Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Set apart to serve - Fr Damian Feeney

First Mass of Fr Andy Hughes (SSH 06-08)

Fr Damian Feeney, the new Charles Marriott Director of Pastoral Studies and Vice-Principal of St Stephen's House, gave this homily at the ordination to the Sacred Priesthood of Fr Andrew Hughes who trained at the House and now serves as Assistant Curate of St Francis of Assisi, Friar Park. For more information about our new Vice-Principal see the Press Release.

‘All those who heard of it treasured it in their hearts.
'What will this child turn out to be?' they wondered.’
(Luke 1: 66)

What indeed? Being the curious type myself, I decided to delve around on Facebook to see if there were any clues as to what this particular child of God might turn out to be. And I feel a little bit like the Queen of Sheba, in that but the half was told to me. Well, first of all, there were only meant to be eleven guests, and one of those appeared to be a rather nice looking dog called Bill. And I refuse to embarrass my future colleagues at St Stephen’s House by naming those on the list who were still to reply to Fr Andrew’s kind invitation to be with him tonight. My apologies to those of you who are not part of the Facebook revolution, and haven’t the faintest idea what I’m on about.

I’m delighted to be with you tonight as we celebrate God’s goodness in the ordination of Father Andrew to the Sacred Priesthood. For him – and of course, for the church, it is a key milestone in a long journey of faith and love. The words he says tonight, not merely to Bishop Andrew and ourselves, but to Almighty God, and the grace and character which God graciously confers on him, will change him, and change him forever.

A lot is made of the relationship a priest has with God: a lot is also made of the relationship a priest has with his people. Both are incredibly important. Without God, and God’s grace, there is nothing a priest, however energetic and well-intentioned, can offer. Without people to serve a priest cannot live as Christ lives. But if there is a key task to be discerned in the midst of priesthood today it is to break down barriers. Within any community there are countless people who, for whatever reason, have barriers fixed firmly in place which prevent the free flow of grace, the joy, the trust and the love which is God’s desire for them. Perhaps for some those barriers have been firmly in place since childhood – for others they are the barriers borne of adult experience – the pain and suffering which has been part of their story, their daily living. Father, your task is to help to reach into those difficult places and gently remove barriers, rebuild lives, restore hope, renew vision. All these things are possible through Christ, who you will represent to them in a most intimate way.

Today is the feast of the Birth of St John Baptist, that incredible, larger than life, fearless cousin of Jesus whose delight was in flattening the barriers that lay between Jesus and the human heart. I once visited a war museum with my late Father, and noticed that in a lot of the pictures on display, there was an awful lot of unpleasant looking razor wire which was an effective defence against foot soldiers. I asked Dad how on earth battalions of soldiers got through them. His reply has stayed with me for many years now. The first man to arrive at the razor wire would throw himself, flat over the wire, allowing his comrades to run straight over him – one instance in life where it’s probably better to come second – and presumably he would be severely lacerated for his trouble. It’s an image which serves us well when we ponder the Baptist, his severity of lifestyle, his lack of diplomacy, the urgency of his message of repentance. By such direct means did the Baptist break down barriers, through prophetic words and actions, through a call to repentance and to a new way of living. Churches and the communities they serve have such need of fearless, prophetic words, prophetic actions today. And so – an anecdote for you.

Archbishop Warlock of Liverpool used to tell a story of one of his priests who went visiting one afternoon, and found at one house a scene of complete domestic chaos and squalor. There was washing, pots, dishes, and children everywhere, and the house was what my Grandmother used to call a ‘right state.’ Mum was in total despair, in tears in fact, and was sat in the kitchen with a large suitcase packed. She was glad that the priest had called, because she was leaving – she had, quite simply, had enough. Perhaps he could look after the children until the husband came home to face up to the fact that his wife had gone. Having sized up the situation, and comforted and reassured Mum, the priest rolled up his sleeves and set to. He tidied the washing, and put another load on. He cleaned up after the children, and then cleaned up the children (once he had caught them). He then scrubbed the kitchen, and opened the fridge to see what was there. He managed to find enough to concoct a passable meal for the family. His last task was to unpack the suitcase, and put it out of sight. He slipped out of the back door as the husband arrived through the front. Needless to say, she never did leave. Now, no doubt a professional counsellor could have made a better job of comforting the lady, a professional cleaner could have been more thorough with the kitchen, and James Oliver Esquire could have cooked a marginally better dinner. But I firmly believe that what counted for that beleaguered family was that the man who helped them in their hour of need was not a professional anything. Rather, he was the man of God, Christ’s man, the man who stood behind the altar, and whose dishpan and yet anointed hands were instrumental in making present the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Mass. I tell you that because in these days of collaborative ministry (and I’m a big believer in it) and the managerial tendencies of the Church of England (and I’m a big disbeliever in those) it is all too easy to lose sight of the key connection forged in the minds of people between the priest among his people and the God who sets him apart to serve.

Father, you are rightly looking forward to the moment of the First Mass. It will properly feel like the culmination of many years of preparation, self-offering and prayer. You will be right to enjoy the moment, for to celebrate Mass, as with all the sacraments, is the greatest privilege given to humanity. But sacraments cannot merely stay on the altar, just as the Word of God cannot stay in the pulpit. These are the greatest gifts of all, and like all gifts, they are to be shared freely. And when you give your heart to people, families, and communities, it is that Word, those Sacraments, which will make you stand out not only as priest but as someone intimately involved with the mission of Jesus. May God richly bless you today, and through you may countless others be blessed. May his disturbing Spirit work through you as you call God’s people to a new way of life: may Christ always walk before you as our great High Priest, your friend, your brother, your King.