Living the Truth in Love: Homily – Chrism Mass
The Priest – A Man of Contemplation and Adoration
Cathedral of St. Ignatius Loyola
Tuesday, April 11, 2017
The Priest – A Man of Contemplation and Adoration
As we come together to celebrate this Chrism Mass, all of us, priests, deacons, religious and faithful of the Diocese, find a special meaning in the chrism which is to be consecrated and the oils that are to be blessed. The solemn liturgy reminds us that we are called to live in an intimate relationship with the Lord and it is that relationship which defines our lives. While we all have different roles to carry out in this life, all those roles are meant to support each other in living our loving relationship with the Lord in a manner in which we are enlivened by its joy and encouraged in its hope. Prayer is at the core of what this relationship is all about and it is prayer which the chrism and oils invoke as we use them in the sacramental celebrations throughout the Diocese.
The Chrism Mass has a special significance for us priests as we renew our priestly commitment during this celebration. The Chrism Mass is closely associated with Holy Thursday, the day on which the Lord gave us the gift of the Eucharist and of the Priesthood. While all of our lives are enlivened by prayer, the priest has the unique role in regard to leading all of us in prayer, especially in the Eucharist, and in living a life of prayer through which all of the members of the Church may recognize the primacy of prayer. Prayer in the life of the priest does not separate him from people, but puts him more and more in touch with them. Likewise, prayer in the life of all of us only enhances the communion we have with each other in the Lord – in our families, in the Church and in society.
Before the papal conclave in 2013, in which Cardinal Jorgé Bergoglio was elected pope, he gave a brief four-minute intervention, as did many of the Cardinals, in regard to what type of man the next pope should be. Now, before I go any further, I don’t want anyone to get their hopes up – my homily will be longer than four minutes. The future pope made four points on hand written notes which were given to the Archbishop of Havana, Cuba, and for which the Archbishop received permission to be printed. Pope Francis’ words are in essence a blueprint for his papacy which emphasizes the importance of the Church going outside of itself to the peripheries of sin, pain, injustice and misery to reach all people. His fourth point is an essential one in regard to the role of the pope. This point can be applied to the priest and, indeed, to all of us in whatever vocation we find ourselves. He emphasized that the pope must be a man of prayer – “a man of contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ.” Only this will enable the Church to go out to the peripheries. Indeed, encounter with God is always present in the peripheries, no matter what they may be.
Pope Francis’ emphasis on prayer is essential in focusing on the basic identity of the priest which enables him to go forth both within himself and in the lives of others in order to encounter God. Pope Francis’ reflection very much echoes the words of Pope Benedict XVI in his first Chrism Mass homily as pope in April 2006. Here Pope Benedict emphasized that "The essence of Priesthood is to be a friend of Jesus Christ. ... To be a friend of Jesus, to be a priest, means to be a man of prayer. ... Friendship with Jesus is always par excellence friendship with His own. We can be friends of Christ only in communion with the whole Christ." These are very powerful words. Without prayer the priest loses direction and he finds a joyless emptiness in his life which can lead to absorption upon himself, cynicism, gossip and even to the destruction of his own capabilities.
As we priests renew our commitment today, it is so essential for us to renew our commitment to prayer, in the words of Pope Francis, "to be a man of contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ." It is only in this that we will be able to carry out our ministry and to bring Christ to the peripheries where we will find Him present due to our friendship in prayer with Him. Our prayer as priests takes many forms which include the celebration of the sacraments and most especially the Eucharist. The Eucharist must be central. Through prayer a priest truly can act in the Person of Christ, even if his interior withdrawal from an intimate union with the Lord cannot affect the validity of the sacraments he celebrates. Our prayer in the sacraments must be encounters with Christ for us if they are to be even more of an encounter with Christ for the people we serve. We can perform many liturgical functions and be involved in many different forms of prayer but they must be in true contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ or we will lose our direction very easily and encounter that joyless emptiness. I am reminded of the story of two priests who were flying on a plane when the pilot announced that the flight had encountered a very serious difficulty which might be disastrous. The plane was shaking violently as its lights went out and it began a sudden descent. Both priests were reading their breviaries. Upon hearing the words of the pilot and experiencing the distress, they quickly put down their books and said to each other, "We better start praying!"
Contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ enables us to encounter the presence of God within us, around us and in the peripheries of life itself. Prayer puts us in touch with grace which is the free, limitless and merciful love of God. Grace is poured out upon us just as are the chrism and oils which are to be consecrated and blessed today. Truly these oils become, in the imagery of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, the very grace of Christ Himself. The oils are vehicles of grace which is experienced only through the vision of prayer. While sacraments always convey grace, that grace cannot be experienced unless we, as priests and faithful, enter more deeply into what we celebrate in them.
One of the most popular saints who has captured the hearts of all - popes, priests, theologians, religious and laity of all ages - is St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower. She lived a very short and simple life as a Carmelite nun, dying from tuberculosis on Good Friday at a young age of twenty-four. Neither moving very far from her place of birth nor living many years, she seemed to have gone to the peripheries of all experience, touching everyone by her simplicity and kind nature as she was intensely aware of the merciful love of God. Her inward suffering, and even her deep experiences of desolation, were never evident to anyone as she lifted the spirits of all who encountered her. She was a woman of deep prayer who, as she expressed in her Diary of a Soul, found it difficult to say the Rosary. Nevertheless she prayed while reciting it as she was always in contemplation and adoration of Christ, being aware of His merciful love. It was this deep prayer which energized her and all those around her. During the course of her illness, St. Therese expressed to her sisters that a time might come when it would be impossible for her to receive Holy Communion. As saddened as she was by this possibility, her union with the Lord through the sacraments enabled her to proclaim that, "It is a great grace to receive the sacraments, but when God does not permit it, it is good just the same. Everything is grace."
It was her words, "Everything is grace," which were the inspiration for the same final words of the priest in the famous novel of George Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest. Bernanos, a French writer of the early twentieth century, was in line with many other French writers who had great, almost mystical, insight into the nature of Catholicism and the centrality of prayer. The Diary of a Country Priest recounts the grave difficulty and even rejection which a young priest, dying from cancer of which he was not aware, encountered in his early ministry. His own contemplation and adoration of Christ enabled him to avoid cynicism and to retain the ability to love as he carried out his mission despite the peripheries of his life and ministry. In fact he was able to experience grace in those peripheries and enable others to do the same. It was his prayer which led him to this grace and not into an abyss of loneliness and self-centeredness. This is a powerful message for all of us and in a particular manner for us who are priests. Pope Francis, in his first homily as pope to the cardinals who had just elected him quoted another Catholic French author and novelist, Léon Bloy, “Anyone who does not pray to the Lord prays to the devil.” Very powerful words for all.
Very recently, two modern diaries of priests have been presented to us which speak a great deal about the reality that, in prayer, grace is everywhere. One published in November, are the reflections of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on his life, resignation and current semi-monastic existence, entitled Last Testament. The other is the recently published in English, just two weeks ago, private spiritual diaries of St. John Paul II, entitled In God's Hands. Both of these very moving diaries express to all of us the primacy of the priest being, in the words of Pope Francis, “a man of contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ.” As St. John Paul II expresses so well in his diary, “The priest who prays becomes a living witness to what prayer is. … People expect this from a priest. They want him to be a master of prayer, a man of prayer!”(pg. 166) Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI testified to this particular quality of being a man of prayer in the life of St. Pope John Paul II, himself, in the words of his Testament, “… if you concelebrated with him (Pope John Paul II), you felt the inward proximity to the Lord, the depth of faith which he would then plunge into, and you really experienced him as a man who believes, who prays, and who indeed is marked by the Spirit.” (pg. 168) Both of these diaries emphasize to us priests how to grow in prayer in our daily lives so that we can experience grace in all things. Indeed all things, even the most unexpected, help us understand how we celebrate grace in the sacraments, find it in our own lives, and convey it to others.
All is indeed grace and it is our role to reveal it. We simply cannot do this without prayer. As we renew our priestly commitment in just a few minutes, it is to prayer above all, especially in the Eucharist, to which we are committing ourselves. If we wish to be effective priests and find the joy of priesthood in our lives and for the lives of others, we must be men of prayer, no matter what.
In a particular way, I wish to thank you, my brother priests, for the example of prayer which you give to me and to all of our people in ways that you may not even realize. We can never underestimate the power of prayer even when we do not experience it. When life becomes difficult and we feel that we are at the peripheries, especially when God does not seem present, your faithfulness to your ministry reveals that all is grace revealing the love of God. On all our behalf, let us express gratitude to our wonderful priests for being men of prayer, above all, and for helping us to experience grace in all things.
May we, as brother priests, with all those present this morning, give ourselves more and more to Christ through prayer in order that His merciful love might be evident, especially as we celebrate the sacraments and use the chrism and oil we consecrate and bless today. I thank you for your ministry and assure you of my continued support, prayers and love as together we carry out what God has entrusted to us. Let us all pray for each other. I also ask all the faithful here present to remind us priests, that if we are truly to serve you, there is no more important thing you expect of us then to be men of prayer – “of contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ.”
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
April 21, 2017