Two things stand out in today’s celebration. First, is that vocation, a call is a gift which God freely gives to us all. Second, our future depends on how we respond to this call. In each case, free will or freedom are exercised. God gives us freely and we receive freely. What happens, what we do with this gift is the summary of our life.
As we know, even in daily life, all of us respond to calls in ordinary life differently. Often, our attitude depends on the caller, the circumstances and the incentives or threat that might arise from a certain call. If you are told that your grandmother is looking for you, you might almost conclude that there must be something especially if it is in the evening. If you are told that your father or mother is calling you, you know it is likely that you are to run an errand or wash some plates or clothes. Their calls will attract a lazier response than that of a grandmother who is almost likely to have something, some food that is left over or something nice. If on the other hand, you have come late to school and you are told the Head Master is looking for you, the Head master’s office will seem like a few kilometers away. If on the other hand, you came first in class and are told your Head master is looking for you, his office will seem like just a step away. So, in all circumstances, our enthusiasm is often coloured.
Jeremiah’s famous call sounds very much like that of Moses who also gave excuses when God called him. He suggested to God that his brother was a much better speaker than himself and that he had a rather bad stammer. Yet, as we see in all these situations, as God said when he called David, God looks at the heart (1 Sam 16:7). In the end, as God said to Jeremiah, Behold, I have put my words in your mouth (Jer. 1:9).
The ceremonies of ordination to the sacred priesthood are part of the three degrees of ordinations in the Catholic Church, the other two being, the ordination of Bishops and Deacons. Without these three categories of ordinations, we would have no Catholic Church to speak about. By this act, men are initiated into the sacred ministry of the proclamation of the Gospel which Jesus entrusted to us when He enjoined the apostles to take the gospel to all the ends of the earth (Matt 28:18). Through this ministry, the priest, in collaboration with the Bishop fulfills this duty and constitutes what is called, the sacred sacerdotal college, or the prebyterate. It is this unbroken chain of faithfulness and obedience that holds the Catholic Church together. When we are told that the Bishop is the fullness of the priesthood, it is not in terms of the level of his sanctity, desirable as this might be. It is not in the sense of the exalted office. It is actually based on the fact that he too derives his own priesthood and authority from the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
The unbroken chain is held together by the priest’s obedience to his Bishop whose authority derives from his own faithfulness and obedience to Christ, the Shepherd, the Priest, the Prophet and the King from whom we derive all our powers and authority. Thus, when the priest pledges obedience to his Bishop, this obedience goes deeper and it is not so much about command and order. It is based on the fact that without it, we break the chain that holds our collective priesthood together. This is why, as we see in the ceremony, the Bishop gives the new priest a kiss of peace as a sign of welcome, admission into the field entrusted to him by the Lord of the harvest. The Bishop as a co-worker in the vineyard welcomes the new priest and together in obedience to Christ, they carry out the task of proclaiming the salvific message of Jesus Christ.
His fellow brother priests also participate in the ceremony of bringing a new brother into their fold as a new laborer in the vineyard. They do this by following the Bishop in the laying on of hands, helping to vest him in his new sacerdotal regalia of service, and then they also offer him a kiss of peace. In this way, Bishop and his co-workers, the Priests become a family for the service of God’s people. This is why, in his Pastoral Letter, Pastores Dabo Vobis, (I will give you Shepherds), St John Paul 11 stated that: The call of the priest exists through the church and for the church, and finds its fulfillment in her. Every priest receives his vocation from our Lord through the church as a gift. It is thus the task of the bishop or his equivalent to examine and confirm such vocation. Candidates to priesthood do not receive their vocation by imposing their own personal conditions but by accepting the norms and conditions laid down by the church herself in fulfillment of her responsibility (no 35).
The Laity are not left out of the ceremony. The new priest is their son, their brother, friend or uncle. It is for them that he has been ordained. Without the people, there will be no need for priests because we cannot be priests unto ourselves. St. Paul tells us that: Every high priest is taken from among men and appointed on behalf of men to the service of God (Heb. 5:1).
The importance of the Laity cannot be over stated. It is the Laity that has given us permission to ordain the priest.
For us as Catholics, our life centres around the Seven Sacraments. Jesus is the Sacrament. However, today, increasingly, we are witnessing a lack of enthusiasm, love, and commitment to the Sacraments. The lives of many Catholics revolve around such Sacraments as Baptism or Matrimony. Increasingly, more and more of our people are shying away from the Sacraments of Penance, Confession, as we know it. With rise of anointed, powerful, miracle working, demon casting, curse directing or averting men of God, our people are resorting increasingly to what seems to be the worship of other humans who are said to possess enormous powers.
As Catholics, the easiest part is for us to tend to resort to condemnation of these rituals. However, we as Seminarians, Catechists, Deacons, Priests, Bishops must address the issues of how and why we also seem to have become less committed to preaching about the Sacraments. If the priest himself does not consider the Sacraments important in terms of how he celebrates them, then clearly, it will have an effect on how the people see them. We must return to our roles, not as Managers dispensing authority and power, men committed more to the temporal benefits of the Priesthood, men concerned mainly with the size o the collection, Tithes, or Harvest, but we must return to the salvific goals of our vocation and the priesthood, namely, the salvation of souls.
As our country stumbles through the challenges of building a nation, we have come full circle again, believing that we are close to the shore only to find ourselves pulled back again into the sea of doubt. We are told that shooting war of the Boko Haram sect is about to end. However, this might be the easy part. The more difficult part is the miniature Boko Haram culture of intolerance that is gripping our nation. It is manifested in the discrimination in opportunities in our society. It is evident in those who believe that one religion is superior to the other or that some men and women are superior to others. Amidst these trials, we must return to the Gospels, the Good news, the source of our hope and salvation.
When we look back at the life of Jesus and the early Church, we must ask ourselves a few questions about our role as priests in changing society. In the last few weeks, for those of us who have been looking at the Readings in the Breviary, we will notice that St. Augustine has been speaking to us about the Good Shepherd, laying out very clearly what separates the good from the bad.
This year, the Holy Father, Pope Francis has declared the Year of Mercy. Last week in Abuja, I was called upon to address a group of young Catholics on the theme: Mercy in a Merciless Society. I found the topic quite intriguing. Essentially, I called attention to the fact that it was not only mercy that was scarce in the Nigerian society, but we seem deficient in a lot of things that make us human. We are not only merciless; we are careless, graceless, faithless, lawless and so on. But, as I said to them, in a society where people assert themselves by diminishing others, a masochistic or sadistic society, we would be forgiven for thinking that the concept of Mercy should be anything but something to laugh at.
As some of you may recall, some months ago, a Catholic priest was kidnapped in his own house in Kontagora Diocese. When the matter was reported to me, I called the Inspector General of Police to alert him. After that, I also called the Director General of the State Security Services, SSS, to alert him too. He kept me up-to-date with the developments, their location and so on. After the Bishop called to tell me that the priest had been released, I called the DG, SSS to thank him. He said to me: Bishop, there is nothing to thank us for. We are only doing our job. But, I want to tell you that for us it is not over yet with these criminals. I am sorry to tell you that when it comes to these criminals, I suspend the New Testament. I only read the Old Testament: An eye for an eye, Bishop that is what I believe in with these criminals.
Still, we are called upon to be agents of mercy. Often, we wonder how a merciful God can be just at the same time. In our minds, a just God must ensure justice by sending the sinner to hell. This is the position held by the elder brother of the prodigal son. However, with God, Mercy and Justice are not two sides of a coin as such. Thomas Aquinas argued that God was not bound by the rules of justice because God is sovereign. He is just in relation to Himself and Love is His name (1 Jn. 4:8). Therefore Mercy is just the other side of the coin of God who is love.
As we celebrate with our newly ordained priests, let us keep them in our prayers. This is not the end of their Seminary training; it is not a terminal point. Rather, it is the beginning of a long journey. Ordination is just a rite, a ritual wrapped with symbolism. The priesthood is life. I therefore call on you to pray for us, your priests. I know that for some of you, if God had sought your opinion, we will not be here. With all our flaws, only he knows the reasons why he chose us to be His priests. So, to each and everyone of us, we must recall the words of the French priest, Lacordaire, who summed it up when he said the mission of the Priest is to: To live in the midst of the world without wishing its pleasures; To be a member of each family, yet belonging to none; To share all suffering; to penetrate all secrets; To heal all wounds; to go from men to God and offer Him their prayers; To return from God to men to bring pardon and hope; To have a heart of fire for Charity, and a heart of bronze for Chastity To teach and to pardon, console and bless always. My God, what a life; and it is yours, O priest of Jesus Christ.