Bishop Coyne’s Chrism Mass homily
This is my fifth Chrism Mass here in the Cathedral of St. Joseph. Much has changed over these past five years and much has remained the same. I look out at my brother priests and see many that were here five years ago and a few who have been added over that time. I see my “elder brothers” in ministry in the presence of priests who have continued as pastors past their 70th birthdays: Fathers Charlie Ranges and David Cray of the Edmundite community and our own priests, Father Michael Augustinowitz, Father John Feltz and Msgr. Dick Lavalley.
I need also acknowledge and thank the four priests who are retiring this year from serving as pastors and will move on to “senior priest” status — still serving as priests of the sacraments: Father Mo Roy, Father Frank Privè, Father John Milanese and Father Fred MacLachlan, SSE. Brothers, thank you for your faithful service to the Diocese of Burlington, and may you have a long retirement and many more years of continuing ministry to our Church.
Now, I turn to our seminarians and ask them to stand so that we may thank them for their willingness to discern the possibility of priestly ordination. Most especially, I want to acknowledge the presence of the Reverend Mr. Robert Little, one of the deacons at today’s Mass, who, God willing, along with Deacon Kevin Chalifoux who is studying in Rome, will be ordained to the priesthood on June 15.
Finally, I along with you, offer particular prayers for the Catholic community of France as they mourn the damage to the basilica of Notre Dame in Paris caused by yesterday’s fire. Hopefully, they will be able to rebuild and restore as much as they can, but there will still be losses of things that cannot be restored. Still, there is one thing to recall here. If this Easter Sunday, the people of Paris were able to gather outside of the basilica for the celebration of the Mass — even though they were not inside, there would still be an Easter Sunday Mass. They would still be the Church.
The Church is not our buildings. The Church is us, the breathing, living, Body of Christ. This Chrism Mass could be celebrated outside in Battery Park — although it is a little too windy and cold for that — and it would still be as valid as it is in here. We are the Church. We are God’s holy people, doing holy things. While our places of gathering are important, it is our gathering that manifests and enacts our communion in Christ.
And so my brothers and sisters who are here with me today, allow me to offer some thoughts in my homily for this Chrism Mass — but words directed mostly toward your priests. Along with the blessing of the sacred oils that takes place in this Chrism Mass, there is also a commemoration of the gift of the priesthood that the Lord bestowed on the Church at the Last Supper. I wish to speak to that. But still, there is much food for thought for all of us who are Catholic-Christians to consider in my words to your priests as it pertains to our singular and communal life in Christ.
Last year in his homily at the Chrism Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Francis spoke of how the readings of this Mass direct our attention to the “closeness” of God in the person of Jesus Christ and, subsequently, in the priest’s “closeness” to his people. In particular, he points to the dramatic moment in the Gospel when Jesus takes up the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. The text Jesus reads was the text of our first reading from the Book of the prophet Isaiah. (It is toward the very end of the scroll, what we call Chapter 61.) It must have taken a while for Jesus to unroll and find the passage. Can you imagine perhaps that while he is doing so, everyone is quiet? Jesus is taking His time. Eventually He finds the passage, and He reads it to them: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. …” When he finishes, we are told that “all eyes in the synagogue looked intently at Him” and then He said to them, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” If we were to continue to read what follows in Luke’s Gospel, we see that this did not go over well with the people of Jesus’ hometown. It seems that they know Him too well, that they are too “close” to Him, and thus they know that He cannot possibly be the one Isaiah prophesied about! He is “Joseph’s son,” the boy next door! There is nothing special about Him! They do not believe Jesus, and they drive him out of the village. The irony is that those who are “closest” to Him, cannot see who He truly is, and they lose the opportunity to draw close to God who is incarnate in Jesus.
We know what follows from there. Jesus goes out and proclaims that the Kingdom of God is at hand, that in the mystery of the incarnation of God made manifest in Him, God is close to His people. In the person of Jesus, the Son of God, the Father seeks to heal the wounds of sin and division that separate God from man and woman. God is “near to those who call on Him.” In and through Jesus, God is close to the poor, to the prisoner, to the blind, to the oppressed. Jesus moves out into the midst of people, dines with sinners, feeds the hungry and consoles the broken hearted. Pope Francis reminds us of this when he says, “This is God’s great choice: the Lord chose to be close to His people.” This closeness of God, this presence of God, to the world continues in His Church. It is a gift to us to know that God is close to us right now, in each of us gathered in this place, in each other founded in His Church and in the true presence of Jesus Christ in the sacraments, most especially in the Eucharist. This is a gift to us all as Catholics by virtue of our baptism, but this is a gift that is even more profoundly realized in those who are ordained as priests. By virtue of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, the priest is configured in his very being to Christ the great high priest to be an alter Christus — an “other Christ” — not in power, but in service. Not in separation from God’s holy people, but in closeness to them.
As the Holy Father, Pope Francis reminds us: “A priest who is close to his people walks among them with the closeness and tenderness of a good shepherd; in shepherding them, he goes at times before them, at times remains in their midst and at other times walks behind them. Not only do people greatly appreciate such a priest; even more, they feel that there is something special about him: something they only feel in the presence of Jesus. … When people say of a priest, ‘he is close to us,’ they usually mean two things. The first is that ‘he is always there’ (as opposed to never being there: in that case, they always begin by saying, ‘Father, I know you are very busy…’). The other is that he has a word for everyone. ‘He talks to everybody,’ they say, with adults and children alike, with the poor, with those who do not believe….”
My brother priests, in a few minutes you will stand in this church, in the midst of God’s holy people and be asked to renew the priestly promises that you made on the day you were ordained. I won’t walk you through both promises now but there is one part of the second promise I want to raise up for our consideration, the fact that we are committed to be faithful stewards of the mysteries of God out of “zeal for souls.” To be zealous is to be ardent or eager in the pursuit of something. To be zealous for souls means that you and I are to purse, even chase, souls. Do we see ourselves as “chasing souls?” Can we see ourselves as “chasing souls?” Not to take something from them or to force something from them but to give them something that we have, to share something with them that was given to us — the promise of salvation for those who come to know Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior in the true faith of the Catholic Church.
Now, I have to make a confession here. When it comes to “chasing after souls,” I’m a bit out of shape. I haven’t been as zealous as I should to chase souls. There are many reasons for this but I can think of two in particular. First, I can get so caught up in the day-to-day things that I have to do as a bishop, the sacred as well as the mundane, that I can forget that call to missionary zeal. My day gets full, I do what I do and move on to the next day. In all of my “busy-ness” I can forget why it is I do what I do — “the salvation of souls” — and why it is I became a priest and then called to be a bishop — “the salvation of souls.” That is something I absolutely need to remind myself of each and every day.
The second reason is that I am not quite able give as much as I can of the faith that I have embraced because it has become lukewarm. It is not ablaze with zeal! Again, life can become just one day after another leading to the next. My prayer can become repetitive and dry. I can celebrate the sacraments well, but only just so. I can be distracted by so many things and lose sight of the endless horizon of salvation that rests at the end of the journey because I am too focused on the stones on the path that I tread. The eyes of my heart are too focused on the “now,” and I forget to lift my head up everyday and gaze on what “will be.”
If either one of those is true in my life, what am I going to do about it? Would that I could be afire for the Lord! Would that we all would be! I think of John the Baptist’s words about Jesus, “I baptize you with water. … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Mt 3:11). That is the Sprit with which we all were baptized. This is the Holy Spirit in which we are confirmed. This is the Holy Spirit by which the priest is ordained through the laying on of hands and the prayer of consecration!
My brothers and sisters in Christ, but most especially, my brother priests, my hope is that my words today will encourage all of us to be zealous for salvation of souls. To this end, I believe we must first be zealous for the salvation of our own souls, “to turn away from sin, to embrace the teaching of the Church, to seek always and in all things to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him, to keep our eyes focused on the journey’s end — our salvation.
The first priority that has come out of our Diocesan Synod is the call to evangelization, to seek to bring back those who have left the Church and to invite those who have never been a part of our faith to join the Church. To evangelize means to bring others to believe. But we must first be evangelized ourselves. I think that one of the biggest culprits for the decline in our Church is that we have become “lukewarm” for our faith. As you have heard it said “we have been more concerned with maintenance than mission.”
Our mission is salvation, mine, yours, theirs. Can I hear an “amen?”
Our path is that of Christ and His Church, the true path that is the “way, the truth, and the life.” Can I hear an “amen?”
Our call is to take from this place, today, right now, the words of Isaiah the prophet and Jesus the Christ which we heard in our readings and make them our own: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for the Lord has anointed me.” Can I hear an “amen?”
Would that we can. Would that we will!