Last September the British photographer, Jim Grover, spent a day snapping people crossing Westminster Bridge: locals and visitors, adults and children. They became a major exhibition, yet strangely none of these pictures shows a face. Grover says he wanted to capture aspects of life around that very busy London bridge that faces might distract from rather than illuminate. At first, it seems just an artist’s gimmick, but by excluding faces Grover has indeed successfully focused on other important things: activities, relationships, the natural and built environment, the beauty and depth of everyday life.
And here, I think, there are parallels with the life of a priest. Priests must look beyond our consumer rat-race and its ephemeral offerings, realising there is more to be seen than first meets the eye; they must peer beyond the wisdom of this age, in search for a deeper and more abiding wisdom; they must even see beyond the faces of their flock, to the image of God in each one of them, to the soul behind the body, to the needs and purposes, relationships and histories, destiny and immortality. And if a priest must look beyond the surface, he must ensure that others see beyond the priest himself to the One in whose person he acts. In this age of the personality cult, priests must remember that it’s all about Christ and His people, not us.
Br John Nguyen OFMCap, of course, has a rather interesting face: a face that tells of his Vietnamese background, from a family who arrived as refugees with John in the womb, and raised seven children near the detention centre in Villawood. On his face we read the faith and fun of his vocation, intimated when as a child he played Priest with fruit juice and a host cut from sliced white bread – no doubt from an excellent Vietnamese bakery – and when he later persuaded Fr Spillane to let him serve as an altarboy before he was of age and continue doing so long after he finished being of age – a hobby that took him all the way to serving Pope Benedict XVI’s Mass at the World Youth Day Mass in Sydney.
As the boy grew into a man, the face smiled on architecture and acting, but Cardinal Pell, with characteristic discretion, asked him directly after Mass one day “Have you ever thought of becoming a priest?”; thereafter the hankering within was undeniable. His face also tells of the peace that comes through pursuing one’s vocation faithfully – writ in his enthralling smile, twinkling eyes and very Capuchin beard. Yet I know he would want us to look beyond the eyes and beard to his humanity, his Christianity, his Franciscianity, and in a few moments time, his priesthood, the priesthood of Jesus Christ.
‘Father’ (documentary about Br John Nguyen) by Tresa Ponnor
One of brother John’s name saints, St John of Constantinople, was nicknamed the ‘Golden-Tongued’ on account of his wonderful preaching. John Chrysostom was not a Capuchin Franciscan, if only because they hadn’t been invented yet in fourth century Asia Minor. But his περί ἱερωσύνης (On the Priesthood), part apologia for his life prior to ordination and part ‘Socratic’ dialogue on holy orders, might yet have something to say to this young Capuchin priestling. Like Grover’s photos, John’s tract insists that the priesthood is not about the lowly priest but about the high priest, Jesus Christ, the One both from heaven and from earth, both of God and of humanity; and about the Holy Spirit, who for him is rather like a sci-fi wormhole or stargate that allows a priest to bridge these two universes. Though a mere mortal, the priest joins the people offering the Mass but also the angels in service at God’s altar; he carries the needs of those people to heaven, especially at the consecration, and brings back heavenly things for them.
Chrysostom’s treatise was a crucial marker in the evolution our understanding of priesthood. On his account the priest is not merely the bishop’s eyes and ears and hands in the local area, though he is these things; not merely the captain of the local parish team, though he is that too. For Chrysostom a Catholic priest is above all a minister of the Word, like the prophets of old and apostles of new, described in our readings today as a voice for God (Jer 1:4-9; 1Tim 4:12-16). A priest is also a minister of sacrifice, like Elijah whose ‘immense multitude’ surrounding the altar were hushed as he laid the victim upon it and called down fire from heaven (1Kings ch 18). But priests of the new covenant preach not just words but the Word made flesh who is Christ and who renders His hearers into saints; they call down not just flames but the spiritual fire of the Holy Spirit that renders bread and wine and disciples into the Body of Christ.
Our first reading and epistle today recall that a priest is not his own man; he does not act out of his own genius or learning, his own virtue or vanity, not even his own passion and compassion; no, he is God’s man, and when he speaks, it must be God speaking not him (Jer 1:4-9; 1Tim 4:12-16). As Our Lord points out in our Gospel, it was He who chose us, not the other way around (Jn 15:9-17), and so the priest’s task is to imitate and channel Christ’s charity. The commandment to love as Christ loved may seem impossible; yet to be conformed to Christ, like the stigmatists from Francis of Assisi to Padre Pio, is to be enabled to look beyond the surface captured by glimpses and photos, to the real human person beneath so worthy of love that God would give His life on the cross for him or her.
The role of the priest is thus ‘awesome’ in both senses in which the word is used today: terrifying, because Christ chooses as His priests ones like Jeremiah who said, “I’m a child with nothing to say” or Isaiah who said, “I’m a man of unclean lips” (Isa 6:5); wonderful, because of what Christ accomplishes though such mouths and hands.
It might seem almost perverse to offer so high an ideal for the priesthood at the end of the ‘Catholic wrap-up’ of the Royal Commission. That investigation has underlined the dangers of romanticising the priesthood and permitting a culture of clericalism that makes priests a caste enjoying sacred power and human entitlement, yet beyond scrutiny and accountability. The revelations of ministerial failings have humiliated and humbled our Church in Australia, and especially our bishops, priests and religious. Yet John Chrysostom identified the perennial risks of clericalism right back in the fourth century when he wrote:
I know my own soul, how feeble and puny it is. I know the magnitude of this ministry, and… fear the gales that vex every priest… that most terrible rock that is vainglory… [the waves of] despondency, envy, strife and slander… the indecorous behaviour, desire for praise and honour, sorrow when fellow ministers prosper… teaching devised only to please… and paying court to the rich and powerful… sordid fear… feigned humility… sexual misdemeanours… and flattering prelates.
With St John we quake before the greatness of the priestly vocation and the smallness of those called to it; but in the wake of the Royal Commission we are surer than ever before that we need new priests of sound faith, evangelical zeal, humble hearts and personal holiness.
In Brother John we might just have such a man! During the World Youth Day year 2008 he dedicated himself to youth ministry with Sydney Catholic Youth Services and the youth of the world. He came under the influence of Fr Robert Stewart and so was doomed to be a Franciscan. But to my delight it was in the lead up to and during World Youth Day that he was confirmed in his priestly and religious calling and so I can claim him as a Sydney WYD vocation – even if I never got him for the Sydney seminary or the Dominicans! Amongst the Capuchins he says he’s been formed in joyful fraternity, willing self-sacrifice, and ready trust in God. He is inspired by his brothers’ striving for holiness, service of others, and witness to the world.
My dear son and brother, John, tonight God’s people invite you to share in the most crucial aspects of their lives: their births, marriages and deaths, their sins and aspirations, their hunger for truth and love, their moments of touching the divine but also of desolation. Subject to your Provincial and to your Bishop, and united to your brothers in the Order and your brothers in the Priesthood, strive to bring the faithful together into one family. May they see on your shoulders not just your face but the ‘faceless portrait’ of Christ shining forth. And may they hear from your lips not just your words but the golden words of Christ overflowing from a golden heart.