[Isaiah 61:1-3a, 6a, 8b-9; Psalm 89; Revelation 1:5-8; Luke 4:16-21]
Fathers, I’m glad we can finally be together. It has been too long since we have been able to gather in person as members of this presbyterate. We’ve done our best to connect with our multiple-person videoconferences by Zoom, but, as one of our number delicately put it in a recent email, “I’m sick of Zoom!” So, when we realized that current permissible numbers would allow all of the priests to gather in one place, I decided that this would be the way to celebrate our Chrism mass this year. We do miss, of course, having our brother deacons, the religious, and the lay faithful with us in full number, but they are represented today, and we are grateful for that.
The past twelve months have been extraordinarily difficult for our people. The pain and hardship have been expressed in many ways, but one that to me seems common to them all is the feeling of having been robbed. The virus has robbed people of being together at important family moments, of the ability to visit a cherished grandparent in long-term care, of a livelihood and source of income, and of much more. We ourselves have not been immune. I think of some of our brother priests who lost a family member in their country of origin and were unable to be home for the funeral. Or of the experience shared by us all of being robbed of the opportunity to gather for the funerals of those deceased brothers we loved and admired greatly – Don Stein, Mike McCaffrey and Hyland Fraser – and pray together on their behalf the Salve Regina. These multiple experiences of having been robbed are cumulative, and in consequence weigh very heavily on the minds and hearts of our people. More than once in our Zoom conferences we have spoken of the widespread and deep anxiety enveloping our parishioners, and of our own frustration at the limits placed on our ability to offer the pastoral care we know is needed. In a word, our people feel they have been robbed of hope, and are looking to have restored a reason to hope once again.
In response to that need, we priests have an irreplaceable role. Only Jesus Christ is the ground on which true hope can be fully and lastingly restored. Our mission as his priests is to announce him and to bring our people into relationship with him. Others can provide vaccines, or data about lower case counts, or wage subsidy programs. These are helpful to a point, certainly. Yet nothing can compare in efficacy with the power of the Gospel to restore stolen hope, and we by ordination are empowered to be its ambassadors through the ministry of Word and sacrament.
If we are to announce Jesus as the unique reason for hope, it is crucial that we be able to explain clearly to our people why he is so. For help, we need look no further than to the passage we heard from Revelation. There Jesus identifies himself as “the Alpha and the Omega.” He is Sovereign Lord of all history. Yet he does not exercise this sovereignty from a disinterested distance. No, moved by a love beyond all telling, he actually entered history to destroy sin, the root cause of history’s rebellious trajectory and humanity’s litany of misery. Having accomplished this purpose in his death and resurrection, Jesus remains in history by the gift of the Spirit to prune away sin’s toxic fruit and restore his people by the gift of mercy. This is why he is the reason for true hope. This is why we must bring him to our people.
To accept this as our mission is not to claim some inherent capacity on our part. On the contrary, the ministerial priesthood exists in the order of sacrament, which means that the priest does by Christ’s own power what he could never accomplish on his own. This truth underlies our blessing and consecrating of oil at this mass. They are thereby vested with the power of the Holy Spirit, thus making clear the divine agency at work when they are used in sacramental celebration. In the sacraments of the Church, Christ himself is the true minister, healing and nourishing his people in accord with the Father’s saving purpose. We are but his chosen instruments, acting not in our own right but always and only in persona Christi.
There is enormous consolation in this. We are only too well aware of our weaknesses, mistakes and failings. Yet these can in no way hinder grace. What is more, in a manner that far surpasses understanding Christ actually makes use of our weaknesses, limits, and, yes, even our sins to draw us to himself, to deepen our awareness of our need for him, to heal our infidelities, and to assure us of his unconditional love. This is the love that encourages us when circumstances tempt us to discouragement and withdrawal. This is the love that awakens us to the hope given to the world in Jesus Christ and impels us to share the good news of that hope with our people.
Fathers, allow me to offer a word of heartfelt thanks to each and every one of you. You have been challenged to find the right pastoral response to the needs of your people in extraordinarily trying circumstances, and I have been edified not only by the determination and creativity with which you have risen to the challenge but also by the fatherly love that animates all you do. We are not sure what lies ahead, but we do know that Jesus, the Alpha and the Omega, the Lord of all history, is with us, and working through us, to guide and shape whatever comes in accord with the Father’s saving plan. He alone is our hope. Let his loving presence and sure guidance inspire you now with confidence and joy as you renew your commitment to him, to his Church, and to the people entrusted to your care.
Most Reverend Richard W. Smith
St. Joseph’s Basilica
March 29th, 2021