We live in complicated, challenging and extremely difficult times. Confusion, anger, pain and even violence are very much present among us. Certainly the tragedy that occurred in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, so proximate to us in Parkland, Florida, is evidence of this. We live in times which seem very different than other periods of history as we are affected by instant communication, advanced technology, disparity of the availability of resources and completely new outlooks and philosophies of life. These alter moral and religious convictions as well as the very understanding of truth. The understandable question is where are we heading and what is the solution.
However, the difficult times in which we live are really not so different from those of other periods of time in history. From the very beginning of creation, with the original sin of Adam and Eve, until the present age, human crises of life and confused understanding have continued to be present among us. The world in history has faced worse times than ours, but we cannot appreciate this since we did not live in them – we only live in the present. Different circumstances bring new problems and questions but the underlying cause of discontent always brings the same question of where are we heading and what is the solution. This is not a new question. It is new only for us living in the present.
The answer to this question is as simple as it is profound. The solution to our problems is the reality of God especially as enfleshed in the person of Jesus Christ. Where we are heading is to His Kingdom whether we recognize it or not. For us, as men and women of faith, that makes all the difference in the world no matter how complicated the world may be. We know, despite the difficulties in our own personal lives and in our world, that joy which God wants us to possess, for which we were created and which only can come through Him. While our times are difficult, the presence of joy is in them through faith in God and in His Kingdom. What gathers us all together this morning, at this Chrism Mass, is that conviction. As we bless the oils and consecrate the chrism which are to be used in our sacramental celebrations, we embrace symbols of faith that touch our lives in a manner that goes beyond what the chrism and oils represent. As our priests, to whom we are so grateful, renew their priestly promises this morning, we have in them, not only a witness, but a human presence of encounter with God in our journey to His Kingdom.
A very fine priest whom I knew for many years recently passed away at the age of eighty-six. In his life, he experienced the many complexities of the different times through which he lived. However, through all of them, he experienced the joy of priesthood with the conviction that Christ was the center of his life and that he was living in God's Kingdom and leading others to the fullness of that Kingdom by his priestly presence. When this priest celebrated his sixtieth anniversary of priestly ordination, he shared the following incident from his life in the homily: "I thought of a little story that happened sixty years ago, imagine that. It was my first Communion call, first time I was called out of the rectory to see a man who was dying. Imagine how scared I was - I had never been to someone who was dying. So I suited up. It was in one of those big apartment houses in Jackson Heights. He was on the sixth floor and as I went up in the elevator, I thought, what was I going to find? So, I got out of the elevator and rang the doorbell. I waited quite a while. Then the door opened, and a woman said, ‘Yes?’ I said, ‘I am the priest, I have come to see your husband.’ She said very reluctantly, ‘I don't know.’ She hesitated and said, ‘Well okay.’ So I walked behind her and went down the hallway. She said to her husband, ‘My dear, it's the priest - but he's only a boy.’ You know what happened.... He took my hand, and he said to her, ‘Oh no dear, he's two thousand years old.’ What! Sixty years is nothing – two thousand years old!”
All of us are two thousand years old in Christ and that makes us forever young. All of us, baptized in Jesus Christ, sealed with the chrism and oils to be consecrated and blessed today, possess His identity, His Gospel, His mission and His solution to what ails the world now and before. My brother priests, you who have had your hands consecrated with chrism at ordination, no matter at what age, are truly two thousand years old and yet forever young as you stand in place of the Lord in a unique manner through that consecration. People have come to priests for two thousand years with the questions and uncertainties of life, in good times and in difficult, and the priest’s response is always, no matter how his words may fail him, to be the healing power of Jesus' presence. It's not what the priest says that makes any difference, but how he says it. It's not being the perfect priest that is our goal, since we fail at that from the very day of ordination and we should, for it is only Christ who is the perfect priest. We make mistakes and commit sins, but how we deal with them is what makes the difference, especially as we identify within ourselves what is in others and we too turn to the forgiving and healing touch of Christ who still calls us as unworthy as we are. Our leadership in prayer, especially in the Eucharist, is an essential part of our own entry into prayer so that the people we serve can follow into it. My brother priests, I thank you for being who you are as priests for me in a personal way. I am deeply grateful for your example, support and prayers. I express my esteem, love and admiration for you and affirm that each of you is a priority for my ministry. With all those present, I thank you for your service of two thousand years no matter what your age may be.
In February, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under the direction of Pope Francis, issued a very timely and significant letter entitled, Placuit Deo. It did not receive much attention, perhaps due to its dense philosophical language, but it is a letter of great significance dealing with the issues and complexity of our modern age. It states, "The present letter is intended, in light of the greater tradition of the faith and with particular reference to the teachings of Pope Francis, to demonstrate certain aspects of Christian salvation that can be difficult to understand today because of recent cultural changes." It refers to two ancient heresies to which the Pope, in his pastoral outreach, makes frequent reference as very prominent today - Pelagianism and Gnosticism. Pelagianism is the conviction that the individual is radically autonomous and fails to recognize that, at the deepest level of being, one derives from God. Gnosticism goes even further. It is the conviction that the person is liberated from being flesh and blood and that the provident hand of the Creator can no longer be recognized. The fundamental identity of the human person is lost in such a world separated from its ultimate meaning. How easy it is for us to identify these ancient heresies in their newer forms in the confusion and disruption present among us. Specifically, Pope Francis has repeatedly warned that the contemporary confusion in regard to gender ideology is intrinsically united to the misunderstanding of the new Gnosticism.
Placuit Deo addresses the contemporary needs of our culture in the manner of Pope Francis. As we face the complexities and disturbances of this culture, we must do so in a manner that is faithful to the truth of two thousand years, as it has faced the complexities of those years. They can only be faced by the proclamation of the truth, always in love, and not by the political correctness which has become the form of a new heresy in our age. They must be faced by the accompaniment of men and women of our age but always in the loving light of the truth of Jesus Christ. This is the truth which realizes that God is at the center of what our existence is all about. It is the truth that we are united to Him in the Person of Jesus Christ in the community of the Church which leads us into His Kingdom. This is why we are all present here this morning and this is how we live our lives in the manner in which we are called.
During the month of February, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, one of the great Churchmen and thinkers of our time, gave a significant address at the University of Villanova entitled, Things to Come: Faith, State and Society in a New World. The Archbishop’s words centered around significant matters involving our own nation but his insights are very much in keeping with what is expressed in Placuit Deo even though their timing is coincidental. Acknowledging that he is to turn the age of seventy-four this coming September, Archbishop Chaput describes how he has seen drastic change in his lifetime which in many ways have made our world a different place from the past. At the same time, he expresses that it is the truth of the Gospel which enables us to grasp these changes in a manner that gives true meaning to life. The Archbishop quotes an email, which he received shortly before his talk, and which he describes as extraordinary, from Dr. Charles Camosy, a Fordham theologian and ethicist. Dr. Camosy expressed, "There are some who in this cultural moment would call us to retreat. To capitulate. To make a dramatic shift in our paradigm. To those I respectfully say that you are missing the signs of the times. Far from shrinking from our tradition, far from looking for ways to spice up the ancient teaching and wisdom revealed by God to the apostles and their successors, it is clear that this moment calls us to embrace the gift of the deposit of faith that has been handed down to us, offering it in humility and love to a culture in desperate need."
Also during the month of February, the well-known and influential American evangelist, Billy Graham, passed away. Shortly after his death a book was published, Now Hear His Heart, comprising many of his writings as well as commentaries on him in the wake of his passing. Billy Graham certainly preached through many different ages of challenges and difficulties in our nation. He always responded to the question where are we heading and what is the solution. His response was God in the Person of Jesus Christ who leads us into His Kingdom which has already begun. In one of the essays in his book he reflects, “The paramount need of the world today is for reconciliation with God, and nothing will benefit men here and now more than for them to become convinced followers and obedient disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ….Faced with Christ’s life, teachings and commands to evangelize, his disciples pleaded, ‘Lord teach us to pray!’ And ‘Lord, increase our faith.’ Let these be our requests as we kneel before the Lord to hasten world evangelization in the coming of the Lord.” This is a significant prayer for us at this Chrism Mass.
I referred to the homily given by a very wise and holy priest on the occasion of his sixtieth anniversary in which recounted how, when he was newly ordained and very frightful at his first use of the oil of the sick, he was referred to as two thousand years old despite his obvious youth. This in a very concrete way defined his priesthood as being an image of the healing presence of Christ. There is the story of another young priest who, recently ordained, went to a nursing home within his parish for the first time. As he faced a room of the elderly residents present to greet him, he announced with a great deal of self-assurance, "I'm sure you all know who I am." One resident responded, "I'm sorry, sir, I don't but if you go to the front desk they can tell you who you are and where your room is."
The challenge to our world today, to all of us present here this morning and to us as priests, is to recognize that it is not we who are the center but Christ. That is the challenge of our troubled times. Our humanity unites us with Christ and with each other no matter what our age and it is only in Him that we find the meaning of life and where we are heading. We are two thousand years old and forever young but only through Him. May the chrism we consecrate and the oils we bless today be a constant reminder of that in the year to come and give us a joy which only comes from Him.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
April 13, 2018