Homily of Archbishop Michael Neary for Chrism Mass
Gaudium et spes …
This is a joyous occasion and one, for several reasons, filled with hope. We gather for the annual Chrism Mass – not at its usual time during Holy Week, but it is a blessing to be able to gather nonetheless. We gather with all the prevailing public health protocols, but with the added comfort of many of us having received a vaccination. And we gather in our newly refurbished Cathedral to do what generations of our predecessors have done – to renew our commitment to priesthood and our priestly ministry, and to consecrate the Chrism and bless the Oils of Catechumens and Infirmorum.
…in the midst of challenges
We are reminded by Paul that “we have a treasure in earthen vessels”. The apostle distinguishes between the clay pot and the treasure contained in it. The distinction is very important today and it is crucial that we do not confuse the two. We are conscious of our own failures and the fragility of the Church and yet we know that we have been entrusted with a treasure. It is in the very nature of our priestly ministry that we instinctively reach out to help those in need, to provide hospitality to the lonely and encouragement to those who are wrestling with difficulties. Although it can be described very easily, and while it is always a privileged calling, this is a mammoth task.
While we can heal some of the wounds of our parishioners, we could easily become frustrated or discouraged when we recognise we cannot do everything. Ministry is never easy because the world will be resistant to and dismissive of the message we carry in earthenware jars. It was ever thus. Our experience of the recent lockdowns has caused a certain upheaval in this respect too.
As priests, the social interaction with parishioners was considerably reduced; our visits to schools and the direct involvement in preparing children for the sacraments and supporting teachers and parents in forming the young in faith was not possible in the way in which we had been accustomed. Our pastoral outreach to those who are struggling had to be curtailed. The freedom of access to visiting people in their homes was not advisable in the Covid situation.
We have a High Priest who feels our weaknesses with us
Every generation of priests faces a variation of the challenges faced by our High Priest, Jesus Christ. In the Gospel (Luke 4:18-19) Jesus claims this text of Isaiah as a definition of his own vocation:
“The spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has annointed me. He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and to the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free, to proclaim the Lord’s year of favour”.
As priests and leaders of a faith community we are tested not by our successes but rather in a strange way by our failures. Of course we feel vulnerable at this time, but it is at the point of our vulnerability that we encounter God and get the courage to continue despite the enormity of the challenge. We try, we fall and fail but yet we persevere as we press on “towards the goal” (Phil. 3:12) with the Lord’s words to Saint Paul ringing in our ears: “My grace is sufficient for you, my power is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). To lose heart would be to forget the treasure with which we have been entrusted and focus on our own fragility. As we renew our priestly promises in our Chrism Mass, we declare that we are able, ready and passionate in the way we live and minister.
A priesthood expressed courageously and with integrity
What do people demand of us as priests? While people rightly expect many things of a priest, surely and most fundamentally of all, they expect us to be men of deep faith, people who pray and struggle to live according to the Beatitudes. A French journalist and atheistic philosopher, Albert Camus, himself a man of compassion and courage, was quite critical of priests who tended to apologise for their priesthood and failed to express their priesthood courageously and with integrity.
Collaboration and challenge with a Gospel agenda
In our priesthood we need the support, the correction and the ongoing challenge of our people who by their patience and perseverance help us to recognise our responsibilities and opportunities. During our recent afternoon recollection Father Michael Drennan, emphasised that, as priests, we need people who will work with us, teams to whom we can delegate, and a few people to whom we can confide our doubts and fears, who will listen without an agenda other than the Gospel.
Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah – prophets of hope
There are three giants among the prophets from whom we can take comfort – Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah; like us they were faced with daunting tasks. It would have been easy for them to compromise, blame others for the situation in which they ministered, abandon their ministry, or to confront the situation in anger. However, they were prophets of hope who enabled others to see through and above the doom which faced the world of the time.
We are also called to be agents of hope and men of prayer
Likewise, as priests we are challenged to be agents of hope, enabling and encouraging our people to recover and move on from the crisis which, in different ways, has left many of them shattered. In doing so we need the courage to live with unpopularity; the ability to keep going despite opposition, envy, false accusation and setbacks. Prayer will be crucial for us in this regard. You will remember when Solomon was given a choice regarding a wish, he prayed for a listening heart, a heart that would listen to the people and would listen at the same time to what God was saying to the people.
Go, make disciples … teaching them
Teaching is a very important part of the ministry of the priest today. As the Church is withdrawing from so many areas of formal education there is a huge temptation for us as priests to play down our teaching role. While it may be very difficult to see how we respond to teaching in our ministry today, each of us is challenged to communicate God’s love, forgiveness and concern whether by word in our homilies, or by example in our lives.
Listen to “the still small voice” of God
As priests we listen to the unspoken cries of others and at the same time to what Elijah recognised as “the still small voice of God”. This will enable us to listen, respect and strive for consensus wherever possible. As a result we will not be defined by what happens to us but by how we respond.
Laying on of hands; anointing of hands
If I might take you back to the Ordination ceremony on your own Ordination day, you will remember the central gestures of the occasion were: the imposition of hands on your head and secondly the anointing of your hands. The head along with the heart is where decisions are taken and attitudes are formed. The hands are anointed and dedicated to the anointed one, to Jesus Christ. Through our hands we share, bless, feed and absolve. This captures so much of our work as priests.
A threefold ministry to which we are committed
It will always be necessary to transform and renew priesthood and priestly ministry. However, it must always be with a view to teaching, that is proclaiming, sanctifying through the celebration of the sacraments and shepherding through pastoral care. It will always be tempting to try to slot priesthood into the straightjacket of the socio-political. In our pastoral ministry we seek to journey with people, be available to them, make allowances for their resistance, and yet, perhaps without saying in words, indicate that we are dedicated to Christ, we are not embarrassed by Him, and that we are willing to share Him with all. We have to listen to their stories, understand their reaction and be men of courage who are prepared to speak but always in a spirit of fraternal love.
In the Gospel of John, the risen Lord questions Peter: “Do you love me” and then gives the commission “feed my sheep”. Jesus uses two different Greek words in this context to translate ‘feed’. One conveys the idea of providing, giving the flock what they need and leading them to pastures. The other words conveys the idea of protecting and leading, going ahead of them, guiding them and even at times correcting them. All of this is part of what we are and do as priests.
In our Chrism Mass as we renew the promises we made on Ordination Day and bless the oils we will use to bring strength and healing, consolation and hope to our people. We pray that we will continue to derive our hope and joy from our relationship with Jesus Christ and that this will enable us to put into perspective and cope with the challenges which are facing us at this time.
Notes for Editors
- Archbishop Michael Neary is Archbishop of Tuam. This Mass was celebrated on 19 August 2021 in the Cathedral of the Assumption, Tuam.
- The Chrism Mass is usually 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.
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