On this day, 25 years ago, I was ordained to the priesthood of Jesus Christ.
I have so many happy memories of that day: of the pride of my parents and siblings; of the warmth of my brother and sister Dominicans, along with Jesuit fathers, diocesan clergy, seminarians and other supporters; of this church, chock-a-block with parishioners, school-children, relatives and friends, praying for me and wishing me well; of the choirs, servers, hospitality providers and so many others working to make it such a joyful occasion; and of the beautiful Liturgy, presided over by one of the Fathers of Vatican II, the late Bishop Eusebius Crawford OP, who served in this parish and elsewhere in Australia before being appointed Bishop of Gizo in the Solomon Islands.
I also remember with fondness the year-and-a-half I had serving in this parish leading up to my ordination to the priesthood and the wonderful days thereafter: the clergy, sisters and parishioners here contributed significantly to my formation and to preparing me for my years ahead as a priest.
Among those present on that day who are here tonight, are: my parents Colin and Gloria, who on that ordination day gave me the chalice I will be using tonight; my siblings Louise and Gregory; my Dominican brothers and sisters; the young David Taylor, now parish priest of Manly-Freshwater parish, was the Deacon; the young Robert Borg, now Dean of Hornsby Cathedral, was the Master of Ceremonies; the young Don Richardson, now Dean of St Mary’s Cathedral Sydney, was the Thurifer; my godmother Anne; my godfather John with my aunt Yvonne, who are now parishioners here at Holy Name; their daughter Gabrielle who was the soprano soloist; and many others here tonight had important roles on that ordination day.
Others have been my family and dear friends through thick and thin, sustaining me through my years of priesthood so far.
I acknowledge the presence here tonight of Bishop Peter Comensoli, the Bishop of Broken Bay, who now lives in the former Dominican Priory and for all I know has the room that once was mine! There are also a number of clergy and religious here tonight, including many Dominican friars and sisters: Wahroonga was our home for many decades and it is a delight to be back.
I thank the parish priest, Fr David Ranson, and parishioners of Wahroonga for their kindness in organising tonight’s celebration.
On this day, 25 years ago, I was ordained to the priesthood of Jesus Christ.
It was the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and the readings were full of foreboding about the Son of Man being lifted up on the Cross, like the serpent lifted up by Moses on a stick, that we might have life (Num 21:4-9; Phil 2:6-11; Jn 32:13-7).
I had a lot on my mind and suspect the meaning of the feast, readings and prayers, and their connection to the Christian vocation, were not foremost. The next day would normally be the Memory of Our Lady of Sorrows and so another opportunity to reflect upon the place of the cross in our life; but that was trumped by the Sunday. Yet as if God was not going to let me get away without reflecting on these hard matters, the Sunday Gospel that year was the one in which Christ tells His disciples they must take up their cross to follow Him (Mk 8:27-35).
So you might say that the shadow of the cross has hung over my priesthood from the beginning. Yet I must admit I’ve had a fairly charmed life.
I’ve been given extra-ordinary opportunities by my family, the Dominican order and the wider Church. I’ve served in many interesting places and fulfilling ministries alongside faithful priests, religious and laity. And I’ve been wonderfully supported by God and His saints in heaven and on earth.
Though there have been challenges for me as there are in any life, I have to say I’ve loved being a priest these past 25 years. It brings to mind the story of Blessed Reginald of Orleans, an academic and preacher who was the first to be clothed in the habit by St Dominic. When asked once, “Do ever feel sorry that you put on our Dominican habit?” he replied, “I very much doubt that there’s been any merit in it for me at all, because I’ve always been so happy in the Order!” I have truly felt the same way about my life as a religious and priest.
Then came my Silver Jubilee year… As if God was saying “It’s time to grow up, Anthony,” He gave me the sort of Christmas present only saints can call a grace: the sudden onset of Guillain-Barré Syndrome meant that in 24 hours I was completely paralysed from the neck down.
During a long Paschaltide I found myself beside Christ on the cross, completely disabled in hands and feet, racked at times with pain, and wondering what it all could mean. But unlike my Lord and so many others, I was to recover in this life, due to great healthcare and physiotherapy, as well as God’s grace mediated by the prayers and support of so many. It has been a time of trial but I hope also of some learning and growth in virtue for me, and even more importantly, of some mysterious fruit for the Church in Sydney and beyond. And it has given me new perspective on the mystery of the Cross in our lives.
In my first homily as a priest, I rather academically identified “the problem of innocent suffering” as “the ultimate religious and existential question”.
We look around at the wounds in our world, our communities and ourselves, that seem not to heal despite the Redemption. We puzzle about how to speak of a God of Love to people without love – lonely, lost or grieving; how to present a God of Life to people whose life is cut short by poverty, violence, disease, abortion, drugs or suicide… Knowing how privileged my own life had been up to my ordination, I felt at a loss to approach such questions and fearful that anything I said would only sound glib. To genuflect before Christ’s broken Body and spilt Blood in the holy Eucharist, or before His Holy Cross on Good Friday, seemed and still seems to me to invite silent reverence before Him and all those who suffer with Him and in Him.
The Christian story is that the omnipotent and impassible God became in Jesus Christ “The Suffering Servant” and suffered like any human person.
Few stood by during His last agony or attempted to ease it.
He experienced physical, emotional and spiritual torment at their worst, carrying to Calvary with the weight of His Cross the truth of human suffering, humiliation and dying. This was Christ at His most priestly, not making a victim of others, not even of plants and animals as the priests of old, but resigning Himself to being the all-sufficing sacrifice. “Descending into hell” He entered into the fullest solidarity with whole human family, especially the victims. In this He never bought the lie that happiness comes through asserting our own will or concentrating on our own comfort, as our culture so often claims. He stood for the fact that happiness is found by stepping outside ourselves in service of others and their happiness.
His was the counterintuitive and countercultural truth that only by giving up our life for the Gospel can we save it – a truth absurd and scandalous to many, yet profound and liberating for those who come to believe Jesus is High Priest and Saviour.
Sometimes we priests, like Our Lady of Sorrows, can only stand by the crosses of others, uncomprehending yet convinced that suffering and death are not the last word; that nothing can successfully foul God’s planned restoration; that good will ultimately prevail.
At other times, by preaching, sanctifying and leading, we bring some sense, consolation and redeeming grace to situations that would otherwise confound us. What Christian priests and priestly Christians can never do is resign themselves to the reign of sin and death: no, our minds, hands and hearts are given by God to be people’s “vindicators close at hand”, ready to share in their burdens, intercede with the saints, and act to alleviate those burdens and their causes. In Christ the Priest we meet a suffering faith and active love that kept on hoping, even in the depths of betrayal and murder; an ultimate love that pours itself out completely for others and, paradoxically, is thereby given back life abundantly.
Twenty-five years ago my blood family, my Dominican family, my family the Church, offered me to God for transformation into a new person, a sacred person.
The people of God invited me to share in some of the most crucial points of their lives: their births, marriages and deaths, their sins and aspirations, their moments of touching the sacred or of experiencing God’s absence and their own desolation.
They commissioned me to preach God’s saving word, to lead God’s chosen people, to mediate God’s saving grace, to draw close to the altar of God, that I might draw them closer to Him.
Despite sinister images of the Inquisition, when most people think of friars they think of Friar Tuck and therefore of jolly, often rotund guys who enjoy their preaching and living of the Gospel.
Yet the early Dominican, Thomas of Cantimpré, at first resisting his vocation, commented: “I could not sustain the discomfort [of the Friars’ life] for even a single day. They are tormented by work, distracted by all kinds of different business, and yet somehow survive unbroken.” In a similar vein St Dominic’s successor, Blessed Jordan of Saxony, wrote: “Here on earth we are wounded every day and our hearts torn to shreds; and every day our miseries cause us to cry out [with St Paul: Rom 7:24]: ‘Who shall deliver me from this body of death?’” But Jordan went on to observe: “These things we must bear with patience and, so far as our daily work allows, dwell in mind and heart with Him who alone can deliver us from our distresses.
In the meantime, then, let us accept with joy whatever sad things come our way.” So the friars, and dare I say all priests and religious, must somehow remain ‘fat and jolly’, or at least evangelically joyful, like spouses “for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, till death”.
To be called out from among God’s priestly people to become their priest is a mystery still strange and wonderful to me a quarter-century after I began to live it.
But I am even more convinced than ever that it includes the call to conform my mind and will to Christ’s or, better, to let Him conform me to Himself; that He is the One worth pinning all my hopes on, renouncing myself to follow, sharing in His destiny, if needs be to Calvary.
Like Joseph of Arimathea I must join Christ in carrying the cross of all humanity, with all its burden of sin and suffering.
I must make less of my own hurts, whatever they are, and focus on the pained and powerless, using all my powers to empathise and understand, to preach and intercede, to bring Christ’s healing word and sacraments to bear on redeeming with hope and resurrecting with joy. That is a task that 25 years later I still find both exciting and awe-inspiring!
So tonight I renew the request I made to you all a quarter-century ago: that you pray for me in my priesthood, that I will be an ever-more humane and ever-more Christian servant of the Crucified God and His suffering people.
Word of Thanks
My thanks to Fr David Ranson and the parishioners of Wahroonga for organising this very happy celebration tonight.
I especially thank the choir for all the work they put into beautifying this Sacred Liturgy: there is a long and admirable musical tradition in this parish.
To my fellow priests and religious, I thank you for your presence in my life tonight and for these many years past. And to my parents, family, friends and parishioners: God bless you for giving me to God 25 years ago and sustaining me through these years; please keep doing so for the next quarter-century as well!
On my ordination day I stood in front of the altar for several hours after the Mass giving so many blessings that I missed the party outside altogether.
Tonight I’m determined to be part of it and so I ask you all to join me in the school hall for supper after Mass.
This is the edited version of the homily given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP at the 14 September Mass marking the 25th anniversary of his ordination to priesthood.