Homily of Archbishop Clifford for the Chrism Mass

28 Mar 2013

Homily of Archbishop Dermot Clifford for the Chrism Mass – Cathedral of the Assumption, Thurles

“There is only one priest; All are priests, Some men are priests”

I don’t know whether you like riddles, puzzles or conundrums!  I realise they are more appropriate to Christmas than to Easter but the cold weather these days makes them seem seasonal!  But if you do, let me give you a clue: Pope Benedict said at the Chrism Mass in 2009: “There is only one priest of the New Covenant”. The Chrism Mass is an ideal place to discover the theology of the priesthood. Not only that, but the liturgy of that feast illustrates that theology in action in all the Cathedrals of the world on Holy Thursday. The priesthood is the main theme of the Mass. The Preface gives the answer to the puzzle as follows:

“Lord Holy Father, Almighty and Eternal God…, by the anointing of the Holy Spirit you made your Only Begotten Son High Priest of the new and eternal covenant, and by your wondrous design were pleased to decree that this one Priesthood should continue in the Church.  For Christ not only adorns with a royal priesthood the people he has made his own, but with a brother’s kindness he also chooses men to become sharers in his sacred ministry through the laying on of hands”.

Christ the High Priest shares the one priesthood with all the baptised, “the priesthood of the lay faithful”, as it is known. Christ also shares his priesthood through the Sacrament of Holy Orders with bishops, priests and deacons.

The Chrism Mass is also a very expressive manifestation of the Church. The Vatican Council describes this ideal as consisting, “in the full, active participation of all God’s holy people in these liturgical celebrations, especially in the same Eucharist, in a single prayer, at one altar, at which the bishop presides surrounded by his college of priests and deacons”. The diocese is the Church in miniature.  The Holy Thursday liturgy in the Cathedral comes very close to this ideal.  Here we have the bishop, head of the local church, surrounded by priests, religious and lay people from all the parishes of his diocese.  The bishop concelebrates Mass with his priests as a sign of unity and fellowship.

The Oils are blessed for the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and the Sacrament of the Sick to be conferred on their people by the bishop, priests and deacons in the case of baptisms only. When the priests renew their commitment to service, the bishop asks the lay faithful present to pray for their priests and for their bishop.  As a visible expression of communion within the diocese this is unique.

Holy Thursday is the birthday of the Priesthood.  The birthplace is the Upper Room, the occasion of its birth, the Last Supper.  At the Last Supper Jesus instituted the Eucharist when he consecrated the bread and wine.  He added immediately, “Do this in memory of me”  (Lk: 22,19). In Saint Paul’s account the words are “Do this as a memorial of me” (1, Co. 11,24)

Pope John Paul II wrote in his Encyclical Letter, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, (On the Eucharist and its Relationship with Church): “The Eucharist is the principal and central raison d’être of the sacrament of the priesthood, which effectively came into being at the moment of the institution of the Eucharist.”

You will be aware of a recent controversy involving a priest who wrote that “he no longer believed that the priesthood as we currently have it in the church originated with Jesus or that Jesus designated a special group of his followers as priests”.  “It was more likely”, he wrote, “that ‘some time after Jesus, a select and privileged group within the community, who had abrogated power and authority to themselves, interpreted the occasion of the Last Supper in a manner that suited their own agenda.”

On the contrary, our priesthood comes directly down from the Lord at the Last Supper through the Apostles to us and not from a coup d’Eglise in a later century.

The ordained priesthood is, “unique, indispensable and irreplaceable” in the words of Pope John Paul II.  Vatican II states that, “No Christian community can be built up unless it has as its basis and centre the celebration of the Eucharist”.  It belongs to bishops and priests to preside at the altar, and to offer the sacrifice of the Mass. But the Eucharist has to be at the centre of the life of all members in the Church.  There is a beautiful balance here.  On one hand, it is through the grace of the Eucharist – Christ’s ultimate expression of love – that the Church is made present.  And on the other hand, it is through the priestly ministry of the Church that the Eucharist is made present.  Each has been entrusted to the other, so to speak, by Christ; “the Church (makes) the Eucharist, but the Eucharist also (makes) the Church”, as Henry de Lubac put it.

Therefore, priests must continue to promote vocations.  They should do so by word of mouth and by giving personal witness to the joys as well as the sorrows of being a priest in today’s world.  A large study done in the USA a few years ago by Father Stephen Rossetti entitled Why Priests are Happy, found that priests in the States are happier and have higher morale generally than men of similar age in any profession or occupation. To quote Father Rossetti:

“A central finding of this study is the extraordinarily high rate of priestly happiness and satisfaction. The findings are strong, replicable, and consistent: priests, as a group, are very happy men.  They like priesthood.  They are committed to it.  They find much satisfaction in their lives and ministries.  In fact, the satisfaction rates of priests are among the highest of any way of life or vocation in the United States.”

In his foreword to the study, John Allen Jr., whom you may have seen in the media during the recent Conclave had this to say:

“If I were to offer a recommendation to rank and file Catholics based on Rossetti’s data, it would boil down to this.  The priests of this country obviously love serving you and ministering to you, because otherwise there’s no way to explain why they’re basically happy, in the teeth of a culture which constantly tells them they’re not supposed to be.  They love you; try to love them back”.  How about that good faithful people of Cashel & Emly?

The bishop and priests are challenged to live lives worthy of their high office as the Preface continues:

“As they give up their lives for you

And for the salvation of their

Brothers and sisters,

They strive to be conformed

To the image of Christ himself

And offer you a constant witness

Of faith and love.”

It is no accident that the word “communion” is the word we use for the sacrament of the Eucharist…Christianity is an invitation to share in the communion of the Holy Trinity and to live in communion with one another, nourished by the Bread of Life.  And both senses of the word “communion” is fundamentally about love…love of Christ and love of one another. The response to the psalm at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, repeated by the choir, keeps coming back to mind for days afterwards: “The blessing cup that we bless is a communion with the blood of Christ” , (1, Cor. 10,16).  Come to think of it, that is what the response is meant to do – to linger!

In our country at this time, priests are under serious pressure.  The child abuse scandals weigh heavily on them, most of them are no longer young, their numbers are decreasing with few or no young priests in prospect. But some of their loyal flocks are aware of this. They are not found wanting in their support for their shepherds.  A touching example comes from the hills of Pakistan.  When a shepherd collapses in the very high temperature of 40°c, the sheep form a cluster around him to assist his recovery.  An extraordinary protective instinct indeed! The priest who is under pressure today receives similar support from members of his loyal flock especially the elderly priests.

Clustering of a somewhat different kind takes place in many dioceses today due to the shortage of priests.  Priests from a particular area or deanery cooperate to cover Masses for colleagues who are ill or on their annual holiday. This is to become a feature in our own diocese in the not too distant future.

For bishops, priests and the lay faithful, “the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life” as Vatican II teaches.  Blessed Columba Marmion wrote that our lives as priests should be “a prolongation of the Mass”.  “In this way”, said Pope John Paul II, “priests will be able to concentrate the daily tensions which lead to a lack of focus and they will find in Eucharistic Sacrifice – the true centre of their lives and ministry  – the spiritual strength to deal with their pastoral responsibilities.  Their daily activity will thus become truly Eucharistic”.

As I have quoted Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, I feel it is only right and just to hear a word from our new Pope Francis.  In his homily at the inauguration Mass on the feast of Saint Joseph, he included the following:

“Today, together with the feast of Saint Joseph, we are celebrating the beginning of the ministry of the new Bishop of Rome, the Successor of Peter, which also involves a certain power.  Certainly, Jesus Christ conferred power upon Peter, but what sort of power was it?  Jesus’ three questions to Peter about love are followed by three commands: feed my lambs, feed my sheep.  Let us never forget that authentic power is service, and that the Pope too, when exercising power, must enter ever more fully into that service which has its radiant culmination on the Cross.  He must be inspired by the lowly, concrete and faithful service which marked Saint Joseph and, like him, he must open his arms to protect all of God’s people and embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important, those whom Matthew 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).  Only those who serve with love are able to protect! We must not be afraid of goodness or tenderness”.

Which brings to mind the Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi whose name he has borrowed as well as his simplicity and humility:

O Divine Master, grant that I may
not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand
to be loved as to love


Notes for Editors

•    Archbishop Dermot Clifford is Archbishop of Cashel and Emly.  This homily was delivered on 27 March 2013

•    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.
For media contact: Catholic Communications Office, Maynooth, Martin Long 00353 861727678