Updated: Jul 14, 2022
Watch the livestream of this homily below, courtesy of Fr Robert Verrill OP, Acting Chaplain 2020-21:
Oddly enough for a party animal like myself, I’m not much given to celebrate my own milestones. Noone in the chaplaincy, as far as I know, or on Facebook, knows my birthday. I don’t make much of my achievements. It’s not an excess of humility – I couldn't lay claim to that – but I just feel uncomfortable with a festival of ‘me’, a merrymaking on my own account. For other people, yes – at a drop of a hat, let’s have a party. But I don’t usually feel it’s appropriate to turn the spotlight inwards.
Today, however, I am going to celebrate with you, and brag a little, for I mark on this day my thirtieth anniversary of ordination. Every year of those thirty has been a blessing and has brought me joy, fulfilment, and a greater sense of the Lord’s call in my life. The passing years have also brought challenges, but never more so than this year: when I celebrate in an empty chapel, beginning an academic year with students and other members of the Catholic community out of contact; when I personally will be withdrawing to my room to isolate for the foreseeable future.
I’ve been asking myself what God’s message to me is in this: how is his Will worked out in a situation devoid of pastoral engagement, preaching, liturgy – some of the main elements of priesthood? We’ve just heard Our Lord say to St Peter ‘feed my lambs’, ‘feed my sheep’ – I can’t even feed the pigeons on Guildhall Street; how am I meant to feed the Lord’s flock?
It raises a question for me about what priesthood is about, what my priesthood is about, what the Lord asks of me during this anxious time. The readings we’ve heard today, which are the readings I chose thirty years ago for my Ordination Mass, give me three points to chew over – not quite answers to my question, but pointers, helps, food for thought, as I seek to give thanks to the Lord in this lamentable situation.
The first and most obvious comes in the Gospel: Our Lord charges St Peter to feed his flock, but immediately links that to a loss of Peter’s personal autonomy: ‘Someone else will put a belt round you and take you where you would rather not go.’ To serve the Lord, yes, means to let go of self-determination, something I’ve certainly found in my years of priesthood: being moved from parish to parish, leaving communities and friends, taking on responsibilities I could never have imagined or asked for. But now perhaps is the greatest renunciation of all: withdrawing for months from personal contact, the groups, the conviviality, the Mass: all that I consider the purpose and lifeblood of priesthood. As a young priest, a wise old priest told me that I would be called ‘to love and let go’ throughout my ministry. How true that has been!
But in priestly terms, this renunciation is not an exercise in asceticism, earning points for extreme spirituality, like Simeon Stylites siting on the top of his pillar. St Paul is clear about this in our first reading, which is my second point: ‘I have accepted the loss of everything,’ he says, ‘if only I can have Christ’. Renunciation brings not bleakness, but a new configuration in our relationship with Christ: a discovery of an unexpected life in him.
I think many of us have found in this time of lockdown that this is true: not being able to attend Mass in person, the Lord has come to us in other ways – unanticipated, new, revealing facets of his presence in our lives that we had underestimated or never thought about. Many people, for example, have told me how scripture speaks to them powerfully in this time in a way they had never grasped before. This then, is not a renunciation, but a realignment, a rediscovery.
And all for me is encapsulated in my third point from the Psalm, my favourite psalm, 138: ‘O Lord, you search me and you know me’. I misunderstood what priesthood was about if I think it’s about my own growth in holiness and familiarity with pastoral situations – becoming increasingly adept at knowing god and sharing that with others. No: it is God who searches and discerns my purpose, who knows my heart. ‘Test me,’ says the psalm, ‘and know my heart’. God seeks us out with his very thoughts, wherever I am, whatever befalls; God never ceases to pursue the hound of heaven, or, in my favourite line of the psalm: ‘behind and before, you besiege me’.
The point is not simply that God is seeking, looking out, or following me: it is that his very knowledge of me, his marking when I walk or lie down, is creative: God’s thoughts, God’s discernment of my purpose, sustains me in being, forms me, renders me a new man. The very thoughts of God are life.
And, so the promise is not merely that God will watch over me and all of us at this time of separation and distancing, but will also, in this time, renew us, create us, and fashion us.
My celebration of thirty years of priesthood is subdued this year. But there is a quiet certainty, expressed overall in that psalm: a hope to which we can cling, that even in this time of renunciation, there are blessings and a fresh sense of living in Christ. That, indeed, is something to celebrate.
This homily was preached by Mgr Mark Langham, Chaplain at Fisher House, on Wednesday 16 September 2020, celebrating the 30th anniversary of his priestly ordination. It was the last public livestreamed Mass Fr Mark offered at Fisher House before he died four months later.
Fr Mark Langham was the much-loved Catholic Chaplain to the University of Cambridge from 2013 to 2021. He had formerly been Administrator at Westminster Cathedral and spent five years on the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in Rome. Fr Mark passed away on 15 January 2021.