Dear Brothers and Sisters,
It is impossible to approach the Chrism Mass without a sense of excitement at the coming together of the local Church in our Diocese of Northampton, parishioners, members of our schools and Diocesan bodies, religious, deacons and priests. Welcome to each and every one of you, and a special welcome to our priests. For this Mass is a visible expression of the unity of the priesthood and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ which continue to be present in the Church, and are shown forth clearly in the Chrism Mass concelebrated by our priests serving Christ and his Church.
At the same time, I have to say that it was consoling to read in Tuesday’s Gospel that, when Jesus gathered with the disciples, he was “troubled in spirit”, troubled at the thought of Judas betraying him and troubled at the suffering and crucifixion which lay ahead and which we celebrate during these holy days. As we gather, many of us are troubled in spirit by some sad events in our diocesan family and by the challenges which face us, bishop, priests and people especially as this September we expect there to be six less priests serving the Diocese.
While it is good to acknowledge our being troubled in spirit, it is an opportunity to learn from Jesus what he himself learned when he says to us, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God still and trust in me.” As we celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, as we commemorate his death on the cross, and as we celebrate the resurrection, may we grow in our trust in God, in the trust with which Jesus commended himself into the hands of his Father as he died on the cross.
It is this Jesus, the anointed one, the one who in the synagogue announces that he is the fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah, who is at the centre of the Mass and at the centre of the life and mission of our parishes. Each one of us is united with Jesus through the sacraments by the power of the Holy Spirit. What a joy it will be to witness new brothers and sisters celebrating the sacraments for the first time during the Easter Vigils around the Diocese when they become members with us of the anointed people of God, consecrated to praise and worship God and serve him even in loving our enemies.
An important element in the celebration of the sacraments is the oil with which we are anointed for different purposes. In a short time, a deacon dressed in purple vestments will bring forward the oil of the sick followed by a deacon in green bringing the oil of catechumens and, finally, a deacon dressed in white brings the oil of chrism. These oils are blessed and at the end of the Mass, distributed through the Deans of the Pastoral Areas to all our parishes for use at the Easter Vigils and throughout the coming year.
How many babies and adults will be anointed with the newly blessed Oil of Catechumens in preparation for their baptism? How many times will our priests take the Oil of the Sick to hospitals and homes at all hours of the day and the night? How many of the baptised will be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit and become full members of the Church when they are anointed with the newly consecrated Oil of Chrism in the sacrament of Confirmation? Certainly, with the Oil of Chrism the hands of Deacon Michael Bates will be anointed when he is ordained priest in July. At that moment, I shall pray, “May Jesus preserve you to sanctify the Christian people and to offer sacrifice to God.” Yes, what an infinite stream of grace and mercy flows from the cross in all the sacraments administered by our priests.
Of course, the sacraments involve the whole community of faith in the parish. In the past, in particular, a Baptism or a Marriage could be seen as an almost private celebration of a family or a couple and their families and friends. Increasingly we must find ways of celebrating these sacraments within and as part of the community of faith. For that to happen, we need members of the parishes to train as catechists and mentors for families and couples getting married and as supporters who can accompany newly marrieds and those of us who are getting older! So, we need more and more volunteers, with a clear brief and formation, to undertake the work of Christ, the anointed one, in building up our communities of faith in partnership with our priests and deacons. That cannot just happen and it is why we are looking for a Pastoral Ministry Advisor to supplement and develop the formation that is already going on in the Diocese.
Dear members of the people of God, if I may return to the blessing of the oils, you will see that, while the Bishop alone blesses the Oil of Catechumens and the Oil of the Sick, when the Oil of Chrism is consecrated, the priests, as witnesses and co-workers with me, join in the consecration of the sacred Chrism because they share in the sacred office of the bishop, of building up, sanctifying and governing the people of God. And it is to our priests that I now want to speak.
There are many dimensions to the Chrism Mass but the central focus is the ministry of the priesthood. Together with me, you, dear brother priests, have been ordained for this moment in the Church’s story to build up, to sanctify and to shepherd the people of God. With the apostle, Peter, we feel unworthy – “Leave me, Lord, I am a sinful man” – and we can feel inadequate and not up to the task but the Lord has chosen us and called us.
I want to thank you for your generous response to God’s call on the day of your ordination, and I want to thank you for sustaining that response in all the ups and downs of our lives and amidst all the demands on us in parish life. We have inherited a model of priesthood where the priest was responsible for everything in the parish from preaching God’s word and celebrating the Mass and the sacraments to opening and closing the windows and replacing the toilet rolls. We can exhaust ourselves trying to meet everyone’s needs. We forget that once there were two or three priests in the parish. We forget that our world is much more complex and that we do not know the answer to everything especially in the area of medical ethics and gender issues.
How important it is to strive to be men of integrity with a spiritual life rooted in prayer. It is prayer that feeds a living relationship with Our Lord and enables us to do our work in his way. Because of the pressure of time it is easy to let time for prayer slip and to put aside the Prayer of the Church. Our spiritual batteries soon run low and we end up operating out of our own resources, and disaster can strike. Of course, we have our ups and downs. Of course, it is a struggle to be still and to listen to the Lord. I want to encourage you. We need each other’s support and that is why I have been pushing our clergy retreat in Douai Abbey this October and always urge you to take part in the Advent and Lent Days of Recollection.
Another key area is our own formation and development as priests. I found it refreshing to read in the new guideline for the training of priests the following passage – “Since the priest-disciple comes from the Christian community and will be sent back to it, to serve it and to guide it as a pastor, formation is clearly missionary in character. Its goal is participation in the one mission entrusted by Christ to his Church, that is evangelisation, in all its forms. The fundamental idea is that seminaries should form missionary disciples who are ‘in love’ with the Master, shepherds ‘with the smell of the sheep’, who live in their midst to bring the mercy of God to them. Hence, every priest should always feel that he is a disciple on a journey, constantly needing an integrated formation, understood as a continuous configuration to Christ.” (3. Characteristic elements and fundamental content) This is a focus for our Clergy Ongoing Formation Team, and there are important Clergy Formation Days on Safeguarding in May and Marriage Preparation in September.
I am putting the emphasis on personal prayer and personal formation against the backdrop of my experience of your commitment and unflagging ministry in our parishes. I know that special efforts are made when I come on a visitation to a parish but the constancy and fruitfulness of your ministry and the faith, prayer and good works of the parish communities is very evident and shines through in the celebration of the Masses and in my conversations with parishioners. How blessed I am by such a committed and devoted body of priests serving the Lord and his Church in our Diocese. Thanks be to God!
Now, as you renew your priestly promises, God knows what is in your heart. Always put your trust in his mercy and love. To quote from St. Francis de Sales, “Do everything calmly and peacefully. Do as much as you can as well as you can. Strive to see God in all things without exception, and consent to his will joyously. Do everything for God, uniting yourselves to him in word and deed. Walk simply with the Cross of the Lord, and be at peace with yourselves.” Amen.
Bishop of Northampton