- Millions of people across the country are gathering virtually for Mass each week, not to mention the many other prayer opportunities that are available via social media, radio and television.
- It is humbling to witness the generosity and care of so many members of our congregations who are working in hospitals, nursing homes and in other frontline services … the loving response of our young people, sporting organisations, community groups and charities who are reaching out to the elderly, the lonely and the vulnerable.
- Our calling as priests remains strong in this crisis: to be with our people, to encourage them, to bring them the hope and consolation of Word and sacrament … Thank you, my dear brother priests, for all that you are and all that you are doing in Christ Jesus our Lord
My brother priests, dear brothers and sisters, the unprecedented way in which we are celebrating the Chrism Mass and Easter Triduum this year really brings home to us how much our lives have been turned upside-down in just a matter of weeks. Covid-19 has driven our congregations indoors, forced us to stay apart, prevented us from having the public celebration of Mass and hindered us from offering the healing sacraments of reconciliation and anointing in the normal manner. The virus has closed our schools, it has postponed the joyful celebrations of Baptism and Marriage, and delayed the happiness of Confirmation and First Holy Communion days. It has heightened anxieties and fears amongst our parishioners and threatened their jobs and livelihoods. It has struck at the very heart of our ministry as priests, curtailing our normal outreach to the sick, the elderly and the dying. And perhaps saddest of all, it has cruelly restricted our capacity to draw close to families who are bereaved.
But these weeks have also brought out the best in our people. It is humbling for us to witness the generosity and care of so many members of our congregations who are working in hospitals, nursing homes and in other frontline services. We are amazed at the loving response of our young people, sporting organisations, community groups and charities who are reaching out to the elderly, the lonely and the vulnerable – preparing cooked meals and fetching groceries, stocking foodbanks and offering messages of encouragement and hope.
Although it is heart-breaking that our congregations cannot gather to worship – and especially during this most sacred of weeks – it is heartening to hear people say they are finding more quality time for family, and more space for stillness, reflection and prayer at home. Our parishes have taken to cyberspace like never before! We’ve been flooding the digital highways with Eucharistic celebration and other prayer moments – so much so that we’ve crashed our “live-feeds”. Our webcam providers report that millions of people across the country are gathering virtually for Mass each week, not to mention the many other prayer opportunities that are available via social media, radio and television.
Something else is happening. In a strange way these days of increased seclusion – what some are calling “imposed monasticism” – have been making us stop and think about the way we have been living our lives, about faith and hope, about caring and loving, and perhaps living simpler lives in the future.
Speaking personally, I can say that the coronavirus emergency has made me think about who we are as Church and reflect on what it means to be a priest. The loss of tangible contact between ourselves and our people can shake our sense of identity as priests. The song of Jean Valjean from the musical Les Miserables keeps going around in my head: Who am I?. It is a question we priests might all ask ourselves at the Chrism Mass this year: “Who am I” in the midst of this crisis for our world, our country, our parish, our people? “Who am I” as priest when so many of the normal opportunities for pastoral interaction and ministry with my people have been constrained?
In the last verse of his song Jean Valjean finds an answer to his question about identity. He sings: “My soul belongs to God, I know. I made that bargain long ago. He gave me hope when hope was gone. He gave me strength to journey on.”
And the same is true with us – if we can search deep into the roots of our vocation to the priesthood, and re-make the promises which, “prompted by love of him we joyfully pledged on the day of our ordination” (Chrism Mass) , then we too can find the hope and the strength from God to journey on. Suitably refreshed and renewed in our commitment we can then, in turn, pass on that hope and strength to our people who are perhaps also asking themselves these days the question: “Who am I”?
The Chrism Mass reminds us each year of what is at the core of our identity as priests: to be faithful stewards of the mysteries of God in the Holy Eucharist; to daily renew in his name the sacrifice of human redemption, setting before God’s children the paschal banquet, nourishing them with the word and strengthening them with the sacraments.
During a time of crisis like this, those commitments we made at ordination are more important than ever – especially the call to offer daily the Eucharistic sacrifice for our people, the world and ourselves.
Of course it is unusual for us to be offering Mass these days without our congregation physically present – but the sacrifice of the Mass is no less effective. The Church reminds us that even if the faithful are unable to be physically present, the Eucharist remains the most essential and privileged moment in our day – the summit and source of all the church’s activity.
The saintly Archbishop of Saigon, Archbishop Nguyen Van Thuan, spent thirteen years in prison in North Vietnam, and nine of those years in solitary confinement. During that time, using tiny quantities of bread and wine that were smuggled into him by friends, he continued to offer his daily Mass. He placed tiny drops of wine in the palm of his hand, mingling it with water and small crumbs of bread – in that way he offered the sacrifice of the Mass for his people and his captors. His prison cell became his Cathedral; the palm of his hand was his chalice!
Blessed Columba Marmion once wrote: “when we celebrate Mass we should remember that we are offering the sacrifice in the bosom of this tremendous unity which is the Church, and thus we are praying in her name. Even a missionary in the depths of the bush does not say Orem (Let me pray) but Oremus (Let us pray) – we are os totius Ecclesiae – “the voice of the whole Church” (in Christ the Ideal of the Priest, 178).
These examples remind us that our daily celebration of the Eucharist – with, or without a congregation; with, or without a webcam – is at the very centre of our lives and identity as priests. The sacrifice of the Mass which we offer faithfully each day during this crisis gathers into one the sacrifices which so many of our people are making during these difficult days and presents them in unity with the suffering and death of Christ on the Cross. “May the Lord accept the sacrifice, for the praise and glory of his name”.
The Mass also sends us out – despite the restrictions – to be as close as we safely can to our people – to offer them the comfort of Christ’s presence: by telephone, email, social media, webcam and, in person with the appropriate life-saving precautions. Our calling as priests remains strong in this crisis: to be with our people, to encourage them, to bring them the hope and consolation of Word and sacrament. Saint John Chrysostom once challenged his priests: “Would you honour the body of Christ? Do not despise His nakedness; do not honour Him here in church clothed in silk vestments and then pass Him by, unclothed and frozen outside”.
This Chrism Mass and Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday encourage us to renew our priestly commitment, especially to faithfully celebrate the sacrifice of the Mass every day and to live Eucharist by joining in the sacrifices and struggles of our people – especially at a time like this.
There will be more sacrifices for our people and ourselves to make before this Covid-19 crisis is all over. But as Jean Valjean sang: “My soul belongs to God, I know. I made that bargain long ago. He gave me hope when hope was gone. He gave me strength to journey on.”
Thank you, my dear brother priests, for all that you are and all that you are doing in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
- Archbishop Eamon Martin is Archbishop of Armagh, Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Dromore and Primate of All Ireland. This homily was delivered during the Mass of Chrism in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral Armagh, on 8 April, and will be preached today, Holy Thursday, at 10.30am Mass in the Cathedral of Saint Patrick and Saint Colman, Newry.
- The Chrism Mass is held during Holy Week in every Catholic diocese. During this Mass, the priests, deacons and representatives of the entire diocesan community gather around their bishop, who blesses the Holy Oils for use in the coming year. These are: Oil of the Sick, Oil of Catechumens, and Sacred Chrism. Whenever the Holy Oils are used in a diocese, the ministry of the Bishop who consecrated them is symbolically present. The Chrism Mass reminds us of our oneness in Christ through Baptism and its holy anointing, made possible by the ministry of the bishop and his priests. The Chrism Mass is also a key moment in which the unity of the Bishop with his priests (together, they form the presbyterate) is manifested and renewed. During the liturgy, the entire assembly is called to renew its baptismal promises; deacons and priests also renew their vow of obedience to the local bishop and their commitment to serve God’s people. At the end of the Chrism Mass, the Holy Oils are brought back to parishes of the diocese for use in the coming year.
- A special Holy Week feature is now available on www.catholicbishops.ie highlighting: Mass Readings for Holy Week and Easter 2020; details of Pope Francis’ schedule for Holy Week and the Easter Triduum; Bishops’ Homilies and Messages for Holy Week and Easter; details of online broadcasts of services in dioceses; details of Easter Services on Television and Radio; a special Holy Week series of Bishops’ Faithcast podcast; and additional resources to creatively mark Holy Week at Home.
For media contact: Catholic Communications Office Maynooth: Martin Long +353 (0) 86 172 7678 and Brenda Drumm +353 (0) 87 310 4444.