Commentary – Ordination amid COVID-19: A call for humility and courage

By Cardinal Michael Czerny, SJ

[Vatican City – CNA] – On June 27, many churches witnessed the ordinations of dozens of priests and deacons, in ceremonies that were far from typical. Even while some parts of the world “reopen” after the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, social distancing was required, and cameras provided live streaming so that family, friends and loved ones could participate by TV, tablet or smartphone.

On this occasion, I had the joy and honour of ordaining, in the Gesù Church in Rome, two Jesuit priests and eighteen deacons from all over the world—from Italy, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Austria to Rwanda-Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, China, Bangladesh and India—wearing masks and connecting online with parents, relatives, friends and fellow Jesuits.

Physical presence was not possible, as Italy slowly recovers from this health crisis; the borders are still closed and travel restrictions are still in place.

The following reflections expand upon the homily I pronounced just before the ordination of these 20 candidates for the priesthood and the diaconate.

Breath of life

As a priest or deacon “to be,” you may feel a bit incomplete because you cannot share this very important moment with your loved ones. You might feel anxious, too: we’re living in the unknown and in unchartered territories for the Church, for all of us. And as you prepare yourself for ordination, you might ask: what does this mean for me, right now and right here?

Perhaps the answer can be found on Easter evening, when the apostles had locked themselves into the upper room for fear of what was happening “outside”. (Even nowadays, our Church sometimes feels fearful and closed in on itself.) Suddenly Jesus becomes visible, audible, tangible among them. “Shalom!” is his first word, “Peace be with you!” He shows them his wounded hands and pierced side. These permanent signs of his Passion proclaim and prove God’s tenacious love. And then, amazingly, Jesus sends them out into the same world they were so afraid of.

How does he do this? With this tremendous gesture: he breathes on them. Just like in the beginning: God breathed his breath of life into Adam. By breathing on his disciples and giving them his Spirit, Jesus lifts them to a new order. That is, he ordains them as heralds of the Gospel “to the ends of the earth”, as it says in the book of Acts.

You are about to receive this deep and generous and transforming breath of life, the Spirit of the Father and the Son. You will be able to say, repeating Isaiah, “the spirit of the Lord is upon me”, to heal and to comfort, to liberate and to reconcile, to raise up and make glad. And to be a herald of the Gospel, a minister of reconciliation and of liberation, in the world of today and tomorrow, where everything seems to be constantly and rapidly new.

With your ordination just moments away, let me remind you that we are all witnessing a bigger moment now, where the whole Church and your family and friends, are encouraging you to choose the uphill path of the “new” rather than the downhill path of the “safe”.

Renewal is nothing new

Our Church has a long history and, from the beginning, it has coped with new conditions, for instance through its Councils. Vatican II proclaimed that the Church must consciously embrace the world. We must discern and “scrutinize the signs of the times”. But while discernment is part of the Jesuit life, style and training, it is not exclusively Jesuit property, nor is it a prerogative of the ordained.

Why is this so? Because of baptism.

According to Vatican II, every member of the Church enjoys the dignity of having been baptized and therefore shares in the mission and ministry of the Church. Ordained ministry does not exhaust or monopolize this ministry, for it is the Church as a whole that is “ministerial” and “missionary”. All its members share in that responsibility. This expands the role of the laity — a work in progress, according to many engaged Christians. Today’s ministers are ordained to foster the active inclusion of God’s people in the life, mission and responsibilities of the Church.

Vatican II embraces the world as the privileged place of announcing the Good News. In doing so, it restores its priests to the world, inviting them to leave the comfort zones called “sacristies” where, like the disciples on the first Easter evening, they had been shut in for fear of what was happening “outside”. Now the world, with its problems and struggles, with its contradictions and its values, with its opportunities and obstacles, is essential to the service of those who will be ordained today.

The courage of witness

Do not expect a map of the unknown land ahead to which you are being sent. It is a daunting prospect to enter uncharted territories. As I said earlier, ministers of the Church need to have the courage of witness, to choose the uphill path of the “new” and not to take the downhill path of the “safe”. May you always have friends and family and companions in the Church to constantly ‘en-courage’ you, even if they can only be with you in spirit.

Keep in mind that discerning the meaning of Christ’s call to us today is a task of the whole Church, not of a chosen few. Don’t try to dominate or own this discernment; instead, accompany others and put yourselves at the service of the discernment of the whole Church.

In doing so, you will be participating in the synodal practice that is gradually growing in the Church. Let us try to walk together with ever greater enthusiasm. Your huge contribution depends on looking honestly and listening sincerely, without thinking that you already have the best answer or all the answers. Try to draw on many people and listen to many voices. However small or large your network is, you will find that it requires both humility and courage to recognize that one cannot do everything on one’s own.

Don’t expect it to be easy, don’t expect it to be without controversy, don’t expect to be rewarded, don’t expect to be liked by others, don’t expect that the critics will acknowledge your difficult struggles, don’t expect quick success. But be confident that you won’t be alone if you let others walk with you.

This is something to pray for, today and always. Ask God to help us see the world as Jesus does, especially in this very difficult time.

The Covid-19 pandemic is showing us the complexity and contradictions of our social and economic systems, where the gap between wealth and poverty is growing out of all proportion, and where so many feel abandoned and thrown away, excluded and unwanted.

Would Jesus not weep for the refugees and migrants who do not receive medical attention because they are “foreigners”, many of them crowded into irregular settlements, who have lost what little they already had and live today in despair? Would Jesus not see the indigenous peoples who are discriminated against for food aid, the prisoners who have been abandoned to the mercies of the virus, and the more than 3 billion poor people worldwide?

I cannot imagine Jesus waiting in an upper room or a sacristy; he would urge us to join him in the margins of the margins, where the courage of life and hope is most needed.

May we enlighten the world with the truth of the Gospel, and propose effective and genial solutions, not just to the present emergency, but to the enormous sufferings of God’s people and of our common home.

Pope Francis speaks often of joy: “The Joy of the Gospel” (Evangelii gaudium) and “Rejoice and be Glad” (Gaudete et exsultate) and “The Joy of Love” (Amoris laetitia). May you experience abundant grace, consolation and joy in carrying out the charge that you are about to accept in your ordination. Peace be with you!




Cardinal Michael Czerny, as a member of the Jesuit community, has worked in Canada, Latin America, Africa, and Rome, in the service of faith and the promotion of justice. Since 2017, he has been Under-Secretary of the Vatican’s Migrants and Refugees Section. In 2019 Pope Francis elevated him to cardinal. Cardinal Czerny is also a member of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.