Ian McCormack considers vocation
Thank you, Father, for the invitation to preach today. If I had been told, in the abstract, that I was to be given a pulpit and 30 minutes to speak—well, alright, 10 minutes—to speak about Fr Philip without fear of interruption or correction, I would have assumed one of two things: either I had died and gone to heaven, or Father had died, and this was his funeral.
Well, pleasingly, neither of those things are true. Today, Fr Philip celebrates 10 years as a priest in the Church of God, and we gather around him to help him do that. We come as family, friends, colleagues; as those to whom Fr Philip has ministered in Worksop, in Oxford, and now here in Lewisham. For those of you here at St Stephen’s, today is a bitter-sweet day, as this Mass also marks the end of his time as your parish priest. In the coming days and weeks and months and years, some of you here may come to the wisdom in the words of that great 20th century popular theologian, Joni Mitchell: “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you got till it’s gone.”
For the past few years, Fr Philip has been helping you here in Lewisham to build paradise (as the song continues), not for his own sake, nor actually for yours as such, but for the sake of the Gospel. And that is actually what we are about here today: today is not actually about Fr Philip at all, but rather about the priesthood of Jesus Christ in which he shares, and has done, praise God, for 10 years.
As we heard in our reading from the letter to the Hebrews, Christ is our great high priest, who has offered a single sacrifice for sin, and now sits at the right hand of God. Fr Philip—along with myself and the other priests here—has the privilege of sharing in Christ’s priesthood, and we do so through the laying on of hands from bishops and other presbyters who have themselves been ordained in the historic threefold order which we receive from the universal Church, and by which our sacraments are united with those of the Apostles, and of Christ himself, who as we heard in the Gospel instituted the Eucharist on the night before he died, and at whose command we are celebrating these mysteries today. Consider how much more glorious the world—and indeed the Church—would be if people simply followed the instruction of Our Lady to the servants at the Wedding at Cana: do whatever he, Jesus, tells you. All priests are called to model that instruction in the entirety of their lives.
But for all that that is true, it would be strange for me to say nothing at all about Fr Philip in this homily. Priests are not automatons; we are the priests we are because we are the people we are. To paraphrase the preacher at my own ordination, Father is called to be a priest-shaped Philip, and a Philip-shaped priest.
So in the exercising of his priesthood, what does Fr Philip actually do—what makes him the priest and person that we know and love, that has prompted so many of us to join him today?
Well, he prays. He cares for people. He offers lavish hospitality, to family, friends and parishioners alike. He organizes parties, and liturgies, and sometimes liturgical parties. He decorates statues. He works hard in local schools. He buries the dead. He contributes to the wider life of the catholic movement in a number of ways, not least by editing New Directions, the magazine of Forward in Faith. He also involves himself in the life of the Diocese and the Cathedral. He chairs the PCC. He sings. He exercises a valuable ministry of presence in Maggies, over the road. He organizes coaches to Walsingham. Occasionally—very occasionally—he shouts at people.
So Fr Philip does a great deal. And he is valued greatly for it. But while these things (and many others) fill up his time, they do not define who he is as a priest. Most of them could be done by anybody. When Fr Philip does them, they are part of the outworking of his priestly ministry, but they are not the definition of that ministry itself.
We live in a Church that loves acronyms: DAC, CDM, IME, CME, DDO, ADDO, and so on. Acronyms make people sound busy. So, this afternoon, I want to suggest a new acronym: BASac. Because at heart, a priest exists—Fr Philip exists—to do only three things. He exists to bless, to absolve, and to sacrifice. BASac. Everything else is secondary.
Priests exist to bless. People, for example: babies, and others, as they come to be washed in the waters of salvation through the sacrament of baptism. Husband and wife as they commit to holy matrimony. The dying, as they receive the last rites of the Church. A priest blesses things: homes, items of devotion, food. A priest also blesses the gathered Christian assembly collectively when at the end of a Mass or other act of worship they are sent out into the world to do there the things they have learned in church. So a priest blesses.
A priest also absolves. In my experience, the only thing more joyful for a priest than making his own confession is hearing the confession of others—hearing, as Pope Francis has recently reminded us, not as a man hears, but as God hears. In the sacrament of reconciliation, the priest is the minister, the channel and the agent of God’s reconciling love, as sins are washed away and the purity of baptism is restored. A priest absolves.
Finally, and above all else, a priest exists to offer sacrifice. A lot of people in the Church today take Humpty Dumpty as their guide here, making words mean whatever they want them to mean, as they use the terminology of priesthood whilst stripping it of all reference to sacrifice. But in the ancient world, Judaism included, priesthood and sacrifice were inextricably linked. In the new dispensation, as it emerged out of Jewish tradition and custom, it continued to be, as it remains, the role of the priest to offer sacrifice. The Catholic priest represents the once-for-all offering of Christ, so that his atoning work upon the Cross is ‘proclaimed and made effective in the Church’ [ARCIC, see ODCC, p.571]. And through this unbloody sacrifice (this holy sacrifice, with its spotless victim), bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, man partakes of God, and time is swept up—for a moment—into eternity. All this happens at the hands of God’s priest, for that is what he exists to do, through the power and working of the Holy Spirit.
Ten years ago to this day, Fr Philip celebrated Mass for the first time in Worksop Priory. Fr Davage, the preacher on that occasion, spoke of how all eternity had waited for that very moment, the moment when this new priest offered the Sacrifice of the Mass for the first time. Well today, all eternity waits and trembles again as Fr Philip prepares to offer the very same sacrifice once more—the sacrifice which turns bread and wine into God himself, which is offered for the salvation of the whole world, and which transforms each and every one of us who will receive of it.
As we join eternity in waiting for that moment, we might remember those words from the Letter to the Hebrews: ‘As we go in [to the sanctuary], let us be sincere in heart and filled with faith, our hearts sprinkled and free from any trace of bad conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us keep firm in the hope we profess, because the one who made the promise is trustworthy.’ [Hebrews 10: 22–23]
Fr Philip, today we give thanks to Jesus Christ for the 10 years in which you have shared in his priesthood. We give thanks for the BASacs, and all the many gifts and joys that have flowed from them. And we ask God’s blessing upon you, for many, many more years of priestly ministry to come.
Fr Ian McCormack is the Clerical Vice-Chairman of Forward in Faith. This homily was preached to mark the 10th Anniversary of the Ordination to the Priesthood of Fr Philip Corbett, the Editor of New Directions, at St Stephen’s Lewisham.