Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.

Ordained priesthood in the church: Reflections on a 50th anniversary

December 22, 2013

(Given on Dec. 11, 2013; to the priests gathered in the Queen of All Saints Basilica)

I thank all of you for being here: priests of and in the archdiocese and Chicago seminarians in theology at our seminary in Mundelein. We have come to pray together and take time to relax in each other’s company. I thank the Presbyteral Council for sponsoring and arranging this evening to celebrate priesthood. Certainly, when I think of this anniversary I think first of all of the priesthood itself and only then of my years as a priest.

During the ordination ceremony, the consecratory prayer to the Holy Spirit, inserting the candidates into the order of priesthood, is moving for me; the laying on of my hands, one by one, is intense. But even more touching is stepping back and seeing the long line of priests come forward to lay their hands on the heads of those being ordained priests to follow them.

During the year I served as archbishop of Portland, I ordained only one class of five priests, but I keep up with some of them, as I try to keep up with those whom I ordained for the Diocese of Yakima, the first of whom bears my name, Francisco. A journalist friend from Portland once wrote movingly of this moment of the laying on of hands by the presbyterate during the ordination ceremony. He wrote: “You saw it for an instant, The Priesthood, in all its muddled glory: mere men, of all shapes and sizes and haircuts, fat and thin, short and tall, pink and brown and white, bald and hirsute, lined up along the rail, the older ones reaching with real tenderness and reverence to cup the faces of the younger ones, and praying from the bottoms of their hearts for these men, that they not fail their vows, or lose their faith, or be possessed by greed and avarice, but rather serve the faithful with every iota of their beings, and bring the revolutionary message of Christ to every corner of the world, and finally be taken back home to the light of the Lord, who would be well pleased with his servant and reward him with a place in the front rank of the elect.”

That moment of ordination 50 years ago has defined my life in quite unexpected ways, as it has for each of you. With our vows of chaste celibacy and ministerial obedience, we place our lives in God’s hands, hands that guide us in responding to the people we serve, hands that direct us through the bishop who is our pastor. Such a life is going to be full of events we never imagined or planned, but God has. History is what God remembers, and our lives now fit into his divine providence in ways we never fully anticipated or can completely understand. And that is the source of our joy: it’s not our project.

I’ve taken to saying to the people: have confidence in the goodness of God, and I say it to myself and to all of you this evening. Have confidence in the goodness of God. Because of his grace, mediated by the ministry of priests, there are many holy people in Cook and Lake counties. I meet them every day and, especially, in the parishes you serve by governing, by pastoring. The Gospel is proclaimed, the sacraments of the Apostolic Churches are celebrated, the people are gathered into communities where they can experience God’s love and be safe in his embrace. It works. Have confidence in the goodness of God.

What Pope Francis is saying with new insistence, I believe, is to take that good work and put it ever more personally at the service of the Gospel in the world. We do that here, don’t we? Look again at the works of charity, the deep concern for the poor with their many faces, the dedication to proclaiming the truths that bring salvation. If this anniversary can be a moment of new resolution to bring the joy of the Gospel to those who have turned from Christ or to those who never knew him at all, it will be an important moment in the history of salvation. I pray that it will be so each time I pray for each of you and our people.

We have just listened to that passage from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians that reminds us that we are “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” St. Paul then adds: “it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.” He applies this admonition to himself and to his co-worker Apollos, and to each of us as well. It is, as Paul repeats, all gift. Rejoice in it; be faithful to it, with a fidelity and trust born of your falling in love with Christ himself.

When I told my father many years ago that I believed I might be called to be a priest, he told me: “If you’re going to be a priest, at least be a good one.” I have tried to be a good priest, and that is legacy enough, for me and for you. Let us thank God together, as priests of his church, for our vocation and our journey of faith with the people Christ has given us to love in his name. Have confidence in the goodness of God.”

Dear readers of this column, much can be said about priesthood and much more can be said about priests. This is a moment for me just to say thanks, along with the faithful of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Much to my surprise, I find myself enjoying the anniversary celebrations from Dec. 8 to 22! I am grateful for them and to those who worked so hard to put them together. Even more, I am grateful to all my co-workers, lay and ordained, with whom I minister day after day in the vineyard of the Lord that is the Archdiocese of Chicago.

I was ordained a priest when a great sorrow had overcome the country because of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. A darkness had settled on the land. I celebrate my ordination anniversary each year when the church experiences great joy in the birth of the Light of the World, our savior, Christ the Lord. May all our hearts be filled with the joy born of gratitude for the gift of life and of new life in Christ. A blessed Christmas to you and all those whom God has given you to love.