On Saturday, June 2, I conferred the sacrament of Holy Orders on Matthew Rawson at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. The following is the prepared text of the homily I preached on that occasion. Please join me in praying for Father Rawson that he may be a faithful priest, teacher, and shepherd for God’s people. We pray also for our seminarians and ask God to bless us with vocations to the priesthood.
My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord and, in a special way, my dear son Matthew,
What a blessed day this is for all of us gathered here in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Matthew’s parents, Ralph and Donna, his relatives and friends, brother priests and deacons, consecrated women and men, our seminarians, faithful people from throughout our diocese and visitors from far and wide — we all rejoice on this day!
Today Matthew answers a call to the priesthood of Jesus Christ. Today’s readings from Sacred Scripture guide our reflections on God’s call and Matthew’s response to it.
From Jeremiah we learn that God chooses whom He wills to announce His word to the People. Jeremiah is young and reluctant to speak God’s word. “I know not how to speak; I am too young” (Jer 1:6). God overcomes Jeremiah’s fears by assuring him, “Have no fear . . . because I am with you” (Jer 1:7). During his lifetime, Jeremiah experienced the burden of carrying God’s word to others. At one point, he is tempted to abandon his mission. “I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak his name no more” (Jer 20:9).
The reading from the letter to the Hebrews also speaks about God’s choice. No one can assume on his own right to be the people’s representative before God, the author of Hebrews told us. “No one takes this honor on himself but only when called by God” (Heb 5:4). Every priest is called to follow the pattern of Christ’s priestly offering. In doing so, he often discovers his own weakness and thus can minister to others with patience and understanding.
The Gospel gave us one of the most comforting images of God’s care for us: the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd knows His sheep by name and they know Him. He is attentive to them, protects them and, when necessary, lays down His life for them.
Matthew, God’s word helps us to understand what is happening today. You are called by God to serve His people by the faithful proclamation of His word and the distribution of His mercy through the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Reconciliation. Only a priest can transform bread and wine into the Sacred Body and Blood of Jesus and offer it as nourishment to God’s holy people. Only a priest can extend the merciful love of God to the weak and sinful through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
You are responding to a beautiful yet humbling call. Like Jeremiah, you are young and may feel at times your limitations and weakness which, I might add, will not diminish with age. Take courage in these moments with the Lord’s promise to Jeremiah, “I am with you always” (Jer 1:7).
My dear son, in the days and years ahead there will be numerous joyous occasions, many moments in which you will feel fulfilled and confident that you are doing God’s work. However, there will also be days when you will experience the weight of being conformed to the suffering Christ. You will encounter your weaknesses. Do not be afraid of them. Rather, see them as opportunities to embrace your limitations and depend upon God’s grace. You will be asked to lay down your life for your flock — most likely not literally but in the daily invitation to take up the cross, in whatever manner it comes into your life, and follow the Good Shepherd.
Throughout the many centuries of the Church’s existence, the choice of men by Christ as well as the transmission of His power to save, have been made manifest to generations of believers in the sacred rite which we are about to celebrate. In the Sacrament of Holy Orders, a share in the mission of salvation entrusted to the apostles is transmitted by one of their successors to one who has been impelled by the love of Christ to dedicate his life to the service of God’s people.
Matthew, although remaining in the midst of God’s people, you are about to be set apart for service. With faith, you have answered the Lord’s invitation to be one of His servants. Follow the example given to you by Christ, Teacher, Priest and Shepherd, as well as by other sacred ministers who have preceded you. Faithfully exercise your office in union with your Bishop and our Holy Father who regard you as a necessary helper and counselor in their apostolic ministry.
Approach the Sacred Scripture with an attitude of humble and awe-filled reverence. This humility will help you to recognize that you are not the master or owner of God’s word, but its guardian, herald and servant (Cf. Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, 146). You are called to preach the Lord’s message, not your own. Appeal to all, believers and nonbelievers alike, in the name and power of Christ, so that all will come to accept what God has achieved perfectly through Christ and manifested in your life.
As you shepherd the people, strive to gather them together in unity and love, leading them through Christ to God, our Father. Pope Francis has reminded priests that we are not functionaries but true shepherds in the image of Jesus the Good Shepherd. Know, Matthew, that you cannot become a true shepherd through your own efforts. Only by allowing yourself to be shaped by the grace of the Holy Spirit will you be able to shepherd the people of God and guide them along the way to Jesus (Cf. Pope Francis, Address to Seminarians, 4/14/14).
As a faithful shepherd, consider it your special service to help others to see what is God’s will in the events of their daily lives. Encourage a true missionary spirit in the faithful so that they will assist you in the work of preparing the way that leads to Christ. Lead them to the joy of encountering Christ, remembering that in a special way the poor, isolated and those on the fringes reveal Christ to us.
Finally, my brother, realize that Christ the Lord entrusted this special ministry to you as part of His plan of salvation. Be a man whose life is solidly rooted in prayer. Reflect upon the Gospel message and make it a part of your own life. This requires that you daily “contemplate the word of God with love, lingering over it and reading it with the heart” (Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, 254). In addition, you will also need to keep your ear to the people and discover what it is that they need to hear. “A preacher has to contemplate the word, but he also has to contemplate his people. He needs to be able to link the message of a biblical text to a human situation, to an experience which cries out for the light of God’s word” (The Joy of the Gospel, 154).
My dear friends, our brother Matthew comes among you as one who serves. He will act in the name of Christ as a representative of the Church. Receive him as a true minister of Jesus, the Lord. Support him with your prayers and love.
Matthew, one final word. When Jeremiah experienced the responsibility and the consequences of proclaiming God’s word, God repeated the promise He made to him when he first called him. “Do not be afraid. I am with you always” (Jer 1:7). My dear brother, may you live in the sure hope that Jesus is ever at your side. Walk with Him in faith and through your ministry show His love to all entrusted to your care.
May Mary, Mother of the Church and patroness of this Cathedral and of our beloved diocese, wrap her protective mantle around you and keep you always in her loving embrace.
If you have a prayer intention you would like me to consider during the weeks ahead, please mail it to my attention at 240 E. Onondaga St., Syracuse, N.Y. 13202.