Homily for the Chrism Mass, Cathedral of Saint John, Limerick
Archbishop Charles J Brown, Apostolic Nuncio
Brothers and sisters in Christ, in this holy liturgy, in keeping with the most ancient tradition of the Church, a Bishop blesses or consecrates three different forms of holy oil: the Oil of the Sick, the Oil of Catechumens, and Holy Chrism. The fact that the Church blesses these oils during Holy Week, the most sacred period of the liturgical year, tells us something important about the nature of the Church herself and about her priorities. Let us reflect on this fact for a moment. The first oil to be blessed tonight will be the Oil of the Sick, which is used in the sacrament of the anointing of the sick and dying. For most of us, it is the last sacrament we will receive on this earth before we go to God. The Oil of the Sick reminds us that the sick, the suffering and the dying are at the centre of the Church and are at the very heart of her service. Our final sacramental anointing with the Oil of the Sick gives us strength to pass from this world to the life of the world to come, and there is nothing more important than that.
The second oil to be blessed will be the Oil of Catechumens, which is used at the beginning of the celebration of Baptism as part of the prayers of the Church to protect us from the spirit of evil, the father of lies. In fact, the Oil of Catechumens will be used almost exclusively to anoint babies as part of the celebration of Baptism. So already with these two forms of holy oil – the Oil of the sick and the Oil of Catechumens – we understand something about the Church and her priorities. We see human life near its beginning and near its end. Who are the recipients of these anointings? Who is the focus of the Church’s care and concern? The sick, the suffering, small children. It is here that we see the Kingdom of God emerging. Not among the dominant and the powerful of this world, but among the smallest and the weakest, the ones who don’t count for much in the eyes of the world. They are the presence of Christ. Jesus is very clear in the Gospel: “Whatever you did to the least of my brothers, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40). Mother Teresa of Calcutta used to say that the Gospel – that is, the message of Jesus – is very simple. Five words, spoken by him about the least of his brothers and sisters: “You did it to me”. Pope Francis has reminded us of this truth in a powerful way in these two weeks since his election as the Successor of Peter: “Let us never forget that that authentic power is service…” (Homily, 19 March 2013). He has spoken about the duty of the Church to protect the most vulnerable, “especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important, those whom Matthew [in his Gospel] lists in the final judgment on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison (cf. Mt 25:31-46).” Yes, the Church must protect the smallest and most vulnerable. In our own time, we must surely think of expectant mothers and of the gift of life, the vulnerable child in the womb. We as Catholics must be absolutely committed to protecting and defending mothers and their unborn babies.
But in our Mass this evening we do not bless only two oils. There is a third, and its importance is reflected in the name that the Church gives to tonight’s liturgy: the Chrism Mass, because it is here at this moment that the Church consecrates the Holy Chrism, which is similar to the other two oils just mentioned, but with a difference. It contains balsam as well as olive oil, giving it a beautiful and lasting fragrance. Our word for this aromatic oil, Chrism, comes from the Greek language and simply means anointing; it is the same root in Greek that is used to translate the Hebrew word Messiah, which means the Anointed One, the one who has been anointed. This is, of course, how we refer to Jesus, the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Christ. Christ and Chrism; Anointed and anointing. In Jesus of Nazareth, anointing is directed toward service: “The Spirit of the Lord…has anointed me. He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor,…to captives, [to] the downtrodden” (cf. Lk 4:18).
The Chrism that is sanctified tonight is used by the Church in the principal sacraments of consecration. Most fundamentally, Chrism is used in Baptism. After we are washed from our sins in the Baptismal water, we are immediately anointed by the priest with Chrism, signifying that we belong to Christ, that we, as baptised persons, share in Christ’s priestly, prophetic and kingly nature. To be called a Christian literally means that each of us, like him, has been chrismated, has been Christened, has been anointed with Holy Chrism. It means that each of us, by virtue of our Baptism, is called to a life of holiness by means of God’s grace. It means that we too have a special responsibility to care for the least of our brothers and sisters. In that sense, there is no distinction in the Church; “For all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ; there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor freeman, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27-28). All of us share in his anointing; all of us are called to holiness. Chrism is also used in the consecration of a church, the building in which all of us as brothers and sisters in Christ worship God our Father. The walls of the church are anointed with Holy Chrism. And similarly, the altar. Every altar on which the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass will be celebrated is itself anointed with Holy Chrism.
Chrism is used in the celebration of the sacrament of ordination as well, the sacrament by which certain men are configured to Christ in order to serve his Church as priests and bishops. In the sacrament of priestly ordination, a young man’s hands are anointed with Chrism, so that as a priest he might “sanctify the Christian people and offer sacrifice to God” (Ritual of Ordination). This evening, we thank God for priests and, in a special way, for the priests serving in the Diocese of Limerick. In a few moments, they will renew the promises they made on the day of their ordination, the day on which their hands were anointed with Chrism so that they would bring Christ to us through their service; indeed, so that they themselves would be images of Christ for us.
If I could speak from my own personal experience of being your Nuncio for the last fourteen months, I have been tremendously edified by the example of the priests of Ireland. From Killarney to Belfast, from Limerick to Derry, I have been profoundly grateful for the opportunity to visit parishes and to meet priests, who have made a deep and lasting impression on me. Is it always easy to be a priest in Ireland today? No. It is not. But there are countless priests living their vocations with courage, generosity and joy, sometimes in the midst of difficulties and trials. To them, to our priests, this evening we say thanks. And surely there are young men listening to me tonight to whom Christ is saying: “Come, follow me” (Mt 14:9) – young men whom Christ is calling to be priests. What would I say to such a young person?: Listen to the Lord. Put you trust in Him. To serve Him and His people as a priest is an adventure of grace which corresponds to the deepest desires of your heart. Do not be afraid!
Finally, Sacred Chrism is not only used in the ordination of priests, it is also used in the ordination of bishops. The priest’s hands are anointed with Chrism so that he may serve the Church through his ministry; the bishop’s head is anointed so that he can serve the Church by his leadership. “Let us never forget that that authentic power is service” (Pope Francis).
In less than three weeks from today, the Chrism that we consecrate tonight will be used here in this beautiful Cathedral to ordain Father Brendan Leahy as Bishop of Limerick, as successor to Bishop Donal Murray. It will be a day of great rejoicing here in this Church and in this Diocese. Bishop-elect Leahy will be the first bishop ordained in Ireland in the Pontificate of Pope Francis – and (if my calculations are correct) the eighth bishop ordained in the entire world under our new Holy Father. Let us all pray for Bishop-elect Leahy as he makes his final preparations for his ordination. As we approach that day, I also want to say a word of sincere gratitude and appreciation to Father Tony Mullins, who has served you as Diocesan Administrator of Limerick for these past three years. I know that I speak for everyone in the Cathedral this evening when I say thank you to Father Mullins for his tireless and generous service to the Church in Limerick.
With the election of Pope Francis, a new and exciting chapter in the Church’s life opens up before us. The Holy Father’s humility, simplicity and transparent goodness have touched our hearts and the hearts of the entire world. Let us pray to Our Lady for Pope Francis, asking her to intercede for him. And let us all recommit ourselves tonight to live our own vocations with love and faithfulness, confident that the Lord is with us and that, with His grace, all things are possible (cf. Mt 19:26).
Notes for Editors
• The Chrism Mass is a very special Mass where Catholics from across the diocese, together with their priests and bishop, gather to join in the Celebration of this Mass, during which our diocesan priests renew together their commitment to priestly service, and receive the prayers and support of the people. At this Mass the oils for the coming year are blessed:
– oil of catechumens
– oil of the sick
– oil of chrism
Oil of catechumens is used for adult catechumens and infants; oil of the sick is used for anointing the sick; and the sacred oil of chrism for baptism, confirmation, the ordination of priests, and the consecration of altars. All three are based on olive oil with added spices and perfume, traditionally balsam.
Further information: Martin Long, Catholic Communications Office, 00353 861727678