This homily was preached by Rev Dr Scot Armstrong in the Chapel of The Carmel, Lismore, on the occasion of the Mass of Thanksgiving of the newly ordained, Fr Stefan Matuszek.
September 15th 2015, Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows
The feast of Our Lady of Sorrows is a most fitting day on which the newly ordained Fr Stefan Matuszek celebrates his Mass of Thanksgiving, following his ordination to the ministerial priesthood on the feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross. I do not, of course, intend to suggest for a moment that Our Lady is sorrowful at the fact of the ordination of Fr Stefan Matuszek to the ministerial priesthood! She would be rejoicing, we may be sure. Rather, it is because in the ordination of a priest is made manifest in a particular way the triumph of the Cross.
I In the stained glass windows of the sanctuary of this chapel we see depicted the Presentation of the Infant Christ in the Temple of Jerusalem. With the Messiah, the Sign of Contradiction set for the rising and the fall of many in Israel stood the Mother of the Redeemer. Simeon prophesied that Her soul would be pierced with a sword so that the thoughts of many might be laid bare. In the Greek, this sword (romthaia) is indicated as one whose blade is thicker in the middle than at the point – shaped, therefore, like a crescent moon. We perceive the agony of soul experienced by the Mother of God in Her association with the Divine Redeemer and His work of restoring the life of grace to souls. Stabat Mater iuxta crucem….pertransivit gladius. (By the cross stood the Mother….at length the sword had passed)
She knows, for this reason, more about the experience of the Cross than all the other followers of Christ – but, also more about its triumph. St Louis de Montfort likened the experience of the Cross to that of eating unripe, bitter fruit. The Mother of God knows how to transform that experience, however, like the process of the French confitûre. The bitter fruit is drenched in sugar, creating a delicacy of utterly unique sweetness. The bitter medicine of the Cross is one She knows how to get down, having taken it Herself in a dosage more intense, and more graced. So, as Mother in the order of grace, She can assist us in taking this medicine with docile, willing acceptance of the Will of God, who has decreed that we be won back by association to the Cross of Christ, in order that we be associated with Him in His Resurrection.
II This association to the Cross, and its triumph, plays out according to the circumstances of our state in life. And so, therefore, in the case of a priest, according to the grace of ordination. A particularly wonderful example of this is that of St Maximilian Kolbe. He embodied the essence of the priesthood in the moment when he gave himself in place of a Jewish man, father of several children. When this man was chosen as one of those to be executed by starvation in retaliation for an escaped prisoner, St Maximilian stepped out of line, walked forward – the soldiers strangely powerless to strike him down at this breach of discipline – and presented himself to the commandant, who, infuriated, was able only to splutter: “Who are you?” The response given by the saint was not that of his baptismal name (Raymond), nor the name he had taken with solemn profession of religious vows (Maximilian). He did not say that he was a Polish national, neither did he say that he was a Franciscan. He said: “I am a Catholic priest.” The personal ontological bond with Christ the Priest conferred on the priest at ordination had been so embraced by the saint and integrated into his moral life, that he bore witness to what he had come to embody.
The grace of the sacrament of orders imparts not only the capacity to confect or celebrate the sacraments, but also the capacity to live a life worthy of the priestly state. The priest is called to make his own person and his own life available to Christ the Great High Priest so that He may say, again and again, in and through His chosen priest: “This is My body, I baptise you, I absolve you, I anoint you.” It is as if the priest says to Christ: “this is my blood, this is my life’s blood, so that You may say: This is My Body, This is My Blood.”
In this Carmel, it is impossible not to think also of the indescribably magnificent martyrs of Compiegne – sixteen Carmelite sisters, who offered themselves to God during the Reign of Terror for the restoration of peace to the Church and to France. Having been subjected to a false trial, they were transported to Place de la Natiόn, the site of executions by guillotine. The crowd, which would raucously bay for the blood of the condemned, instantly fell silent as the Sisters came into view, and uttered not a single word for the rest of the time during their executions. On alighting, the Carmelites chanted the Veni Creator (which we sang also at last night’s ordination), then renewed their vows of baptism and of religious profession. Before each of them went to the guillotine, in order of youngest professed to longest, they knelt before the Mother Superior and asked permission to go to their Maker. All of this took place while complete silence reigned in Place de la Nation, a silence that would, only a few days later, silence the Reign of Terror.
In St Maximilian Kolbe and in the Martyrs of Compiegne we see the triumph of crucified Divine Love, which overcomes even as it is crucified. In that very moment in which it serenely and willingly accepts the seeming madness and folly of the Cross, it is victorious over the violence of executioners, bearing witness to a peace the world cannot give, and a strength of soul greater than the physical torments inflicted upon it. The grace of the triumph of the Cross is also gracious, like the Gracious One who confers it.
III At this historical time and in this culture, in the context of another totalitarianism, (the “new totalitarianism” to which the “new evangelisation” is to be proclaimed”?), to say “I am a Catholic priest” is to step out of the safe anonymity of the crowd, to walk forward and past the police of the religion of political correctness, and speak the truth to the powerful tyranny of our time. Even to appear in public dressed as a Catholic priest is itself an act of witness and defiance that requires some measure of moral courage. To do so serenely with the peace of Christ can only be the work of God’s grace. The words of Bl John Henry Newman offer us some encouragement in this:
“I shall do His work….a preacher of truth in my own place…. if I do but keep His Commandments.”
Fr Stefan, your bearing witness, your martyréo, and ours with you, may not take the form it took in the case of St Maximilian Kolbe and the Martyrs of Compiegne. But, whatever form it does take, know that it will be totally and utterly beyond your strength and capacities, because it is beyond the capacities and strength of us all. It is totally and utterly the work of grace – that triumph whereby, as we pray in the Preface of Martyrs, the Almighty takes the weak and makes them strong in bearing witness. Through the intercession of Our Lady of Sorrows, may He do so for you, and for us your brethren in the ministerial priesthood who welcome you among our number – we who are called to say before the world “I am a Catholic priest”, and for all the baptised, in the manner the Lord God of Hosts determines for each.
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever. Amen.