Matthew Bemand reflects on the nature of priesthood and the events leading up to his ordination a year ago, and offers encouragement to others who are thinking of embarking on the same journey
'What are you, O priest? Nothing and everything' - I first W W encountered those words, from a poem attributed to St Norbert, in Archbishop Ramsey's classic little book, The Christian Priest Today. At my ordination to the priesthood, nearly one year ago, I heard them again in the homily preached by Bishop Keith. The night after it had happened, I remember lying awake wondering whether it had really worked - I knew in my heart something had happened, but in my head I could scarcely take it in.
As I reflect on the past year, I am aware that I am fundamentally the same person, albeit a little wiser, I hope, from the various situations in which I have been involved. The changes on being ordained deacon were more obvious: wearing clerical dress, being called 'Father', living in a new house, doing a new job, getting used to new routines, and so on. The only obvious difference in becoming a priest is being able to celebrate Mass. And yet this is not merely a skill that is acquired, or a new function I am permitted to carry out. It is at the very heart of priestly identity.
Hearing God's call
The vocation of a priest is indeed to take the Gospel out into the world, to care for and to evangelize God's people wherever they may be. Nevertheless this vocation can only come to fruition if it is rooted in the service of God at the altar, for it is at the altar that the priest fulfils his vocation to make Christ present to his people. It is because the priest stands in persona Christi at the altar that he is able to stand before God on behalf of his people and intercede for them, and to bring Christ to the people outside the church building.
All the baptized already have a share in the priesthood of Christ. It is the work of every Christian, not just the ordained, to make Christ present in the world. It is also the responsibility of every Christian to be attentive to God's calling and respond to it, whatever that calling may be. There are many different ways of serving God in the world and in the Church, and he has a unique purpose for each one of us.
Those of us who are called by God to the ministerial priesthood, instituted by Christ to serve his Church, are called as individuals who are already living out their baptismal priesthood. I gradually recognized my vocation over a number of years. Having been brought up in an Anglo-Catholic church, where as a seven-year-old I began to serve, thoughts of vocation to priesthood were quite natural; still, it was only really when I went away to university that I came to a clear realization that this was what God wanted of me. I went to a selection conference in my final year and was not recommended for training: with hindsight that probably was a fair decision.
I am sure I have benefited from the few years I spent teaching instead, even though I knew it was not what I was meant to be doing long-term. I certainly
the mark of true priesthood is humility, rather than status seeking
have no regrets about getting married during that time! When I went to my second conference, it felt 'right' in a way that it did not the first time around - I was more mature and more confident. And so, after three years at St Stephen's House, I came to serve my title amongst the people of Brentwood. I share this with you not merely as a piece of self-promotion, but to encourage those who are at the beginning of a long journey of discernment and those who have met with obstacles on the way.
In a sense, then, the priest really is 'nothing' - nothing more than a baptized humanbeing created in God's image, used by God in a unique way as a means of bestowing grace upon his people through the sacraments. Those who clamour for equality in the priesthood and episcopate tend to overlook the implication that the ordained priesthood is 'better' than the baptismal priesthood - a higher status that all should be able to aspire to. To be used by God in this way is an enormous privilege and there is a dignity attached to the office of priest, but this dignity truthfully belongs to all the baptized.
The mark of true priesthood is humil-
ity, rather than status seeking. Standing as Christ's representative at the altar certainly changes the nature of a priest's relationship with God, but it doesn't necessarily make it better than anyone else's. Priests should, of course, aspire to holiness of life, and they have a responsibility to lead by example, but the priest is able to represent Jesus at the altar because God has decided to use him in this way, not because of any merit on his part.
A gracious gift
There is another sense, though, that the priest is 'everything', because the Mass is everything. In that moment when the priest stands at the altar in persona Christi, he is able to bring to God all the joys and sorrows of the people to whom he has ministered. The protestors who gather by the pump at Walsingham will insist that we have no need of priests to mediate between us and God, but they have missed the point. Christ is our only mediator, but he has given us various ways of receiving the grace which he mediates to us, above all through the sacraments and through our participation in the communion of saints.
It is wrong to talk of 'my' priesthood, or even to talk of the priesthood as if it belonged to one particular administrative unit of the Church. The priesthood belongs to Christ, and is his gracious gift to us. So it is indeed 'everything', at the same time as being 'nothing' when regarded from a human point of view.
During the forthcoming ordination season, I urge you to pray for all God's priests, especially those who are at the beginning of this awesome ministry, for we certainly need your prayers. Pray too that all people may discern and follow their unique vocation and especially that men may hear and respond to God's calling to serve him as priests.
One final thought: all of us have a duty to encourage others in their vocation as well as discern our own. God maybe calling you to be a priest, or he may be calling someone you know who just needs a nudge in the right direction - it's not too late to book a place on the 'God Calling?' Vocations Conference at St Stephen's House, 12-14 September: visit <www godcallingvocations.org.uk/> for more information and a booking form.