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Fifty Years in the Priesthood

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

First of all, my sincere gratitude to all of you attending this jubilee Mass. May God bless you with His choicest graces.

On the occasion of celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood, there is literally an ocean of thoughts that come to mind, on which I could speak and you could patiently listen. But I thought I would address myself to just three subjects, expressed in three words, gratitude, concern, and confidence.


I am grateful that our Lord instituted the sacrament of the priesthood. Faith tells us our Lord instituted the Catholic priesthood on Holy Thursday night ? a defined article of the Catholic faith. He first pronounced over the bread, "This is my body," and over the wine, "This is the chalice of my blood," but immediately after, He told the apostles, "Do this in commemoration of me." Those words: "Do this in commemoration of me," the Church believes were the words by which Jesus Christ instituted the sacrament of the priesthood.

When we say that Christ instituted the priesthood on Holy Thursday night, we mean that Jesus instituted the priesthood for two main reasons. First, to ensure that the Holy Eucharist -- which he also instituted at the Last Supper -- that the Holy Eucharist might remain on earth until the end of time: The Holy Eucharist as Sacrifice-sacrament, as Communion-sacrament and as Presence-sacrament. Except for Christ's instituting the priesthood, there would be no Holy Eucharist, dare I say it, there would be no Christianity, because the principal channel of grace by which Jesus communicates the light we need for our minds and the strength we need for our wills to do his divine will would not be available.

Christ therefore instituted the priesthood first to ensure that we would have the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, as the Sacrifice-sacrament of the Mass, the Communion-sacrament of Holy Communion, and with resounding emphasis, as the Presence sacrament. Jesus Christ is on earth, the whole Christ, as the Church defines totus Christus, the whole Christ is present on earth only because the same Jesus instituted the priesthood.

However, having instituted the sacrament of the priesthood on Holy Thursday night, on Easter Sunday night, the same Jesus, speaking to the same apostles, gave them the awesome power of doing what He as the God-man had done during his visible ministry on earth. He told them, "Receive the Holy Spirit, whose sins you forgive they are forgiven them, whose sins you do not forgive, they are not forgiven." Jesus Christ instituted the priesthood for two main reasons:

  • To provide the world, through the priesthood, with the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, and

  • To provide the world with the sacrament (I like the Holy Father's preferred title) the sacrament of confession.
Can you imagine, just imagine, being still laden with all the sins of your past life? No wonder on Easter Sunday night, Jesus told his apostles, "Peace be with you," and repeated. "Peace be with you," to ensure the world of that peace of heart, which only those enjoy who have been assured that their sins have been forgiven.

Our first reflection therefore is gratitude. Gratitude for Christ's instituting the sacrament of the priesthood which ensures us of His continued Presence on earth among us in the Holy Eucharist, of His continually feeding us with His own, real, human body and blood in the sacrament of Holy Communion, and with His continuing sacrifice to communicate the graces that He won for us on Calvary.

How happy I am to tell you, so many of my fellow Jesuit priests were killed at the altar in the 16th century by the so-called reformers; there was no Protestant reformation; there was only a Protestant revolution. They were murdered at the altar because, as we believe, Jesus continues to offer the same sacrifice He offered on Calvary. He died only once on the cross, but in every sacrifice of the Mass, made possible only through the priesthood, Jesus communicates the graces that He won for us by His death on Good Friday afternoon.

First then, gratitude, gratitude for the priesthood, through which we have the sacraments of the Eucharist and Confession. St. Ignatius tells us, his spiritual sons, whenever possible, divide every homily you preach, every lecture you'll give, into three parts, in honor of the holy Trinity.


I would not be honest in speaking to you if I did not share with you the deep concern I have and that I share with thousands of believing and faithful Catholics, if I did not express my deep concern about what is going on in many so-called developed countries, like our own United States. Just a few obvious facts:
  • In the United States, since the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, Catholic seminarians have dropped by 90% in our country.

  • Closed seminaries. My own beloved Society of Jesus, we have closed three of our five Jesuit seminaries in America, and not coincidentally, the three largest.

  • Concern over some seven thousand priests in our nation that have left the active priesthood, again, since the close of the Second Vatican Council. Having taught my own Jesuits their theology for over twenty-five years, concern is a mild word. The anguish over so many ordained priests in our own nation, dare I use the word, abandoning their priestly vocation.

  • Concern over so many priests,, who are in the vanguard of promoting such unchristian practices as adultery, sodomy, contraception.

  • Concern that our own American Catholic episcopate, in 1968 when Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae -- our own bishops -- a long, piously worded document, told Catholics to follow their own consciences in the practice of contraception.

  • Concern over so many priests promoting what is nothing less than a rebellion against the authority conferred by Jesus on Peter and his successors, rejecting the authority of the Bishop of Rome, the Vicar of Christ. Now my twenty?ninth year in working for the Holy See has taught me many things. One thing I've learned, and I share it with you, which is, why I am expressing the second part of our homily.

  • Concern, especially in so-called developed nations like our own, over the widespread breakdown of faith in and vocations to the Catholic priesthood. One thing I've learned in these years of working for the Holy See, there is not just a major crisis in the Catholic Church. This is the gravest and deepest crisis in the history of Christianity in two thousand years, and the heart of that crisis is a crisis in the priesthood.

  • In a nation like ours, the material possessions and affluence. Fourteen years teaching in New York City has increased my vocabulary. One word I've memorized - "mazuma." Money, for millions of Americans, is their substitute for grace.

  • In our nation, over five million Americans are on college campuses every year. By the time -- I don't say they finish college -- but long before, these over-educated Americans tell themselves, "I'm no longer a child. Why should I still believe? -- believe that I am to genuflect before the tabernacle? Why should I believe that a human being has power to remit my sins?"

  • In a nation like ours, where liberty is almost a synonym for America. In our country, freedom has become the title of what an educated American citizen has. Freedom to do what? Freedom to do his own will.

  • Concern that faith in the priesthood in our nation has waned and weakened to such a degree that I urge you to do everything you can, everything you can to restore faith in the priesthood where it has been lost. Strengthen faith in the priesthood in your fellow Americans, because the survival of the Catholic Church in your country depends on a strong faith in the priesthood, especially the priesthood which is necessary for Jesus Christ to remain on earth in the Holy Eucharist. Needless to say, I wouldn't be honest, on the fiftieth anniversary of my ordination, which, not coincidentally, is my birthday. I was ordained on my birthday, my mother told me, and about the same time, 8:30 in the morning. I wouldn't be fair if I did not express to you, not just my own, but the Church's deep concern for our nation, concern to strengthen, deepen, and where needed, restore faith in the sacrament of the priesthood, instituted by Jesus Christ, on the night before He died.


I could talk -- not for hours, or days, but months -- on what I've learned during my fifty years in the priesthood. Only God knows the price I have paid to try to be faithful to Jesus Christ. But, what an important adversative, but, I share this with you from the depths of my soul. I've also learned to trust in Jesus Christ, to hope in His grace. In a word, to be confident.

I was ordained in, of course, 1947, before the modern revolution hit the Catholic priesthood. I can only thank God for preserving me; not only in bodily life, but, dare I say it, in my faith -- faith in Jesus Cluist, the high priest who ordained me.

I've learned not to worry. I say this with the deepest sincerity. Worry, discouragement, is a temptation of the devil, and the more faithfully we try to follow Jesus, the more the devil will tempt us to -- I don't say just discouragement -- but even to despair.

Our Holy Father never tires telling us not to be afraid. How we need to memorize not just the words, but the revealed truth behind the words of St. Paul. "Where sin has abounded [past tense], there grace will even more abound [future tense]." I know Pope John Paul II too well not to be able to tell you he sincerely believes two things: that the twentieth century has been the most sin-laden century in human history, but he also believes the twenty-first century will be the most grace-laden, the holiest century in the history of mankind.

The future of the Catholic priesthood is most promising. Why? Because Christ assures us He will bless the forthcoming century with such graces as the human race had never received before. However -- and this is the principal message of my ordination golden jubilee -- God's grace is assured, but we are Catholics; we believe God's grace must be cooperated with. We must recognize the grace with our minds, and correspond with the grace with our wills. We shall have only as holy priests as we Catholics ourselves live holy lives.

I never once remember my mother, never, missing Mass or Holy Communion, every day of her life. Holy people are not only an example of sanctity to others; oh no, holy people are channels of grace to others. I am speaking to all of you, and through you to the tens of thousands of professed Roman Catholics. In the name of Jesus Christ, live lives of close union with God.

As the Holy Father makes so plain, ordinary Catholics will not even survive, not to say thrive, in our day. Only heroic Catholics will preserve the Catholic Church. Only holy Catholics will be the seedbed of vocations to the priesthood. Hear it, and I am quoting our Holy Father verbally, this is the age of martyrs. We have confidence that God is providing and will provide such graces as the world had never before received, but we must cooperate with these graces. You mothers and fathers, you are the ones from whom vocations to the priesthood must come.

But, there is more still. In the name of God, I beg you, with all my being, to pray. Pray every day to our Lord. Pray for priests. Pray that priests may be priests not only in name, but in reality. What is a real priest? A real priest is one who loves Jesus crucified. A real priest is one who loves nothing more -- and I mean every syllable -- who loves nothing more than to suffer out of love for Jesus, who ordained him. A real priest is a living martyr. Pray for priests.

For those of us who have remained faithful to the Christ who ordained us, pray for the priests who are struggling -- struggling, hear it, especially with temptations against the faith, and temptations against chastity. Pray that we priests, remain faithful believers, and thus be channels of the grace of faith to those who depend on our priestly ministry. Pray that we may preserve our chastity, even though it might mean martyrdom. From my first Mass, at every consecration, I have asked our Lord for the grace of martyrdom. Pray that we priests, if it is God's grace, die a martyr's death, that we might live, all of us, a martyr's life.

I would like to close with a prayer:

Mary, Mother of God and Mother of priests, we ask you to obtain from Jesus the light and strength for His priests to live a truly priestly life. So that, the priests that Jesus ordained might be priests who are living the lives of martyrs, who are ready to shed their blood for your divine Son.

Mary, Mother of the Church, beg your Son to inspire thousands of young men to embrace the vocation to the priesthood, and thus become the communicators of grace; to a world which is starving, starving for the truth that priests are to teach; to a world that is dying, dying for the love that priests are to bring; a world that is suffering, but a world that shall love the cross, because priests have taught this world that the greatest joy on earth is to love Jesus crucified. Amen.

Copyright © 2001 Inter Mirifica

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