Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Chrism Mass

The annual Mass of the Chrism, celebrated by the local bishop in his cathedral, at which the three holy oils to be used in the celebration of the sacraments in the coming year are blessed and all the priests present publicly renew their commitment to priestly service, is ideally celebrated on Holy Thursday morning, but is commonly celebrated in many places today.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral in midtown Manhattan is an especially splendid setting for such a celebration. Unlike some American cathedrals, it is large enough to assemble a realistic representation of the local Catholic community. Modeled on the great Gothic Cathedral in Cologne, Germany, it is very beautiful – obviously built to be a place of worship. It’s also a “People’s Church,” always full, a true house of prayer for all peoples (Isaiah 56:7).

At this Mass, as the rite requires, the Archbishop asks the priests “to renew your dedication to Christ as priests of his new covenant,” to sacrifice “your own pleasure and ambition to bring his peace and love to your brothers and sisters,” “to celebrate the Eucharist and the other liturgical services with sincere devotion,” and to teach "the Christian faith without thinking of your own profit, solely for the well-being of the people you were sent to serve.”

In recent years, it seems to have become a custom in New York for people to applaud the priests as they leave the Cathedral. Now I admit that I have never been much of a fan of applause in churches anyway, but I have always found this particular experience especially discomforting. Like all acts of kindness, compliments should, of course, be accepted in the spirit in which they are given. Gratitude would certainly seem to be the right response to the love and respect people so generously give their priests. And it is, after all, only human to like being liked and appreciated. Still, it is awkward to make such lofty promises - and then be publicly applauded for it!

Obviously, there are – always have been - especially talented, particularly personable priests who have really touched people’s lives and had a major positive impact on those around them. But what should one make of general applause for us all ? I think there is something deeper going on here – an insight so fundamentally Catholic that we may take it for granted. In their respect and love for their priests, people are not really focused so much on the talents and personalities of particular priests (important though those may be) but rather on the presence of the Risen Christ active among his people, a presence uniquely experienced in the sacramental life of the Church. Like the oil that is blessed on this occasion for use in the sacraments, we priests are ordinary stuff set apart to do an extraordinary job. And, as with the oil so with us priests, it is really the Risen Christ who is the principal actor.

So I guess the right response is to pray that I - and all priests - will become better supporting actors.

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