VATICAN CITY, APRIL 30, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the homily Benedict XVI gave Sunday when he celebrated Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica and ordained nine to the priesthood.
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Dear brothers and sisters!
The Roman tradition of celebrating priestly ordinations on this fourth Sunday of Easter, “Good Shepherd Sunday,” contains a great richness of meaning, linked to the Word of God, the liturgical rite and the Easter Season in which they are situated. In particular, the figure of the shepherd, so relevant in Sacred Scripture and naturally very important for the definition of the priest, has, in the face of Christ, in the light of the mystery of his death and resurrection, its total truth and clarity. You too, dear ordinands, can always draw from this richness every day of your life, and in this way your priesthood will be continually renewed.
This year the Gospel passage is that central one in Chapter 10 of John, which begins with Jesus telling us, “I am the good shepherd,” which is immediately followed by the first fundamental characteristic [of this shepherd]: “The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep” (John 10:11). Well, we are immediately led into the center of things, to the culmination of the revelation of God as shepherd of his people; Jesus is this center and culmination, precisely Jesus who dies on the cross and rises from the sepulcher on the third day, rises with all of his humanity, and in this way involves us, every man, in his passage from death to life. This event – Christ’s Passover – in which God’s work as shepherd is definitively realized, is a sacrificial event: this is why the Good Shepherd and the High Priest coincide in the person of Jesus, who gave his life for us.
But let us briefly comment on the first two readings and the responsorial psalm (Psalm 118). The passage from the Acts of the Apostles (4:8-11) presents us with the testimony of St. Peter before the leaders of the people and the elders of Jerusalem, after the miraculous healing of the cripple. Peter says with great frankness that “Jesus is the stone, rejected by you the builders, that has become the cornerstone”; and adds: “There is salvation in no one else; there is in fact no other name under heaven given to men in which we are saved” (4:11-12). The Apostle then interprets Psalm 118 in the light of the paschal mystery of Christ. The person at prayer in this Psalm gives thanks to God who has answered his cry for help and rescued him. This psalm says: “The stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone. The Lord has done this and it is marvelous in our eyes” (118:22-23). This is exactly the experience of Jesus: being rejected by the leaders of his people and being rehabilitated by God, placed as the foundation of the new temple, of a new people who will give praise to the Lord with the fruits of justice (cf. Matthew 21:42-43). Thus, the first reading and the responsorial psalm, Psalm 118, powerfully recall the Easter context and with this image of the stone that was rejected and reinstituted they direct our gaze to Jesus dead and risen.
The second reading, taken from the First Letter of John (3:1-2), speaks to us instead of the fruit of Christ’s Passover: our becoming sons of God. In John’s words we still hear all of the amazement over this gift: not only are we called sons of God, we “truly are” (3:1). In effect, man’s filial condition is the fruit of Jesus’ salvific work: with his incarnation, with his death and resurrection and with the gift of the Holy Spirit, he inserted man into a new relation with God, his own relation with the Father. For this reason the risen Jesus says: “I ascend to my Father and your Father, my God and your God” (John 20:17). It is an entirely real relation, but one that is not yet entirely manifested: it will be at the end, when – if God wishes – we will see his face unveiled (cf. 1 John 3:2).
Dear ordinands, this is where the Good Shepherd wants to lead us! This is where the priest is called to lead the faithful and all those entrusted to him: to the true life, to life “in abundance” (John 10:10). Let us turn, then, to the Gospel, and to the parable of the shepherd. Jesus insists on this essential characteristic of the true shepherd, who is Jesus himself: “laying down his life.” He repeats it three times, and at the end concludes saying: “This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father” (John 10:17-18). This is clearly the decisive trait of the shepherd as Jesus interprets him in the first person, according to the will of the Father who sent him. The biblical figure of the shepherd-king, which principally includes the task of ruling God’s people, of keeping them united and leading them. This whole royal function is fully realized in Jesus Christ in his sacrificial dimension, in the offering of his life. It is realized, in a word, in the mystery of the cross, that is, in the supreme act of humility and sacrificial love. Abbot Theodore the Studite says: “Through the cross, we Christ’s sheep, are gathered together in one fold and we are destined for the eternal dwellings” (“Discourse on the Adoration of the Cross,” PG 99, 699).
The Rite of the Ordination of Priests, which we are celebrating, is oriented according to this perspective. For example, among the questions that touch on the “duties of the elect,” the last, which has in a synthetic way the aspect of culmination says: “Do you resolve to be united ever more closely to Christ the High Priest, who offered Himself for us to the Father as a pure sacrifice, and with Him to consecrate yourself to God for the salvation of all men?” The priest in fact is he who is inserted in a singular way in the mystery of Christ’s sacrifice, with a personal union with him, to prolong his salvific mission. It is asked that this union, that occurs through the Sacrament of Holy Orders, become “ever more close” through the generous correspondence of the priest himself. For this reason, dear ordinands, in a short while you will respond to this question, “Yes, with God’s help, I do.” Following this, at the moment of the anointing with the chrism, the celebrant says: “The Lord Jesus Christ, whom the Father consecrated in the Holy Spirit and power, guard and preserve you, that you may sanctify his people and offer sacrifice.” And then, at the handing over of the bread and wine: “Receive the offerings of the holy people for the eucharistic sacrifice. Know what you do, imitate what you celebrate, and conform your life to the mystery of the cross of Christ the Lord.” It is quite clear that, for the priest, celebrating Mass every day does not mean performing a ritual but undertaking a mission that fully and deeply engages his existence, in communion with the risen Christ who, in his Church, continues to realize this redeeming sacrifice.
This eucharistic-sacrificial dimension is inseparable from the pastoral dimension and constitutes the nucleus of truth and salvific power, on which the effectiveness of every activity depends. Naturally, we are not speaking only of effectiveness on a psychological or social level, but of the vital fecundity of the presence of God at a deep human level. Preaching itself, works, various gestures of the Church done in her numerous initiatives, would lose their salvific fruitfulness without the celebration of Christ’s sacrifice. And this is entrusted to the ordained priests. In effect, the priest himself is called to live what Jesus experienced firsthand, that is, to give himself fully to preaching and healing man of every evil of body and spirit, and then, finally, to take everything up into the supreme gesture of “laying down one’s life” for men, a gesture that has its sacramental expression in the Eucharist, perpetual memorial of the Passover of Jesus. It is only through this “gate” of the paschal sacrifice that the men and women of all times and places can enter into eternal life; it is along this “holy way” that they may make the exodus that leads them to the “promised land” of true freedom, to the “green pastures” of peace and joy without end” (cf. John 10:7, 9; Psalm 77:14, 20-21; Psalm 23:2).
Dear ordinands, may this Word of God illuminate your whole life. And when the weight of the cross is the most heavy, know that this is the most precious hour for you and for those entrusted to you: renewing with faith and with love your “Yes, with the help of God, I do,” you will cooperate with Christ, the High Priest and Good Shepherd, to feed his sheep — perhaps only the one that was lost, but for whom there is a great celebration in heaven! May the Virgin Mary, “Salus Popoli Romani,” always keep watch over each of you and your path.
Amen.[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]