Homily for the Ordination to the Priesthood of Shinto Francis at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Parramatta, 16 December 2017
It is with great joy that we have come to St Patrick’s Cathedral today to celebrate the ordination of our brother, Shinto Francis, to the priesthood. His journey here has been almost like The Beatles, Long and Winding Road. Many years ago, Shinto came to Australia with a set purpose of becoming a member of the Missionaries of God’s Love. Then, later on, he came to discover the meaning of the journey that was unknown to him. (He also discovered that he did not have the gift of tongues for the MGLs!). He learned to alter the course of his life by way of accepting the diocesan vocation and entered our Holy Spirit Seminary. Openness to the journey of life with all its twists and turns, its lights and shadows, expected and unexpected is vital for one’s transformation.
Shinto’s ordination takes place in a peculiar cultural context. To say that we the Church in Australia are at a critical juncture is probably an understatement. Australian Catholicism is a seriously damaged brand in the wake of the Royal Commission. We have been battered and bruised. We’ve been reduced in strength and status. Priests used to be among the most respected. Not long ago, the priesthood had an aura of mystique and social prestige. Now that aura all but evaporated. We are in an uncharted territory.
I’d like to think of this critical juncture as analogous to the biblical exile. I’d like to think of us ordained ministers as those prophets who accompany their people in the exile, point to them the signs of the new Kairos and lead them in the direction of the Kingdom. In this perspective, you are not merely the replacement of the diminishing and ageing local forces (and I am not looking at any priest in particular). Instead, you are part of the re-birthing of the Church: the Church that dies to power, domination, clericalism and rises to humility, simplicity and servanthood; the Church that might be smaller, poorer and humbler, but hopefully more of a light and leaven of the Gospel to the world.
The readings today speak about the mission of hope and renewal in the time of uncertainty. The first reading tells us about the call of Isaiah which is situated in the context of the exile. “The spirit of the Lord has been given to me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the broken-hearted, liberty to captives and freedom to those in prison.” Isaiah was sent to give fresh vision and hope to a people in distress. He was charged with a mission of reframing the hopeless reality into a new hopeful future for his people. That is also the task of the priest-prophet in the new exile. We have to live and minister in such a way that the remnant people can flourish again. Our love for God and his people and our resolve to serve will clear the path towards a vision of hope for all.
The Gospel tells us how the journey of discipleship reaches its climax at the Last Supper. In John’s Gospel, Jesus would enact the notion of self-emptying and powerlessness in the dramatic gesture of washing of the feet. By acting like a slave, Jesus subverts the prevalent model of greatness and power associated with leadership. Here in Luke’s version, even though there is no mention of the drama of foot washing, he leaves no doubt as to what discipleship means. It means the greatest has to become the smallest; the powerful has to become the powerless and the leader has to become the servant. It is a stark reminder of our commitment to be servants in imitation of the Servant Leader who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life for others.
The prophets of doom tell us that the priesthood is dying. I wager that they are right – but only half-right. They fail to see the other side of the equation. The Catholic priesthood is dying just as the whole Church must embody the paschal rhythm of dying and rising again. We need to have the courage to die to the old ways of being church that no longer convey effectively the message of the Gospel to the culture in which we live. To this end, it is necessary that the priesthood dies to things like worldly trappings, prestige, and clericalism. It is necessary that we priests learn to rise to the power of vulnerability, servant-leadership, mutuality and partnership. The Holy Spirit is leading us towards fresh ways of being Church and fresh ways of priestly presence. In this time of transition, a kind of a Holy Saturday of mourning and hopeful expectation, we priests are called to bridge between the old and the new. Our task is to live the creative tension between the pain of the present and the hope of the future.
Shinto, you are being ordained to proclaim and embody that paschal rhythm. Your ordination today brings joy, hope and even renewal to us. The Church in Parramatta is rejuvenated by your youthfulness, reinvigorated by your commitment and enriched by your gifts. We pray that Christ’s self-sacrificial love which you will celebrate daily at the altar, will nourish and strengthen you on the journey that you have just begun. We pray that the inestimable treasure kept in the earthen vessel that is you may reveal to all the God whose power is in weakness, whose wisdom is in foolishness, whose victory is in the cross and whose love is in self-sacrifice.
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