St. Robert Bellarmine Church in Freehold, NJ
March 21, 2016
The blessing of oil to be used in the administration of the sacraments for the coming year is an ancient custom in the Catholic Church. We can find liturgical evidence of this ritual as early as the 4th century, probably even earlier. The blessing of sacramental oils is an occasion when the priests of a diocese surround their bishop at the Eucharist in one great show of pastoral and personal unity. The deacons, religious and faithful of the diocese also join them as a powerful witness to the sacramental life of the local Church from which they draw their spiritual strength and celebrate as one People of God.
Historically, for centuries, the blessing of the oil of catechumens, the oil of the sick and the consecration of sacred chrism occurred in the traditional evening Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday. Pope Pius XII established a distinct morning "Chrism Mass" for this purpose in 1955, the year I was born --- although there was no connection!
It was, however, Blessed Pope Paul VI, in many of our own lifetimes, who joined the Renewal of Priestly Commitment into the Holy Week ritual of blessing of the oils that are, in a sense, the "tools of our trade." It makes sense. He decreed "the Chrism Mass is one of the principal expressions of the fullness of the bishop's priesthood and signifies the closeness of the priests with him (Paul VI, “Renewal of Priestly Promises,” 1970)."
My dear sisters and brothers, the Chrism Mass "strengthens the sense of the priesthood" that we priests share together and, so, in your presence as representatives of the entire Diocese, permit me please, as your bishop, as a Successor of the Apostles, to offer a few thoughts to them, the priests in your midst.
A week ago today, I had the sad and sobering occasion of attending the funeral of a New Jersey a State Trooper, Sean Eamonn Cullen, Badge Number 7594, at St. Charles Borromeo Church in Cinnaminson. It was a day filled with emotions that were wrapped around the profound beauty of the Catholic burial rites and the civil tributes of law enforcement. One of the most striking elements of that day for me was experiencing the presence of well over a thousand police men and women, from throughout New Jersey and from all over the entire United States, as far away as California. It was awesome. They stood in solemn attention, dressed in shades of blue and black and green and brown.
Despite the variety of dress uniforms and badges they wore and jurisdictions they represented, something united them as one, something that words cannot sufficiently describe but their silent presence spoke volumes, in one united voice that needed no words yet was heard by all who were present. These brave men and women had come together, united because one of their own had died fulfilling their common mission “to serve and protect.” In those solemn moments, the rituals of the Catholic faith offered our Christian hope to all present that his life had changed, not ended --- a hope, a faith and a promise born of Holy Week, the Life and the Death and the Risen Life we celebrate.
It is “one of our own” who died on Good Friday and his mission to save us from sin that unites us here. On the night before he died, the Lord Jesus Christ prayed for us and for those who believe in him through our word, “that they may be one (John 17: 21).” The Chrism Mass helps us answer that prayer.
In his encyclical letter Pastores Dabo Vobis, Pope St. John Paul II, wrote of "the decisive role of the diocesan presbyterate in the personal life of every priest. The community of priests, rooted in a true sacramental fraternity, is a setting second to none, for spiritual and pastoral formation. The priest, as a rule, cannot do without this community." No priest is ordained to live, to serve, to minister alone.
My brothers, we are one community because of the sacrament we have received after a long formation; because of the hands placed on our heads by the bishop and one another in the presbyterate; because of the sacred oil of chrism with which the bishop anointed our hands. Through these holy actions we have been given --- every one of us and all of us together --- what St. Augustine called the "officium amoris," the “office of love.”
And it is this “office,” this love that belongs to us as brother priests, no matter what obstacles may lie in our paths, obstacles from the world in which we live and try to serve --- pervasive secularization, widespread relativism, a growing sense of entitlement, unrealistic expectations --- or from the things within ourselves --- our own failings and weakness, spiritual laziness and malaise, complacency and isolation --- things harden our hearts along the way. The office of love given by Christ through the sacrament of Holy Orders is our duty, our burden, our joy.
The oils that we bless tonight and take to our people are the oils of the Gospels we use to paint the portrait of a community of faith that is the Diocese of Trenton. We are the artists of this painting, what the world sees as the Church and what it does not see but feels: a Church of Mercy.
Together, my good priests, we are in God’s own words to Isaiah one --- one presbyteral "servant whom I uphold; my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit. ... I have grasped you by the hand, I have formed you and set you as a covenant of the people, a light for the nations to open the eyes of the blind ... and those that live in darkness."
As you process out from this Chrism Mass, look around you. These
faithful who are here tonight or who are scattered throughout the four counties of our Diocese are the lives for whom the oils have been blessed; the lives for whom you have renewed your priesthood; the lives you touch with the sacraments, with your preaching, with your consolation, with your ministry, with the “office of love” given you from the wood of the Cross, from the empty tomb. Our presbyerate, our Diocese, our parishes are the reasons we have and we offer faith in our future, a faith that will move mountains. Amen.