A homily by Bishop David Oakley given at Northampton Cathedral for the occasion of the Chrism Mass on Thursday 28th March 2024.

In a very fitting way, the word of God we have just shared brings together two moments of the Chrism Mass. Today, our priests will renew their promises to serve the Lord and continue the sacred duties entrusted to them. And then, the sacred chrism is consecrated. The oil of catechumens and the oil of the sick are blessed. All of this enables us to encounter the Lord and his merciful grace. And so all of us gathered in the Cathedral today are invited to allow the words of the Gospel to deepen our understanding of these mysteries of our faith.

As Jesus rolled up the scroll, he rolls up the Old Testament understanding of things. Now the text is fulfilled. And we live within the realities of this fulfilment. Jesus is truly able to proclaim, the Spirit of the Lord has been given to me. We may pause a moment to receive these words. Why do we need to do this? As we look around us today, and cast our eyes over our world, it does not seem that the poor are receiving too much good news. There are too many captives unjustly deprived of their liberty. Those who are blind to these things do not seem to have new eyes. The downtrodden continue to be under the heel of powerful forces which conspire against their development. The litany of places where these things are so, seems to be growing longer every year.

And within the souls of those immersed through baptism into the life of Jesus within the communion of the Trinity, and those ordained to serve within the Body of Christ, these things may weigh us down. We become frustrated and disillusioned. We may feel vulnerable against such challenges. In a very real way, our prayer tastes like that of Jesus in the garden, we feel his sorrow and grief.

It seems to me, the scriptures are always putting before us, the two ways. We can choose to be overwhelmed by it all and sleep walk into a place of an inability to do anything. This is the way of those who trust entirely in human endeavour. They believe that everything is down to us. Or, on the other hand, we can open our hearts to the supernatural realities we are dealing with in the baptismal life of discipleship and the life of an ordained priest.

Much has changed in our world since Bishop William Wareing, the first Bishop of Northampton, opened his copy of The Times on the 19th October 1850, and read these words, ‘Is it then here in Westminster among ourselves and by the English throne, that an Italian priest is to parcel out the spiritual dominion of this country – to employ the renegade of our National Church to restore a foreign usurpation over the consciences of men?… Such an intention must be either ludicrous or intolerable – either the delusion of some fanatical brain or treason to the constitution.

But let us recall, on that very same day, there were priests in our diocese, living out their vocation and serving those whose lives of faith thirsted for anointing with the same sacred oils we will be using across our diocese in the coming year, consecrated and blessed here today. In truth, has there ever been an age without trouble and hostility towards those who have received the Spirit of the Lord. And so we must redouble our effort to see things from a supernatural perspective.

I have always admired the eloquent yet candid ways in which St John Chrysostom speaks about things. Writing about priesthood he puts the danger of not seeing things clearly into a certain perspective: ‘If it were a question of choosing someone for a generalship, and those responsible for conferring the honour dragged forward a coppersmith or a cobbler or some other workman of that sort, and tried to put him in charge of the army, I should not congratulate the poor man for not running off and doing all he could to avoid pitching himself into inevitable disaster.’

Called and chosen to be pastors of souls, humility and honesty may encourage us to think of ourselves as something akin to coppersmiths and cobblers. Or even the fishermen first chosen by our Lord. And I want to thank you Fathers for not running away. But a visit to the local museum here in Northampton is instructive, coppersmiths and cobblers use some pretty blunt instruments in their trade. We priests should not do likewise.

Let me put it this way. There was a time in our national history when many compromised their faith because of persecution and deprivation. In this context, Cardinal William Allen was determined to produce ‘plain poor priests’ as he called them, for whom ‘zeal for God’s house, charity and thirst for souls’ were the important priestly virtues. Dismissive of any golden era nostalgia, he was totally focused on producing seminary priests for the times in which they would serve the English mission. He was firm about those faithful who fell into outward conformity to apostasy, but also urged gentleness. This is what he taught his missioner priests, ‘be not hard nor rough nor rigorous… in receiving again and absolving them… which mercy you must use, though they fall more than once, and though perhaps you have some probable fear that they will of like infirmity fall again… the way of mercy is safer than that of strict justice.’

Dear brothers, as we renew our priestly promises today, you may well wonder why it is, our good Lord has chosen us to be his priests. We only have to look across the Cathedral this morning, to see why. Those who have gathered here for the Chrism Mass represent the many number of others across the diocese who are unable to be here this morning. They thirst for the sanctifying and healing sacraments which we are called to celebrate with them. There may be many understandings of what this is about. There is only one meaning which gives us the grace to continue with joy and openness to the Lord’s will. And this is the supernatural meaning of our ministry. And so, if I had to renew my own priestly promises, reliant solely upon my gifts and abilities, I am not sure that I could. Conscious though, that the spirit of the Lord has been given to us too, then we are able to give ourselves wholeheartedly to the ministry entrusted to us. And be sure of this, there are many who await your return to the parish with the sacred oils. And as the Lord was generous and lavish in his ministry, so may we be too. May we remain close to this same Lord, especially in the coming days of the Triduum and Easter. And thank you again, for all you do.