"The holiest of nights" - this is one phrase which describes Holy Thursday. As we gather for the Mass of the Lord's Supper, follow the procession to the Altar of Repose, and spend the rest of the evening in vigil and adoration, the events which we commemorate are truly present: we are indeed with the Lord on this night. I can almost imagine a child asking the ritual question: "Why is this night different?" It is indeed the Passover, the new Passover.
In the diocese of Meath we celebrated the Chrism Mass on Wednesday evening. This year we had a large number of priests renewing their commitment to their ministry. In this time of renewal we need to look to a renewal of the priesthood as well as that of the Church in Ireland. Our priests need to rediscover who they are. Priesthood is not a job, a priest is not a mere pastoral assistant or a facilitator or management. It is a calling bound up in the mystery of Christ himself and in the Fatherhood of God.
The Holy Father's Chrism Mass grabbed the headlines around the world - RTE here were quick to report his remarks on women priests and dissent - I'm sure they were not happen - the language they used was quite negative. They said the Pope was reiterating the "ban" on women priests: they fail to understand that there is no "ban" on women priests in the Catholic Church - rather, as Blessed John Paul II reminded us, the Church has no authority to ordain women - after careful enquiry the Church believes that it is not the will of God.
The world operates under the erroneous belief that if we can do something, then we should. We can create human beings through artificial scientific processes, so if we can do it, we do it - morality does not enter into it. So with the ordination of women - if it is conceivable, then we do it - we do not need to ask God whether he wants it: he too, it seems, is bound by secular equality laws. However in this case if God does not want it it does not happen. As one of my students said to me a few years ago when I was teaching: "If God doesn't want women priests, it doesn't matter if you go through an "ordination" for them, they're still not priests" - the student was a girl and it made perfect sense to her. After all, priesthood was not a human invention, nor governed by equality laws, it is a gift from God to be governed by his will.
The Catholic priesthood, among other things, is a manifestation of fatherhood: every man is called to be a father - how he exercises that fatherhood will depend on his individual vocation. It is easy to see this fatherhood in the men who marry and have children. But those who do not marry nor have children, their fatherhood is expressed in different ways. A priest is a father to those in his care: priesthood and fatherhood are inextricably linked. Today, on Holy Thursday, priests are reminded that they are called to be fathers, to make the sacrifice that fathers must make for their children, to govern the household of God as fathers do.
This year many people will be remembering those who died in the Titanic disaster. We all know the stories of some of the passengers - the "unsinkable" Molly Brown who was heroic in her efforts to save people - she was a Catholic, by the way, and after the disaster went on to do a lot of good work for the Church and society. But among the silent heroes are a number of priests who refused offers of seats on the lifeboats to stay and minister to the people who were going to die. The one scene that struck me from the movie Titanic (which I hated by the way, A Night To Remember is much better), was that of the priest absolving sins as the ship was going down. It really happened.
We know of three priests who ministered heroically in preparing passengers for their deaths: Fr Joseph Benedikt Peruschitz, a German Benedictine. He was on his way to take up a teaching position in Collegeville. He was a second class passenger, who was offered a place in the lifeboats - he refused. He went about the sinking ship giving absolution, consoling the passengers and leading them in prayer. He was mocked by some passengers as he was going about his work preparing people to meet their God. He went down in the midst of the faithful praying the rosary: he was 41 years old.
Fr Juozas Montvila was only 27, a Lithuanian. He had endured much persecution from the Russians in his native Lithuania. He had been ministering to Ukrainian Catholics against the wishes of the Tsar. Fr Juozas was prohibited from exercising his priestly ministry and eventually driven out of Lithuania. He was on his way to the US to take up a position ministering to Lithuanian Catholics. He too refused a place in the lifeboats and exercised his priestly fatherhood in consoling those about to die.
Fr Thomas Byles, 42, was an English priest, a convert from Anglicanism - his story is very like Blessed John Henry Newman's. He had been a Congregationalist, but at Oxford converted to the Church of England and began preparing to enter the Anglican ministry. However his studies led him to Catholicism, and he was ordained a priest in 1902. He was on his way to a family wedding in Brooklyn. He was ministering to the Catholics on the voyage, most of whom were third class, so he knew his way around the lower decks. When the iceberg hit he refused a seat in the lifeboats and made his way down to third class, which was quickly sealed up to prevent the immigrants making for the lifeboats - the upper classes, it seems, had the right to the few lifeboats, the poor could go down with the ship. He spent his last hours hearing confessions and praying with the passengers trapped in the ship.
Frs Joseph Benedikt Peruschitz, Juozas Montvila and Thomas Byles
None of these priests were ever found, like hundreds of others, their bodies perished in the waters. In these three men we see the fatherhood of the priesthood at work - a father does not abandon his children - these priests knew where they had to be as the ship went down.
What is interesting is that these three men seemed almost prepared for this final sacrifice. Each of them had been formed in heroism in their lives so when it came to the disaster, they were ready to respond as Christ would respond. This reminds us that a priest is a man chosen even before was born, consecrated in the womb, as the prophet says. That is consoling for us priests -God has chosen us and he will help us carry out the mission he has entrusted to us.
I'm not sure if the possibility of beatification has been mooted for these three priests, but it may be worth considering. What wonderful examples for us priests - these men who laid down their lives for their flock, literally.