AFTER HIS OWN HEART
A PERSONAL LETTER TO THE PRIESTS OF THE DIOCESE
BISHOP WILLIAM MURPHY
SEPTEMBER 13, 2009
Feast of St. John Chrysostom
[Download Bishop William Murphy's Letter As A PDF]
Pope Benedict in March announced a Year for Priests which began on June 19, 2009, the Feast of the Sacred Heart. The title chosen by the Holy Father is, “The Faithfulness of Christ, the Faithfulness of the Priest”. The Holy Father has linked this year not only to the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus but equally to the 150th anniversary of the death of the Holy Curé of Ars, St. John Mary Vianney, which will conclude the Year for Priests June 19, 2010. This year offers us many opportunities to focus on the priesthood of Jesus Christ and the faithful living out of the priestly vocation by the good and zealous priests of our Diocese. While I will touch on some of those in this letter, I wish to share some thoughts with you, on two elements that touch our lives here on Long Island: the holiness of priests and the need for vocations to the priesthood.
1. The Priesthood of Jesus Christ.
When the Son of God, in obedience to the will of the Father, become incarnate in the womb of the Virgin Mary, there begins the priestly journey of Jesus on earth. The faithful proclamation of the Kingdom of God and the gradual revelation of His identity and His mission led inexorably to the cross. On the night before He died Jesus instituted the Holy Eucharist and with it the ministerial priesthood, linking the two together for the life of the Church and the guarantee of her faithful mission to the world. His priestly prayer at the Last Supper revealed His love and His call for all who follow Him to “dwell in Him” as He does in the Father and to become “one with Him” as He offered His life on the cross. The first apostles, as witnesses to the resurrection, went forth in obedience to His command to proclaim the good news to every creature, baptizing them and witnessing by their lives the triumph of Christ for the salvation of the world.
The priesthood of Jesus Christ flows from the union of His life with the Father. It is established on the cross and makes us who form His Body a priestly people. This people has many members from whom, by God’s will and Christ’s command, are chosen men to be ordained as ministerial priests after the mind and heart of Jesus Christ, the eternal High Priest. These chosen men are called to shepherd the Church in imitation of Christ who calls Himself “the shepherd, the good one”. At the Last Supper, Jesus washed their feet, telling them that they should wash one another’s feet and that they who would serve as leaders must do as servants as He is the one who came to serve and not to be served. As successors to the apostles, bishops and their priest collaborators are called to celebrate the Eucharist “in memory of Me” so that the People of God can be nourished. They are called to preach the word, to baptize, to build up the Body of Christ, armed with the power of the Spirit given to them by sacramental priestly ordination that gives the priest a new “being”, a new character that sets them apart in the Church for the service of the Church as “other Christs”. They are to pastor the people of God in season and out of season, call all humankind to life in Christ and be the models of Jesus Christ in all they say and do for their own salvation and for that of the entire world.
2. Holiness is the essential mark of the Priest.
How is any man to do all this? Book after book has been written. Homily after homily proclaimed through 2000 years. They all come back to the one essential, the one without which nothing can be accomplished. The priest must be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. He must be holy as is holy the Son of God. He must be faithful with the fidelity of Jesus Christ the High Priest in whose name he has been called and ordained, to whose heart he has become engrafted and in whose priestly power of service he has been made a sharer and sent, sent to God’s people to bring Christ, to model Christ, to be other Christ after the Sacred Heart of Christ who is his Lord, his brother, his friend.
“To be holy as I am holy”! That is the necessary gift, the sought-after prize, the essential element of the priest in today’s world. I must admit that, as a seminarian, I heard this said often and I agreed. Or at least I did not disagree. Yet I was attracted more to the intellectual aspects of priestly formation. I wanted to be a theologian! A priest of course, but as a hyphenated one, a priest- theologian! In my early years as a priest I loved the parish work I was doing but I thought I also should teach as well. I did and I loved that because I was a priest-theologian. In that spirit I returned to Rome to complete my doctorate, a priest-theologian. I taught at Rome universities and then in two seminaries, the same self image. It was not that I abandoned my prayers or that I was indifferent to the love of the Lord or did not seek to respond generously to the One Who was so generous to me. I did all that with the usual distractions, the mistaken choices, the failures of a self-centered priest.
As I tell the young people with whom I spend time, if we keep ourselves in the middle of our hearts, then our hearts grow smaller and smaller because we have to become bigger and bigger. But if we let Jesus enter our hearts, then there is room for Him Who makes our hearts bigger and bigger so that there is room in our hearts not just for ourselves but for everyone else. Because His heart embraces all hearts in His love, He, dwelling in us, expands our hearts to become day by day more like His. And with that union of hearts comes holiness, the holiness of union with Him, the holiness of complete disposition to Him, the holiness of gratitude to Him for all He is and all He has already given to us and will continue to give to us till we are one with Him forever.
This is the center of the life of the priest: the desire to be holy in imitation of the incarnation of holiness, Jesus Christ, the eternal High Priest. He who is the holiness of the Father’s love made manifest teaches us how to be holy, shows us how wondrous it is to be holy and calls us to participate in His life as a participation in a life of holiness. To commit oneself to pursue holiness by cooperating with the gift of the Holy Spirit is the most awesome and most satisfying life a person can have. And we all, every single one of us, is called to it according to our particular state of life and according to the invitation the Lord gives us to live as members of His Body.
While the Sermon on the Mount and the many moments of Jesus' teaching lay bare the beauty of this call, priests can find in His salvific priestly actions the source of their own identity in the Church and the model for their own lives of priestly service usque ad finem. The Jesus of the Last Supper and the Jesus on the cross are the primary sources for our own lives as priests and pastors, as teachers and sanctifiers, as leaders and inspirers of our people. The witness principally of Peter and Paul in the Acts of the Apostles shows us how we, their successors, are to respond to the call and the mission Jesus gives us for the Church and for the world. The letter to Hebrews and the pastoral epistles allow us to deepen our understanding of Christ’s priesthood as the foundation stone of our exercise of priesthood while giving us practical insights on how we are called to be “all things to all”. In the Year of St. Paul just completed, we were able to focus our gaze on him in his tireless missionary endeavors of founding Churches and in his constant and patient explanations to the people in the Churches he founded, showing them how to live as disciples of Christ in this world for the glory that awaits us all in the next.
3. Some special “moments” of holiness in our daily lives.
Let me share with you some of the areas of our lives as priests where we might not always think especially “holy” but really and truly offer us an opportunity and a call.
1. The holiness of being sent. In our Diocese, no priest is assigned to a parish or to other pastoral work without careful consideration by the Personnel Board and me about his suitability and his own good in that particular assignment. We have developed a good process that tries to accommodate the priest’s wishes and match them with the needs of the Church. Yet there is a deeper reality than just finding the right niche for the right person. There is the deeply spiritual aspect that a priest is sent. Just as Jesus was sent into the world by the Father to do the Father’s will, so when I assign a priest, I am sending him in imitation of that divine action of Father and Son. A priest should reflect on that moment not as a personnel assignment but as a mission he receives from the bishop. As a mission it is a call to accept the mission and respond to it with zeal as God’s call made known to him through the sending of the bishop that makes this a true mission to the Church for the Church.
2. The holiness of availability. We often can forget that the very presence of a priest is a blessing for the People of God. How many Catholics spread around the globe in distant places rarely see a priest not to mention having the ministry of priests available as we are to our people here. That means we must examine how we are present to people. Do they see us as available to them? Can they reach us on the telephone? At the rectory? Outside “business hours”? Priesthood is not a business and the people are not customers at a service station. We together are a people and we priests have a responsibility to be present and available to our people.
3. The holiness of a joyful spirit. How often have we heard people say that the priest in their parish is a happy priest? How happy are people when they encounter the joyful enthusiasm of a newly ordained priest. Joy is infectious and it is a sign of God’s love in our hearts. To be joyful is not to be naïve or unaware of the trials and difficulties of human life. It is, however, the fruit of a deep and abiding realization that He has overcome the world and that we live in His love and should therefore reflect that in the demeanor of a priest filled with joy in the Lord.
4. The holiness of fidelity to the Church’s teaching and her sacramental and liturgical life. Priests are men of the Church. We are charged by the Church to teach what the Church teaches and to do so faithfully. We preach and teach in the name of the Church. We can never be the dissenters from that teaching. Nor can we ever substitute our own opinions for the words of Jesus and the Magisterium of the Church which are the sure and authentic words of eternal life. Likewise we celebrate the Eucharist and the sacraments in persona Christi capitis. These are not “ours”. They belong to the Church who is the faithful dispenser of God’s grace. We are the instruments bringing to the people what the Church has in her treasury of grace. Faithfulness to this is a sure mark of a holy priest.
5. The holiness of priestly prayer with and for the people. In the ordination rite we promise “to pray without ceasing” for our people. This must be an integral part of the very being of a priest. We pray for our people daily and in all kinds of circumstances. Beyond the daily prayer of the Divine Office which is obligatory for all us priests, we need to be men of public and private prayer for the good of the Church and the world.
6. The holiness of priestly fraternity. The priesthood is not “my possession”. We are ordained, as diocesan priests, to the service of this particular Church in union with our bishop and in union with one another in a presbyterate that is sacramentally one. Ours must be a fellowship that is deeper than ordinary friendship. It is an affective and effective collegiality that expresses itself most visibly at the Chrism Mass every Holy Thursday. Yet it cannot be confined to that annual gathering of bishop and priests in Saint Agnes Cathedral. It must be part of our ongoing lives as priests that we support one another, pray for one another and find ways to reach out and build up one another. The deaneries serve a pastoral purpose of helping us work together for the good of our people. They also provide us with a ready opportunity to deepen the bonds among us through priestly fraternity of prayer, mutual exchange and social relaxation. At the occasional suppers I have in my home for priests, many a time old friends from seminary days re-discover each other. I have witnessed priests who have not seen each other for years renew a friendship. We priests need one another. Our diocese is blessed by priestly fraternity. Continue to make that one of the hallmarks of the priests of Long Island.
There are many other “holinesses” that mark our lives, sensitivity to others, the purity of chaste celibacy, the commitment to the sacrament of penance for ourselves and those whom we confess, the many pastoral kindnesses that show people they are not alone. But these should be sufficient to give you and me something to think about, something to pray about. The faithfulness of Christ is the measure of the faithfulness of us priests and the holiness of Christ transforms our hearts to make our every word and gesture a vehicle of holiness for the good of our people.
4. Some Personal Reflections.
After the tragedy of September 11, 2001, as a newly arrived diocesan bishop, I asked you to join me at the Nassau Coliseum for a Month’s Mind Mass to pray for and to honor all who had lost their lives. We prayed as well for this local Church, commending us as a Church to the Father of Mercies in the aftermath of that horrific event. That evening we heard the Gospel of the washing of the feet of the disciples by Jesus at the Last Supper. In my homily, I “gave” that Gospel to our Church on Long Island to be “our Gospel”, the example and message of Jesus to be the guide and inspiration of our lives as His disciples. How well I remember standing in the corridor as you all walked by me in the procession at the beginning of Mass. To this day, the picture in my mind and heart of all of you, my brother priests, coming forward as one to serve the People of God by offering together this Mass puts a lump in my throat. How touched I was by all of you that October evening! And you have never ceased to inspire me from that day to this. You knew then and you know now that the Jesus of the Last Supper and the Jesus on the cross constitute the primary source for our lives as priests and pastors, as teachers and sanctifiers, as leaders and as guides of our people.
This is not theoretical. It is real and concrete. We learn what to do and how to do it so that we may be “all things to all people”, so that we can be authentic imitators of the One who gave His life as a ransom for all humankind. St Paul remains such an inspiring model for us. He showed us priests how we can commit ourselves to being totally “with Christ” and “in Christ” so that we might bring the Word to the people and build up the Body of Christ.
The history of the Church is replete with saintly priests and bishops whose lives show us how to live our priesthood. All of them, no matter where they lived their priesthood or what circumstances surrounded them, are memorable because they were holy. Each of us has his favorites and that is as it should be. For me, Peter and Paul, Basil and Gregory, Leo and John Chrysostom inspire me, teach me and help me. St. Philip Neri’s love for young people and for the Eucharist attracts me. How I wish I could be like him. St. Bernard and St. Maximillian Kolbe’s love of Mary is one that can help shape the hearts of priests. And we can go on and on.
In what may seem strange to some, it was after my doctorate when I entered the service of the Holy See that the importance, the unsurpassable importance, and centrality of holiness for the priest became paramount. Living a different kind of priestly service led me to recognize how central to my life is the life of being a parish priest. It was not just that I missed direct pastoral work. “On the side” I was chaplain at a Catholic girls school all those fifteen years. It was then that I came to recognize more deeply that my identity is that of a parish priest. No matter what “job” I may have or what task the Church called me to do, I must do it as a parish priest. Here is who I am. This is how I can imitate Christ. This is the font of holiness which will always refresh me and never leave me without sustenance.
Aside from the touching example and encouragement I received from the popes I served, Paul VI, John Paul I and John Paul II, there were two men who have made a lasting impression on me. One was my Superior in the Commission for Justice and Peace, Cardinal Bernardin Gantin. An African, called from his homeland at a young age to serve the universal Church, he taught me a priestly wisdom that made him a priest whose life was a model of holy service to God and Church. The other was my dear friend whose ring I treasure, Cardinal Francois Nguyen Van Thuan from Vietnam. Thirteen years in prison, mostly in solitary, he never lost hope to which he was an awesome witness as nightly he whispered the words of consecration over the crumbs of bread and drops of wine in his prison cell, never ceasing to celebrate the Sacrifice of Christ in a Eucharist whose beauty is beyond telling.
5. St. John Vianney and the Call to Holiness in our lives.
All of these priests would say what I am about to say. We all found, some earlier, I later in my priestly life, the shining example, the faithful living out and the holy model of priesthood which is St. John Mary Vianney, the Curé of Ars. I can write about priestly holiness. He embodied it. I can pray for holiness. He achieved it. Let me simply share with you a few words of his as instruction for us all. Let me add that I wish to re-dedicate myself to seeking holiness, of imitating Christ the High Priest, of being faithful as was He and of serving the People of God as a holy, loving priest all the days of my life.
“The priest is to you as a mother is as a nurse to a baby. She gives him his food; he has only to open his mouth. ‘There, my little one, eat’, the mother says to the child. ‘Take and eat’, the priest says to you: this is the Body of Jesus Christ; may It keep you and bring you to eternal life. Oh glorious words! At the sight of a spire you may say, ‘what is there?’ The Body of the Lord. ‘Why is it there?’ Because a priest has been there and said Mass…The priest is the love of the heart of Jesus. When you see the priest, think of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Curé of Ars, 22nd Meditation, Eucharistic Meditations)
My brothers, whenever our people see us, I want them to see Jesus Christ. And so I close with one last mark of holiness:
The holiness that is love usque ad finem. The passion and death of Jesus on the cross is the unique and ultimateexpression of total love usque ad finem. From the cross Jesus saw all humankind and on that cross His heart burst with a love that has redeemed the world. We have been called to be His priests in service to the people He has redeemed which excludes no one. The example of His love must inspire and shape our love. Throughout history we can find so many examples of priests, martyrs and confessors, who gave their lives for their people, who loved their people with a love that truly shared in Christ’s love and mirrored that love in their lives. We are not functionaries! We are not mere “ministers” or “dispensers” of goods and acts who need be no more than efficient cogs of God’s grace. We are “other Christs”, called to love God and, from that love, to love our people with that same love that dwells in our hearts and molds them into reflections of Christ’s sacred heart. Only if we love can we avoid the dryness of function and the spiritless gestures of “doing a job” that has less and less meaning. Love animates us and animates the Church. Love has no end but love. And that endless love of Christ is what has made us priests of the new covenant, the covenant of love usque ad finem. If we have no other thing to offer our people but love, that is enough. You, my brothers of this presbyterate, have taught me that time and again these past eight years. When I think of how often I have encountered your love of God and your people, I am moved beyond telling with gratitude to God for you. Continue to love Him and the people of our diocese with a love usque ad finem.
This is your heritage and you have lived it well. This is your calling and you have responded with total dedication. This is your life and you live it with a fidelity that must cause the angels to sing. There is a love that flows from your hearts because it first flowed from His Sacred Heart into yours. I thank God he has called me to join my priestly service to yours. I rejoice that you are priests “after His own heart”, the heart of the one Who came to serve and to be served and to give His life, usque ad finem, as a ransom for many.