Michael Hull, Pantonian Professor of Divinity, writes:
Of the dreams that run through the mind of a priest on ordination day, one of the most poignant is that of serving Jesus Christ and his people as a pastor. The vocation of the priesthood is exemplified in the image of the Good Shepherd in John 10. Jesus speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep; similarly, the priest lays down her or his life at ordination, offering the entirety of one’s life to God and his people. The priest is mindful that changes will come in the person, the church and world during a lifetime of ministry, but the strength to minister well will not come from the priest, the church or the world. As the ordaining prelate prays at a priesting: ‘May the Lord who has called you to this work, and given you the will to undertake it, also give you grace to perform it.’ We should be echoing that prayer for our priests: that the Lord would give them the grace to minister well.
The years of prayer, formation and study—and the periods of discernment on the part of the person and the church that precedes them—are preparation to be an alter Christus (another Christ). Likewise, the years spent in any and all ministries are groundings for pastoring souls after the model of the Good Shepherd. Indeed, the priest is called to sanctify, to teach, and to lead in imitation of Jesus Christ. The calling is surely fulfilled when the priest serves as a pastor of souls, a shepherd, that is, as a bishop, rector or priest-in-charge of part of the flock that are God’s people. Yet, it is also fulfilled in the others pastoral roles in which priests partake, for example, teaching, chaplaincy and counselling.
It has been over thrity years since my own priesting. It has been a great time! I have ministered as an assistant priest, studied theology as a postgraduate, taught ministerial candidates and lay learners, and pastored in a charge. I have served almost nine years working with the Scottish Episcopal Institute, first as the Director of Studies and now as the Principal. It is but an understatement to say that I have changed, the church has changed and the world has changed in those thirty years. I am confident, though, that throughout those years the Lord who called me to these many pastoral ministries has given me the grace to perform them, even if I have performed them poorly. I am comforted that people pray for priests like me and that change has occasioned development in my me. I am excited by the prospects to shepherd that await me under grace!
John Henry Newman (1801–90) once wrote, ‘In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.’ This is aptly applied to all persons and to priests. ‘Here below’, that is, on this earth, we may develop into more virtuous persons insofar as we cooperate with the grace offered us by God to change—and to change well—so that in ‘a higher world’, that is, in heaven, we may enjoy the ultimate end of change in the Beatific Vision. The Beatific Vision—seeing God face to face—is the height of perfection, and no change comes after it; but as we develop in virtue towards that end, we do change. To become perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect (see Matthew 5.48), we have to change often, very often, during the course of our lives here below on earth.
One of the things that has not changed in the last thirty years (or in the last two thousand years) is failures on the part of priests. We are sinners. We are in need of prayer. So I ask you to pray for me and for my brothers and sisters in the priesthood so that we might change—and change well—into the good shepherds that God and his people would have us be. Our Lord has set the bar very high, indeed. Still, St Paul reminds us that where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more (Romans 5.20): the transformation of priests is ongoing and comes about only through God’s grace. On an immediate level, this transformation is catalyzed by the prayers of God’s people. Priestly ordination is actualised when the priest is changed by grace into the shepherd—the good shepherd—that she or he is called to be. Change is in store for priests throughout our ministries, and our dreams at our ordinations are works in progress just now, as we continue to depend on God’s grace and the prayers of his people.
The Reverend Canon Professor Michael Hull has been an Assistant Priest at St Vincent’s since 2015. He is also Principal of the Scottish Episcopal Institute.