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Bishop Koenig homily at Brennan Ferris ordination: ‘It is this Good Shepherd … who is calling you to follow him as a priest’

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Brennan Ferris prostrates himself as the congregation prays during his ordination at the Cathedral of St. Peter Church, Saturday, May 21, 2022. Photo/Don Blake

We rejoice to gather as the church of Wilmington to advance Brennan Ferris, your son, brother, relative and friend to the Order of Priest.  Let us consider carefully the nature of the ministerial rank in the church to which Brennan shall be raised.

In today’s Gospel from the tenth chapter of John, Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd.  The image in the bible of a shepherd is a well-known one. At the time of Jesus, our Lord’s Jewish listeners would have been very familiar with the Good Shepherd of Psalm 23 who leads his sheep to restful waters and with a rod and staff give them courage. They would easily recall the passage found in chapter 24 of Ezekiel describing God as one who, like a shepherd, rescues, gathers and feeds his sheep. In describing himself as the Good Shepherd, however, Jesus goes radically beyond these previous images of a shepherd. The love and care of Jesus towards his sheep is not limited to leading or gathering but is a willingness and indeed the actuality of laying down his life for his sheep. It is this Good Shepherd, Brennan, who is calling you to follow him as a priest. What does this call entail?

As Jesus was sent into the world, he in turn sent the Apostles into the world, that through them and their successors, the bishops, he might exercise without ceasing his own office of teacher, priest, and shepherd. As the sacrament of Holy Orders is conferred upon you today, Brennan, you will become a co-worker of the Order of Bishops with whom you are called to the service of the people of God. As Christ came to teach, sanctify and shepherd, so too you will be sent forth. This call to be of service to the people of God was seen by you, Brennan, as you reflected upon today’s second reading from 1 Timothy and admitted that while you need to continue to grow in your relationship with Jesus, your knowledge of him and your prayer life, you are also “called to share the fruits of this with the people who have been entrusted to me.” The priestly call of being sent forth to proclaim the Gospel was also heard by you in today’s first reading.  You describe the prophet’s role as one “set apart to go to the people who need to hear the good news the most: the marginalized…[whose] whole life is marked by this call and sending forth.”  And this is how you too envision your priestly call.

Having reflected upon the what of priestly ministry, let us turn once again to today’s Gospel and reflect on the how of your priestly life.  I invite us to reflect upon two aspects of Jesus the Good Shepherd.  We will begin with Jesus’ words on how he knows the Father and  how the Father knows him.  And then we will reflect on how Jesus the Good Shepherd cares for his flock.

Bishop Koenig and Father Brennan Ferris are all smiles after the ordination at the Cathedral of St. Peter Church, Saturday, May 21, 2022. Dialog photo/Don Blake

And so, what about Jesus’ statement that he knows the Father and the Father knows him? These words of Jesus emphasize the tremendous importance for you Brennan, to know the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  I have already referenced your desire to grow ever more deeply in your relationship with God.  The most important way that this desire comes to fruition is not by reading about God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but by spending time in prayer.   There will be times, Brennan, when pastoral responsibilities fill your day.  There will be times when you are gratified by the appreciation coming from those whom you serve.  While your pastoral zeal will be a tremendous blessing and the gratitude people will have for you will be itself a grace, strive always to balance pastoral work and prayer. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is seen going off by himself to pray.  The truth of Jesus’ words today that “the Father knows me and I know the Father” was undoubtedly due to the time Jesus prayed early in the morning or late at night. A number of years ago, I, along with several other people, was in a rural area of Italy where a shepherd was tending, in a nearby field, fifty or so sheep.  As we walked by the sheep, they were startled and became visibly agitated and frightened by the sound of our voices.  Perhaps they did not understand English and thought we were talking about them.  The shepherd, however, who was standing in their midst, made a few clucking sounds with his tongue.  Within seconds, the sheep quieted down and began grazing once again.  Don’t let the noise of the pastoral demands, the distractions of living in world inundated by social media and technology and the continual challenge of being in this world but not of this world, prevent you from being attentive to the voice of the Good Shepherd.  Like that shepherd I witnessed caring for his sheep in Italy, the Good Shepherd watches over you, assures you and ultimately laid down his life for you. Your faithfulness in taking the time to listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd will direct your path, quiet your fears and strengthen your resolve.  Continue to avail yourself of spiritual direction. Receive the sacrament of reconciliation.  Be faithful to the Liturgy of the Hours.

Let us now reflect for a moment upon how Jesus the Good Shepherd cares for his sheep. May you continue to see the Good Shepherd as a model for you, Brennan, on how to live out your priestly life.  As a shepherd leads his sheep, comforts and tends to their needs, watches over and protects them, so too will you be charged with leading the faithful in prayer, teaching and instructing them, and preaching the Gospel to them.  In these ways, you will be leading them to Christ.  As a Shepherd tends to and helps to heal the wounds of the sheep, so too will you, Brennan, through the cleansing and life-giving waters of baptism and the healing of soul and body that is experienced through the sacraments of reconciliation and anointing of the sick, tend to and help to heal physical and spiritual wounds. You, like the Good Shepherd, will provide nourishment for those entrusted to your care as you take ordinary bread and wine and, through the words of consecration, transform it into the body and blood of Jesus Christ and provide God’s people with heavenly food. As one who is configured to Christ the Good Shepherd, your compassion, generosity, example and goodness will, like the recently-canonized St. Charles de Foucauld, “cry the Gospel with your life.”

Father Brennan Ferris is all smiles as the priests from around diocese clap after his ordination at the Cathedral of St. Peter Church, Saturday, May 21, 2022. Dilaog photo/Don Blake

As we disperse later today, you, Brennan, will look from all outward appearances to be the same person who entered the Cathedral earlier today. Far greater, however, than outward appearances is the tremendous gift of the priesthood that will have been conferred upon you. As the days unfold, your life as a priest will be filled with many unexpected graces.  You will touch people by your ministry and example in far more ways than you are ever expect or are even aware.  And you will experience the joy of a life lived in service to others.

There is an ancient legend told about our Cathedral’s patronal saint, St. Peter. It is the story of St. Peter deciding, during the time of Nero’s persecution, to flee from Rome, so that he, the Rock, would be kept safe and eventually be available to continue leading people after the persecution had ended. As Peter hurries down the Via Appia, he meets Jesus, who is heading in the opposite direction—into Rome. “Quo vadis, Domine?–Lord, where are you going?”, Peter asks.  To which Jesus answers: “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.”

At this point Peter turns back into the city to embrace martyrdom. It is a legend about the decisiveness of Peter and his desire and willingness to change direction as he follows Jesus. It is a story of asking, of listening and of acting. It is legend about a far away place and a saint who lived long ago. But it is also a story that is lived out today when people, like Peter, ask, listen and act in following Jesus in serving the needs of others.  It is the story of you, Brennan, who a little while ago when asked to come forward, said, “Present.” May the grace of this day, be received again and again as you say each and every day, “Yes, Lord, present.” And may you, as you do today, follow Jesus the Teacher, High Priest and Good Shepherd, and lead others not to an ancient Roman city but to the city that is described in tomorrow’s Second Reading—a city set on a great, high mountain that gleams with the splendor of God—the new and heavenly Jerusalem.