A Priest's First Mass
June is customarily a month in which men are ordained to the ministerial priesthood throughout the world. One of the most memorable days in a priest's life is the morning he celebrates his First Mass of Thanksgiving.
The year was 1979, and Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen had only months to live. One day, he asked another great Catholic apologist of the twentieth century, Malcolm Muggeridge, to visit him at his apartment in midtown Manhattan. The world will never know the bulk of what transpired between those two lions of the Faith, but fortunately for us someone overheard the parting comment of Archbishop Sheen to Muggeridge. "Christendom is over, but not Christ." And now, twenty-two years later as the world seems to sway further from the path of Christ, the ordination of every new priest is evidence that the lamp of God is not yet extinguished.
It is evidence that a new priest, through a life placed irrevocable at the service of the Church, is called to be a servant and a shepherd, witnessing to the redemption won by Christ, and through his ministry, to bring the light of Christ to a darkened world. We find ourselves in a world that would have been unthinkable only fifty years ago. The goal of life for many people is to amass the most money possible no matter what the cost to themselves and their families. The stock market moves to new highs and lows every day. The economy has produced mansion-sized homes and luxury cars, but something is radically wrong. There is a pervasive emptiness that so many carry about with them, a sadness that will not fade away, and the worst part is that no one seems to know why.
People feel hopeless, see their lives as pointless, and suspect that their dull, vacuous existence is part and parcel of the human condition and will be their lot until the day they die. But that is not the answer. The answer is Christ. As Saint Augustine said, "Our hearts are restless, O God, until they rest in Thee. "Our Lord said: "Whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mt. 20:26-28). What a counter cultural idea! The world says that to be great, you must be rich and powerful. But Christ says that the greatest among us are those who serve.
When a priest is ordained, he is not called to be served, but to serve, just as Christ did. He is called to serve those who have nothing materially, and those who have nothing spiritually. He is called to address the needs, physical, spiritual, and otherwise, of those whom Christ sends into his path, without regard to personal gain. He was ordained to pour out his life to rescue many out from darkness, so that they might be brought into God's wonderful light, both now and in eternity.
It seems that in the United States, given the country's history and the individualistic society in which we live, many people do not respond well to the idea of authority and are not willing to be "shepherded," preferring rather to strike out on their own. But in this age, as in every age, an example of true holiness is an irresistible teacher. Saint Peter exhorts all priests, and especially new priests, to "tend the flock of God in your midst, [overseeing] not by constraint but willingly, as God would have it ... Do not lord it over those assigned to you, but be examples to the flock." A new priest is to give the flock of the Lord the example of Christ, so that all might be drawn to Him Who alone can give peace and joy which pass all understanding, the very peace and joy which we crave with the very depths of our being. It is through this example and through his mission of preaching God's Word and administering the Sacraments that the priest brings the light and life of Christ to a world that is satiated with darkness and death.
The month of June will hold wonderful beginnings for new priests and their ministries, and in a sense, for the Church. Newly ordained priests have answered the call of the Lord, as did Samuel. Now, that their ministry might bear fruit, they will listen as God speaks and, in turn, bring the eternal Logos to all of us in word and in sacrament. Let us pray that God will bless the ministry of our new priests, that many through their lives and work many will be brought to a living and intimate contact with Christ. Let us pray for the Church's newest priests that God, Who has begun the good work in them, will bring it to fufillment! Amen.