The sacred oils at Chrism Mass: Their significance in Christian living

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The Oil of Catechumens, the Oil of the Sick, and Sacred Chrism. I invite us to see in each of these three oils, so dominant in this sacred liturgy, a kind of lens through which to reflect more intentionally on the significance of this Chrism Mass. Or, for those with technological awareness - and many among us are so aware - to see in each of these three oils a kind of app which, when contacted, opens more fully the significance of this Mass.

The Oil of Catechumens. In the prayer of blessing over the oil, we ask: "Lord God, give wisdom and strength to all who are anointed with it in preparation for their Baptism. Bring them to a deeper understanding of the Gospel, help them to accept the challenge of Christian living, and lead them to the joy of new birth in the family of your Church" (Rites of the Blessing of Oils and Consecration of the Chrism, n. 21).

As we witness the blessing of the Oil of the Catechumens, we surely lift up in prayer the catechumens who will be baptized during the Easter Vigil, and, indeed, all who will be baptized throughout the coming year, both infants and adults, within this diocese. We likewise recall our own Baptism and seek to be deepened in our awareness and living of that baptismal consecration with its universal call to be holy.

The blessing of the Oil of Catechumens also enables us to become more intentionally committed to the New Evangelization. As we are aware, the New Evangelization is like a two-sided coin, that is, on the one hand, it calls forth our being re-evangelized, and, on the other hand, it simultaneously mandates our reaching out to others to come to Jesus, the One Savior of the world. How much each one of us needs to enter into and to sustain an intimate relationship with the Lord Jesus within the Community of His Disciples. How much also each one of us must witness to the Lord Jesus in daily life, inviting others, among whom are those who once practiced the faith, to come to Jesus, Who alone can satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart. Yes, the Oil of Catechumens calls us to reclaim our identity, which is to evangelize. At Baptism, when we were reborn by water and the Holy Spirit, and so became members of Christ's Body, the Church, we were commissioned to evangelize in its two-fold reality, because the Church "exists in order to evangelize," as Pope Paul VI so clearly reminded us (cf. Evangelii Nuntiandi, n. 14).

The Oil of the Sick. As we witness the blessing of this oil, we are made aware of its purpose. "Bless this oil and sanctify it for our use. Make this oil a remedy for all who are anointed with it: heal them in body, in soul, and in spirit, and deliver them from every affliction" (cf. Op. Cit., n. 20). Again we certainly pray for those who will be anointed with it, asking the Lord to heal them in soul and in body, whether they are experiencing serious illness or the effects of advancing old age. We also pray too for those who care for the ill and infirm. The Oil of the Sick can help us become more mindful of our own outreach in loving concern for the ill and elderly: those within our family, neighbors and friends, fellow parishioners and, even more, those who have no one to visit them, whether at their own home or in nursing homes. Above all, the blessing of this Oil of the Sick should awaken in us the desire and the will to be attentive to our own spiritual health and to that of others. After all, our promised inheritance is eternal life in the presence of God, One in Three, and to arrive at this goal, we must be spiritually healthy through the transforming power of Christ's Death and Resurrection, mediated to us by the work of the Holy Spirit within us.

Sacred Chrism. This oil is consecrated, not blessed, that is, it is set aside to be made holy in a particular way, for the anointing by the Holy Spirit of the newly-baptized, and for the second anointing, later, by the Holy Spirit in Confirmation. The prayer of consecration makes clear: "…through the sign of holy chrism, you dispense your life and love to men. By anointing them with the Spirit, you strengthen all who have been reborn in baptism. Through that anointing you transform them into the likeness of Christ your Son and give them a share in his royal, priestly, and prophetic work" (cf. Ibid., n. 25, 3).

In this way, all of us - bishop, priests, deacons, men and women living the consecrated life, and lay faithful - I repeat, all of us are strengthened and energized by the grace of God to be the Other Presence of Christ in our contemporary society, His Body, the Church, allowing "the splendor of holiness (to) shine on the world from every place and thing signed with this oil" (cf. Ibid.).

Yes, these three oils - the Oil of Catechumens, the Oil of the Sick and Sacred Chrism, together make clearly evident to us that we are God's people, we belong to Him, as we evangelize, catechize and witness, by both word and example, proclaiming the Truth and living in Charity each day and all days. During this Chrism Mass, let us renew our commitment to the Lord Jesus and to His Church in loving fidelity and to all our brothers and sisters in loving service.

Now I turn to you, my brother priests, who are my principal co-workers in the pastoral care of the people entrusted to us. The three oils and their significance for both our reflection and our daily living in faith include all of us gathered in this cathedral. Moreover, my brothers, in your priestly ministry and pastoral care for the People of God entrusted to me as diocesan bishop and, then, through me, to you in your specific assignments, we shall each certainly use these sacred oils in Baptism, in Confirmation, in Anointing the Sick, and, as the bishop, in priestly ordination and in the consecration of altars and churches. Your renewal of priestly promises, following this homily, envisions the use of the Oil of Catechumens, the Oil of the Sick and Sacred Chrism.

However, Sacred Chrism holds a particular significance in each of your lives as an ordained priest and in my life as both an ordained priest and a consecrated bishop.

My brothers, does not each one of us have etched in our memory the anointing of our hands with Sacred Chrism by the ordaining bishop and the words which accompanied that anointing? "The Lord Jesus Christ, whom the Father anointed with the Holy Spirit and power, guard and preserve you, that you may sanctify the Christian people and offer sacrifice to God" (Ritual of the Ordination of Priests, n. 133). So then, this priestly anointing gives us the spiritual strength and power to sanctify God's Holy People and to offer sacrifice to God.

And, for me, when I was consecrated a bishop on April 12, 1988, the Principal Consecrator, the Most Reverend John F. Whealon, poured sacred chrism on my head, praying: "God has brought you to share the high priesthood of Christ. May he pour on you the oil of mystical anointing and enrich you with spiritual blessings" (Ritual of Episcopal Consecration, n. 28). That episcopal anointing gives to each bishop the spiritual strength and power to "preach the word of God with unfailing patience and sound teaching," "with faith and love (to) protect the bride of God, his holy Church," and to "watch over the whole flock in which the Holy Spirit has appointed you to shepherd the Church of God" (Ibid., nos. 29, 30 and 32).

As we reflect on these sacred oils within the context of priestly life and ministry, and as you renew your priestly promises in the presence of me, your bishop, and of God's people, permit me to pose this question: "As you care for and shepherd the flock entrusted to you and to me, who cares for and shepherds you?"

The answer, for me, is abundantly clear and evident: your bishop, who is, as the Second Vatican Council stated without ambiguity, brother and friend to each one of his priests (cf. Presbyterorum Ordinis, n. 72). So, permit me to respond further to this question with clarity and tangible examples.

As I said earlier, through the imposition of hands and the consecrating prayer which accompanied it, and through the anointing with Sacred Chrism, each of you is configured to Christ the Priest, Teacher and Pastor. It is my responsibility - and even more, my privilege - to support you in living out this unique configuration. Obviously, there are many tangible and practical ways to implement this support of you as your brother and friend. I propose three.

First of all, I wish to support you in being a man of prayer. Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI in his homily to several bishops he consecrated on January 6 of this year counseled them to be and to do what is also, without a doubt, what priests must likewise be and do.

I say again, the priest, as the bishop, must be a man of prayer. As the Pope said, "What sort of man must he be, upon whom hands are laid in [priestly] ordination in the Church of Jesus Christ? We can say that he must above all be a man concerned for God, for only then will he also be truly concerned about men. Inversely, we could also say that a [priest] must be a man concerned for others, one who is concerned about what happens to them. He must be a man for others. But he can only truly be so if he is a man seized by God, if concern for God has also become for him concern for God's creature who is man….(H)e must be gripped by God's concern for men and women. He must in some way think and feel with God" (cf. Homily, January 6, 2013).

The Emeritus Pope continued: "The (priest),…must be above all a man of prayer. He must be in constant inner contact with God; his soul must be open to God. He must bring before God his own needs and the needs of others, as well as his joys and the joys of others, and thus in his own way establish a contact between God and the whole world in communion with Christ, so that Christ's light can shine in the world" (Ibid.).

So, my brothers, with all my heart, I urge you to be with the Lord Jesus in the experience of prayer: surely and above all, in the daily celebration of His Dying and Rising, and in the Liturgy of the Hours, but also in quiet pondering of His Word in Scripture, in just being with Him as He looks at you with such love, and in seeking the help of His Mother and ours: Mary Most Holy.

Secondly, I seek to support you in giving your lives in self-emptying love to God's People. Configured to Christ, we priests live in daily life the Eucharistic Sacrifice we celebrate each day. To be a priest is of its very nature to have a very personal relationship with Christ by walking in His footsteps and carrying His Cross. Nowhere is this better signified and actualized than in our celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Yes, acting in His Person, we make present each time we offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass His Dying and Rising. And we simultaneously allow Him to make us the very instruments of His self-sacrificing and life-giving love to the people to whom he sends us. At a different level of meaning, we too say: "This is my body, broken in service for you; this is my blood poured out in service for you." Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI highlights this priestly oblation: "'The ministerial priesthood entails a profound relationship with Christ Who is given to us in the Eucharist' which must 'be the center of your ecclesial mission….In celebrating this Sacrament in the Lord's name and in His person, the person of the priest cannot occupy center stage' for 'he is a servant, a humble instrument pointing to Christ Who offers Himself in sacrifice for the salvation of the world'" (cf. Vatican News Service: Report on Pope Benedict XVI's homily during First Vespers of the Solemnity of St. Joseph, Yaounde, Cameroon).

Again, my brothers, with all my heart, I urge you to give yourselves in self-emptying love and service to the people entrusted to you. No, it is not always easy to live in this way. It will cost us. But then, were we not instructed on the Day of our Priestly Ordination: "Understand what you do, imitate what you celebrate, and conform your life to the mystery of the Lord's Cross"?

Thirdly and lastly, I wish to support you in your fraternal unity and charity. The Lord Jesus prayed so fervently at the Last Supper that His disciples would be one. If this is so for all His disciples, it is all the more true for those He chooses and sets aside to be His special friends, indeed His brothers, through priestly ordination, for us! Yes, we are limited, we fail at times to be kind and forgiving, we weaken the unity that should mark us. But, we must never give up in our efforts.

And, because we are one in the Lord, in Him and for His sake, we must love one another as brothers and friends. Again, at the Last Supper, He gave to all the disciples the new commandment to love. "This is my commandment: love one another as I love you" (cf. Jn 15:12). If this is so for all His disciples, it is all the more true for those He has embraced with such love, for us, enabling us to share in His priestly love for the people whom He has redeemed by his Blood. Yes, we can fail here and we do. But, we must never cease in our desire and efforts to love one another within our priestly fraternity: to carry one another in daily prayer, to support one another with an encouraging word or gesture, and yes, at times with an authentic love, to point out some area for fraternal correction, or as Saint Paul says, "living the truth in charity" (cf. Eph 4:15). I urge you once more, my brothers, with all my heart, to build up and to strengthen fraternal unity and fraternal charity.

Brother priests and all who are gathered here, our reflection on the Oil of Catechumens, the Oil of the Sick and Sacred Chrism, I pray, has enabled us to see their significance for our daily living in faith, and for the specific roles we each have within our individual God-given vocations. We are chosen, consecrated and sent forth to be, in Jesus Christ, a people who belong to Him and who, in His name, bring the light of His truth and the warmth of His charity to a world hungry and thirsting for Him, or as Pope Francis expressed so powerfully in his first General Audience: "may we…(follow) the Lord with courage, and (carry) within ourselves a ray of His love for all those whom we meet" (General Audience Message, March 27, 2013).

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2013