Chrism Mass – April 4, 2023

Welcome to your cathedral!  Thank you to all who join with me this afternoon to celebrate this Mass of the Sacred Chrism – so many of my brother priests – our permanent deacons and their wives – Parish Life Coordinators and lay leaders – religious women and men –– our seminarians – and especially the young people who are present today.  Finally, to so many of you from parishes throughout our eleven counties, thank you for your presence as we celebrate the life of this local Church that we know as the Diocese of Scranton. 

This November, Father Don Williams and I will celebrate the 40th anniversary of our ordination as priests.  That impending milestone brought to mind the first Chrism Mass that I celebrated as a priest 39 years ago.  I will never forget that day.  It was the first time since I had been ordained that I had the opportunity to gather with so many priests and faithful from around our Diocese.  The cathedral was filled to overflowing.  The See of Scranton was vacant at the time, following Bishop O’Connor’s installation as Archbishop of New York earlier that year, so Bishop Timlin served as principal celebrant of the Mass.  Some of you were present that day.  Many who were there have gone home to God.  And quite a few of you weren’t even born.

So much has changed in the years that have passed since that Chrism Mass in April 1984.  For me as a newly ordained priest, that was a time when I found myself filled with gratitude for the opportunity to begin ministry as a priest and anxious to preach the Gospel, to celebrate the sacraments and to do my part in any way I could to grow our Church.  Despite my youthful confidence, I prayed a lot that my faith would deepen and that I would one day acquire the wisdom that I knew was needed to embrace the responsibilities of each day and that I would face as tomorrow’s priest as well. 

Today, a good bit of that youthful confidence is gone – thankfully.  With the passing of time, I’ve discovered that what I learned in seminary and over the years from theology and canon law books never quite adequately prepares you to face the complexities of life and ministry.  I’m grateful for the many blessings that I’ve experienced as a priest and bishop.  As I did years ago, I continue to pray for a deepened sense of faith and wisdom.  There is still so much for me to learn.  I’m more conscious of the brokenness of my life, the people I’ve hurt and the mistakes that I’ve made.  It should be no surprise, then, that because of my baggage, I’ve tempered some of my expectations of myself and others.  It hurts to see so much suffering in our world, our Church and in our lives, yet, long ago, I realized that I can’t control or fix everything.  So I try, in my prayer, to hand that responsibility back to God where it belongs, trusting in those words that were spoken on the day of my ordination and yours that God, who has begun the good work in us, will bring it to fulfillment.  And more than ever, I stand in wonder and awe that God chooses to use the likes of me to work in the lives of his people. 

I share these reflections, brothers and sisters, not because of a need for some personal catharsis.  I share them because my story is not all that different than your stories.  And all of our stories reveal what we would do well to recognize and embrace every day and especially this day:  the need for us to be grateful for who we are, wounds and all, as God’s beloved and anointed children – the need for us to immerse ourselves, like Jesus, in our suffering world and not run away from it – and above all, the need for us to  “trust in the slow work of God,” molding us into the people he has called us to be.

Recall those words of the great Jesuit, Teilhard de Chardin, “Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.”  And “above all, trust in the slow work of God.”  …  Ours is a life-long journey of faith, isn’t it?

For years now, we have brought to this Chrism Mass a sense of pain and suffering, grief and even despair.  From a world turned upside down by war, violence in our schools and far too many natural disasters – to the challenges to parish life and ministry that we confront – to the brokenness of our Church and the hurt that we’ve inflicted on others – not to mention personal struggles emerging from health concerns and loss – it’s fair to say that many of us are overwhelmed and unsure of our future and our place in God’s plan.

Yet, for all of the uncertainty that we face, there is one reality in our lives as Christians that more than most gives us hope.  Listen to Jesus’ words in the gospel.  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; therefore he has anointed me.  He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, recovery of sight to the blind and release to prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord.” 

The good news for us, brothers and sisters, is that the same Spirit that set Jesus apart for mission during his inaugural address in the synagogue of Nazareth rests upon us as well.  We are not alone on this journey.  Every experience, no matter how hopeful or challenging, is an opportunity for growth and a deepening of God’s life within us. 

The struggle that we face, however, is that often, as the spiritual writer Richard Rohr has noted, we don’t recognize that “God comes to us disguised as our life.”   It’s hard for us to imagine or believe that our lives and our experiences can be places of divine encounter.  Often, we face such enormously challenging situations in our families, our workplaces, our communities and our churches that we conclude that such experiences are too distressing to have any significance or value.  And we can easily yield to despair and surrender our belief that the Spirit of the Lord rests upon us – continually – carrying us when we can barely walk and powerfully shaping and molding us through the most daunting of experiences.  …  Don’t let that happen, brothers and sisters.  It is not of God.

I worry especially for you, my brother priests, as we face the often-overwhelming responsibilities placed upon us – as our numbers diminish, our parishes change and the values of the gospel become increasingly foreign to the world in which we live.  Many of us are tired, uncertain about the future, and overwhelmed with “one more thing to do.”  And our humanity can get the best of us, can’t it, prompting us to ask, “How much more can we give, Lord?” 

Pope Francis answered that question when he stated simply and directly, “We priests are being asked today to be a new presence in the world, conformed to the cross of Christ; one that takes concrete shape in service to the men and women of our time and that strives to put into practice the example and precepts of Christ.”

A challenge?  Absolutely!  But I’d suggest it’s a challenge worth embracing.  God is not finished with us yet.  While the process of birth and new life is never without pain, allow God’s slow work to continue to mold us into his image.  And never forget that the heart of our ministry that gives us so much hope, the very Eucharist itself, is lifeless without the cross.

Almost 57 years ago, Karl Rahner wrote words about the priest of tomorrow in an essay entitled The Man with a Pierced Heart.  His words now seem to have a prophetic ring to them. 

“Tomorrow’s priest,” he said, “may not have a power drawn from the social prestige of the Church, but will have the courage to carry out his ministry even without prestige and power.  He will calmly see God’s triumph at work, even if he himself feels defeated.  He will know that he is in God’s service and on God’s mission, even if he cannot always measure the power of grace.  He will be a man whose vocation is his life, and whose life will be to believe and hope and love from his own innermost experience of God and God’s grace.”

“Tomorrow’s priest,” Rahner continued, “will be like his Lord, a man with a pierced heart:  pierced with the godlessness of the life around him, pierced by love that does not count the cost and pierced by the experience of his own weakness.

The priest will be a man with a pierced heart because his task is to lead others to discover their own hearts.  But he can only do that if he has first found his own heart and discovered for himself that it is in the very woundedness of human life that God has chosen to dwell.”

“The priest of the future will know that he has been chosen by God in spite of – or rather, because of – his weakness.  He will know that just as Christ’s pierced heart is the temple of God and the fountain of the Spirit, so his own pierced heart is the true strength of his mission.  He will know that his unembarrassed faithfulness to the wisdom of God, which seems foolish to the world, is the real source of his credibility.”

Brothers, we are those priests of tomorrow.  We are those priests of the future!  …  Don’t be afraid to allow the Spirit of the Lord to rest upon you and recreate you into Jesus’ image.  Allow your pierced and broken hearts to become not an obstacle but the source of hope for yourself and the people God has given to your care.  Trust in the slow work of God.  And discover time and again joy, peace and a reason to hope through the many ways in which the same Spirit is moving mightily in our midst. 

The Spirit is still calling people to faith and they are responding – 146 catechumens and candidates will be receiving the Easter sacraments during these sacred days.  …  The Spirit is still working in the hearts of God’s people, equipping them to serve the poor, to feed the hungry and to welcome those set apart by the self-righteousness of others.  …  The Spirit is still inviting women and men to a deeper sense of commitment and ministry in our Church.  …  And the Spirit is still inviting men to serve as deacons and priests.  Help them respond to that call.  …  How blessed we are to know that the Spirit of God continues to be the lifeblood of our Church and of our lives as Christians!

My brother priests, thank you for your ministry.  Thank you for your service, for the love that pours forth from your pierced hearts and for the witness of your faith.  And to this great gathering of the Church in all of its many parts, thank you for continuing to shine forth as the world’s greatest hope because of the living presence of Jesus within you!  The Spirit of the Lord surely rests upon us all!