Fr Stephen Wang, Rector of the Venerable English College in Rome, gave the following homily at a special Mass recently, marking his Silver Jubilee – the 25th anniversary of his ordination.
When he was a young film director Stephen Spielberg became famous for his so-called reaction shots. He didn’t invent them, but they became his trademark. Whenever an extraordinary event takes place in a Spielberg film, he cuts to the faces of those who are witnessing it. The great white shark finally appears in Jaws, but we – the audience – don’t see the shark, we see the horrified face of Roy Schneider on the beach. The spaceship descends from the Wyoming clouds at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but we see the face of Richard Dreyfuss filled with a childlike wonder. Why? Because you see more, you understand more, when you see the faces of those who are seeing for the very first time.
This is what happens in the Gospel today. St John the Baptist sees Jesus coming towards him, and we remain focussed on St John and his reactions. We see the wonder on his face – he is completely overwhelmed by his encounter with Jesus. We hear his testimony. Yes, he’s pointing away from himself, “Look, there is the Lamb of God!” But in this passage, we are struck by the finger which points as much as by the person it is pointing towards.
This is why, in our churches, we have images of the saints, and especially of their faces. The light of Jesus Christ is sometimes too bright to be seen clearly, so we need it to be refracted through the lives and faith of the saints. As the poet Gerald Manley Hopkins wrote: “for Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”
It’s a wonderful Gospel reading to have for an anniversary Mass that celebrates the gift of priesthood. It highlights two aspects of the priesthood.
On the one hand, every priest, indeed every Christian, is meant to point away from himself. It’s not about me, it’s about him, Jesus Christ, and his Holy Church. It’s about grace, as St Paul says in his very first word to the Church in Corinth: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”. It’s about the faith of the Church and not about my strengths or weaknesses.
Remember the words of the Mass: “Look not on our sins but on the faith of your Church”.
It was said of St Dominic that he spent every waking moment either speaking to God or about God. I can’t claim to have lived up to St Dominic’s example, but part of the joy of priesthood is how many opportunities there are to be with the Lord and to speak about the Lord. You are at the altar, celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass; then in a school assembly, talking about the Gospel to young children; then in the local prison hearing confessions; then at the hospital to anoint the sick and the dying; then back to the parish for an evening of catechesis or evangelisation. All of this in a single day: not to prove that the priest has to be busy all the time, but to show that the priesthood is a life for others, a life for God, a mission – as Isaiah says today – that is meant to reach to the ends of the earth.
So like St John the Baptist, we are pointing away from ourselves. But on the other hand, we can’t help speaking about how the Lord has touched our own lives personally. St Thomas Aquinas wrote that an active life of ministry calls us “to hand on to others the fruits of our own contemplation”. In this Gospel passage St John does just that – he gives his personal testimony. He says: I myself did not know him – but then I did know him, and now I am telling you what I have seen.
We can’t help sharing our own lives. St Paul says to the Thessalonians, “We were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves”. In a parish, community priests are called to be brothers and sons as well as fathers, and we have to learn – to use a phrase – “appropriate self-disclosure”. Not being a showman or taking an ego-trip, but having the humility and courage to speak, sometimes, about what the Lord has done in our lives and to share our lives with others. There is a vulnerability in this.
The priesthood is never an impersonal ministry: we are not parrots repeating abstract truths, or AI bots delivering pro-forma responses on behalf of the corporate HQ. We are men of flesh and blood, wounded men, whose lives have nevertheless been marked by faith, who have said yes because of a deep sense of calling. It’s personal.
I’m so grateful to God for his love, for his kindness in calling me to be a priest, and for these 25 years of priesthood. I’m so grateful to the Lord, to family and friends, to the many priests I’ve known, and to the people of the communities in which I have lived and served.
What’s got in the way? Sin. Fear. Moments of despair, when things have gone wrong or I couldn’t see a way forward. Being over-busy. Relying on my own strength too much. Forgetting the goodness or the humanity of the people around me. Forgetting God’s holy presence.
What’s kept me going? Prayer. The Mass. Confession. The Virgin Mary. Spiritual direction. My annual retreat. I’m sorry it sounds like a seminary conference but it’s true. And I’d add to this list of graces that have sustained me: Friends and family. Wise priests and bishops. The communities I’ve lived and worked in. Loving and supportive colleagues. And, of course, movies!
When I was a schoolboy in St Albans in the 1980s, the huge pillars of the medieval Cathedral were completely white: no images, no colour. When I went back to visit ten years later there were brightly coloured images of Jesus and the saints on almost every pillar.
They weren’t newly painted – they were from the Middle Ages. They had been whitewashed over during the Reformation, and now they had been uncovered and restored. Today you can see the face of Jesus in the faces of the saints; you can see – going back to Gerard Manley Hopkins – Christ playing in ten thousand places.
One very special privilege of being a priest is seeing the love of Christ in so many people’s lives; seeing his divine image in so many human faces. And one of the tasks of the priest is to help reveal his face and uncover his image.
He’s here. He’s in you. He’s in your life. Maybe you don’t always see him. But what a wonderful blessing: to see him just a little bit more each day, and then to see him – with all the others who long to see him – when he comes again in Glory.
This homily was delivered at a Mass to celebrate 25 years of priesthood, 15 Jan 2023, the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, the Venerable English College.
Reproduced with permission from Independent Catholic News.