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If someone were to ask me, [and up to now no one ever has,] what my all-time favorite play/movie is, my answer would be the agnostic Robert Bolt’s A Man for all Seasons which recounts the final months and days of the life of St. Thomas More. In one particular scene, King Henry VIII is losing all patience with his Lord Chancellor’s support for the Pope in Rome, and More’s very nervous wife, Alice, warns her husband that he is on a sure and certain path to at least prison and maybe even death. More turns to her, points to himself and says, “Alice, there is no stuff of martyrdom here.” In that simple and humble declaration, Thomas More indicates what the Italians say in, “que sera, sera” (“what will be will be”). He will follow his conscience not seeking to die for his faith but open to the possibility.
The first reading from the Acts of the Apostles reminds me of that moment in the life of St. Thomas More. A new, renewed, reborn, courageous, committed, conscientious and fully conscious Peter recalls for his largely Jewish audience a summary of the life of Jesus. No longer concerned with “saving his own skin”, Peter aggressively pursues his own personal mission to preach the Gospel for the salvation of the world. Perhaps, like More, Peter sensed the risk of his words and actions and did not seek or wish to be a martyr for the cause, but gave his life, finally, to our Lord in a martyr’s death.
Paul in Ephesians, the second reading, grasps the consequences of embracing the Gospel of Jesus and declares that he was a “prisoner for the Lord.” His bonds and bars, freely accepted, were the tasks of building up the body of Christ, unifying God’s people without discrimination between Jew or Greek, Gentile or Jew. His words to his audience are as true to this moment, 20 centuries later as they were when spoken; we are to take upon ourselves humility and gentleness, patience and forbearance, and through a generous dose of love, to create a bond of peace among the believers. Beaten, tortured, imprisoned, and reviled in certain circles, Paul probably felt no “stuff of martyrdom” either, within himself even though like Peter and like More and like Christ Himself, he too would suffer a martyr’s death.
Peter, Paul, More, Dominic and Dayan, the five of you have at least one thing in common; they were chosen by God for the work of making Christ present and real in the Church and so are you. How did they and how are you two to make Christ present in the world: by loving one another. By loving those whom the Church will soon entrust to your care, regardless of nation of origin, language spoken, color of skin, gift of gender, holier-than-thou or the most despicable of sinners. They are precisely whom God has chosen for you to serve.
If I may one more time, [and come to think of it, who is to stop me?] return to my opening theme. Like Peter, Paul and Sir Thomas More, risks in ministry must be taken. They are constitutive of who we are and what we do. Preaching the Gospel in this moment of history, especially outside the relative safety of a Church, can be challenging. And while it will not likely lead to loss of life, a martyrdom of being ignored, mocked, reviled is quite possible. My dear brothers, I am confident that you enter this moment with the theological training you need but that is the safest part of the ministry you will be beginning. Theology did not get my three historical proto-types in trouble, shaking up the establishment of their time did. Preaching the value of every human life, in a womb of a pregnant mother or a cell at Raiford can get you in trouble. Challenging the establishment to care for the vulnerable elderly, the homeless, the illegal, through active engagement in the mission of social justice can at times make you feel like you are imprisoned by a society that just does not get it. You will make Christ present today not just by celebrating the sacraments, but by calmly, consistently and courageously proclaiming the Gospel with and for those who are most in need of it.
Dominic and Dayan, in a few moments you will answer a few final questions I will ask for the sake of the Church. As I look at you, I know More’s response to Alice would be yours to me: “there is no stuff of martyrdom here.” But in your “yes” you are assuring the Church that you are willing to be sent into ministry, chosen by Christ for this office, without fear or favor, to proclaim the good news in good times and bad. Hearing those affirmations, this Cathedral and this local Church will be filled with hope for you and for the future of the Church. Wewill thereafter seek the help and protection of all the saints of God among whom will be Peter and Paul and Thomas More. Embrace the ministry, full of challenges but also full of joy. The rewards of a good priestly life, indeed a good life lived by anyone, are surely out of this world. But they begin with an acknowledgement that He has chosen for what only He knows but He assures you that you will have the grace you need. More than that, we cannot ask.
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