Admission of Candidates for Ordination: Archbishop Wilson's Homily

On the Feast of St Augustine of Canterbury, Archbishop Wilson admitted five seminarians at Allen Hall Seminary as Candidates for Holy Orders. The Archdiocese is delighted that Stephen Trafford, is a candidate for ordination in Southwark, with two each for the Dioceses of Westminster and Arundel and Brighton. Archbishop Wilson's Homily may be read below.

Archbishop Wilson with Candidates for 2023

Admission to Candidacy, Allen Hall, 27 May 2023 

Feast of St Augustine of Canterbury

1 Thes 2:2-8; Ps 116; Lk 10:1-9


Dear brothers and sisters in Christ

Dear Gary, Scott, Paolo, Sean and Stephen

Having listened to the reading from St Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, I wonder if anyone else here is left wondering what on earth was happening in the early Church at Thessalonica. Why did St Paul need to make it so clear that neither he, nor Silvanus or Timothy, were deluded, or immoral, or deceitful? Why did he have to stress, so emphatically, that their preaching was not just slick-talk, or a scheme to swindle cash, or an attempt to secure special privileges? We know that, traditionally, there are two approaches to theology: the cataphatic, which understands God by positive affirmations of who God is; and the apophatic, which understands God by negative affirmations of who God is not. Is St Paul writing about his ministry apophatically, affirming what it is by emphasising what it isn’t? Before this homily turns into a dogma lecture, the answer is, I think, perhaps not so complicated.

New Testament scholars propose two possible reasons why St Paul adopts this via negativa, saying what his ministry is not. First, and understandably, because he was defending himself against criticism, either from within or outside the Christian community of Thessalonica. After all, nobody likes unjust critique, especially not in scrutinies. Second, scholars speculate that these negative affirmations draw upon the ancient Greek rhetoric of Dio Chrysostom - not to be confused with St John Chrysostom - but a contemporary philosopher of St Paul. Dio Chrysostom distinguished the good teacher by stating what he or she is not and, therefore, implicitly affirming, what he or she actually is. 

It’s interesting that the Lord Jesus adopted a similar approach when instructing the seventy-two evangelists who were to go out before him. Take no purse; take no haversack, take no sandals; salute no one on the road. We can certainly understand ourselves as disciples by acknowledging who we are; and it’s a good and right thing to do. But we can also understand our identity by recognising who we are not, and sometimes, as in the Scriptures today, these two approaches go hand in hand. It was, according to tradition, this negative/positive combination that inspired Pope Gregory the Great to describe English slave-children in Rome as ‘not Angles, but angels.’ Moved with missionary fervour, he sent the monk Augustine as the ‘Apostle to the English’ and first Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury.

So Gary, Scott, Paolo, Sean and Stephen, allow me to present to you, in the apophatic manner, the promises you are about to make as you are admitted as Candidates for Holy Orders. You don’t need to give an answer out loud as the real questions will be coming shortly:

Firstly: In response to the Lord’s call, are you resolved to not leave unfinished your preparation so that you will be ready to be ordained for the ministry of the Church? – ‘are you resolved to not leave unfinished your preparation.’

Secondly: Are you resolved to not ill-equip yourselves in mind and spirit to give faithful service to Christ the Lord and his Body, the Church? – ‘are you resolved to not ill-equip yourselves.’

The apophatic approach expresses a similar meaning, but with a slightly sharper edge. It brings home the seriousness of the step you are about to take. The Ratio Fundamentalis speaks, importantly, of Candidacy coming when a seminarian has reached a maturity of intention, confirmed by the Church. It marks a depth of interior relationship with Christ which makes a seminarian humanly, spiritually, intellectually and pastorally ready to finish his preparation and equip himself for ordination.

My brothers, it is with gratitude to Almighty God that you find yourselves at this point today, at this significant staging post in your continuing discernment. While certainly not joyless, there is a gravitas about your commitment, and about your readiness to continue to be configured to Christ, from the inside out, towards diaconate and priesthood. All of us present, and many more besides, rejoice with you and for you. With the Church’s approval, you are to declare that you are willing to hand over not only the Good News, but your whole lives as well – your whole lives, holding nothing back, not hiding, except in the Lord. It is only the movement from self-discovery to self-acceptance before God that enables your free and faithful self-gift.

Last week, I made a short pilgrimage to Fatima. The Shrine of Our Lady has stark architecture, with an expansive open square. It left me feeling exposed exteriorly, but more so interiorly. There was nowhere to hide from the Lord’s radical call to conversion. We know it can be challenging to face ourselves before the Lord Jesus. But the intimate beauty of his friendship, and our desire, like the seventy-two, to trust the Lord’s call, provides everything we need for the journey – everything. 

The Rite of Admission to Candidacy has no frills. It hinges solely on the state of your heart. It depends totally on your readiness to say ‘I am not hoodwinked; I am not insincere; I am not pretending.’ But rather to say ‘here I am, before the living God.’ Here I am, ready to say ‘yes’ to wherever the Lord leads, and whatever the Lord asks, because I know his call, and his love, and his mercy, and, in fact, his kingdom, are very close at hand.

Archbishop John Wilson

Feast of St Augustine of Canterbury