By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
(Editor’s note: Bishop Kopacz and the priests of the diocese are on retreat. In lieu of a column, he offers his homily from the Chrism Mass.)
The traditional Gospel on Monday of Holy Week recalls the story of Mary’s anointing of the feet of Jesus at their home with Martha and Lazarus present, along with many of Bethany’s Jews. Mary, once again at the feet of Jesus, this time lavishly anoints her Lord and dear friend and dries his feet with her hair. This anointing, as Jesus foretold in anticipation of his death, would be remembered forever. It is a fitting prelude to today’s Chrism Mass.
Today this Scripture is fulfilled in our hearing because the Oil of Catechumens and the Oil of the Sick are blessed, and the Oil of Chrism is consecrated in order to flow from our cathedral, to all parts of the diocese, to be lavishly applied to the Body of Christ, the Church, during Baptism and Confirmation, to begin in several days at the Easter Vigil, for the anointing of the sick, for Holy Orders, and the consecration of altars and churches.
Mary’s astonishing gift of anointing for the Lord is also a sign of the great love that the people of God, the faithful, have for priests, who have been set apart in Holy Orders in order to serve in the church for the salvation of all. This service is accomplished in myriad ways in the course of a day, in the course of this past year, in the course of a lifetime, and people are grateful. Whether in the power of the Sacraments, Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Marriage, and the Anointing of the Sick, or in loving service and leadership, the people of God are grateful. Just recently, someone asked me, “what more can we do for our priests who sacrifice for us?” One answer was to pray for them, another said: ‘tell them of your gratitude’, another response was ‘write them a check’, but post date it until after Christ comes again so that their reward will be great in heaven.
In nearly 40 years as a priest and, including a little more than three years as a bishop, I have known the generosity of the faithful that continues to amaze and inspire me. One extraordinary example. Last week I made my annual pilgrimage to Saltillo, Mexico, accompanied by Padre one, Msgr. Flannery, to further the relationship of nearly 50 years between Jackson and Saltillo that took root with Father Paddy Quinn. We were out in the rancho of Tapon, as remote a place as you can imagine, and the people asked me to bless their newborn goats. That was a delight and they were so grateful that one woman wanted me to take one of the goats as a special gift. The restrictions of customs, airport security, international flights, were not remotely on her radar. It was simply a sign of her gratitude and it radiated in her eyes. Could you see me telling the Customs agent that it may look like a live baby goat, it may sound like one, it may even smell like one, but it really is a battery powered stuffed animal baby goat. Sadly, I could not take the goat.
Whether it’s Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus 2,000 years ago, in Bethany, or Maria two weeks ago, on the remote rancho, they represent the loving gratitude that you have for the priesthood and for your priests. We want and need your faith and prayers, and even more, a very special gift, is to experience your growth in holiness, in faith, hope and love as disciples, due in part because of our vocation as priests.
This is the unity we all know through faith and baptism, to be renewed at Easter, the common priesthood of Jesus Christ that all the baptized experience flowing from his side on the Cross, a Kingdom of priests as the reading from the Book of Revelation proclaimed today. All of us are anointed to further the Lord’s mission that we proclaimed in the Word of God today. We bring the Good News to the poor in ever ancient and in ever new ways, and with Pope Francis we challenge the social order wherever it oppresses the vulnerable and powerless.
Inspiring images in my mind these days have been the gatherings for the enactment of our Pastoral Vision and Priorities, beginning at the Duncan Grey Center with priests, and deacons, Lay Ecclesial Ministers and Chancery officials, and continuing at the recent sessions around the diocese.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, anointing us, and sending us to be living witnesses of our salvation and mission in Jesus Christ. This Chrism Mass assembly embodies our unity, our mission, our vision and our dreams for our diocese, 180 years young this year.
In preparation for the renewal of our priestly promises I want to call upon the wisdom of our most recent Holy Fathers.
In his final Chrism Mass Homily in 2004, Saint John Paul II offered these words.”The today of the Gospel’s fulfillment is renewed in a very special way during the Chrism Mass which is a true prelude to the Easter Triduum. If the Mass of the Lord’s Supper accentuates the mystery of the Eucharist and the presentation of the new commandment of love, the Chrism Mass gives prominence to the gift of the ministerial priesthood. The Eucharist and the priesthood are two sacraments born together, and their destiny is indissolubly linked until the end of the world.”
The faithful of the Diocese of Jackson echoed these words throughout the past year during the process of pastoral planning when they expressed their love for the Eucharist and the priesthood, and how important it is to create a culture of vocations that will inspire a generosity to hear the call of the Lord in the priesthood.
Pope Benedict, in his final Chrism Mass homily in 2012 recalled Jesus’ great priestly prayer of departure from this world in Saint John’s Gospel to further reflect upon the gift of priesthood that the Chrism Mass presents. The power of truth, mission, and unity is evident in Jesus’ words. “As you sent me into the world, so I send them into the world. Consecrate them in the truth. I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one. Father, they are your gift to me.”
Pope Benedict asks: But what does it mean to be consecrated in truth? He says:
“We need, I need, not to claim my life as my own, but to place it at the disposal of another, of Christ. I do not own myself, and I become myself by the very fact that I transcend myself, and thereby become a part of Christ, a part of his body the Church. No one should ever have the impression that we work conscientiously when on duty, but before and after hours we belong only to ourselves. A priest never belongs only to himself. People must sense our zeal through which we bear credible witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Pope Francis, during his homily to priests and religious during World Youth Day in Poland last year spoke in the same vein, recalling the words of Saint John Paul.
“Open wide the doors to Christ and the hurdles associated with it. We can often be tempted to remain enclosed, out of fear or convenience. But Jesus directs us to a one-way street, that of going forth from ourselves, a one-way trip with no return ticket, setting out on the path of self gift. Nor does Jesus like journeys made halfway, doors half closed. He asks us to pack lightly for the journey, to set out renouncing our own security, with him alone as our strength, not limited to trails already blazed, but open and faithful to the paths pointed out by the Spirit in whom we have been anointed.”
The Church now asks you to pray for me and my brother priests as we renew our commitment begun on our ordination day. Pray that the Holy Spirit may stir into flame the gift of God that all of us received in the Sacrament of Holy Orders that we may continue to respond as self-gift in the footsteps of our Lord, for God’s glory and the salvation of all.