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In a few moments 31 deacons from the congregation of the Legionaries of Christ will be ordained priests. In the priesthood they attain a goal – they fulfill the calling they’ve striven to answer during their long years of preparation. They have reached an ideal. And even from a human viewpoint this is a cause for joy and satisfaction. But the priesthood is a much higher ideal than any human ideal; it is a response to a call from afar; it comes from God himself. We´ve heard Jesus’ words to his disciples: “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain.”
The word of God that we heard in this first part of the Mass, called the liturgy of the Word, wonderfully illustrates the greatness and the responsibility of this vocation. The first sentiment that arises in the human heart when faced with such a calling is something like fear and insecurity, like weakness and fragility. One would almost like to back away from such an exalted task. It’s the reaction of the prophet Jeremiah: he feels young and unprepared. And we can ask ourselves, who could ever feel prepared to proclaim a message that comes from the mystery of God himself? However we are aware that this is a call from on high to bear a message that’s not my own but of God, and this very awareness gives us the strength to take courage and respond. He who calls and sends is also he who protects, strengthens, and makes fruitful. “Go to whomever I send you and proclaim whatever I tell you. Do not fear, because I am with you to protect you.”
He who is called is never alone. He who is called to be a pastor of the people of God is guided by the great pastor, Christ himself. He hears the words of the psalm in his own heart: “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want… he refreshes my spirit… Even though I walk in the dark valley, no evil will I fear.” Therefore, the one called can calmly look at the future and at his mission. In his friendship with the Lord Jesus who calls and sends him he finds the faithful friend; he finds his reassurance and his support. The words of Jesus make him walk with confidence, with a steady and determined heart. The words coming from Jesus are awe-inspiring: “As my Father loves me, so I love you. Remain in my love.” I have told you this so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete.” “I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.” And the Lord has given to his friends the greatest imaginable proof of his love: he has given his own life: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And the Lord wants his friendship with those whom he consecrates his priests to grow ever greater, until it reaches a full identification: “Amicitia vel parem invenit vel parem facit.” That is to say, friendship is between equals, or it makes friends the same. And this happens in a marvelous manner in a priest’s life. At every level: at the level of being, of mission, of action. In the entire person and in the whole of his life.
By the sacrament of Holy Orders these young men will receive a special configuration to Christ, eternal high priest, in order to continue his saving work in the Church. Once they have received the seal of Holy Orders, with his authority and in his name they will be able to proclaim the gospel word and sanctify others through the sacraments by which Jesus carries out his saving work. The priest is so closely configured to Christ that, as the theologians put it, he acts “in persona Christi”; the actions are done by the priest, but they are Christ’s actions and therefore have the effect of divine action. They effect what they signify: they produce sanctifying grace in Baptism, they confer the fullness of the Holy Spirit in Confirmation, they transform bread and wine into the body and blood of the Lord, they forgive sins in sacramental absolution, they give strength in the midst of suffering and especially at the hour of death, they confer the grace of Holy Orders and the grace of Matrimony for spouses.
At their deepest level, Christ’s actions reach fulfillment in the Paschal mystery, in his passion and death and glorious resurrection. This is the priestly act that gave fulfillment and meaning to Jesus’ entire life; and this is what we celebrate in the Eucharist, which contains Christ himself, and therefore contains all the spiritual treasures of the Church. The Letter to the Hebrews puts it eloquently: “But Christ… entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.” Jesus has obtained the salvation of the world and he sanctified men when “through the eternal spirit he offered himself unblemished to God.” This is the greatest act of his priesthood.
The Catholic priest’s entire meaning is also found in the Paschal mystery and in the Eucharist which he celebrates and renews. In order to celebrate it worthily, the priest must be ready to repay Christ’s love with the gift of his own life. And this is the great gift that the Lord gives you and asks of you today: the gift of your life, a life lived out in total, generous, and joyful love.
I’m sure that you’re aware of all this, because you are prepared and well-formed. And you are particularly aware of it because the last few years of your preparation coincided with the path of purification and renewal that the Church asked the Legion to undertake under her guidance. This path has led up to an extraordinary general chapter, which will elect new superiors for the future and approve new constitutions for the congregation. And, after more than three years of preparation, the chapter has been convoked and will begin on January 8, 2014.
You have persevered in your congregation and today you will receive the priesthood in it; trials have buffeted the Legion, and you have experienced them all. If you’re here today, it’s because you have overcome them; and if you have overcome them, it’s only because your hearts have preserved the certainty of a love, the love of Christ.
There was a moment in the Legion when sin oppressed it, when sin became so visible and clamorous that it reached monstrous proportions and filled the media throughout the world. The Legion’s survival seemed uncertain. The world looked at it with a pitiless gaze that uncovered the indigence and the shame. It was truly a difficult moment. For the Legionaries it was certainly an unpleasant and difficult time.
Their faithfulness to the vocation – or at least their call to the Legion itself – was sorely tested. Some felt they should believe all that they heard. Others felt lost and distrustful when they heard the facts: some thought and said that nothing new could ever arise from the ashes. Some – fortunately only a few – have left the priesthood. Others have remained, because they believe that they chose Christ, who did not betray them and can never betray them. They have entrusted themselves to the God of goodness and of mercy, who is able to renew man’s heart and bring forth children of Abraham even from the very stones. They have stayed. They are numerous. They are the great majority, and you are among them. All your brothers here are also among them, and they gather around you to celebrate today, together with your relatives and friends.
You who have stayed are not personally responsible for the painful facts re-lived over the past 3 years. By your decision and by your faithfulness, by your suffering and by bearing the shame of other Legionaries’ sins, you have enabled the purification and renewal of the congregation itself, and you have made it more beautiful in its service to Regnum Christi and to the Church. And by your behavior you have reaffirmed that the world is not made new when we limit ourselves, or get lost in scandals or in distrust, or stay on the sidelines to watch with curiosity or express our own dissatisfaction. The world is made new when we take up the burden of sin by the offering of our own lives, and remain faithful to our vocation. These are the Legionaries of Christ that the Church and the Legion need.
The path over the last 3 years has been a path of penance and of purification, and all this is aimed at renewal. You have been able to listen to the many accusations that have come from all sides. You have examined them. You have seen whether they were true or not. And you have admitted the truth, and tried to correct what was wrong. You have suffered, and you have realized the suffering that other Legionaries – beginning with the founder – have caused in the lives of others. And the suffering of others has helped you to understand and carry your own suffering. You have experienced the peace that suffering brings, and the reconciliation that comes from forgiveness, which we all need so much. I trust that a new Legion will come from all this, a Legion reconciled with itself and with others, a Legion able to forgive and to ask forgiveness. The new constitutions are not simply the result of a juridical process; they are the fruit of a long examination of conscience by the entire congregation.
These facts have surely left a positive mark on your own priesthood. Jesus Christ, the eternal high priest, has come to show us the merciful face of the Father, to forgive us and to make us adopted children of God. May this be the face of your priesthood too. Redemption is linked to the forgiveness that hangs from the wood of the Cross, and from there it shines upon the world and becomes the hope of salvation.