I concelebrated at my first Knoxville Chrism Mass last night. Sacred Heart Cathedral is a lot smaller than St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, where I participated in a decade's worth of Chrism Masses, smaller also I suppose than St. Michael's Cathedral in Toronto, where I concelebrated my first series of Chrism Masses as a priest. But the cathedral here was as packed with people as those other two always are for this majestic occasion.
I've often wondered what the 1955 Holy Week reform actually intended in removing the blessing of the oils from the Mass of the Lord's Supper and restoring the separate Chrism Mass. My guess it was equal part liturgical archaism (restoring an ancient rite that had been allowed to lapse over the centuries) and part pastoral adaptation (uncluttering the Mass of the Lord's Supper, which that same reform had restored to the evening hour). Whatever the intention, something new was created, which was then artfully and effectively reshaped by the post-conciliar liturgical reform into the solemnly beautiful celebration of Church and priesthood that we now have.
Something is lost, I suppose, when (as is increasingly common in this country) the Chrism Mass is dislodged from its proper Holy Thursday setting and anticipated earlier in the week. Other than its being a nice way to mark the last day of Lent (which Holy Thursday now is), there really is nothing about the blessing of the oils itself that particularly connects it with Holy Thursday. (My guess is that the need for oil of catechumens and chrism for Holy Saturday resulted in Thursday as the day for the blessing of the former and the concecration of the latter). On the other hand, the post-conciliar addition of the Renewal of Commitment to Priestly Service must certainly have been suggested by the Mass being celebrated on Holy Thursday. Even when anticipated, the bishop still begins the Renewal of Prieslty Commitment with the words, "today we celebrate the memory of the first Eucharist, at which our Lord Jesus Christ shared with his apostles and with us his call to the priestly service of His Church."
But, that said, much more is gained by making the Chrism Mass so conveniently accessible to so many more people. The Renewal of Commitment to Priestly Service and its actual or symbolic connection with Holy Thursday rightly make the Chrism Mass a special occasion for priests and a proper celebration of the priestly vocation in the Church. But the priesthood is a vocation in the Church, and the presence of a representative community of people from the parishes of the entire diocese simultaneously makes the Mass a true celebration of the local church, centered around its bishop.
Last year, on the occasion of my last New York Chrism Mass (although I did not then know as yet that it would be my last), ir reflected on the New York custom of applauding the priests as they leave the cathedral at the end of the the Mass, a custom I found personally awkward but which I came to understand, as I wrote then, as reflecting:
"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."
And so the right response is to pray that I - and all priests - will become better supporting actors.