Bishop Cunningham reflects on priests’ ‘three-fold ministry of teaching, sanctifying, governing’ at Chrism Mass

   Bishop Robert J. Cunningham celebrated the annual Chrism Mass April 11. During the Mass, the oil of the sick and the oil of catechumens were blessed and the Sacred Chrism was consecrated. Priests also renewed their priestly promises. The homily Bishop Cunningham preached that evening is below.

There is always a certain quiet joy when the local church gathers to celebrate the Chrism Mass. The whole Church is represented here — the bishop and his priests; the laity, the order of deacons, consecrated men and women, and our dear seminarians. Welcome one and all to our Cathedral this evening.

   Just as our Cathedral is undergoing a restoration, so, too, during Lent Jesus calls us to restore ourselves and our broken relationships with our loving God. Moreover, while it is only natural for us tonight to look around this beautiful Cathedral and see what is happening, we also need to look inward to see about our own interior restoration in our love of God and neighbor.

   Jesus, at home in the synagogue of Nazareth, searches out from the book of Isaiah the special passage that was our first reading today and proclaims it for His own people. Everything Jesus does in this short, dramatic reading is deliberate. Most of all this is true of the words He spoke at the end, when all eyes were fixed on him. “Today, this Scripture text is fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21). In this passage, God declares He is doing something radically different, something radically new — bringing about restoration, salvation!

   In recent years, here in our diocese we have made decisions, which at times were painful, but were enacted in order to form and strengthen our parishes as vibrant faith communities. This was the stated goal of the process begun under Bishop Moynihan over 20 years ago. His death, just one month ago, gave us a chance to recount all the great work he accomplished in his time as the ninth Bishop of Syracuse.

   I am grateful for Bishop Moynihan’s visionary and steadfast leadership. His work continues to unfold, and in fact, reached a critical point this year. We need not ignore nor deny the pain that comes to us as priests or the pain of our people who are lovingly committed to their parishes. What we must do, however, is look for Christ as a companion on this journey. He walks with us through each of our deaths and rises with us to new life, always promised by the Father.

   Tonight, in a special way, I want to thank again the generous pastors who have served the diocese in their parishes well beyond the recommended retirement age of 75. Even as parochial administration concerns are turned over, your work in administering the sacraments continues. In ordination, you were indelibly marked as an alter Christus, and your daily living is a witness to us all on how to be “another Christ” walking through suffering into new life.

   This afternoon, I had an opportunity to speak with Msgr. James McCloskey, who is celebrating his 96th birthday today. In the 71st year of his priesthood, he is facing a change in his living situation. Concerned at first about a move, he told me he soon realized he would have a whole new apostolate — new people to meet; new ways of being a priest! He was genuinely excited about that. When I told him we would be remembering him at this Mass, he assured me that he would be praying for all of us tonight. May each of us capture in our own priestly lives, a measure of his new way of thinking about his priesthood and a portion of his missionary zeal.

   You have not walked alone. Just as Jesus was supported along the way by courageous people, you have been accompanied by generous people who have taken up leadership in parish life. I take this opportunity to express my gratitude to those friends of priests, who have been active in taking care of parish life and will continue to be instrumental in making our parishes vibrant faith communities.

   After reading tonight’s passage from the book of Isaiah, Jesus rolls up the scroll, hands it back to the attendant, and sits down. He declared: “Today this is fulfilled in your hearing.” Today God is doing something radically different, something radically new in and through me — establishing His Kingdom. With that, Jesus began His public ministry. Through this ministry, He brought about God’s salvation in a very real and tangible way. He healed the sick, drove out demons, reconciled sinners, preached God’s word, called others to follow Him, and, above all, suffered and died for us.

   Tonight we are gathered here because we know Christ’s Kingdom and His saving mission continue among us. In a few moments, I will bless the Oil of Catechumens and the Oil of the Sick and consecrate Sacred Chrism. They are powerful symbols used to make Christ’s Kingdom present and to continue His saving mission sacramentally. Before that, however, I will invite the priests gathered here to renew their priestly promises — a powerful moment for me, for them, and for all of us. They will recommit themselves wholeheartedly to the work of God’s Kingdom through their three-fold ministry of teaching, sanctifying, governing.

   For the next few moments, I would like to reflect with them on these important priestly offices because they are, after all what being a priest is all about. They are the primary ways the priest makes Christ’s Kingdom and saving mission present today in the context of the Church.

   Let us begin our reflections with the priest as one who teaches. In our day, we are facing a new reality — a reality in which people are not going to Mass and practicing their faith regularly; a reality in which attendance at Catholic schools and in parish faith formation programs is low; a reality in which vocations to priesthood and religious life are few.

   Why? Because in our time, God is no longer a top priority. Faith is no longer a core value. Many people are being swept away by a “tsunami of secularism that is taking with it societal markers such as marriage, family, the concept of the common good, and objective definitions of right and wrong” (Cardinal Donald Wuerl). Add materialism and individualism to this and the result is we are in a time in which there are serious barriers to the proclamation of the Gospel.

   The good news is that we are in a time of New Evangelization, and the priest plays a central role. He is one who teaches the faith — all that God has revealed to us. He is one who teaches the truth — through homilies, in faith formation classes, in our Catholic schools, at Theology on Tap and wherever he has the chance. Through his ministry of teaching people will come to know, or be reminded of, the importance of God and their faith. They will be encouraged to live it and share it with others.

   Second, the priest is one who sanctifies. This happens in a number of ways through prayer and service to the poor and needy. Most especially, it happens in the liturgy and the sacraments of the Church when we participate in the very suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. The priest sanctifies by incorporating men and women into Christ and His Church through Baptism; preparing and praying with young people as they are sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit in Confirmation; nourishing the members of his flock, daily, with Christ, the living bread; celebrating the Holy Eucharist; bringing reconciliation, pardon, and peace to sinners in the Sacrament of Penance; consoling the sick and dying with the love and mercy of God and with the grace of the Holy Spirit in the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick; witnessing the love of men and women in the Sacrament of Matrimony, and welcoming men into the presbyterate of the Diocese of Syracuse by laying hands on them at their priesthood ordination. In all of this the priest offers a mere glimpse, beautiful nonetheless, of the gift of eternal life that God so graciously offers to us.

   Finally, the priest is one who governs. In this role, he imitates Christ the Good Shepherd. He guides the flock entrusted to him, living among them as one who serves. He builds up the Church by making sure that the members of his flock are striving to meet the demands of Christian teaching and life. Not an easy task! It requires him to accept and embrace his duties as a pastor, as a Shepherd. Because he cares for his flock, because he loves them, the priest governs them. He makes sure to lead them back to the right path when they go astray or miss the mark by what they say or do, or by how they live. The priest does so gently, forcefully when needed; but always with charity, motivated by great love for his flock and for the welfare of their souls.

   On the day of your ordination, when your name was called, like Jesus in tonight’s Gospel, you stood up in the midst of the assembly and said the most important phrase of your priestly life: “Present.” Or, “Ad sum.” You did not know at that moment exactly what being present to your ministry of teaching, sanctifying, and governing would involve. Nevertheless, you promised to be present always to it because of what it means and because of what it accomplishes — the saving work of Christ and His kingdom.

   Thank you for giving your life, for your willingness to be configured to Christ the High Priest, so that this important work — which He began in the synagogue at Nazareth after He read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, rolled it up, and handed it back to the attendant — can continue among us today.

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