Of the oils that we bless and consecrate today, perhaps the one that stands out is the oil of the sick. In the context of the coronavirus pandemic the dire need for healing, physically, emotionally and psychologically, rises at this time above all others. Healing is essential to the ministry of the priest in every aspect of his mission including the physical realm for which the oil of the sick is primarily intended. The healing ministry the priest has its roots from the earliest times of the calling of Jesus to the twelve apostles. In the early part of the Gospel of St. Mark, we encounter Jesus sending out the twelve to proclaim His message. We are told that, "They drove out many demons and they anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them” (Mk 6:13). We read from the letter of St. James, which we use in the ritual for the anointing of the sick, "Is there anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the Church, and they should pray over him and anoint (him) with oil in the name of the Lord" (James 5:14).
As priests, we realize the need for healing at every level in which we find ourselves today. There are so many ills in our world that need to be healed which are heightened by the legitimate fear which accompanies the coronavirus and even make these ills manifest. Panic, mistrust, misdirection and lack of real faith have always been and continue to be present among us. There is in our society an isolation already present, which is heightened by the instant communication and many messages that are electronically and instantaneously sent to us. The good use of that communication is presently seen in the information which is given to us, in our ability to use it to transmit Masses and religious services and in keeping us in touch with our people each other. However, we know that there are also many negative elements through which that communication can isolate us without even being aware of it. Pope Francis has specifically spoken on this negative element at the beginning of Lent telling us to put down our mobile phones and pick up the Bible. The priest, especially at the present time, has a role of healing through his proclamation of faith in Jesus Christ, the life of Jesus Christ and the hope of the Gospel. Unfortunately, the priest’s role and mission is one that is not accepted so readily today by a world that really needs it.
The present time has caused a great deal of disruption for us as priests in our mission. It seems that our role as healers has been isolated to a great degree as our churches are closed, our outreach is curtailed and are access to the faithful is limited. As the days go on, the frustration, fear and isolation become more of a challenge for us. As priests we may get the misimpression that we are not considered an essential service and perhaps may even be going out of our ways to prove that we are. In his very penetrating reflection, which Pope Francis gave at the Vatican during his extraordinary moment of prayer on March 27, less than two weeks ago, he addressed this worry for all people and it applies to us as priests. The Pope urged that the Lord is "calling on us to seize this time of trial as a time of choosing." It is not the time of God's judgment but of our judgment: "a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not." It is a time to prioritize in regard to our relationship with the Lord which is at the center of our ministry. In his words to us Bishops of Region XIV in the ad limina visit we had with him in February, Pope Francis expressed that the primary responsibility of the priest is prayer and fostering our relationship with God. Everything else is secondary. We certainly have a unique opportunity for that at this time.
This time of silence for us as priests is a time to hear the Lord speaking within us especially in regard to who we are as priests. As frustrating and disrupting as it is not to have the faithful present with us for the celebration of Mass, it is a time for us to realize more that the celebration of Mass is at the core of our healing ministry. When we celebrate Mass, we stand in a unique manner in the Person of Christ offering ourselves to the Father in imitation of the love of Christ for each and every one of us. As we consecrate the oil of Chrism today, we are reminded that our standing in the Person of Christ at Mass is the reason why our hands were anointed with chrism at ordination. I, personally, have been inspired by being able to be present at your celebrations of Mass through the various websites from your parishes. The celebration of the Eucharist and your homilies have given me much hope and support reminding me in an even stronger manner of the centrality of the Mass in our healing ministry and of the unique fellowship we share as priests in our presbyterate. As Pope Francis stated in his March 27 reflection, "In this storm, the façade of those stereotypes with which we camouflage our egos, always worrying about our image, has fallen away, uncovering once more that blessed common belonging of which we cannot be deprived: our belonging as brothers (and sisters)." These words remind me of those repeated many times by a truly saintly priest who acted as a mentor for me while I was a Deacon, "We are here to bless and not to impress."
In his Apostolic Exhortation on the Amazon Synod. Pope Francis made a very strong affirmation of the identity of the priest especially in his regard to being the ordained celebrant of the Eucharist. He explained how the priest is a sign of Christ as the wellspring of grace when he celebrates the Eucharist. He emphasized that, "It is important to determine what is most specific to a priest, which cannot be delegated. The answer lies in the Sacrament of Holy Orders which configures him to Christ the priest. The first conclusion, then, is that exclusive character received in Holy Orders qualifies a priest alone to preside at the Eucharist. This is his particular, principal and non-delegable function." Pope Francis went on to stress that, "This is his great power, the power that can only be received in the Sacrament of Holy Orders. For this reason, only the priest can say ‘This is My Body.'" In emphasizing this unique aspect of the priesthood, the Pope also reflected that, "There are those who think that what distinguishes the priest is power, the fact that he is the highest authority in the community. St. John Paul II explained that, although the priesthood is considered ‘hierarchical,’ this function is not meant to be superior to others, but rather totally ordered to the holiness of Christ members.'" The Pope's words are a very important and humbling affirmation of our priestly identity especially at this time when we carry out the celebration of the Eucharist, not in isolation, but in communion with the entire Church and especially the faithful entrusted to our care. As Pope Francis emphasized in his Exhortation, quoting his Encyclical, Laudato Si, “In the Eucharist, ‘God, in the culmination of the Incarnation, chose to reach our intimate depths through a fragment of mater.’ The Eucharist ‘joins heaven and earth; it embraces and penetrates all creation.’” We are reminded in a very profound manner of who we are and what we are all about as priests. At this time we are reminded of our privilege to celebrate the Eucharist perhaps more that at others.
As all of the faithful of the Diocese of Palm Beach, may we continue to pray for each other and support each other at this difficult time. May we continue to grow in our faith and realize that faith alone is that which gives us perspective with healing, joy, and hope. We thank our wonderful priests for being ministers of healing among us and for being the celebrants of the Mass which bring us all together as the Body of Christ even when we are not able to be present at them. May this time come to a healing conclusion and may it help us all to concentrate on what really matters in our lives. In a special way I offer my gratitude, love and support to all of my brother priests as we continue to collaborate in the ministry of Christ as healers in a unique manner. Now, my brother priests, let us renew the promises we have made at our ordination.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
April 17, 2020