The oil which will be consecrated as the Sacred Chrism before Mass.
For fifteen years now I have both feared and loved the annual Chrism Mass which in this diocese occurs on Tuesday of Holy Week. I fear it because each year I have to preach before almost 200 of my brother priests using the same readings and the same themes each year. I love it precisely because I am with my brothers who animate this Church and make it great. In the end they are a loving and affirming group and I promise myself I will stop worrying about it. Hope you enjoy it!
Dear brother priests, deacons, religious, seminarians and good people of faith gathered here on this day traditionally devoted to the ordained priesthood,
Approaching these holiest of days, one might easily find oneself preoccupied about many important things. Priests and deacons are busy about final preparations for the Triduum and all of us are looking forward to recall again the passion, death and resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ. It is a day for celebrating and strengthening the bond between the bishop and his priests. In one major archdiocese in our own country, there is talk of a boycott by the priests of this Mass this year. It will not happen because the priesthood is too important1in their lives to use this day to send a message. In Australia, ten percent of the diocesan priests in the country have expressed “no confidence” in their bishops yet I know they love their priesthood too much to use this day to send a message. In Ireland, of all places, doubts and concerns have caused one fourth of that nation’s priests to call for an indefinite postponement of the “dewfall” of the new translation of the Roman Missal but the Irish priests will be present this week for the blessing and consecration of sacred healing and anointing oils. Today, I stand before you, my brothers and sisters, look at you, and count my blessings.
Deacons and Priests at the Chrism Mass
Over the past three years I have had the opportunity of gathering with and carefully listening to almost all of the priests involved in active ministry. I can safely say that generally they feel fulfilled in their ministry, consider themselves privileged to be of service to God’s people, and are happy in their priestly ministry to which they will recommit again later at this Chrism Mass.
However, during these days of sharing and reflection some concerns were also expressed by our priests, more pastoral than personal, and always spoken in love, not in anger. At several of the sessions one or more of the fathers stated that “they did not know what was happening to the Church for which they were ordained” and by that they generally meant that there seemed to be a withdrawal from commitment to liturgical renewal, from active pursuit of social justice, from the sense of the Church as being relevant to the people to whom they were ministering, from real concerns about declining membership and declining faith practice. Additionally, concerns about a growing feeling of alienation of many of the faithful which can be occasioned when we bishops choose to draw lines in the sand of who is a good Catholic or a bad Catholic, an uneasiness stemming from deep questions and real concerns about the need for the new translation of the Roman Missal concomitant with the perception caused by the seeming support in certain sectors of the extraordinary form or Tridentine Rite, the priests of this diocese see steps backward from the headier days of ecumenical enthusiasm and lament the lack of timely responsiveness to requests by the diocesan pastoral center, from the growing sense of our inability to reach the youth of our parishes and diocese, fewer priests but greater expectations placed on those presently serving, uncertainty about retirement and the future, dramatically fewer Catholic marriages, fewer funerals, fewer confirmations and the list could go on and on.
Again, I wish to be clear, our time together was far from being that of a gripe session but more an opportunity to speak to me and to one another about where that same spirit of the Lord first spoken by Isaiah and later embraced by Jesus Himself is taking us. What does “anointed in the Spirit” mean for the near future of the Church? What kind of Church can these twenty-nine seminarians with us this morning look forward to and, God willing, the seven who may join them this summer?
My response after thinking about the matters my brothers brought to the table may surprise some and perhaps even disappoint others but in my very deepest being I think that the dreams and decisions that drove our personal commitments to this holy ministry will survive us, and will survive this particular moment in the Church. I say this because I know that Christ is with His Church today and tomorrow and promised to be with His Church until the end of time. Isaiah could rhapsodize about the Spirit of the Lord present in a very tough time because for this prophet the future was to be found in faith in the future and not in the terra firma of the lived faith experience of his moment. Jesus could reaffirm from day one in his public ministry that he was willing to proclaim the good news to an audience that was known for being stiff-necked, intransigent, judgmental and argumentative, and dismissive at the least and bellicose at its worst. For both Jesus and Isaiah, it was neither the best of times nor the worst of times.
What is happening in the Church at this moment in history is also happening in the secular world. Narcissism flourishes while love of neighbor languishes. A decade of war and financial shenanigans leaves little left for the poor and vulnerable. Do unto others has diminished limits and a more muted call except for the catastrophic like the earthquake in Haiti and the tsunamis in Indonesia and Japan. The focus of our personal charity is more determined by media interest than Gospel imperatives. And no one, in the Church or in our nation wants to admit that by 2025 Catholic Hispanics will equal Catholic Anglos even in this diocese, a sure and certain moment for which we are poorly preparing.
Dear brothers, yours and my priestly pulse perks up when we proclaim the Gospel as counter-cultural to the world in which we live. For those of us who anguish about the direction of the Church today, we still most often feel at our best when preaching about what ought to be than necessarily what is. If the Church is to be ever more relevant to our people today, it gains the greatest credibility from what you say, how you act, than from the actions of a conference of bishops or even the Holy See and you have no idea how painful it is for me to say that. It is the Spirit of the Lord, which is upon you Sunday after Sunday as you bring good news to the poor, as you proclaim liberty to those who are captives of so many things. And when it comes to the sacred liturgy over which we preside, the true “clear voice” is not a commission of bishops meeting in Rome, but the parish priest and his deacon proclaiming and unpacking the Scripture withs clarity, applicability, passion, dignity and love Sunday after Sunday and celebrating the Eucharist and the other sacraments with reverence, wonderment, awe and beauty. Do that and God’s people will not care that the Lord is with our Spirit once again or that we will find the place under our roof unworthy as it may be for the Lord to come but we will believe that He only need to speak the Word and we can be made worthy. The relevancy of what we say, of what we teach, of how we act is a shared responsibility of priests and bishops. It is we who can and will renew the Church and the face of the earth with the help of the Holy Spirit. It is we and none other who can make the Spirit of the Lord take root in our five counties. And while it is to be expected that we might have concerns about the future, we can and should never despair of the future for it will be then as it is now presided over by none other than Jesus Himself.
It is clearer to me as I approach the final quarter of my time among you that the Church which you and I will leave to those who follow will be quite different than what we have experienced. It will be financially poorer but most likely spiritually richer. It will be more demanding but yet more rewarding. The new evangelization may well almost replace the traditional classroom as the engine of religious education. The role of the laity will be even more significant. The pendulum will once again swing from the current focus on the past to the genuine needs of the present and the future and, though not in my lifetime, to perhaps another Spirit-filled ecumenical council to restate, review, and renew the vision for Church articulated fifty years ago. The Church’s message to the world will cease being less “no” to more “yes” even while traditional values, morals and teaching remain in place as they must. Guiding the world in how to live in the midst of reality in a relevant way will bring back some of those whom we have lost along the way. Until that movement from the current global ecclesial inertia begins, progress from the present will come from you my brothers, for you have been anointed, chosen, assigned and empowered to make Christ present to the world and the world open to Christ.
The hope then for the present of our beloved Church rests with all of us here today who renew again our commitment to the priesthood we sought however long ago, received on the day of our ordination and day after day practiced. We make Christ present to the world when we act like Christ in the world. God’s people hear the words of Christ when we speak with compassion, understanding of human failure, with love and patience. Those words endure while others fade. You, my brothers, make Christ real, Christ present, Christ for today and tomorrow. If from time to time in the last 2000 years the Church of Christ has confronted its own weaknesses and failures, it is, as St. Paul said, Christ who has made it strong. You are to your people both the witnesses to hope and the bearers of the truth.
Finally in this context, I think of our four senior priests who this year are retiring from active ministry. Two are sons of Ireland and two are sons of Spain. Imagine the uncertainty that was theirs when they left to come to serve on the Florida peninsula. They left a majority Church in Spain and Ireland to preach to the minority of Catholics. For almost five decades they proclaimed the Good News, set people captive to all kinds of bad things free, and made Christ present day after day in so many ways. They began their ministry during the pontificate of Blessed John XXIII and lived much of it during the time, of soon-to-be Blessed John Paul II. Through an ecumenical council and its implementation, five popes, five bishops and God knows how many letters from the Chancery, they have served God’s people with fidelity to mission and message, with joy and sorrow, with grace and good will. They leave believing that the rest of us will strive hard to keep the flame of faith alive, and like they we shall succeed because our beloved Church belongs to Christ and to none other and we are servant shepherds, serving God’s people and proud of it! No person or scandal can remove from the face of God’s earth, the good we priests do in His name. We are like those courageous men who stormed Normandy’s beaches, often unknown to one another, united by a single commission to take the highest ground for virtue and charity whatever the cost for Christ Himself. We are indeed a band of brothers. Blessed be God forever!