“Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something.”
This invitation of Jesus to his first disciples, the apostles, which we have read today from the end of the Gospel of John appears in a similar manner at the beginning of the Gospel of Luke: “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” Put out into deep water, “Duc in Altum”: Pope John Paul II echoed this invitation of Jesus at the start of the new millennium, in his apostolic letter “Novo Millennio Ineunte”:
At the beginning of the new millennium, and at the close of the Great Jubilee during which we celebrated the two thousandth anniversary of the birth of Jesus and a new stage of the Church’s journey begins, our hearts ring out with the words of Jesus when one day, after speaking to the crowds from Simon’s boat, he invited the Apostle to “put out into the deep” for a catch: “Duc in altum” (Lk 5:4). Peter and his first companions trusted Christ’s words, and cast the nets. “When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish” (Lk 5:6).
Duc in altum! These words ring out for us today, and they invite us to remember the past with gratitude, to live the present with enthusiasm and to look forward to the future with confidence: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever” (Heb 13:8).
In celebrating the Jubilee year and the start of the new millennium, Pope John Paul reminded us that:
Christianity is a religion rooted in history! It was in the soil of history that God chose to establish a covenant with Israel and so prepare the birth of the Son from the womb of Mary “in the fullness of time” (Gal 4:4). Understood in his divine and human mystery, Christ is the foundation and centre of history, he is its meaning and ultimate goal. It is in fact through him, the Word and image of the Father, that “all things were made” (Jn 1:3; cf. Col 1:15). His incarnation, culminating in the Paschal Mystery and the gift of the Spirit, is the pulsating heart of time, the mysterious hour in which the Kingdom of God came to us (cf. Mk 1:15), indeed took root in our history, as the seed destined to become a great tree (cf. Mk 4:30-32).
It is in this perspective that I would like to live this celebration of my 10th anniversary of ordination the priesthood. We want to celebrate this occasion because we want to remind ourselves that God has rooted himself in our human history, he acts in our lives, in our life stories, and we want to thank Him and praise Him for His wondrous deeds, as did Mary in her song of praise after the annunciation.
I celebrate 10 years of a wondrous deed that God has done in my life, with no merit of my own. He has deigned to make me an instrument of his divine grace in administrating the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist and Reconciliation, but also Anointing of the sick, the sacrament of Baptism, and assisting in the sacrament of Marriage. I would like to remember the graces lived in the Church in these past years, and that I have been able to live closely even geographically, being physically present at special events of our time.
My journey to Rome started in a certain sense in the chapel at St. Anselm College. It was in front of the Blessed Sacrament there that I decided to say yes and undertake this life adventure of joining a new community and traveling to Rome. I was 17 years old, and this was 17 years ago. It was a special time in the Church. I left for Rome in 1996, joining a religious community that took inspiration from St. Maximilian Kolbe, patron of our difficult century. I lived with my confreres in an apartment next to where St. Maximilian had lived while he was studying in Rome, near the Circus Maximus, not far from the Roman Forum or the Coliseum. I started my studies in philosophy at the Angelicum, the same pontifical university that a certain Fr. Karol Wojtyla had studied at a few years before and where he had presented his doctoral thesis on “The question of Faith in St. John of the Cross”. Me and my confreres were followed up personally by the then Cardinal Vicar, Camillo Ruini, who invited us in 1997 to enter the Roman Seminary to start our priestly formation. So for the next 6 years of this divine adventure, I lived next to the Cathedral of Rome, the Mother of all Churches, St. John Lateran Basilica, and I continued my studies at the Lateran University. In the meantime, the Church was preparing for the Jubilee Year, and I was able to live the great graces of the Jubilee Year right at the center of the Church. John Paul II had been looking forward to the Jubilee Year since the start of his Pontificate. In the Year of the Family in 1994, he published “Novo Millennio Adveniente”, which gave the guidelines for spiritual preparation to the Jubileee Year. He reminded us that “With the Incarnation, God entered human history, eternity entered time: Christ is the Lord of time. In Christianity, time has a fundamental importance. Since God has entered our human time, there arises the duty to sanctify time.”, and this is why we celebrate Jubilee years, or priestly anniversaries.
John Paul II saw the Jubilee year as a time of hope for the Church, as a springtime for the Church. In his first Encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, he spoke explicitly of the Great Jubilee as a time to be lived as a “new Advent”. He saw the Year of Redemption of 1983 and the Marian Year of 1986-1987 as anticipations of the Jubilee Year. The Jubilee Year certainly was a time of grace in the Church, and helps us to remember that we are the christians of the new millenium, we are the christians of a new era in christianity. We are all responsible for the growth and liveliness of the christian community at the start of this millennium, through our example of faith and in listening to God’s Word.
Some of the other highlights of Church history that I have lived closely in these past 17 years in Rome, are World Youth Day in Paris in 1997, where Frederic Ozanam, apostle of charity in today’s world, was beatified, and Pope John Paul announced that he would soon declare St. Therese of Lisieux a Doctor of the Church. I was then in St. Peter’s Square for this celebration on October 19th 1997. Pope John Paul II thus recognized that the writings and the life example of this young girl, a young carmelite nun, could shed new light of understanding of the Gospel. In his homily that day he remembered that:
“Thérèse of Lisieux did not only grasp and describe the profound truth of Love as the centre and heart of the Church, but in her short life she lived it intensely”, and that “She counters a rational culture, so often overcome by practical materialism, with the disarming simplicity of the “little way” which, by returning to the essentials, leads to the secret of all life: the divine Love that surrounds and penetrates every human venture. In a time like ours, so frequently marked by an ephemeral and hedonistic culture, this new doctor of the Church proves to be remarkably effective in enlightening the mind and heart of those who hunger and thirst for truth and love”.
This has been one of the landmarks of my own vocational path, the remarkable example of this young carmelite nun and her “little way”. John Paul continues:
“The way she took to reach this ideal of life (of working for God’s glory, of loving Him and making Him loved) is not that of the great undertakings reserved for the few, but on the contrary, a way within everyone’s reach, the “little way”, a path of trust and total self-abandonment to the Lord’s grace.”
Another highlight that I lived closely was the Beatification of Padre Pio on May 2nd 1999. I was again there present in St. Peter’s Square with the crowd of thousands of people that had come from all over the world. John Paul II had met this young and humble capuchin friar personally while he was a student in Rome, and held him in great esteem. Padre Pio had suffered many misunderstandings and was tried in his obedience to the church, but he always showed great humility and deference to his ecclesiastic superiors. He lived an intense experience of the Passion of Jesus present in the Eucharist. I had the grace of being present again at his canonization on June 16th 2002… Because of the great crowd (an estimated 300,000 pilgrims) we were dislocated in the various Basilica’s of the city for the ceremony. Padre Pio is yet another example in the past century of a holiness that is possible, of an intense conforming to Christ in the way of the Gospel.
I lived with enthusiasm the organization and realization of World Youth Day in Rome during the Jubilee Year. We welcomed thousands of youth from around the world with many catechetic activities using theatre and song and prayer.
I had the grace of participating in another event, that of the beatification of Mother Theresa of Calcutta on October 19th 2003. Again we have a witness of the light of the Gospel of charity in today’s society. In his homily during the celebration, John Paul II remembered that “Mother Teresa, an icon of the Good Samaritan, went everywhere to serve Christ in the poorest of the poor. Not even conflict and war could stand in her way. ”
And yet another event I would like to remember, and at which I was present, is the funeral of Chiara Lubich at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Wall on March 18th 2008. In his homily for the celebration Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone remembered that:
The 20th century is dotted with the bright stars of [God’s] divine love. Consequently, it should not be remembered solely for the marvellous breakthroughs achieved in the fields of science and technology and for economic progress, which has not eliminated, however, the unjust division of resources and goods between peoples but on the contrary has sometimes even accentuated it. The 20th century will not pass into history merely because of the efforts made to build peace, which unfortunately have not prevented horrendous crimes against humanity, and conflicts and wars that never cease to bathe vast regions of the earth in blood. Although the last century was fraught with contradictions, it is the century in which God brought forth innumerable, heroic men and women who, while they alleviated the wounds of the sick and the suffering and shared the destiny of the little, the poor and the lowly, dispensed the bread of charity that heals hearts, opens minds to the truth and restores trust and enthusiasm to lives broken by violence, injustice and sin. The Church already identifies some of these pioneers of charity as Saints and Blesseds: Fr Guanella, Fr Orione, Fr Calabria, Mother Teresa of Calcutta and even more.
It was also the century when new Ecclesial Movements were born, and Chiara Lubich found room in this constellation for a charism that was quite her own and distinguished her apostolic action. The Foundress of the Focolare Movement, in her own silent, humble style, did not create institutions for social assistance and human advancement, but dedicated herself to kindling in hearts the fire of love for God. She formed individuals who were love itself, who lived the charism of unity and communion with God and with their neighbour; people who spread “love-unity” by making themselves, their homes and their work a “focolare” [hearth] where divine love burns contagiously and sets ablaze all who are close to it. This is a mission possible to everyone because the Gospel is within everyone’s reach: Bishops and priests, children, young people and adults, consecrated and lay people, married couples, families and communities, all are called to live the ideal of unity: “that they may all be one!”. In the last interview she granted, which was published in the final days of her agony, Chiara said: “The vital sap of the Mystical Body of Christ is the wonder of reciprocal love”.
Chiara Lubich and the Focolare movement have had quite an impact on today’s society in their concrete way of living the Gospel to the letter, under the protection of Mary, in the fields of economics and politics, in the field of inter-religious dialogue, in reminding us that to be christians means to live in unity embracing the cross and, like Christ on the cross, abandoning ourselves to the loving Will of God the Father.
Yet another great witness of the Gospel that I have had the opportunity of being close to is the Blessed Karol Wojtyla himself. I had the grace of being ordained a priest by his hands on May 11th 2003 in St. Peter’s Basilica. I have always felt a close bond Blessed Karol Wojtyla, also from the fact that I was the first young man born under his pontificate to be ordained by him. I was also present in St. Peter’s Square the evening of April 2nd 2005, the evening of his passing, praying the rosary with some youth from my parish. I witnessed the crowds of people come from around the world to pay him their respect, the long lines of waiting to visit his casket and pray in his blessed presence, the great service and volunteer work organized in little time to welcome the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims come from around the world. I was present at his funeral celebration in St. Peter’s Square on April 8th 2005. Cardinal Ratzinger reflected on that occasion on the words of Jesus to Peter, “Follow me”, re-reading the life of Karol Wojtyla in the light of these words. He remembered John Paul II’s particular devotion to Mary:
“Divine Mercy: the Holy Father [John Paul II] found the purest reflection of God’s mercy in the Mother of God. He, who at an early age had lost his own mother, loved his divine mother all the more. He heard the words of the crucified Lord as addressed personally to him: “Behold your Mother.” And so he did as the beloved disciple did: he took her into his own home” (eis ta idia: Jn 19:27) – Totus tuus. And from the mother he learned to conform himself to Christ.
None of us can ever forget how in that last Easter Sunday of his life, the Holy Father, marked by suffering, came once more to the window of the Apostolic Palace and one last time gave his blessing urbi et orbi. We can be sure that our beloved Pope is standing today at the window of the Father’s house, that he sees us and blesses us.”
I was present at the Prayer Vigil at the Circus Maximus with the youth of Rome the evening of April 30th 2011, and at his beatification ceremony in St. Peter’s Square on Divine Mercy Sunday, May 1st 2011. It was again Divine Mercy Sunday, one week after Easter. The now Pope Benedict stated in his homily: “Six years ago we gathered in this Square to celebrate the funeral of Pope John Paul II. Our grief at his loss was deep, but even greater was our sense of an immense grace which embraced Rome and the whole world: a grace which was in some way the fruit of my beloved predecessor’s entire life, and especially of his witness in suffering. Even then we perceived the fragrance of his sanctity, and in any number of ways God’s People showed their veneration for him. For this reason, with all due respect for the Church’s canonical norms, I wanted his cause of beatification to move forward with reasonable haste. And now the longed-for day has come; it came quickly because this is what was pleasing to the Lord: John Paul II is blessed! ” I remember the great and long applause that broke out in the square at these words.
I was also present in St. Peter’s Square the day of the election of Pope Benedict, April 19th 2005, and received his first blessing. I confess however that I was not present in St. Peter’s Square for the election of Pope Francis, I watched it on tv this time.
I wanted to remember all these events of grace in the Church that have left a mark on my own priestly path, to remind us all that the Church today is still flourishing, is still alive and vibrant, notwithstanding the difficult times and the trials, the scandals and the contradictions due to human weakness and bad examples that have been contrary to the gospel way of life, there is yet a light of hope. There are many witnesses of holiness in today’s world that affirm that the church is holy, and that holiness is possible. There truly is a springtime in the church at the start of this new millennium, and each one of us has the opportunity to partake in this time of grace and be witnesses to the Gospel, on the condition that we “open wide the doors to Christ”, that we not be afraid to embrace the cross of Christ, the greatest sign of the love of God the Father towards humanity.
One last thought on the priesthood. There is only one true priest, who is Christ himself. He abolished the priesthood of old by offering himself as the sacrificial victim, as we learn from the Epistle to the Hebrews: “In the days when he was in the flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, declared by God high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.” (Hebrews 5:7-10), and again “Those priests were many because they were prevented by death from remaining in office, but he, because he remains forever, has a priesthood that does not pass away… He has no need, as did the high priests, to offer sacrifice day after day, first for his own sins and then for those of the people; he did that once for all when he offered himself.” (Hebrews 7:23-24.27) Priesthood in the church is nothing more than a partaking in the priesthood of Christ, for we have nothing more to offer to the Father than His own Body and Blood. Jesus entrusted his misison to his apostles, today we heard in the Gospel the mission entrusted to Peter: “Feed my lambs… Tend my sheep”. Indeed the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep is the example to which we as priests look and according to which we must strive to live.
Today I give thanks to the Lord for choosing me to be an instrument of his grace in administrating the sacraments and teaching his Word in the local church of the city of Rome. Sometimes the pastoral ministry can risk becoming mechanical, but it is God’s work, it is an experience of grace, and I myself must each day renew my faith and remind myself of who am I, and what it means to be a priest working in the vineyard of the Lord.
I have also had the grace in the past year to start as a pilgrim guide to the Holy Land and to the shrines of Fatima in Portugal and Santiago in Spain, for the diocesan pilgrimage office, which accompanies pilgrims not only from different parts of Italy but at times also from different parts of the world. I have had the grace to walk along the roads that Jesus himself walked on a number of times already, and I hope for many times yet to come. I pray for peace in this land full of contradictions and conflict, and I invite you to do the same, often, incessantly. May there be unity of peoples, of cultures, of religions, accepting to live together in peace and harmony. It may require a miracles, but we all know that miracles can happen, especially if we pray for them with faith and perseverance.
I invite you all to pray for me, that I may continue to persevere and that I may be an instrument of God’s grace. (Many ask me if I think of coming back to the Manchester diocese, the thought does cross my mind, and I don’t exclude this possibility, but I will continue for the time being in serving in the diocese of Rome, which has become my home for the past 17 years of my life.) May Mary, Mother of God, intercede for me and for us all, and guide us all in conforming ever more to Christ her Son.
Laudetur Iesus Christus.