Homily of Bishop Kevin Doran at the Ordination to Priesthood of Fr John Mahony
My father used often say, “the longest way round is the shortest way home”. John Mahony set out on his vocational journey in 1976. He completed his formation with the Kiltegan Missionaries and was ordained a deacon in 1982, after which he spent two years as a missionary in Malawi. From then on he took the “long way round”, responding to family needs, doing further studies in ecumenical theology and working in educational administration. But The Spirit of God was always at work, and John returned to full-time ministry as a deacon in 2017, first in Australia and more recently in the Diocese of Elphin. I have already welcomed the small number of John’s family and friends who can be here with us. Now I want to say a word of welcome and thanks to John’s Kiltegan family and to his friends and parishioners both in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, and here in Sligo and in Ballintubber and Ballymoe who are joining us online. Your friendship, your encouragement and your prayers are all part of why, for John, the longest way round has been the shortest way home.
The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception is a very appropriate day for us to celebrate an ordination, not only because it is the Feast day of our Cathedral, but because the Immaculate Conception of Mary is all about vocation. Mary was called to be the Mother of God and, from the first moment of her existence, God was preparing her for that mission. Our first introduction to Mary is at the Annunciation, which is recorded in today’s Gospel. I think we can be sure, however, that Mary had heard the word of God in her heart long before then. She was used to saying “yes” to God and that is why, even though she was clearly challenged by what she heard from the Angel and wondered what it could mean, she responded – “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your Word”.
This is actually the first ordination of a priest for our Diocese since Fr John Coughlan was ordained twelve years ago. People sometimes express concern that we don’t have more priests, or more vocations to priesthood. In so far as there is what people call sometimes call a “vocations crisis”, it doesn’t just apply to priesthood. It touches every aspect of discipleship. I personally believe that God continues to invite men and women to follow him in various ways, but there are many noises and many voices and we don’t always hear him in our hearts.
In his Letter to the Ephesians, which we heard in our second reading, St Paul tells us that God has “blessed us with every spiritual blessing”. Before the world was made, “He chose us in Christ to be holy and spotless and to live through love in his presence”. This is not a special plan that God has for priests or religious. This is the vocation of every human being and it is expressed particularly in Baptism. Through Baptism we are called to be disciples. Each one of us is then called to consider prayerfully, as Mary did, what particular service God is asking us to do and who he wants us to be in our lives.
The ministerial priesthood is one specific vocation among many. It is not the vocation of the majority. The Church is not about the priest, but the priest is about the service of God and of God’s people in the community of the Church. Some might be inclined to wonder, when there is so much focus on the ministry of the lay faithful, why we need priests. I think most of us know instinctively that it has to do with the Eucharist. This has possibly been brought home to us in a unique way in recent times when we have not been able to gather for Mass. We have prayed together in different ways, but we have still joined online with the celebration of the Eucharist celebrated by the priest.
It is the particular mission of the priest to be “in the person of Christ” at the celebration of the Eucharist. When Father John says, during the celebration of the Mass “This is my Body which is for You”, he will not be just reporting or repeating the words of Jesus; he will be the visible sign of the presence of Jesus in the community. This is a humbling thought. It doesn’t mean that the priest is better than anyone else. It simply means that his particular vocation is different.
Pope John Paul II wrote about this in his Encyclical Letter, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, He said:
“The faithful join in the offering of the Eucharist by virtue of their royal priesthood”, yet it is the ordained priest who, “acting in the person of Christ, brings about the Eucharistic Sacrifice and offers it to God in the name of all the people”. The assembly gathered together for the celebration of the Eucharist, if it is to be a truly Eucharistic assembly, absolutely requires the presence of an ordained priest as its president. On the other hand, the community is by itself incapable of providing an ordained minister. This minister is a gift which the assembly receives through episcopal succession going back to the Apostles.
Priesthood is all about relationship. From the very beginning, in the Book of Genesis, the Bible speaks to us about relationship and how relationship can be undermined by pride. Closely related to pride is division and what, today we might call “the culture of blame”. A priest is called to preach the truth and to live the truth, but never to be a cause of division. As someone who gathers people for the Eucharist, he is called to live in his own life what he celebrates at the altar. He is called to be a man of communion. Everything he says and everything he is in his life, must be about building up and, where necessary, healing the body of Christ in the parish and in the Diocese. In that context I should say that I am particularly glad that, in this past year, John has completed the formation programme with Accord and he will continue to have an active part to play in supporting the mission of the Diocese in helping people to prepare for the vocation of Christian marriage.
In a few moments time, John will be questioned about his willingness to take on the responsibilities associated with being a priest. He will answer, “I am; I am; I am; and finally I am with the help of God”. It is another way of saying: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your Word”. I think the bit about “the help of God” is important. When Mary asked “how can this be possible”, the Angel replied: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you”. None of us can be what God calls us to be without God’s help and that is a lesson I have had to learn over and over. So I encourage you John to trust in the Holy Spirit and to allow space for the Spirit to work in you. Trust also in the gifts that the Holy Spirit has given to others in the community. We priests don’t have all the gifts or all the answers.
8th December 2020
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Sligo