On the day of my ordination, 14 September 1996, I gave people a prayer card. It’s what newly ordained priests often do. On it were written four words: Pray for Martin Boland and above this direct request is a quotation from St Paul:
We are ambassadors for Christ; it is as though God were appealing through us and the appeal that we make in Christ’s name is, be reconciled to God.
Martin Boland is named on the prayer card. I’m not unimportant. It’s not that on the day of my ordination, the old Martin Boland was replaced with a new shiny, better version. That’s not what happened. It was the same bloke before and after.
But how I understand myself, my vocation and priesthood is described by the quotation. I’m an ambassador for Christ. That’s the change. My Christian identity and purpose was made public and recognised at my ordination. I’m an ambassador for Christ and He is appealing through me – this weak, blunt, crude instrument. It’s all to be done in His name, not mine. It’s not about me. It’s about Christ. And if it does become about me – my jealousies, my petty vanities, my ambitions – then I need to go back to Christ because without Christ, I stop being an ambassador and become a functionary, an ideologue, a customs official.
Sometimes people ask me when did you know you had a vocation? The answer is simple. The day of my baptism on the 22 May 1966. That was the day I was plunged into the mystery of the Blessed Trinity. When I was washed clean of Original sin and my Trinitarian orientation was revealed. At that moment I became, in the words of an early address, the member of “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his own marvellous light.” (1 Pet 2.9) That’s true for me. It’s also true for all the baptised who are given the vocation of proclaiming the mighty acts of God through their words and attitudes and actions. This vocation is the meaning of life.
On the 22 May 1966 the great adventure, the life project of living in the marvellous light of Christ began for me. It’s only in his purifying light that I can see myself with any clarity. He x-rays me so that all that is healthy and all that is shadow in me is exposed. Without that light, received in baptism, I would never have known whether I would one day become one of his ambassadors.
I was an undergraduate at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. During my time at university, I had my feet in two camps. I was a member of the God squad. I was pretty involved in the Catholic chaplaincy which was very high profile in the university and from which came a great number of priestly, religious and married vocations. I never lost my faith at university. Never stopped going to Mass as many undergraduates do. At the same time, I had a foot in a kind bohemian, creative, intellectually pretentious group – we were listening to The Smiths, reading poetry, pretending to be champagne Marxists…you get the idea.
I’m telling you that, because, in retrospect, both groups of people and the experiences we shared formed me in different ways – clarified my vocation. Hopefully, I don’t have a naïve view of the secular world, but I’ve never had a bleak, pessimistic view of it and I still don’t. I was never going to be a priest just looking out the presbytery window, angry at the world around me. For me, the world in all its complexities and ambiguities is the place where the great drama of salvation is played out. I’ve always wanted to be bit-part player in that. I suppose that’s why I’m a secular priest and I feel very strongly about the secular priesthood and the importance of parishes in helping people to participate in that drama.
Maybe this is the reason why “the ambassador for Christ” image has caught my imagination. Ambassadors take the risk of going into bordering territories and of finding common interests, a common language with those strange, sometimes hostile, inhabitants. They set up embassies of hope and mercy outside the city walls, where the bruised, the lost and the hurting are found scavenging on the wastelands of despair. They offer advice, guidance and sanctuary. I was never much interested in being an immigration official on Catholic border control, defending the frontier from immigrants and refugees. I wanted to be in Christ’s diplomatic corps and if I was, I hoped he would make me an ambassador. To my surprise, he did. I act, I preach, I love for him.
I have given my life to Christ that he may in some way use me. There’s a kind of noble simplicity about that. Of course, for some people that may sound like sheer folly and, maybe, it is, but it is the life I know, that continues to stir something deep within me, that troubles and tests me at times, that makes me come alive. To say the words, This is my body. This is my blood still moves and humbles me. To live, by grace, the words But I give you a new commandment, love one another as I have loved you. Be reconciled to God gives my life a dynamic purpose and hope.
I love being a priest, an ambassador for Christ. All these years later, it remains an honour to have been chosen for this role. And I still feel passionately that priests have something life-giving to offer our world: the love story of the Last Supper, with its mystery of freedom and forgiveness. I’ve no interest in being part of some introverted group, with its own inscrutable codes and language. I want to be among the saints and sinners, the young and the old, the living and the dead. And, unless I’ve got it terribly wrong, I believe this is what God wants for me as well.
One final anecdote. Last year, I went to visit my old secondary school, the London Oratory, for the first time in thirty years. It brought on a nostalgia rush and, yes, of course, that school shaped my vocation. Afterwards I was taken for lunch by the chaplain, Fr George Bowen. Fr George was enthusing about Pope Francis and we started chatting about the priesthood. “You know,” he said to me, “as priests we have only one thing of importance to say to others and that is “I have seen the Lord.””
I think he could well be on to something.
[This is a sermon for Vocations Sunday, 10 May 2014, at Brentwood Cathedral]