When in 1995 I moved from the Diocese of Ballarat to All Saints' Wickham Terrace in Brisbane, Father Arthur Fellows was one of the retired priests who joined our ministry team. Ordained to the priesthood in the Diocese of Rockhampton on 16th December 1951, he had served parishes in Rockhampton and Brisbane dioceses, and for a time had been Queensland State Secretary of the Australian Board of Missions. Father Fellows was also Secretary of the Queensland Region of Forward in Faith Australia. Here is the sermon he preached at All Saints' to mark his Golden Jubilee of ordination to the priesthood..
It is a wonderful thing to be dedicated to the priesthood at baptism. This knowledge was withheld from me by my parents until, at the age of 25, I disclosed to my priest father the stirrings of vocation. I can still see the smile on his face, and can appreciate what it must have meant to him. That knowledge made my calling sure, and I resigned from a lucrative profession to begin an adventure in theological and priestly training in St Francis’ College, leading up to the great moment of the laying on of hands in Rockhampton Cathedral. I can still recall the weight of hands on my head that morning on December 16, 1951.
CHRIST THE ONLY PRIEST
To be a priest! We don’t do God a favour by offering ourselves for ordination. No, the favour is all on God’s side, for, as Jesus said in the Gospel, “you did not choose me; I chose you.” The priesthood I have is not my own, nor is it something of Holy Church’s devising. The form and matter of the ordination service is that which the Catholic Church has seen fit to use to see that the priesthood of Christ is conferred on the deacon kneeling before the bishop, who himself looks back on the line of Apostolic Succession.
For Christ is the one and only priest, perfectly fulfilling the Old Testament concepts of sacrifice. They were a shadow, offered up by the descendants of the tribe of Levi, trying to placate God with animal sacrifices, which were unable to take away sin. The sacrifice of Jesus is the substance.
He is the lamb taken from the flock, a male without blemish, and as priest he comes not from the tribe of Levi, but, as the Letter to the Hebrews says, he arises “in the likeness of Melchisedek . . . by the power of an indestructible life.”
All priests ordained today are made one with our Great High Priest, sharing in his priesthood. There are not two priesthoods, just as there are not two sacrifices for sin. One sacrifice has for ever redeemed the world. It is offered eternally in heaven by the one and only priest, Jesus, who is also the victim, and it is the pleading of that sacrifice before our heavenly Father which reconciles us to the Father and places us in a state of salvation. It is offered continually on earth by the multitude and succession of priests who are one with Jesus as partakers of his priesthood. In our Eucharistic offering today it is our Great High Priest who is the main actor, who uses the hands and voice of the earthly priest to make present his own sacrificial offering and his sacramental presence, for we earthly priests have no priesthood of our own.
HIS PROJECTION INTO THE WORLD
The priesthood of Christ is sent into the world in the persons of other men. They are not merely teachers and examples, but extensions of himself in his divine mission, “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me.” The function of reconciling God and man is seen on the night of the Last Supper, when Jesus uses sacrificial language in the command to “Do This.” It is seen on the first Easter night, in the commission to forgive sins. “Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven, and whose sins you retain they are retained.” “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” So when a priest is at the altar or sits in the confessional, he is part of the mediatorial action of Christ. He is not acting in the absence of Christ, but rather one through whom Christ himself is acting.
I recall one priest saying to me that he didn’t know what his role was in society, and I said to him, “You haven’t got a role in society, your role is within the Church.” It is the whole Body of Christ which has the role in society. It is called to be the leaven, the yeast, leavening society. It is called to be the salt, giving flavour; to be the light that shines before men. We priests are priests to the Body, in Christ’s name feeding the Body with his sacraments, teaching, preaching, shepherding, so that the members of the Body might fulfil their role as priests to the world in the scriptural sense. This means that our role as priests is a fairly humble one; wonderful, yet humble; unique, but also demanding; privileged, yet with tremendous responsibilities; for Jesus said, “Unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required.”
I was called a fool because I forsook a good job, and afterwards reflected on St Paul’s words - “we are fools for Christ’s sake.” Yet we have privileges which not even kings and presidents have. What great ones of the earth may say to another, “By his authority committed to me I absolve you from all your sins?” What a privilege it is to reconcile sinners to God! What a privilege it is to take bread and wine and through a sacramental action in the power of the Holy Spirit to give the faithful Christ’s Body and Blood! Yet there is no room here for building ourselves up. It has been well said that the priest is drawing aside the curtain so as to reveal something of God, while hiding himself in the folds.
There is no doubt that it is the quality of the priests which will determine the health of a parish. The diocese is only as strong as the strength of the parishes. How much attention then must be given to the seminaries and training colleges! The first of the Tracts For the Times in the Catholic Revival in 1833 was addressed to the clergy by John Henry Newman. “My dear brethren, act up to your profession. Let it not be said that you have neglected a gift; for if you have the spirit of the Apostles on you, surely this is a great gift. “Stir up the gift of God which is in you.” Make much of it, Show your value of it. Keep it before your minds as an honourable badge, far higher than that secular respectability, or cultivation, or polish, or learning, or rank, which gives you a hearing with the many.”
THE PRIEST AS VICTIM
Jesus is both priest and victim in the Eucharistic sacrifice. We who share his priesthood must be aware that it involves being a victim with him. The Cross is to touch the life of every Christian, but it must first touch the life of Christ’s priests, and the flock is entitled to see in its shepherd something of what Jesus said about himself: “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd gives his life for the sheep.” Jesus also said of himself: “In truth, in very truth I tell you, a grain of wheat remains a solitary grain unless it falls into the ground and dies, but if it dies it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” St Paul, writing from prison to Christians at Philippi, says: “If I be made a victim upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice...” So sacrifice is inseparable from the life of the priest. If it is resented, then we lose our way and fail Christ.
St Paul puts it in a nutshell in his second letter to the Corinthians (12:15) “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls.” How then can we set limits to our priestly life? Jesus after his baptism was presented with various ways of going round the cross. It happened to him; it will happen ] to those who share his priesthood. The Old Testament prophet cried out against the shepherds who fed themselves and not the flock. Would not the worst thing to be said of a priest be that “he looked after No. 1?” Yes, sacrifice is inseparable from the life of the priest. He must have his own wheat and grapes to be crushed, and i’ this is not visible his priesthood lacks authenticity.
St Paul, writing about his own calling, says: “We have this treasure in earthen vessels.” In other words, we can crack up; we can fail again and again. Our own sinful human nature comes too often to the fore. Our own frailty and fallibility is highly visible. The Letter to the Hebrews speaks of the nature of our Great High Priest: “We have not a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning.” In the next chapter it speaks of the earthly priest: “He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness.”
I have said something of the ideals of the priesthood, and much more time could be spent on that. I am conscious of the times I have failed to live up to those ideals. But it is quite another thing to lose the ideals altogether, or never to have been given them in the first place. The Prayer Book says, in the Preface to the Ordination of Priests, that “the people are to esteem in their office.” It is that holy office for which we praise and thank the Lord today, and it is that office which, in spite of our unworthiness, flaws and frailty, guarantees you a blessed sacramental union with our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Always put the office on a high pedestal, but beware of putting the person on the same level. You are right to expect great things from your priests, but if you never pray for them, how then can you demand so much?
“As the seminary is, so will the priest be; As the priest is, so will the parish be; As the parishes are, so will the Church be.”