Cardinal Tom Williams was ordained a priest on 20 December 1959 and a bishop in 1979. In 2019, Cardinal Tom reached a milestone, his 60th jubilee celebrating six decades of his ordination. He delivered the following jubilee homily in Wellington and Auckland last December.
As an active bishop for twenty-five years I was called to ordain some forty men to priesthood.
In my ordination homilies I emphasised that priesthood has nothing to do with power and privilege, but everything to do with sacrifice and service, seeking nothing for the priest himself but striving only to please God, to imitate Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd, and to commit himself unreservedly to his pastoral responsibilities.
But each of those homilies was a kind of examination of conscience.
Was I practicing what I was preaching? Did I allow the awareness of the wondrous privilege – each day to transform bread and wine into the Body and Blood of our Redeemer – to lull me into thinking I possessed some sort of superior status within the Catholic community?
Did I forget too often the words of the Lord that are the source of joy and courage for every priest and bishop: ‘I no longer call you servants…I call you friends’?
Did I reflect often enough on what Pope Francis described as ‘that blazing light with which God touched me at the start of my priestly journey…the flame from which I can light a fire for today and every day which ignites a humble joy, a joy which sorrow and distress cannot dismay, a good and gentle joy’?
Alas, I have failed too frequently.
And, therefore, along with thanksgiving, I have to make repentance a theme of this jubilee.
I am well aware of fellow priests and brother bishops who are more learned than myself, who have read more, written more, spoken more wisely, who are better organisers, and more compassionate and charismatic pastors, who are more advanced in prayer and the spiritual life.
But none are more aware than I of the need for God’s mercy and forgiveness.
I know that when I stand at Heaven’s gate, which at close to 90 cannot be too far away, I won’t be able to appeal to any good conduct record.
I won’t dare to say, ‘if you examine my credentials you will see that they are all in order.’
I will be able to say simply, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner’.
However, jubilees are milestones on life’s journey, and it is right that I should back over the distance travelled, and so deepen my awareness of God’s goodness and mercy.
But my reasons for thanksgiving are too many to detail. There are so many grace-filled experiences which I recall vividly, humbly and gratefully.
Above all, I thank God for giving me a share in the priesthood of his Son, Jesus Christ.
I thank God for those in earlier years who formed me, and prepared me to respond to his call to priestly ministry.
I think particularly of my parents who made huge sacrifices in nurturing my faith and that of my six sisters and brothers.
I think of the Mercy and Mission Sisters and Marist Fathers who educated me through primary and secondary years, the Catholic Youth Movement Chaplains who formed me for the lay apostolate, the seminary professors in Mosgiel and Rome, and the priests and religious and laity who have been my partners in ministry in parish and diocese, as well as my brother bishops, especially Cardinal Dew, who supported me and tolerated my eccentricities and enthusiasms.
Such has been the road I have travelled or, more accurately, the path along which, by God’s grace I have been led.
I know with full conviction that only love has made that journey possible.
I mean the love that St Paul speaks of in his letter to the community at Ephesus: ‘I pray…that Christ may dwell in your hearts as you are being rooted and grounded in love…that you may know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.’
The love that St Paul speaks of is not a purely human thing.
It can include all the closeness and tenderness, all the intimacy and passion that we associate with human loving.
But it is more.
The love St Paul has in mind is genuinely divine, because the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge comes not from our natural gifts or powerful personalities or exceptional talents.
It is a gift of a loving God that enables us ‘to bear all things, hope all things, endure to the last’.
Over the past six decades I have come to the conviction that my vocation to priesthood, seeking to serve as Christ served, although it has inevitably involved sacrifice and commitment, has been an incredibly rich source of fulfilment and deep-down happiness because it is rooted in love – Christ’s love.
Before all else it is for that love that I give thanks this morning.
It has sustained me through the years as priest and bishop, and although, now on the sidelines as it were, will continue to do so through the years that remain to me.
What of the future? Pope Francis once said: ‘The elder who ages well is like fine wine. As wine ages it gets better, in fact much better! We do not throw it away. But when wine ages poorly, it becomes vinegar. You must age well, with wisdom…’
With the help of Christ’s love, that is what I am trying to become: wine not vinegar.