(Sunday sermons, talks, and teaching)
Inside the dome of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, several feet high above the place where Peter himself has laid buried for almost two thousand years, there is a large inscription made with black lettering on a gold background;
‘You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church…
I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt 16:18-19).
Michelangelo positioned these two verses of Matthew’s gospel at the base of the dome as a golden circlet, a crown above the tomb of the Apostle, and as a reminder of level of responsibility and trust Our Lord places on the whole of his Church; ‘whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven’ (Matt 16:19).
Now, as we read this passage, we could look at its importance in shaping the Church around the ministry of St Peter. But [as a good Anglican] I would like to focus on something slightly broader in meaning; God’s willingness – in fact, his desire – for human cooperation in his work of creation and redemption. The desire of God for human participation comes up as a recurring theme throughout the history of salvation. For example, when God chose his people in the Old Testament he relied on Abraham and made a covenant, a pact, with him; when the people of Israel cried out to the Lord form the land of Egypt God entrusted Moses to lead them out of slavery; when the House of Israel needed the leadership of a faithful steward God entrusted Eliakim (from our first reading) and relied on his decisions. In the New Testament when God sent his Son into the world he relied on the cooperation of the Virgin Mary and he entrusted Jesus to the care of St Joseph; when Our Lord wanted to spread the gospel he relied on his apostles and disciples, and finally, as we see today, when Jesus wanted to build his Church he relied on St Peter, the Rock to be quite literally the foundation stone. And when we focus our attention on examples such as these a clear pattern emerges. In every situation, from the beginning of Salvation history until now, the Lord relies on his people – meaning each one of us as well – to further his work. Much as he did with his first disciples, the Lord Jesus calls us to specific tasks that only we can do, he blesses us with every possible grace to help us in our work, and he gives us the Holy Spirit to strengthen us in all our doings.
But let me put this in another way. On Thursday was the feast of the Apostle Bartholomew. The prayer for that day said,
O Lord, …grant that… your Church
may become the sacrament of salvation for all the nations.
A sacrament is essentially the way in which the grace of God reaches people through the means of ordinary objects and actions consecrated to his service (like bread, wine, touching, and washing). So, when we pray to become the sacrament of salvation, we pray that the Lord may reach other people with his grace through us; through our ordinariness, through our humanity which has been consecrated to his service by baptism.
So here is the beauty of our Christin faith. We are not just infinitely loved by God; we are also infinitely needed by him. ‘We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.’ (BXVI, Homily, Sunday, 24 April 2005)
There may have been only one St Peter and only one ministry to which the Lord has entrusted the keys of his kingdom, but this does not change the fact that each one of us is entrusted with continuing and furthering Jesus’ saving work in the world. So if you don’t take anything away from this service, at least take this; God invites you to work with him, God entrusts you with his redeeming work, God relies on you to bring salvation to others.
The Fourth Sunday of Easter is a time dedicated to pray for vocations. There are other days set aside four times a year to pray for all those who minister within the Church, these are called Ember Days, however today the particular focus of our prayers ought to be the sacred, or ministerial, priesthood.
But prayer, as important as it is, is not the only thing we can do to help with vocations. We should also support the training of priests, and we should encourage in every possible way those who are genuinely being called to this type of ministry.
When I was discerning my vocation to the priesthood, the people of St Botolph’s, my church in London, did precisely this; they helped me to understand what God wanted me to do and what level of trust would be placed on me at ordination. I was in my mid-twenties the, but quite often a sense of vocation (not just to the priesthood) accompanies people for a very early age; and in those years the loving support of family and congregation can go a long way. I remember, when my cousin and I were only young boys, people in our local congregation were ready to spot the “early signs” of a vocation to the priesthood, and how they encouraged us both to say our yes to the Lord. Things may have changed since then; my cousin is a diocesan registrar, whilst I resisted putting myself forward for ordination for a few years, and then have become the black sheep of the family by becoming an Anglican… but even now, we both have people from our home congregation who regularly check up on sense of vocation, and support us with their prayers.
If we want to foster and encourage vocations we must remember that priests do not exist in a vacuum. We all share in the royal priesthood of the Lord Jesus by virtue of our Baptism, and it is from among our number that God calls men and women to become ordained in order to serve his Church in a specific way. Ordained ministry takes its mandate from Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who from age to age shares the pastoral care of his flock with his priests. He calls them to feed his people with his Word and with the Sacrament of the Eucharist, to administer his forgiveness to those who seek reconciliation with God, to provide leadership and focus for mission in his name. In turn, the Lord calls each one of us to work with our local priests to transform our communities; to pray for the needs of the world, and to share the love of Jesus with everyone.
Another thing worth remembering is that priests do not grow on trees. Vocations arise and increase when they praying for them. Vocations are fostered within the parish context; they take time to develop in a well-informed and realistic sense of what God is calling the candidate to do, and they can only thrive through with support. As a consequence, you and I play a fundamental role in ensuring that anyone called to the ordained ministry is able to respond to this call as generously and as selflessly as they can.
It is always a great blessing to help each-other to fulfil our individual vocations and even more so to help priests in fulfilling their call. So let us commit ourselves to pray for and encourage vocations so that Christ, the Good Shepherd may raise more and more priests formed according to his heart.
Father, you gave us Christ
as the shepherd and guardian of our souls;
may your people always have priests
to care for them with his great love.
Father, give us priests:
to establish the honour of your holy name;
to offer the holy sacrifice of the altar;
to give us Jesus in the Eucharist;
to proclaim the faith of Jesus;
to baptise and to teach;
to seek the lost;
to give pardon to the penitent sinner;
to bless our homes;
to pray for the afflicted;
to comfort mourners;
to strengthen us in our last hour;
to commend our souls;
Almighty Father, give us priests!
We make this prayer, through Jesus Christ our Lord.