Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

The beginning of a lifelong conversation

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The following homily was delivered by Cardinal Cupich at the May 19 priests’ ordination Mass.

Welcome to all of you. My special greeting goes to the parents, families and friends of the ordinandi. I know that some of you have traveled long distances. We are blessed to have each one of you here today.  

My brothers, the Gospel scene you selected for today opens with Jesus and his disciples just having finished breakfast. It is the start of a new day and it is at this moment that Jesus decides to pull Peter aside to begin a conversation about the rest of his life. This is a scene made for you, for today is not just any day, but a new day, the start of a conversation that will be the point of reference for the rest of your life. 

So, for a moment see yourself entering into this scene, this conversation Jesus is having with Peter. See Jesus pulling you aside to have a similar intimate talk about your future with him.

He begins by asking you a question: “Do you love me more than these?” It is a question that brings all disciples of Jesus back to the moment when, walking along the shores of Galilee, those first to be called heard him ask, “What are you looking for?” Both are questions of the heart. 

Before knowing your talents, your learning, your intelligence, your acquired skills, he wants to know the longings of your heart. Return often to the moment in your life, that Galilee shore moment, when he first called you and you discovered that your heart is all he ever wanted. That is a good way to start this first day of your priesthood and, for that matter, each new day forward. 

Let him first know not what you are going to do or have to do, what you need, your successes or sufferings, but what you have been looking for, what is in your heart and what you wanted to tell him from the very beginning: “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” What a great way to begin your prayer this and every new day.

But then we hear him repeat the question not twice but three times. We can sympathize with Peter, who is left exasperated and frustrated, wondering why Jesus was not satisfied the first time he responded. In commenting on this passage, St. Augustine writes that Peter’s threefold confession of love was needed to blot out his threefold sin of denial. (“Sermon 88 on the Gospels”). Augustine explains that because sin leaves us so deeply wounded, our healing must come in stages. 

Pope Francis echoes this truth in “Gaudete et Exsultate,” calling on Augustine frequently to remind us that “in this life human weaknesses are not healed completely and once for all by grace. … Grace, precisely because it builds on nature, does not make us superhuman all at once. … Grace acts in history,” taking hold of us and transforming us progressively.  

In asking Peter the question three times, Jesus was calling him to be patient with his humanity. But he was also asking Peter to trust that his grace, while not healing his sin all at once, works gradually, in a targeted and organic way. Both your personal lives and your ministry to the people of God should always reflect this core value of Christian doctrine, moving you to be humbly patient with human weakness but also fiercely trusting of God’s persistent grace. 

Finally, Jesus tells the fisherman, Peter, “tend my sheep.” But wait a minute — a shepherd? Peter was told he was going to be a “fisher of men.” And besides, just before this post-breakfast conversation, Peter didn’t do so badly as a fisherman, hauling in a total of 153 fish. Now he is to be a shepherd? 

You could almost hear him saying, “I didn’t sign up for this.” It is hard to imagine a wider gap in skill sets. Clearly, either Jesus or the placement board didn’t get the memo. (I can hear Father Mike Knotek, head of our priests’ placement board, now: “Oh sure, blame the placement board.”)

It is striking, as far as I know, that in the history of Christian art there are no depictions of Peter as a shepherd tending a flock. He is always shown as a fisherman, hauling in a catch, tending his nets or getting out of the boat to walk on water. Yet, as we hear in the second reading, when Peter addresses his fellow presbyters about how they should approach the ministry they share with him, he robustly embraces his new role as a shepherd: “Tend the flock of God in your midst, overseeing not by constraint but willingly, as God would have it, not for shameful profit but eagerly. Do not lord it over those assigned to you, but be examples to the flock.” 

Maybe the difference between the artistic depictions of Peter as a fisherman and these words in his First Letter, portraying himself as a shepherd, is expressive of the tension that we often feel in our ministry as priests. It is a tension we experience as the church calls us to stretch beyond our own expectations or personal inclinations, especially if it means not recognizing or using the talents we think we have, or even humbly accepting that maybe we have placed limitations on the potential others see in us. 

Like Peter we should be willing to live in that tension, and willing to do what the church needs and asks of us. It would not be too difficult to believe that after this morning conversation, Peter once again left his nets and his boat, as he did the first time he met Jesus, but this time he left them for good.

The story of an early morning conversation with Jesus has so much to offer you on this new day in your life. But consider it just the start of an ongoing conversation that should continue through your ministry. I encourage you always to try to make a connection between the Word of the day and your service of God’s people. 

For instance, as you recall the story of the poor widow Jesus observes giving all she has, be inspired by the many parents who sacrifice so much for their children, and the generosity of ordinary people, while unheralded, does so much good. 

As you proclaim the Gospel of the rich young man who went away sad, remember Jesus’ response. He looked on this youth seeking purpose in life not with condemnation or judgment but with love. 

As you preach on the Beatitudes, remember that when the Lord looked over the crowd from the hilltop, he did not lord it over them or point out their faults and shortcomings, but he told them they were both blessed and blessings in the kingdom of God. 

And as you come to the Chrism Mass each year, and hear the same text from Isaiah proclaimed on the day of your ordination, take seriously that you serve so many who look to you not just to announce these glad tidings, but do all you can to see that they are fulfilled in their hearing. 

The liturgy of ordination this day tells us that the Lord has set you apart for service to the people of God. The Gospel you have chosen makes clear that this setting apart is not to separate you from the people, but to help keep fresh in your mind that on the day of your ordination, calling you to tend the flock, He pulled you aside, as He did Peter, to begin a conversation He wants to continue for the rest of your lives.  


  • priests
  • ordination