In the rich tradition of the Church, the month of June is set aside in devotion to the Sacred Heart. In a particular way during these weeks we are encouraged to a new fervour and new love for Christ by increasing our fervour and love for his Most Sacred Heart, that font of eternal life and fire of everlasting charity. Depictions of the Sacred Heart remind us of this by the flame that accompanies the Lord’s heart. The love of Christ is so strong that his heart is aflame for us; consuming itself in a furnace of pure love in order that we might benefit from its heat and its light; in order that we might share in the sacrifice it makes by consuming itself, and so have that same love burn deep within us.
The anniversary of my own ordination to the priesthood provides an occasion to offer a short post about the propers in Divine Worship: The Missal for one of the Masses for Various Necessities and Occasions designated For the Priest himself. This Mass formulary is given the additional title, in parentheses: “especially on the anniversary of ordination.” The majority of the propers for this Mass come from the Mass In Any Necessity, but the Introit, Collect, Prayer over the Offerings, and Postcommunion are proper to this formulary in Divine Worship. In the catalogue of masses in this section of the missal, this follows those For the Pope or Bishop and For the Election of the Pope.
In the midst of the annual fast of the season of Lent it may appear somewhat peculiar for the Church to call us to additional prayer and penance in the form of the three ember days that punctuate the liturgical calendar. During a period of restraint, and of intensified prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, we might even consider it excessive to add further conditions to the spiritual wellbeing of the Christian faithful. The great wartime Archbishop of Milan, Blessed Ildefonso Schuster—no liturgical modernist he—went so far as to say: “It seems quite superfluous to speak of ember days in Lent … either these ember fast-days are a patchwork addition devoid of any particular significance, or else a place should be found for them apart from the paschal fast.” Yet here we are with this liturgical observance and, should we choose to observe it, a custom of fasting and abstinence that reaches back a thousand years. What is it then that, in her wisdom, our Holy Mother the Church is whispering to us in the words and actions that she asks us to perform this night, in these signs and symbols of love?
In the two months before the great season of Advent this year, the Church sets before us an extended passage from the Epistle to the Hebrews, which Pope Benedict XVI described as “a new way of understanding the Old Testament as a Book that speaks of Christ.” In a particular way, these readings set out the place of the Eucharistic sacrifice—the preeminent worship of the new covenant—in the context of the sacrifices of the old. In them we read of the role of sacrifice in the new dispensation, and of the fulfillment of the sacrifices of the old covenant, and indeed of all sacrifice, in the sacrifice of the cross, which is re-presented for us in the Eucharistic oblation. As the Council of Trent taught: “in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, that same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner, who once offered himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross” (Sess. xxii. cap. II.).
By this feast of the Most Sacred Heart the Church today draws us as individuals closer and closer to the person of Christ by acknowledging that his natural heart—the fleshy reality of the human organ—is itself intertwined with the supernatural reality of his divine and all-consuming love for us. By venerating sacred images of his wounded and flaming heart, and by our own desire to become one with the perfect fire of his charity which such images represent, we are presented with the opportunity to become more perfectly conformed to the Lord; united to his eternal sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving in the presence of his everlasting Father.
This essential conformity to the heart of Christ is perhaps most clearly understood through the depiction of his heart burning with flames of fire. Far from being some overly-pious icon of sentimentality, such an image is a true sign of Christ’s all-consuming love; a love that invites us to join ourselves to those very flames in order that, one with his own holocaust offering of self-sacrifice, we may be entirely annihilated, that only he remains. Christ’s love for us—and indeed the love that is thus demanded of us for him—is that perfect sacrificial gift of the self for the other. So it is in the sacrifice of the person of Christ on the cross of Calvary that we catch the fullest glimpse of his supernatural love—of his Sacred Heart—a glimpse which is re-presented for us in the Eucharistic oblation.
The solemn celebration of this most holy night, in which we commemorate the institution of the Most Holy Eucharist and the ministerial priesthood, affords us the opportunity to recognize once again the great outpouring of love and grace which is the sacrifice of Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. By participation in these sacred rites and in those of the coming days the Church invites us, her children, to enter into the mystery of the passion, death, and resurrection, in a more intense and renewed way, uniting ourselves to the perfect oblation of God the Son to God the Father in and through God the Holy Spirit. In the three days on which we have now embarked, the saving acts of the Lord are retold so that we might recognize what our God has done for us, and so strive to respond by lives oriented toward his eternal presence.
This fourth Sunday of Easter is known also today by another name, as we recount once more in the gospel the familiar parable of the good shepherd. Good Shepherd Sunday is marked in Rome by the ordination of men to the sacred priesthood by the Holy Father in Saint Peter’s basilica, and we keep in our minds today all those who are preparing to receive holy orders this summer, especially Brother Peter Martyr O.P., who serves in this parish. Today is also the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, and so we think also in more general terms about the call of the sacred priesthood, and ask ourselves what it is that we are doing to encourage and support those who may be summoned to live this life, and if we might do more to help.
In his 2007 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis (SC), Pope Benedict XVI remarked that ‘Everything related to the Eucharist should be marked by beauty’ (SC §41). I would like to offer, here, a few short reflections on how a better understanding and knowledge of this simple, guiding principle, might underpin our celebrations of the Eucharist.
First, it is the duty of the Priest (and all those assisting with the celebration) to ensure that everything neccesary is made ready before the Mass begins. This may seem to be an obvious point, but being ‘ready’ does not simply mean being organised; it means being spiritually prepared for the role we undertake in the Sacred Liturgy, from the Priest-Celebrant to those in the pew. The Priest should take – and should be given – space and time to prepare to ascend the altar, both in the church and in the sacristy before Mass. Bishop Peter Elliott recently called for the mandatory and official use of the Vesting Prayers in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite. This is a good way for the Priest to recognise that he is not simply ‘getting changed’, but being clothed to enter the Holy of Holies. In the Personal Ordinariates, some priests make use of the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar, from the Extraordinary Form, as a preparation with the servers before Mass. This, too, can inculcate a proper sense of preparation and readiness for the sacred action.
Last week I accompanied more than 100 pilgrims from England, Wales, and Scotland, on a pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint Peter as part of the Year of Faith. The pilgrimage, for seminarians, novices, and those discerning their vocation, was organised by the Pontifical Council for the promotion of the New Evangelisation, and included 6000 young adults from across the world. It was an impressive sight, but even more impressive was a profound sense that – close to Peter – this was a space in which these pilgrims could echo Peter’s words and say, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you”.
In Matthew 16 and John 21, the mission given to Peter by the Lord is as a result of Peter’s own confession of faith: You are the Christ the Son of the Living God; You know all things, you know that I love. So it is in the life of all Christians, that the acceptance of the Lord’s divinity and our openness to his love for us, precedes our true realisation of the vocation he has given us, and so precedes any true hope we might have for happiness. The Christian must first truly follow Christ, in order for the Lord to entrust him or her with the mission and state of life which will bring us to heaven. As others have started to say: discipleship discerns vocation.