At the priestly ordination of deacons of the Prelature, Basílica of St. Eugene, Rome (May 31, 2003)
Dear brothers and sisters. My dear deacons:
1. We are celebrating the Ascension of our Lord, an especially joyful solemnity as we contemplate Jesus, acclaimed by the multitude of angels, entering gloriously into heaven. We too, members of Christ’s Mystical Body, live with the hope that one day we will be united with him in glory. This expectation tempers the traces of sadness that mark this feast. The apostles too were dejected, realizing that Jesus was departing definitively in his physical presence, as they stood watching our Lord ascending into heaven. Until those angels asked them: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem with great joy.
Until he returns gloriously to earth, Jesus remains among us in various ways through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Second Vatican Council teaches that our Lord “by his power is present in the sacraments so that when anyone baptizes it is really Christ himself who baptizes. He is present in his word since it is he himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church. Lastly he is present when the Church prays and sings, for he has promised ‘where two or three are gathered together in my name there am I in the midst of them’ (Mt 18:20).” And he is present, above all, “in the Sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of his minister...but especially in the eucharistic species.” It is this sacramental presence that I would like to speak about briefly here, in order to highlight the meaning of this liturgical celebration in which a group of deacons of the Prelature will be receiving priestly ordination.
2. The recent encyclical of Pope John Paul II on the Holy Eucharist emphasizes a central point of Catholic teaching: “When the Church celebrates the Eucharist, the memorial of her Lord's death and resurrection, this central event of salvation becomes really present.... This sacrifice is so decisive for the salvation of the human race that Jesus Christ offered it and returned to the Father only after he had left us a means of sharing in it as if we had been present there.”
If we meditate deeply on these words, we will come to the conclusion that we have no reason to envy the apostles. We, too, men and women of the 21st century, when we participate in the Holy Mass with ardent faith and sincere piety, enter into direct contact with our Lord’s death and resurrection. The saving action of the Incarnate Word that took place two thousand years ago, by which we were redeemed from sin and made sons and daughters of God, becomes sacramentally present in the Holy Sacrifice of the Altar. As St. Josemaría said, “the Holy Mass is a real, propitiatory sacrifice that is always present to us.” Since it is real and present, we have to struggle to put ourselves into it more each day and thus convert our whole day into a holy and spotless offering to God the Father, with Christ in the Holy Spirit. Since it is propitiatory, our negligence should hurt us, since on so many occasions we have failed to place the Mass at the center of our lives.
No amount of gratitude to Jesus Christ will ever be sufficient for this inestimable gift. As the Pope tells us, we should always live “in adoration before this mystery: a great mystery, a mystery of mercy. What more could Jesus have done for us? Truly, in the Eucharist, he shows us a love which goes ‘to the end’ (cf. Jn 13:1), a love which knows no measure.”
It was precisely to ensure the real and unfailing presence in the world, till the end of time, of his Sacrifice on the Cross that Jesus instituted the sacrament of Holy Orders. Thanks to this sacrament, our Lord chooses, consecrates and sends out some men to represent Him visibly before others. When they preach the word of God or administer the sacraments, priests act in persona Christi. These words, as the Holy Father writes, mean “more than offering ‘in the name of’ or ‘in place of’ Christ. In persona means in specific sacramental identification with ‘the eternal High Priest’ who is the author and principal subject of this sacrifice, a sacrifice in which, in truth, nobody can take his place.”
Priests are living instruments of Christ’s Most Holy Humanity. It is he who from heaven works through them, in a very special way at Mass and in Confession. St. Josemaría liked to consider this reality often. He once said: “I arrive at the altar and the first thing that I think is: Josemaría, you are not Josemaría.... You are Christ. All of us priests are Christ. I lend our Lord my voice, my hands, my body, my soul. I give him everything. It is He who says: This is my Body, this is my Blood. He is the one who consecrates. If not, I would not be able to do it. There the divine Sacrifice of Calvary is renewed, in an unbloody way. So I am there in persona Christi, taking Christ’s place. The priest disappears as a specific person.”
3. I now turn to you, my deacon sons. In the get-togethers that we have had during the months of your preparation for the priesthood, I have spoken to you about our Father as the model of a fully priestly life. You know many details about his life that should help you to engrave in fire on your souls his wonderful example of priestly conduct and to become very faithful instruments of our Lord in the work of sanctifying souls.
Now I would like to recall for you one of the very important responsibilities, closely united to the visible representation of Christ the Priest, Teacher and Shepherd, which is being conferred on you as a mission. I refer to the need to be, at every moment, the living transparency of our Lord, so that the faithful, when they look at you, hear your exhortations, and contemplate your behavior, will see the Redeemer’s holy and merciful face.
I tell you in words of St. Josemaría: the priest is asked “to learn how not to hamper the presence of Christ in him, especially in those moments when he is offering the Sacrifice of the Body and Blood and when, in God’s name, he forgives sins in secret, private sacramental confession. The administration of these two sacraments has so important a part in the priest’s mission that everything should hinge on it.” The goal is high, but not unattainable, because our Lord will grant you his grace abundantly. This certainty will always give you an unalterable peace. Meditate on St. Gregory of Nyssa’s words about the priest: “Yesterday and the day before he was one of the people. Suddenly he appears as guide, teacher, master of piety, minister of the sacred mysteries. All of this happens without his appearance having changed in the least. He apparently continues to be what he was. But by an invisible force, by a special grace, his soul has been transformed.” You, in addition, are equipped with a deep academic and spiritual preparation, and what is more important, with the prayers of thousands of people.
All of us must spontaneously ask the Good Shepherd to send many holy priests to the Church. We pray in first place for the Holy Father, who is spending his life so generously in the service of the Church and of all humanity. We pray also for the Cardinal Vicar of Rome, for the Bishops and for the other sacred ministers. And you, parents and brothers and sisters of the new priests, thank our Lord for the special affection he has shown your family. Try to correspond to this great predilection by renewing your Christian life. My most cordial congratulations go out to all of you.
Our Lady was associated in a unique way to the Sacrifice of the Cross. On Calvary, in the person of St. John, she received the mission of being Mother to each of her Son’s disciples, and in a special way, of priests. “Throughout her life at Christ's side and not only on Calvary, Mary made her own the sacrificial dimension of the Eucharist.” If we go to her with the piety of children, if we pray the Rosary well, contemplating the mysteries, especially in this year dedicated to this Marian devotion, we will enter, as the Holy Father puts it, the school of Mary, the “Eucharistic woman,” and we will make steady progress in our love for God and for others out of love for Him. Amen.