thought of Vatican II- SMT 3670 HF
Readings are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, selected according to The Rites of the Catholic Church, trans. The International Commission on English in the Liturgy (New York: Pueblo Publishing Co., 1980), 2:102-106.
First Reading: Isaiah 61:1-3a
1The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
2to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 116:12-13, 17-18 (Response: 1 Corinthians 10:16)
12What shall I return to the Lord
for all his bounty to me?
13I will lift up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the Lord
R: Our blessing-cup is a communion with the blood of Christ.
17I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice
and call on the name of the Lord.
18I will pay my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people. R.
Second Reading: 1 Peter 5:1-4
1Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you 2to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it— not for sordid gain but eagerly. 3Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. 4And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away.
Gospel Acclamation (Luke 4:18-19)
The Lord sent me to bring good news to the poor and freedom to prisoners.
Gospel Reading: Luke 22:14-20, 24-30
When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. 15He said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; 16for I tell you, I will not eat it* until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’ 17Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, ‘Take this and divide it among yourselves; 18for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’ 19Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ 20And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.
24A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 25But he said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. 26But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. 27For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. 28‘You are those who have stood by me in my trials; 29and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, 30so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.