I welcome you this morning to this beautiful Basilica dedicated to Mary, Queen of the Universe. On this joy-filled day, as we are about to ordain three of our brothers to the priesthood, I welcome especially Deacon Roberto Jesús Marquez, Deacon Francisco José Ojeda, and Deacon Nathanael Soliven. We welcome your parents, families and friends with our prayers and gratitude. To the priests, deacons of the Diocese of Orlando and those who are visiting us from other dioceses, welcome. To the classmates of our Deacons who were ordained or about to be ordained to the Priesthood of Jesus Christ, we welcome you all to Orlando. To all seminarians and young people who are here to witness this Ordination, I hope and pray it is a source of inspiration for you in your vocation to the priesthood. To those who could not join us today, we welcome you as you join us by way of livestream.
I welcome Fr. Alfredo Hernandez, Rector, and faculty of St. Vincent de Paul Seminary who join us here today. I thank them for their dedication in education and forming our future priests. I welcome and thank our Director of Vocations, Fr. Josh Swallows, and Fr. Jorge Torres, Sr. Gianna Grace Perino and Darcey Dinh who have accompanied and guided you over these past years.
Pope Francis’ letter on love in the family, Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”) states, “one cannot become a priest, believing that one has been formed in a laboratory.” No! You were formed in and by your family. Your family handed on the gift of faith to you and with all the experiences of a family of faith, your family and vocations roots will help you to remember who you are and where Christ is leading and guiding you in your journey of faith. Your experience of faith in your families, in your parishes, has led you to this day. You have come from a family of faith; you will be ordained by a family of faith – the Church – and you will serve a family of faith, namely the people of God. Your vocation to the priesthood is God’s gift to you; your gift to God is to serve God and His people. We, the Church of Orlando, are grateful and thankful to your parents and families for their love in forming you in your faith.
Jeremiah in the First Reading reminds us, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you; before you were born, I dedicated you.” Roberto, Francisco and Nathanael have no fear. God created you and now calls you to become His priests. You may say, “I know not how to speak,” but remember what the Lord said to Jeremiah, “Say not ‘I am too young’ …. Have no fear… I am with you…the Lord touched my mouth saying, See, I place my words in your mouth.”
Roberto, Francisco and Nathanael, you have come to believe and trust that God will be with you to inspire and lead you in His ministry of caring for His people. Every vocation requires us to give up or to surrender ourselves in order to center our lives on Christ. 2 Corinthians reminds us that our priestly ministry comes through God’s mercy and it is “Christ Jesus we preach as Lord and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let the light shine out of darkness’ has shone on our hearts, that we in turn might make known the glory of God.”
Pope Francis said that to preach the light of Christ, this light must shine in our hearts first. “The Church’s first truth is the love of Christ.” Therefore, make yourself “a servant of this love and mediate it to all people: a love that forgives and expresses itself in the gift of one’s self.” In John’s Gospel we hear Jesus ask, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” not once, but three times. Peter’s response is ‘Why do you ask me these things?” Pope Francis said, “The answer is clear: The Lord wanted to take him back, to that first afternoon when he found his brother Andrew,” who then encountered Peter and told him, “We’ve found the Messiah.” In a word, Jesus wanted to take Peter back “to the first love.” Thus, “when the Lord asks us priests if we love Him, He wants to take us back to the first love.”
In your priestly ministry you will be challenged many times with pastoral work and its difficulties. Your prayer life will be a source to help you become a servant of God’s love so that you can share that love with those to whom you minister. There is a second command by Jesus to Peter: “feed my sheep, be a shepherd!” Pope Francis said our simple response is: “Be shepherds, the rest will come later! Feed my sheep! With theology, with philosophy, with patristics, with whatever you study, but feed my sheep! Be shepherds!”
What does it mean to be a shepherd? Looking over your self-evaluations and interviews I can share your thoughts. One of you said, “Saint Francis is not just embracing the Cross, but embracing the love of Christ on the Cross.” You spoke about fortitude, being able to be honest with yourself and others. Living a balanced life of prayer and work, but your life of prayer is what sustains you. Another of you said, “I am looking forward to hearing Confessions and celebrating the Eucharist for the first time.” Or walking and serving the people of God and their needs. You said, “Promises are more than rules to follow; they become part of who I am, continuing to deepen my relationship with God, and gives me freedom and joy by bringing Christ to the hungry, the sorrowful so that they can be satisfied and happy. There is no greater joy.”
There is more of your essence in your thoughts and reflections: Reading the prayers of the Mass reminds me of my calling and my identity in Jesus Christ as a priest which inspires me to live up to the expectations of my vocation. The gift and support of my family and how it will help me in ministering to the people of God. Thanks for the love, prayers and support I have received on my vocation journey. Visiting the sick and home bound gives me such great peace. I love serving the people of God. Working hard, but knowing I am working for the Lord and the people. I feel God is with me and encouraging me. Missionary discipleship is leading with love of Christ by sharing and bringing the Good News to others and realizing His mission in the world by showing His presence and being the person of Christ to others. All this comes from the heart. I believe prayer is a source of spiritual nourishment that strengthens my relationship with Christ. It is in my time with Christ where I find the love and support and guides to help me in my ministry. Prayer not only shows me how to love like Christ, but it gives me the strength to lay down my life in love, to offer myself in service and to intercede for the needs of others.
All these comments and thoughts are what it takes to be a good shepherd and you will learn even more ways with years of experiences of being a shepherd.
Pope Francis, at an Ordination of Priests in April said, “You will be like Him, shepherds. That is what He wants of you. Pastors . . . Shepherds who go with the people of God: sometimes in front of the flock, sometimes in the middle or behind, but always there with God’s people.” There is a style to being a shepherd, a style that you must imitate and follow, “a style of closeness, a style of compassion and a style of tenderness.”
The style of closeness has four parts. First is closeness to God. I believe we all agree that a life of prayer with reflection and spiritual direction is vital to a priest and his ministry. The second is closeness to your Bishop. What do you think of that proposal by the Pope? I am sure there are many different opinions. But let me share from my perspective as bishop. Having been a seminary rector has helped me in how I see my role in relationship to you, my brother priests. My main concern is that you are spiritually healthy, that you care for your spiritual life of prayer, retreats, spiritual direction, days of recollection. I watch your physical health in that you take care of yourself, eat exercise and socialize. I want you to be fulfilled in your priesthood. Third, closeness among your brother priests. This can be difficult too for some brothers. Deanery meetings, Days of Recollection, Convocations, Chrism Mass, Ordinations to the Priesthood or Diaconate are occasions to get together. Some are social events, and some are spiritual, but we all should try to socialize or pray together at least a few times a year. Fourth, closeness to the people of God. We all found it difficult to celebrate Mass in our empty churches during the pandemic. We came to realize how important the people of God are to our ministry.
Pope Francis ended his homily, “servants as shepherds, not businessmen and distance yourselves from money . . . Jesus comforts shepherds because he is the Good Shepherd . . . and carry the crosses – there will be many of them in our lives – in the hands of Jesus and Our Lady. And do not be afraid; do not be afraid. If you are close to the Lord, to the bishop, among yourselves and to the people of God, if you have the style of God – closeness, compassion and tenderness – do not fear because everything will go well.”
Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe
May 29, 2021, 10:00 a.m.
Homily by Bishop John Noonan