I remember seeing the cover of Time Magazine with these words, “Is God Dead.” I had no idea what it meant, nor did I know who Friedrich Nietzsche was. But it left me asking why was this on the cover of Time Magazine and what did it mean? Why would anyone think or even consider that “God is Dead”?
This past year has left us with many feelings, the isolation and emptiness of our Church during the pandemic; lockdown and its effects on the people and on us. Last year celebrating the Chrism Mass in an empty Cathedral was something I will never forget. The Deans and I alone blessed the sacred oils. Preaching to an empty Cathedral is something I never want to experience again.
I am sure you have had similar experiences that left you empty. Despite all this doom and gloom, you priests have kept in touch with your people. You conquered the daunting task of learning new ways of communicating through Facebook, live stream and internet. Calling parishioners and live streaming Masses; providing virtual opportunities to pray the Rosary and Novenas or to participate in Bible studies; offering Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament via YouTube; providing for virtual school, catechesis, baptismal and marriage preparation – for all of these and more, I thank you for your willingness to reach out to your parishioners’ needs.
I think back to last Palm Sunday with no palms . . . Easter Sunday with no Vigil, no fire, no Easter Proclamation and no catechumens to be baptized or welcomed into the Church. I am sure it left you sad and disappointed at the loss of the beautiful Easter ceremonies. Then came the first day we re-opened our churches, surprised to see how happy the people were to come back to the celebration of Mass. Some were your well-known parishioners; but some were returning to Mass and the Sacrament of Reconciliation for the first time in many years. All wanted to reconnect with the Lord. Undaunted by the danger of catching the virus, they wanted the Lord in their lives again.
You, their pastors and priests provided for their spiritual and temporal care. Masks, sanitizing and washing of hands and keeping safe distancing have become a norm in our churches. I again thank you and all your staff for caring and keeping your parishioners protected and safe. We saw on television night after night people saying goodbye to their loved ones using Facetime or Skype.
Fear and despair overwhelmed the community’s respect for the true dignity of the human person.
Yet your pastoral and spiritual care of the sick and dying was such a gift to the people and families isolated by the COVID-19 virus. People told me stories about their priests going to the hospitals, nursing or family homes to anoint those dying. These are heroic and grace-filled moments.
In this strange world of 2020-21 despite the pandemic and political and social unrest we gather today to celebrate our Chrism Mass. Once again, we will renew our priestly promises to Jesus Christ as His priests, His shepherds. We promise with the help of the Holy Spirit to live our priestly life, to preach and teach the Gospel, to reverently and faithfully offer the sacrifice of the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Reconciliation for the glory of God and the sanctification of God’s people. We are to care for the spiritual and temporal needs of the people entrusted to our care. We are called to unite ourselves to Christ in our daily life of prayer and to offer ourselves to the Father as a pure sacrifice for the salvation of all.
Cardinal Ranieri Cantalamessa, Vatican Papal Retreat Master, said about the world today, “The Church runs the lethal risk of living as if Christ did not exist . . . As if it were ever possible to speak about the Church excluding Christ and his Gospel.” He goes on to say, “I was deeply struck by the words of the Holy Father in the General Audience of November 25th last year. He said – and by the tone of his voice you could tell the subject deeply touched him, “(quoting Pope Francis) We find in Acts 2:42 four essential characteristics of ecclesial life: first, listening to the apostles’ teaching; second, the safeguarding of mutual communion; third, the breaking of the bread; and fourth, prayer.” Our priesthood can only exist if we are firmly united to Christ in prayer. Pope Francis said, “that is, in community, in His Word, in the Eucharist and in prayer.”
Our preaching unites us to Christ because we are bearing witness to the words and actions of Christ the Teacher. We must be united with Christ in prayer before we can know His Word. Pope Francis goes on to say “the quest for fraternal communion shields us from selfishness and particularisms; the breaking of the bread fulfills the Sacrament of Jesus’ presence among us. He will never be absent; it is really Him in the Eucharist.” Your work and ministry during COVID-19 taught us that our priesthood is for the people and is only fulfilled when we serve God’s people. Jesus lived and walked among the people and so must we. “Prayer, which is the space of dialogue with the Father, through Christ in the Holy Spirit. Everything in the Church that grows outside of these coordinates’ lacks a foundation.” Cardinal Cantalamessa concludes that Pope Francis’ four coordinates of the priesthood are reduced to only one: remaining anchored onto Christ.
What place does Christ have in the life of a priest? Father Pedro Arrupe, the late Superior of the Jesuits, said, “Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you will spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love and it will decide everything.” If we fall in love with God, Cardinal Cantalamessa said, “we must be devoted to contemplate the holiness of Christ and be dazzled by it, letting ourselves be fascinated by the infinite beauty of Christ.”
The Gospels reveal Jesus to us, His holiness, being lived out in His life. The Beatitudes are a self-portrait of Jesus’ own life, which He reveals to His disciples. This is the holiness we are being called to know and live by. Jesus lives by what He teaches; so, He can say: “Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart” (Mt 11:29). He calls us to forgive our enemies, but Jesus even forgives those who crucified him, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). The Gospels help us to exemplify the holiness of Jesus, by His every word and deed.
What does the holiness of Christ mean for us? Is it possible to be holy or can we even obtain holiness? Cardinal Cantalamessa said, “It is not so much that Jesus is the Holy One of God, or that we too are meant to be holy and immaculate. No, the happy surprise is that Jesus communicates, grants, gives us His holiness away for free! It is that His holiness is also ours. Even more: that He himself is our holiness (Lumen gentium, 40). Christian holiness, prior to being a duty, is a gift. What shall we do to embrace this gift and turn it as it were into an experience that is lived out, not only believed? The first fundamental answer is faith. Not just any faith, but the faith through which we make our own what Christ has won for us. A daring faith that gives new wings to our Christian life.”
From the prophet Isaiah and the Gospel of Luke, we hear proclaimed, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord” (Lk 4:19). This is the daring faith – this is what we fall in love with; this is what will give us eagle wings to raise us up.
We are not just ‘spectators of the gift of holiness’; we are its recipients. We must hold in our lives as sacred this gift of holiness we have received at Ordination. We are warned by the Apostles to live “as is fitting among holy ones” (Eph 5:3) and to put on “as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved a heart of mercy, kindness, humility, meekness, patience” (Col 3:12), and “to possess the fruit of the Spirit in holiness’ (cf. Gal 5:22; Rm 6:22). Today we bless the oils we will use to anoint the sick, welcome the newly baptized and confirmed. With the blessing of the chrism oil we will renew the gift of the holiness of our Ordination.
We heard from Book of Revelation, “Christ who loves us and has freed us from our sins by His Blood, who has made us into a Kingdom; priests for His God and Father, to Him be Glory and power forever and ever Amen” (Rev 1:6). To know Jesus’ will we have to do nothing but remember what He says in the Gospel. The Holy Spirit is here, ready to remind us God is not dead, but alive in all that you do every day.
Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe, Orlando
Chrism Mass, 12 noon
March 31, 2021