Chrism Mass – March 30, 2021

I’m reminded of words from the 133rd psalm, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together as one!”  It is very good to be with you, brothers, for this largest gathering of priests in the Diocese of Scranton for well over a year.  More than you realize, your presence is a source of joy and hope for our people – and for me!  It also provides an opportunity thank you for your selfless, creative and faithful ministry to this local church during a very difficult time.

As good as it is, however, our gathering is bitter sweet, isn’t it?  While many of our priests and Bishop Dougherty join with me today, only a few representative deacons, Parish Life Coordinators and seminarians are able to be present.  …  There’s also an emptiness not just in our cathedral but in our hearts because so many of our blessed religious and lay faithful, who typically fill these pews for this sacred Mass, are not able to be with us today.  …  And we grieve the loss of many souls, particularly of those brother priests who have died since the beginning of the pandemic, whose spirits are felt in our cathedral today.  …  Yet, for all that we miss, we are together in prayer, joining from all parts of this Diocese and from the eternity of God’s heaven.  For this blessing, we give thanks!

Every year, the Word of God proclaimed during this Mass focuses our attention on the hopeful words of Isaiah the prophet:  The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord. 

Recall the original context for Isaiah’s words.  The prophet announces a word of hope to the people of Israel whose suffering had finally come to an end as they returned from their exile.  The vision depicted is that of a Jubilee Year, when the poor will be lifted up, exiles will be returned to their homes, the oppressed will be given freedom and a season of peace and hope will be inaugurated for all those burdened by the brokenness of their world and their lives.

In the gospel passage from Saint Luke, Jesus makes these words from Isaiah his own.  “Today, this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Brothers and sisters, I don’t believe that we will ever encounter a scripture passage that speaks more prophetically to our lived experience this day than the words of Isaiah embraced by Jesus in Saint Luke’s gospel – particularly as we begin our return from exile.

Like the people of Israel to whom Isaiah spoke, we have all been wounded and broken by this past year.  If we are honest, we must admit that we’ve been confronted like never before with our own limitations and the staggering reminder that for all of our gifts and abilities, we are ultimately not in control of our lives.  We’ve faced loneliness, fear and uncertainty.  We’ve worried about ourselves and our people.  We’ve bemoaned the loss of treasured freedoms.  We’ve grieved the passing of those we love.  And we desperately need to be lifted up and to finally and experience a year favorable to the Lord and to ourselves!

 To be sure, many of us are moving forward and are not particularly inclined to focus on the wounds that we’ve experienced or to wallow in self-pity.  And that’s good.  But I’d suggest that we pause for a moment to reflect upon how we’ve all been affected and changed by the pandemic that has enveloped our world.  For it is precisely in the honest embrace of our wounds that we will come to understand something about ourselves – our faith – our priesthood – and our God.

Three months ago, during the celebration of Vespers on New Year’s Eve, Pope Francis reflected on the year that was then coming to a close.  “What sense does a tragedy such as this year have?” the Holy Father asked.  “In the face of our questions, God’s response is the Incarnation, sending his Son to become like us to save each and every one.”  Like the Good Samaritan, “God is moved with compassion, helping those who are suffering.  And in this attitude,” the Pope went on, “we can perhaps find meaning in this pandemic: that of arousing compassion in us and provoking attitudes and gestures of closeness, care, of solidarity, of affection.  …  Yet, none of this can happen without grace, without the mercy of God.  …  For this reason, we give praise to God, because we believe that all the good that is accomplished on earth, in the end, comes from God.”

Today, as we start to see glimmers of light in our world, I trust that we are also beginning to recognize that the hope promised by Jesus in today’s gospel is not nearly as remote as it seemed to be a year ago, but is a bit more tangible and recognizable.  …  I trust that as the darkness fades, we are able to see and embrace the abiding presence of God – a God who has continually been at work in our lives through countless encounters with mercy and compassion that we have all been blessed to extend to others and to experience ourselves.  …  And I especially pray that we will all come to appreciate the movements of God’s grace in our lives through the Paschal Mystery that lies at the heart of these sacred days.

 And so, brothers and sisters – and particularly my brother priests – as we slowly emerge from a year of suffering and pain, what is being asked of us through our encounters with God’s grace?  …  For all of the burdens and the wounds that we’ve endured during this past year, what have we learned about ourselves?  …  As we gather to renew our priestly promises and to bless and consecrate holy oils to strengthen God’s people, what do we bring to this moment of hope to lead our people to the light?

First of all, brothers, we bring to this moment what we have been given.  We bring what the Church has entrusted to us.  Through the priesthood that we have received, we bring to our people the mysteries of God discovered in the great treasure of the Holy Eucharist and in the sacramental life of the Church.  In these gifts, Christ himself teaches, heals and blesses his people – through us.

In his Chrism Mass homily two years ago, Pope Francis reflected upon the anointing that we priests are charged to share since the day of our ordination.  “We are not just distributors of bottled oil,” he began.  “No, we anoint by distributing ourselves, distributing our vocation and our heart.”

In anointing with the oil of gladness the broken and struggling lives of God’s people, however, we not only impart to them the blessings of the sacramental life of the Church.  We bring something else.  We bring other treasures of the Church, as the deacon, Saint Lawrence, taught us at the dawn of the Christian era.  As poor as we may be, we bring ourselves, brothers, into every sacred exchange between God and his people.  We bring our gifts and our faith and we also bring our fears and struggles, our sins, our frustrations and grief, and the pain of trying to minister to a world that shut its doors a year ago and locked us out.

In the mystery of God’s plan for salvation, God has chosen to work in and through our limitations us to bring his life and peace to our world – and to us – who are so desperately in need of his grace.

As such, when we honestly and humbly seek to conform our lives “to the mystery of the Lord’s Cross” – as we prayed on the day of our priestly ordination – our wounds miraculously open the way to healing, hope and the power of God for ourselves and for the people we are called to serve.  Admitting our poverty, standing empty before God and acknowledging that we have nowhere else to turn – a posture that many of us have come to embrace during this past year more than ever before – is also the surest and only way to discover authentic peace in the midst of ministry’s demands and the current storms that have enveloped our world.

Brothers, for all of the hope that you have given, the love that you have shared and the faith in Christ that you have imparted, even while struggling to carry your own crosses particularly during this year, your lives and your ministry are by far the most eloquent homily that can be shared this day.

Thank you for your ministry.  Thank you for your service so generously given in the face of countless obstacles.  And thank you for the courage to acknowledge your own wounds and to face them with hope.  In doing so, you have helped us all confront our frailties and admit of our desperate need for one another.  As Pope Francis reminds us in his most recent encyclical letter, Fratelli tutti, “No one is saved alone; we can only be saved together.”

In his timeless work, The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen concludes his reflections with these words that speak poignantly to our experiences of priestly ministry in these challenging days.  “If indeed we believe that ministry is a sign of hope because it makes visible the first rays of light of the coming Messiah, we can make ourselves and others understand that we already carry in us the source of our own search.  Thus ministry can indeed be a witness to the living truth that the wound, which causes us to suffer now, will be revealed to us later as the place where God intimated his new creation.”

Brothers, may the Spirit of the Lord who speaks to us from his wounds and those that we bear recreate our hearts and bring peace to our souls.  And may the same Spirit strengthen us to lead our people into a year of favor acceptable to the Lord.