Diaconal Ordination

Homily for the Diaconal Ordinations of Philip Thornley, Br Philip OFM and Br Louis OSB
Basilica of St Paul’s Outside the Walls, 12 June 2024

Three’s always a good number. It means, pace political correctness, there’s a good story coming: here’s an Irishman, an Ashanti and a Cumbrian; a Benedictine, a Franciscan and a Teacher…

Well, there is a good story coming. It has been cooking for some years now, and today it’s delivered, served at table. Today gives joy to the deacons of heaven, that is the angels. To St Stephen, St Laurence, St Ephrem, St Francis and so many other holy deacons of history. To the family and friends of our ordinands, to the formation team and students of the Beda and in Br Louis’ and Br Philip’s cases their religious brethren also. Why not think too of the people our trio have not even met yet and to whom they will bring joy in the future?

Let me offer three thoughts in honour of our three heroes.

1) Today, Philip, Br Louis, Br Philip, you are being taken into service. It’s the “divine passive” as the scholars say. Taken into the service of Another, of a Greater. “You are not your own” anymore, as St Paul would say (1 Cor 6:19). Through the ageing hands of a bishop, Christ himself is laying his ever-youthful resurrected hands on you. You are entering a new energy field, that of the Sacrament of Orders, in the first of its three manifestations: diaconate, priesthood, episcopate. From today, you will be susceptible to fresh supernatural influences. From today, the Lord will have another handle on you. He will be able to fulfil still more of his Father’s purposes through you. He can ‘fly’ you now, so to speak, to other destinations and allot you other missions. I still remember my first baptism as a deacon: a mixture of embarrassment and validity. You have voiced your willingness; you will bow your heads for this blessing. You have already said ‘I do’. Under the gentl pressure of the Holy Spirit, you have added your consent to that of Mary – she will keep it safe for you; to that of John the Baptist when he consented to baptise the Lord; to St Paul’s and St Peter’s. You have said in your hearts, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you”. And today the belt is put round you – the belt of God’s people – and you will be taken to where you may not always want to go, to the place where nonetheless you will die – and rise – and give glory to God. It’s a beautiful moment. It’s part of the calendar of your life, now and forever. “Fly forgetfulness”, says St Benedict; it’s when a minister of the Gospel forgets these things that he sins. “Always remember”, St Benedict says too. And when we do, we do God’s work.

2) “Do not imagine”, the Lord says to you, “that I have come to abolish. I have come not to abolish, but to fulfil.” This is true not only of the Law and the Prophets, the economy of the Old Testament. It’s true of the economy of our own created human nature, of us. By ordaining you, the Lord is not abolishing your personality or family background and bonds, or education and life experiences, whatever professional work you’ve had – nor your seminary formation, by the way! And if you are a religious, he doesn’t abolish that either. Br Louis will know from the Rule of St Benedict how he insists on that. Don’t let ordination cancel your profession – fly forgetfulness, always remember – but allow it to fulfil it. “Keep and teach”, says the Gospel. Keep the Rule, keep obedience, keep the brotherhood, and teach. Serve your brethren from the table of the Word.

          No, the Lord is not annulling his previous gifts today, but he is fulfilling them. The Catechism of the Catholic Church glosses that loaded word “fulfil” by saying “refine, surpass and bring to perfection” (CCC 9167). He is taking your whole self closer to your true fulfilment. “Let [the ordained] make more and more progress into God” St Benedict says. There are moments in ministry when one feels very empty and inadequate, but it’s emptiness God likes to fill, fill full to overflowing. Brothers, through your ordination, may every jot and tittle in you be refined, surpassed and perfected, be regrouped, relocated, recalibrated in the humble, serving, brotherly love this Sacrament enables. Daily, continually, even – sometimes! – cheerfully.     

3) A last thing: Elijah, the Tishbite. Let’s not underestimate the presence of the saints, of Old and New Testament, of Israel and the Church. We will invoke them in a moment. At every fresh step in our lives, we’re given fresh companions, intercessors, inspirations. This isn’t frilly piety; it’s fact. When we’re dying, we’ll realise it! It’s not by chance you’ve received your formation in the College of St Bede. It’s not an accident that you’re being ordained in the basilica of St Paul. And it’s surely a providence that you’re launched on the sea of ministry under the sign of Elijah – this Wednesday of Week 10 of Ordinary Time, Year II. Surely you can take this fiery old Tishbite as a friend today.

          Rather a scary personality, certainly. Did he ever have an ordinary day, one wonders? Not on Mount Carmel. And the Lectionary’s too nice to remind us that it ended with him singlehandedly slaying 400 priests of Baal. Does he have anything to do with deacons? Through John the Baptist whom he prefigures, perhaps he does. In the drama on Mount Carmel too.

          “I am your servant”, he says. “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob…Answer me, Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, Lord, are God, and are winning back their hearts.” Ordination is a power to intercede. It’s a power to call down fire. Every time you proclaim the Gospel, you are calling down fire. Every time you baptise, you are baptising with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Every time you say to someone, The Body of Christ, it’s a burning coal you are putting on their palm or their tongue, and there is fire in the chalice you pass them. “Answer me, O Lord, answer me.” Every time you show the charity of the Church, it is the fire of Christ’s love you are lighting. “Fly forgetfulness; always remember.”

          But think of this whole dramatic scene. “Elijah drew near to the people” – how the Holy Father must love that – vicinanza! A hobbling people, a limping people, dancing over abysses; compromised, divided, ambivalent; trying to have it both ways, “both / and” in the wrong sense, remembering and forgetting. Isn’t this all of us? Isn’t it ever thus. And through his ministry – lit by what faith! – he travels with them, leads them. He brings them to integrity and clarity. The fire falls and the people fall on their faces. “The Lord is God”, they cried, “The Lord is God!” Such an impression has this act of faith made on Israel that it climaxes the liturgy of Yom Kippur. And how can a Christian hear it without thinking of St Thomas: “My Lord and my God!”? How can we not pass on in our thoughts to the presence of Christ in the Eucharist?

“Fly forgetfulness! Always remember!” Call down fire and foster faith!

Philip, Br Louis, Br Philip, holy trinity that you are – look up, look at the all-ruling Christ above us – blessing us and you particularly today, three fingers joined. You’re his deacons. Amen.

                                                                                      Bishop Hugh OSB


12 Jun 2024