Let me begin by telling you how pleased I am to be with you this evening for the annual Chrism Mass, my first as your Bishop. It was a year ago today, March 30th, shortly after 11 a.m. that I received a call from the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Sambi, telling me of my impending transfer to the Diocese of Syracuse. And here we are, a year later, gathered at the Lord’s table in our beautiful Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception to bless the oils, consecrate the Chrism and witness the renewal of commitment of your priests who serve you each day. How grateful I am to be with you!
Your presence today is an indication of your deep love and loyalty to God, to the Church, to this diocese and to your priests. You represent not only the people of our diocese, but also the variety of gifts and ministries that enrich this local Church. Each one of you, following the vocation entrusted to you by God, is called to holiness. This call to the fullness of charity, the love of God and neighbor, compels you to build up His Kingdom throughout our diocese and beyond. Thank you for what you do on a daily basis to participate in the life of the Church by proclaiming the Gospel by word and deed, celebrating Mass and the Sacraments prayerfully and reaching out in love and service to those who are in need.
During today’s sacred liturgy, we will bless the Oil of Catechumens that is used at the beginning of the Rite of Baptism to put to flight any obstacles that might interfere with the impending baptismal graces whereby newborn infants and seasoned adults are made children of God, members of the Church and heirs of heaven. We will bless also the Oil of the Sick, used in the Sacrament of Anointing which brings hope and healing to so many each year.
While the Oil of Catechumens and the Oil of the Sick are simply “blessed,” the Sacred Chrism from which this Liturgy takes its name, is “consecrated” by the Bishop, and only the Bishop. The prayer of consecration which I will say is a prayer of thanksgiving. All the priests present will participate in this moment by extending their hands toward the vessel containing the oil as the prayer is recited.
The consecrated Oil of Chrism is used for the consecration of altars, the blessings of churches and the ordination of priests and bishops. This oil will be used in June, God-willing, to anoint the hands of our deacon, Christopher Ballard, in the rite of priestly ordination. We anticipate that day with profound joy and prayerful support for Deacon Ballard. It is also used to set the newly baptized apart as they are called to live a life of love of God and neighbor. The Bishops and priests who celebrate the Sacrament of Confirmation will likewise use Chrism to anoint the forehead of the persons being confirmed as the Holy Spirit is called down to accompany them on their journey of life. This anointing makes an indelible mark on those who receive the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation.
In renewing the rite for the Chrism Mass, Pope Paul VI drew attention to an additional meaning of this celebration. “The Chrism Mass,” he said, “is one of the principal expressions of the bishop’s priesthood and signifies the closeness of the priests with him.” In a special way this Mass is a celebration for our dear brothers in the priesthood. They are ordained to serve you, and I am deeply grateful to them for gathering in large numbers each year at this time.
And so I ask all of you to join me in a spirit of prayerful attention as I speak to the priests during this special Mass during the Year of the Priest.
St. John Vianney — our special patron, understood the mystery of the priesthood when he wrote — “The priest holds the key to the treasures of heaven: it is he who opens the doors: he is the steward of the good Lord; the administrator of His goods.”
The Curé of Ars understood how greatly blessed a community is when served by a good and holy priest. Our Holy Father reminds us that “a good shepherd, a pastor after God’s heart, is the greatest treasure which the good Lord can grant to a parish, and one of the most precious gifts of divine mercy.”
Pope Benedict XVI has pointed out that the briefest description of the priestly mission — and this is true in its own way for men and women religious too — has been given to us by Saint Mark. In his account of the call of the Twelve, Our Holy Father says: “Jesus appointed the Twelve to be with Him and to be sent out” (3:14). To be with Jesus and, being sent, to go out to meet people — these two things belong together and together they are the heart of a vocation of the priesthood. To be with Him and to be sent out — the two are inseparable. Only one who is “with Him” comes to know Him and can truly proclaim Him.
My dear brother priests this is why our daily celebration of Mass is so very important for us, for the people we serve and for the Church universal. It is our primary way of being with Him. And when we give less time to being with the Lord the inner strength that sustains us in our daily activity is lost. Our celebration of daily Mass must take place with deep interior participation. This is the way we are embraced by Christ. This is our way of being with Him.
The Liturgy of the Hours is another fundamental way of being with Christ. Through the Liturgy of the Hours we pray as people conscious of our need to speak with God, while lifting up all those who have neither the time nor the ability to pray in this way. Here we join ourselves with the Church universal. Here we fulfill the obligation freely accepted at the time of our diaconate ordination when we promised to pray for the Church and for ourselves. It is in the celebration of daily Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours that we discover the word of comfort that the Lord speaks to us and the challenge that He gives us. Without these we cannot bring the inspired Word of God to the men and women of our time. We remember well what we were taught long ago: You cannot give what you do not have. “Nemo dat quod non habet.”
In a few moments you will renew your commitment to priestly service made at the time of your ordination when you gave yourselves totally to Christ for our sake. This renewal is meant to strengthen your spiritual life and your sense of priesthood. You will promise to carry out the responsibilities of the priesthood, especially to observe celibacy and obedience to your Bishop. Your renewal also celebrates the gift, sealed by the Sacrament of Orders that is your calling to service in the Church.
On all our behalf, I wish to express special and profound thanks to you for your faithful ministry and for living your commitment in fidelity. During my first year as your Bishop, I have experienced your kindness and loyalty. You warmly welcomed me to Syracuse and have continued to offer your fraternal collaboration and loving obedience. I have recognized your fidelity, hard work and commitment to our diocese. Assisted by God’s grace, may this year be the first of many years of our fruitful service to the people of our diocese.
This Year of the Priest is meant to bring all of us closer to Christ. The challenges we face as priests should sharpen our focus and help us keep our eyes on the goal. We do not choose the times in which we live, but we do choose the way in which we live in those times. When we were ordained, we were willing to accept any burden out of love for Christ. If the times bring us difficulties, they also bring us the opportunity to be better priests. We should not be ashamed to be like the one who lovingly took the sins of the world upon Himself to bring the world true freedom. Priesthood makes a difference not only to us, but to all we serve.
As the author of the letter to the Hebrews exhorts, let us “keep our eyes on Jesus” (Heb. 3:1). It is He who accompanies us and sustains us in our efforts to be faithful to our calling. I am confident that those who join us today for this Liturgy pray that God who has begun this good work in us will bring it to a successful completion.
Indeed, let all of us gathered for this Chrism Mass pray for one another. We are joined through Baptism to Christ and to one another. Our vocation, whatever our state in life, career or profession, is to grow in holiness, the perfection of charity. May we encourage one another by our words and deeds to remain faithful to this calling.
Most Rev. Robert J. Cunningham
Bishop of Syracuse