Mary’s Fiat and the Priesthood

December 21, 2011

Archbishop Augustine Di Noia, O.P. preached the following homily at Altar of the Chair, in  St. Peter’s Basilica, on the fiftieth anniversary of Cardinal Levada’s priestly ordination. The picture is of the statue of Saint Dominic which is to the left of the ambo at Altar of the Chair, in  St. Peter’s Basilica. Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Advent (December 20, 2011) Isaiah 7:10-14 / Luke 1: 26-38 Dear brothers and sisters in Christ. When we listen to the story of the Annunciation our attention is irresistibly drawn to its climax—to Mary’s fiat. And so it should be. If the angels in heaven—themselves in no need of salvation—waited with baited breath for Mary’s response to Gabriel, how much more are we keen to hear the words that launch the epoch of our salvation? We want Mary to say yes, to embrace the divine will, to accept the coming of the Holy Spirit upon her. And she does, fulfilling the original divine decree whereby she would give the world the Son of God in his human nature, and thus becoming the Theotokos. “A branch shall sprout from the root of Jesse, and the glory of the Lord will fill the whole earth, and all flesh will see the salvation of our God in her.”   This happy occasion heightens for us the significance of Mary’s fiat. For, in this celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, we joyfully mark the anniversary of the priestly ordination of our dear brother and friend, Cardinal William Levada, who, with fifty-three of his classmates, received Holy Orders here the Altar of the Chair fifty years ago today. We can say that they pronounced their own fiat before the whole Church on that day. This striking parallel between the Annunciation and the priesthood was drawn by Blessed John Paul II when he wrote: “Since the solemn invocation of the Holy Spirit and the eloquent gesture of humility during our priestly ordination, the fiat of the Annunciation has resounded through our life” (Letter to Priests, 1998, §7). Prostrate on the sanctuary floor as the Church invokes the power of the Holy Spirit and the intercession of all the saints, the candidate for ordination prepares his heart and soul, his whole being, to embrace with obedience and humility the unique configuration to Jesus Christ the High Priest that God wills to confer upon him in the Sacrament of Holy Orders. In this way, the priest’s initial and lifelong fiat may be likened to that of Mary, who, according to Blessed John Paul, “became ever more open to the will of the Lord and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, …conceived Christ, the salvation of the world. This first obedience pervades her entire life on earth and reaches it climax at the foot of the cross. The priest is called to match the fiat of Mary at all times, allowing him to be led by the Spirit as she was” (ibid.).   Nonetheless, while in the end her fiat is absolute and unqualified, Mary’s initial reaction to Gabriel’s message manifests a certain hesitation. She asks, you will recall, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” In response to this question the angel Gabriel proceeds to unfold the mystery of the virgin birth, and the immense grace which Mary is to receive. That for which she justly feels unready will be accomplished in her by the Holy Spirit. Moreover, our faith tells us that, in a deeper sense, her very being had been made ready beforehand by God who, in virtue of the foreseen merits of her Son’s passion, death and resurrection, preserved her from all sin, original and actual. How fitting is the celebration of the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin early in the season of Advent. Where no earthly preparations could suffice, God himself prepared the way for the Incarnation of his only Begotten Son.   To be sure, Our Lady was not totally passive in this transaction of grace. Aquinas affirms that, while it could not strictly be said that Mary merited the Incarnation, it is nonetheless true that “by the grace given her she merited such a degree of purity and sanctity that she could fittingly be the mother of God” (Summa Theol. 3a. 2, 11 ad 3). “Tell me, angel,” St. Augustine asks, “whence has Mary [received] this favor? I already told you [replies Gabriel] when I saluted her: Hail full of grace” (Sermon 291).   Mary’s hesitant question to the angel Gabriel directs our attention to a fundamental law of the entire economy of salvation. For she—the holiest human being who ever lived—nonetheless expresses just the sort of reaction we all have when confronted with the news that God is about to do something unexpected for us. Our natural reaction is: but I’m not ready for this. In Mary’s case, the angel in effect dismisses her hesitation by affirming that what is about to happen does not depend on her readiness but on the grace already at work in her. There are no conditions or requirements within our—or her—capacity to fulfill that would have made the world ready for the Incarnation of the Son of God. Our worries about being unready are answered somewhat impatiently by the prophet Isaiah. “Listen, O house of David! Is it not enough for you to weary men, must you also weary God? The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” If God had waited until we were ready—or worse still, worthy—for this, he would still be waiting, and so, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, and so would we. This divine condescension was an act of sheer, superabundant grace, and, apart from the prevenient grace that prepared for it, neither we nor even our Blessed Lady herself could have been ready for it. This “grace that goes before grace,” as it were, prevails throughout the economy of salvation.   We can see, then, that not only Mary’s fiat, but also her hesitant question regarding her apparent unreadiness, are profoundly significant for every priest. For, I ask you my brother priests, as we knelt on the day of our ordination and felt the weight of the laying on of hands upon our heads, is there one of us who regarded himself as ready or, dare I say it, worthy of the grace of Holy Orders? And now as the years have past—fifty, forty, thirty, twenty, ten, as the case may be—since that day of our ordination, have we ever felt ready to speak and act in Christ’s name or worthy of the abundant graces we have received? In the face of the overwhelming divine love of which we have daily been the object, we can do no better than to utter Mary’s simple, humble and obedient fiat.   This is true not only for the priests and bishops among us, but also for all the Christian faithful. Before the wonders of divine grace at work within us, who can say more than “Let it be done to me according to your word”? But it is especially and pointedly true for us priests whom God has willed to unite to his only begotten Son as unworthy instruments in the economy of salvation itself. By the sacrament of Holy Orders, we have been configured to Christ in order to act in his name, as the tradition has it, in persona Christi capitis ecclesiae—he who, according to today’s O Antiphon, is none other than the clavis David et sceptrum domus Israël. “O Key of David, and scepter of the house of Israel, who opens and no one closes, who closes and no one opens: come, and lead out of prison the captive who sits in darkness and the shadow of death.” To this work of salvation, particularly its radically sacramental efficacy, Christ the High Priest joins to himself priests according to his own image, made worthy by his grace to have a share in the power of the keys which by right is his alone.   Thus it is that, with Mary, we can say no more than: “Fiat! Let it be done to us according to your word.”   Ricordate le parole di Beato Giovanni Paolo II: “La solenne invocazione dello Spirito Santo e il suggestivo gesto di umiltà compiuto durante l’Ordinazione sacerdotale hanno fatto echeggiare anche nella nostra vita il fiat dell’Annunciazione. Nel silenzio di Nazareth, Maria si rende per sempre disponibile alla volontà del Signore e, per opera dello Spirito Santo, concepisce il Cristo, salvezza del mondo. Tale iniziale obbedienza percorre tutta la sua esistenza terrena e raggiunge il culmine ai piedi della Croce. Il sacerdote è chiamato a commisurare costantemente il suo fiat a quello di Maria, lasciandosi come Lei condurre dallo Spirito.”   Dear friends in Christ, in giving thanks today to God for the blessings that have come to us through the fiat of Cardinal Levada and his classmates uttered fifty years ago, we give glory to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit for the original fiat of the Blessed Virgin Mary which brought to us the Savior who is Christ the Lord. Amen.

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