Chrism Mass – April 16, 2019

Brothers and sisters, welcome to our cathedral.  …  Thank you for your presence and thank you for all that you do – each in your own way – to support the Church’s mission.

How blessed we are to gather in this sacred place – as our hearts go out to the people of Paris at the loss of their cherished cathedral of Our Lady – Notre Dame.  It’s remarkable how the eyes of the entire world seem to have been focused on this tragedy.  Yet, for all of the news reports that we’ve watched in the last 24 hours, for me, one stood out among all the others.  With an image of Notre Dame engulfed in flames as a backdrop, cameras simultaneously scanned the crowds, many with tear-filled eyes fixed on the inferno, some clutching rosaries in their hands and most everyone singing hymns of praise and hope known by heart.  Over those images and sounds, a reporter’s voice offered these profound words, “What we see here is nothing short of the power of faith in the face of adversity.”

Today, the same power of faith gathers this local Church, in some respects, also in the face of adversity.  …  We gather for an ancient tradition in which the richness of our differences, roles and responsibilities coalesce in a spirit of unity to affirm all that we believe as Christians.   …  We come together as a priestly people who have all been given the gift of sharing in Jesus’ priestly identity and work through baptism.  …  We also joyfully affirm those who have been called forth by God to share in Jesus’ ministerial priesthood.

And we gather for a purpose.  In a few moments, oils will be presented – the Oil of the Sick, the Oil of Catechumens, and Sacred Chrism.  These sacramental oils used to sanctify each of us as faithful members of the Church are channels of intentional holiness that will be blessed and consecrated in the presence of so many of you – the faithful of this Church – as we, your priests, renew our commitments for that intention.

Let’s listen once again to the words of Jesus in this afternoon’s gospel passage from Saint Luke.

 “The Spirit of the Lord God 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.”

Jesus’ words from Isaiah are soaring in tone, aren’t they?  The larger sense of the passage, however, particularly when seen through the context of the verses that frame Jesus’ proclamation is something altogether different.

Immediately prior to his arrival at the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus spent forty days in the desert where he was tempted and tested as he prepared to begin his ministry.  A time of intense prayer, fraught with sacrifice and struggle, sets the stage for the proclamation of his mission.   

And when he departs the synagogue following his proclamation of Isaiah’s words, Jesus is challenged again.  …  The townsfolk wanted a miracle or two from Jesus – not just words.  And they certainly didn’t want to hear him imply that his message of hope would be offered to struggling souls beyond the house of Israel. 

Yet, for all that led to the townsfolk’s confrontation of Jesus, I once read a reflection on this passage that suggested that the real problem for those who listened to Jesus that day was likely found in the words with which he concluded his remarks:  “Today, this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” 

Put more precisely, the townsfolk seemed to have had difficulty with the word “today.”  …  They had been so accustomed to look beyond themselves and their broken world, that they couldn’t imagine that God would break into the mess of their experience – in Nazareth of all places – and use them as instruments of transformation.  …  It was easier to bypass the immediacy of “today”– to abdicate any personal responsibility – and to imagine a world transformed by God that demanded little, if anything, from them in return. 

Some days, I suspect that we’re no different than the townsfolk of Nazareth.

But isn’t such a perspective about God contrary to what we believe?  …  Don’t we profess that the transforming power of God’s grace abounds in our lives – “today” – because of the incarnation, which unfolded in the midst of a suffering, broken world?  …  Isn’t that what we proclaim every time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist?  …  Don’t we believe in the grace of God’s presence – here – now – and in our midst?  …  Of course we do – at least through what we profess. 

When we last gathered for this Mass of the Holy Chrism, not one of us could have imagined the scope of the tragic consequences of the clergy sex abuse crisis in our Church.  …  Consider for just a moment what this crisis has left in its wake. 

The number of survivors of this catastrophe – both locally and worldwide – is staggering.  …  As a Church and a people, we owe them support – we owe them care – we owe them love – and we owe them gratitude for their steadfast efforts to make their voices heard and to tell their stories, so that finally – at least in this body of believers that so boldly proclaims its belief in the sanctity of human life – every life will be safe, secure and respected. 

While some of us are tired of focusing upon this chapter in the history of our Church, far too many of us continue to suffer with conflicting feelings.  They range from anger and disillusionment with priests and bishops – to confusion and despair – to hope and a resolve to be Church – the people God has called us to be through baptism – more than ever before. 

And look at what this crisis has done to countless numbers of good and faithful priests – throughout the world and in this very cathedral today.  So many of you are weighed down by actions that you did not commit and for which you grieve and suffer in your own way.  …  You struggle to move forward.  …  And some of you may even question why you should remain in ministry.  

Brothers, I implore you:  do not let the darkness of this moment prevail!  Sometimes we can be so overwhelmed by the brokenness of our lives and our world that we underestimate God’s power to transform us.  Never forget for an instant that God’s love can turn everything upside down.  Jesus’ cross and resurrection are more than proof of this fact.  …  And because of his cross and resurrection, there will never be a time when Jesus will not love and sustain you! 

Jesuit Father Matt Malone, editor of America, was asked during an interview late last year why he remained a priest after the latest wave of abuse scandals that have enveloped the Church.  Here’s what he said.  “This summer reminded me of something my father, a retired firefighter, said to me after the 9/11 attacks:  “Those firefighters who died in New York died running into the building.  When there’s a fire, Matty, and lives are at stake, somebody has to run into the building’.”  Malone went on, “I remain a priest because somebody has to run into the building.” 

Let me put this in another way with a story closer to home.  Some of you have heard me tell this story before.  …  This past August, when we were informed that the release of the Grand Jury report was immanent, I called Father Don Williams, our vocation director and director of seminarians, to inform him that the report might be released on the very same day that I was scheduled to celebrate the Rite of Admission to Candidacy for some of our seminarians.  Among other things, I was concerned that reporters might follow me to the retreat center where our seminarians were gathered.  I asked Father Don to share my thoughts with our men. 

He called me back later with a message from our seminarians, “Tell the bishop that we’d be happy to speak with any reporters and to let them know that we are proud of the vocation to which we’ve been called.  We believe with all our hearts that the Church needs us now more than ever.” 

Pretty powerful words, aren’t they.  …  They’re also words that give us good reason to be proud of our men in formation for the priesthood. 

So, my brother priests, let me pose a rather unorthodox question to consider as you prepare to renew your priestly promises.  …  Why do you remain a priest today?  …  Why do you stay?  …  For all the ways in which we might respond to such a question, I’d suggest that most of our hearts would resonate with these thoughts.  …  We remain priests because of the calling we’ve received.  …  We remain priests because of the people who surround us this day, crying for help and boundless in their love.  …  And we remain priests because “today” – at this moment – when it is most desperately needed – just as it was in the synagogue of Nazareth two thousand years ago – the transforming grace of God abounds in our lives – a grace that we can neither sidestep nor presume to be directed at someone else. 

As he did years ago, God is calling our names once again.  He’s calling us to assume the mantle of priestly ministry as we did so enthusiastically on the day of our ordination – one year – or sixty years ago.  He’s calling us to provide space in our lives so that his grace can work through us to bring glad tidings to the poor, liberty to captives and a season of favor and peace for all of God’s people. 

To doubt the dynamic presence and power of God at this moment in our Church’s history – to doubt that God’s call is still extended to searching, struggling souls like ourselves – is, sadly, to yield to evil and to give that reality a power that it neither warrants nor deserves. 

Brothers and sisters, we are not the sum of the tragedies that have been committed by bishops and priests.  …  No, we are baptized followers of Jesus – disciples called to mission and ministry to a broken world “today.”  …  We are priests – with a message to proclaim – and with lives to live in service of the Gospel.  …  And we are the Church – the body of Christ – wounded and redeemed souls – who continue to be the world’s greatest hope because of the living presence of Jesus in our midst. 

A few years before he died, the great theologian, Karl Rahner, shared these words with his fellow Jesuits.  …  They apply to all people of faith, especially during these challenging times: 

Our faith must be such that even the unbeliever cannot deny that here a man believes who is like himself – a man of today – on whose lips the word “God” does not come easily and cheaply, who doesn’t think he has mastered everything, and in spite of all this – rather, because of all this – he believes.

For Christianity is not a formula which makes everything clear, but the radical submission of myself to an incomprehensible Mystery Who has revealed Himself as ineffable love. 

Brothers and sisters, “today”, may these words be fulfilled in your hearing.  For all of your uncertainty, go forth, boldly proclaiming the Gospel of life.  And may the light and love of the risen Christ shine brightly in your hearts and bring you peace.  Amen.