The Ascension of Jesus to heavenly glory forty days after his Resurrection marks the final act of his earthly ministry and the necessary prelude to the birth of the Church. This is not an ending, but a new beginning. Jesus ascended in his visible body to make way for his Mystical Body, the Church, which was filled with the living breath of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
As he ascended into the heavenly sanctuary, Jesus sent out his Apostles to continue his work and proclaim the Gospel, just as he had been sent by the Father to bring the Good News of salvation to humanity. The Lord tells them to go into the whole world and be his witnesses to the ends of the earth, to teach all that he has taught and make disciples of all nations.
As the definitive high priest, Jesus chose some of his followers to carry out publicly in the Church a particular priestly ministry in his name on behalf of all. By virtue of their consecration in the sacrament of orders, these men are configured to Christ as priest and shepherd of his people and they continue his sacred ministerial presence.
Many times I have heard priests, particularly at anniversary celebrations, express the sentiment that all they ever wanted was to be a priest, giving their life over to the Lord. Next Tuesday, May 10, the priests of this local Church will gather again for one of these annual events, giving thanks to God for their brother priests who are marking jubilee anniversaries of their ordinations. For these men and for all our priests, I ask that you offer up your own prayers in communion with mine.
Like the Apostles, the priests who so superbly serve this archdiocese likewise have been sent to a variety of parishes, missions and ministries. From the time I was in the seminary, I, too, experienced “being sent.” Over the years, I have been sent to Rome and to Pittsburgh, to the state of Washington and now the city of Washington, and many places in-between as well. But wherever we are sent, we are ever-cognizant of our commission to proclaim the Word in season and out, to celebrate the sacred mysteries, and to manifest a shepherd’s care for the flock which we are called to gather into one and lead to the Father.
Whether we were ordained fifty years ago or five years ago, our priestly ministry is ever new. We are all priests of a new millennium and New Evangelization. In the midst of a culture that too often leaves people wanting, the priesthood of Jesus Christ is sent to bear testimony to the truth of the Lord’s words of everlasting life.
However, while those who are ordained as priests serve a special role, every part of the Mystical Body of Christ is called to be witnesses of Jesus. The Ascension is directed to all the faithful also as a challenge. We are all called to deliver the Good News to the ends of the earth and the laity play an invaluable role in this mission.
The “end of the earth” is the place where people live. It is the place where they work. It is the place where they socialize and spend their leisure time. Priests and bishops and the pope cannot reach all those places or the people there – but the laity can. As the Second Vatican Council’s decree on the laity reminds us, “The laity must take up the renewal of the temporal order as their own special obligation” (Apostolicam Actuositatem, 7).
As Christians, we all share in the apostolate of Christ. We all share to some extent in the work of an apostle. An “apostle,” according to the word’s root meaning, is someone who is sent – an ambassador – someone sent into the world to spread the Good News, to make disciples of all nations, to establish the kingdom and build it up with every action of every day.
We are ambassadors for heaven’s kingdom, sent to a particular family, a particular neighborhood, a particular school or university, a particular workplace. Though we are ambassadors representing Jesus in those places here on earth, our true citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). We are in the world, but not of the world.
We represent the kingdom to a world with which the kingdom is often at odds. The people to whom we are sent will sometimes, and perhaps often, disagree with us. This may prove challenging, but as ambassadors, we practice a certain diplomacy. Rather than joining in crude discourse, our speech and action should be marked by the charity in truth that is characteristic of the kingdom.
Saint Peter puts it beautifully: “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15-16). In this way, every adversary – including the most anti-Christian kind – can become a friend and perhaps even a fellow sister or brother in Christ.