Tuesday, March 22, 2016

My evil and His mercy: the annual renewal of priestly commitment at the Chrism Mass

Image courtesy Archdiocese of Atlanta (link to video of last year's Chrism Mass)
In a few hours, the priests of the Archdiocese of Atlanta will gather around their Archbishop and Auxiliary Bishops, and concelebrate the Chrism Mass. Ordinarily celebrated on Holy Thursday, the Mass is quite often held earlier in the week, or even during the previous week, given the geographical size of dioceses, and the need for priests to be at their parishes to prepare for the Sacred Triduum on Holy Thursday itself. At the Mass, the Holy Oils are blessed by the Bishop -- the Oil of Catechumens, the Oil of the Infirm and Sacred Chrism -- which will be used by the priests (and deacons) in their sacramental ministry throughout the coming year. The other central part of the Chrism Mass is the renewal of priestly commitment. The presbyterate of the particular gathers around their Ordinary, and recommits itself to priestly service.

My first Chrism Mass as a priest was on Tuesday of Holy Week in 2014, and it was a very moving and powerful experience. This year, I was cognizant of the fact that I would be away from the Archdiocese. Last week, I had originally scheduled my travel to arrive in Mumbai on Thursday morning, so I could attend the Chrism Mass at the Cathedral of Bombay that evening -- most Chrism Masses in India, it seems, are held a week before Holy Thursday.  However, the funeral of Fr. Joseph Michael Peek intervened, and I extended my stay; so I am missing participating in a Chrism Mass this Holy Week.

The Lord, however, is never to be outdone. Fr. Peek's funeral Mass was an experience of deep fraternal communion. Have a look at this beautiful video uploaded by the Archdiocese, of all the priests blessing Fr. Peek's coffin after the end of Mass, as the Salve Regina rises to the heavens.

Priests of the Archdiocese Bless the Casket of Fr. Joseph Peek from Archdiocese of Atlanta on Vimeo.

So many of our priests gathered to pray for him! A testament to the deep impact he had on our presbyterate and our local Church. On a Facebook group honoring Fr. Peek, I left the following comment:
I want to add that I feel so renewed in my priesthood - in the Lord's priesthood in me! - from this day, from that Mass, from all my brothers there. I'm on a plane back to India to continue to take care of my elderly mother... I will miss our Chrism Mass therefore this year, and the renewal of priestly vows that is one of my favorite parts of the day. But today, it felt that the Lord's hand was there, strengthening my vocation, renewing my commitment, barely three years old... all merited, no doubt, by Fr. Joe's sacrifices joined to Our Lord's infinite bounty of merit. Thank you Fr. Joe, thank you dear Lord Jesus!
I may have missed the Chrism Mass this year; however, in the midst of my my bishops and brother priests, and the witness of a great priestly life, I committed myself to Christ's Holy Priesthood once again last Friday.

This evening, Tuesday of Holy Week, I offered the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in my bedroom at my mother's house, as I do every day here (except when I help out at the local parish). I offered the Mass for the intentions of the priests and bishops of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. The Gospel for the Mass for Tuesday of Holy Week (in the Ordinary Form), was a sucker punch however. It talks about Judas' betrayal, and Jesus' prediction of Peter's triple denial. On the very day that our presbyterate gathers to renew its priestly commitment, the readings of the day (which would not be heard at the celebration of the Chrism Mass itself, mind you) remind us of the brokenness, sinfulness and betrayal of the Apostles!

I thought of Fr. Joe. From early on in his struggle with cancer, he offered up his suffering for the sanctification of the priests of Atlanta. I think of another one of our heroic victim priests, Fr. Omar, who has been suffering a debilitating, chronic illness, in silence, for several years now, with no sign of being able to return to "productive" active ministry. We are all very aware of the sins of priests, of the scandals and betrayals of our own presbyterate, and, each of us, of our own sinfulness, our own personal betrayals, whether causing scandal and grave harm or not. How little we recognize the value of these giants among us, whose quiet, unassuming embrace of their suffering, of the Cross, that most eloquent if neglected, and even despised, spiritual work of mercy, gains such graces for us, especially for us priests!

It may seem incongruous, on this day of renewal of priestly commitment, to be reflecting on the sinfulness and brokenness of priests. It is not, however. Without the Lord, I am capable of horrors. There is evil in my heart. The line separating good from evil goes right through my heart. It is why we recommit ourselves to Him publicly in the liturgy, and, I pray and hope, every single day in prayer, and in the offering of Sacrifice for the Church and the world. Moreover, being intimately aware of our own frailty, our own capacity for evil, and recognizing the depth of the Lord's mercy towards us, is a sine qua non of our own ability to be ministers of mercy, to carry out the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:11-21).

In a talk given years ago, a talk that I return to often, then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio reflected on Jesus' encounter with St. Peter, after the Resurrection.
When Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love Me?”, “his ‘Yes’ was not the result of an effort of will, it was not the fruit of a ‘decision’ made by the young man Simon: it was the emergence, the coming to the surface of an entire vein of tenderness and adherence that made sense because of the esteem he had for Him–therefore an act of reason;” it was a reasonable act, “which is why he couldn’t not say ‘Yes.’” 
We cannot understand this dynamic of encounter which brings forth wonder and adherence if it has not been triggered–forgive me the use of this word–by mercy. Only someone who has encountered mercy, who has been caressed by the tenderness of mercy, is happy and comfortable with the Lord. ... however, forcing things a bit, I dare to say that the privileged locus of the encounter is the caress of the mercy of Jesus Christ on my sin.
It is good for us to repeat that, to ponder that, to chew on that this Holy Week: the privileged locus of the encounter is the caress of the mercy of Jesus Christ on my sin.

St. Peter knew this. It is why, according to a talk emblazoned in my memory given by a holy monk (also called early to the Lord by the ravages of cancer), some iconography always depicts the St. Peter, the Rock on which the Church is built as being cleft by two rifts, along which tears of repentance flowed.

Cardinal Bergoglio continues:
Christian morality is not a titanic effort of the will, the effort of someone who decides to be consistent and succeeds, a solitary challenge in the face of the world. No. Christian morality is simply a response. It is the heartfelt response to a surprising, unforeseeable, “unjust” mercy (I shall return to this adjective). The surprising, unforeseeable, “unjust” mercy, using purely human criteria, of one who knows me, knows my betrayals and loves me just the same, appreciates me, embraces me, calls me again, hopes in me, and expects from me. This is why the Christian conception of morality is a revolution; it is not a never falling down but an always getting up again.
Ultimately, this is why, as the Italian poet Ada Negri so scandalously and beautifully put it, the Lord can use everything, even my evil.
face beams with stronger splendor,
and Your voice is a song of glory.
Now -- God whom I always loved -- I love You Knowing
that I love You; and the ineffable certainty
that everything was justice, even pain,
everything was good, even my evil, everything
for me You were and are makes me quiver
with a joy greater than death. 
Pray for your priests this week, dear people of God. Pray for us that we remain close to the Lord, and recognize our need for His mercy, and be instruments always of that mercy which is the face of the Father. Pray that we let His mercy enter our hearts, that we not wall them off in despair like Judas, but like St. Peter, irrigated by tears of repentance, let His mercy make our ministry fruitful and bear life -- His Passion, His suffering, death, resurrection and life, in us, and through us, our Bride, the Church.

A very blessed Holy Week to all, especially my brother priests of the Archdiocese of Atlanta.

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