Homily preached by the Most Reverend Malcolm Patrick McMahon OP, Archbishop of Liverpool, at the Mass of Chrism from 7.30pm on Wednesday 1 April 2015 in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, Liverpool.
It is a particular joy for me to celebrate my first Chrism Mass with you because it gives me an opportunity to thank you all for the welcome you gave me eleven months ago today. Above all, I give thanks to almighty God for placing me among you. God does these strange things in his mercy. We don’t always understand the reason, but we can be sure that that is what is happening. Looking at God’s action with the eyes of mercy helps us see how all that God does in love is an expression of his mercy towards us.
Today, we give thanks for the unity we have in the church of Jesus Christ – the oneness we aspire to and celebrate is an act of mercy, because when the Son of Man is raised up he will gather us all to himself; it is perfect unity, an act of perfect mercy. Pope Francis has shown us how to view the world and the Church with eyes of mercy, and so at this time we rejoice in the confidence that we have rediscovered as Catholics. He reminds us that being Christian means not just looking outwards to our brothers and sisters who are in need, who are distressed, who are ignorant of the Gospel – but also going out to them. We are called to be a Church of mercy.
Mercy is fundamental to being a priest. Just think of the call of the Apostle Matthew – it was with eyes of mercy that Jesus called him, as the Pope’s personal motto reminds us. We are recipients of God’s mercy because for those called to follow Christ as priests, the way we receive God’s mercy is to respond positively to that call; then we become channels of God’s mercy to others through the Gospel we proclaim, the sacraments we administer and the example we set. We should always remember that it is because of God’s mercy that he has seen us worthy to be his priests, not because of any merit on our part.
The priesthood should give all members of the Church cause for rejoicing, not because priest are perfect – we all know, to our shame, this is often far from the case – but because Christ uses priests in his Church as instruments of mercy and unity, to sanctify her members, and in so doing help to bring them to holiness in Christ. Holiness is an elusive concept – not to be confused with being pious but belonging to God. The Holy Oils, slippery though they are, help us grasp the meaning of those sacraments in which they are used. The Holy Oils express the mercy of God in his Church in a tangible way.
The manifold symbolism of oil explains the fact of its choice. It is fuel for the flame, a healing balm for the sick, a strengthening ointment for the athlete, and so the use of oil naturally suggests illumination, assuaging of pain, and power – light and heat for those who are cold and in the dark, soothing and strengthening for those who are weak or in pain, fragrant and perfumed to celebrate the uniqueness and glory of every human person, made in God’s own image and loved by him into existence. This merciful gift of oil from God, the All-Merciful, empowers us to be merciful in small ways.
The close connection with the preparation of the Oils for the Easter liturgy, the baptising and confirming of new followers of Christ, and the ministers of these sacraments, enabled the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council to see an opportunity in the Chrism Mass for celebrating the priesthood of the Church in its three dimensions: the priesthood of Christ, the ministerial priesthood and the priesthood of all believers.
The image of Christ the High Priest that is foremost in my mind is that suggested to me by the church father Origen. He recalls the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. The events are familiar enough to all of us: Isaac, the son of Abraham, is commanded by his father to build an altar of sacrifice, and he himself carries the wood to make the sacrificial fire. Unbeknown to him, it is he who is to be sacrificed. However, at the last minute he is mercifully spared and a ram is offered in his stead. Origen draws out for us the meaning of the role of Isaac in this familiar and important story. Isaac is not just the victim, but as the person who also builds the fire he takes on the role of priest. Christ is for us Priest, Victim and Altar of sacrifice – he is not just the one who dies for us but also the one who carries the wood of the Cross on which he was to die.
All priesthood in the Church is derived from this sacrifice of Christ – the one, and once and for all, redeeming sacrifice of Christ. It is that sacrifice that opened for us the path to the Father, which tore down the veil that we had constructed to keep God and humanity apart. The ministerial priest, the ordained presbyter, is the person ordained by the Church to enable God’s people to share directly in the New Covenant. Through the Breaking of Bread and the Outpouring of the Cup, the benefits of Jesus’s sacrifice are made immediate to those who wish to avail themselves of this display of God’s love and mercy for his people. We are brought into the presence of God and given not just the promise of eternal life but the food for the journey as well.
My brother priests, always remember that your sacred calling, and the awesome mysteries that you are privileged to celebrate, place on you a special responsibility to be Christ to those whom you serve. There is no getting away from this truth. But when you break the consecrated Bread in the sacred liturgy, remember that it is your duty always to break unblessed bread and share it with the hungry. The flip side of the disc, the other side of the coin, is to reach out to those who do not know Christ and announce to them the Good News of our salvation, to feed the hungry and heal the sick, to welcome the stranger. It is our responsibility to reach out to those in all kinds of pain and suffering in the name of Jesus Christ – and make the Gospel live for them.
One of my Dominican brothers in Brazil pointed out that most Christians seem to treat going to Church like going to a restaurant and looking for a set menu. If they do not like the menu then they go to another church of their liking, if one is available. He goes on to say that we probably have this the wrong way round, and that Mass should be more like a picnic to which we bring our own food – our concerns, our cares, our joys and our needs – which we share with each other and offer to God. As priests, we should make this possible for the people we serve so that we may be like Christ to them and serve their needs and not our own. It is so important that, in this service of all God’s people, we become people of mercy – and that our schools, chaplaincies and parishes take up Pope Francis’s challenge to us to take mercy seriously by being places of mercy.
In his 2015 Lenten Message, the Holy Father said:
How greatly I desire that all those places where the Church is present, especially our parishes and our communities, may become islands of mercy in the midst of the sea of indifference! Mercy appears to be in short supply in our world, but Christians have little choice except to be merciful if we are to be true disciples.
As well as many worldly, material works of mercy the church also has a great treasure that we do not use anywhere near enough. St John Paul II often emphasised the need for the sacrament of penance – some priests tell me that there has been a revival, of quality if not quantity, in the use of this wonderful sacrament which makes real the loving mercy of our Father to the individual when it is most needed, in the dark times which accompany a falling away from God. To send away the penitent rejoicing is our task. Remember that. Anything less as a result, no matter how long or hard a journey it takes to reach that point, is not doing justice to the great gift of ministerial priesthood given you by the Church.
We look forward to the Jubilee Year of Mercy that will begin on the fiftieth anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council. It will be a year to inspire and encourage us as we free ourselves of the burden of sin. We priests too need the sacrament of reconciliation!
So my brothers, I say these few things to you today to encourage you in your ministry. Never forget what you are. Doubt and uncertainty about the role and function of a priest do not change in the slightest what you are. Enjoy the gift of priesthood and then you will make the love and mercy of Christ visible to others.
Pope Francis puts it this way. Priests should follow in the way of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who acts as the gate to the sheepfold:
The gate of mercy is the wounds of the Lord: If you don’t enter into your ministry through the wounds of Christ, you will not be good shepherds.
And now a word for the deacons and their families: In the practical service of breaking open the Word of God, sharing the Outpouring of the Cup and breaking the un-blessed bread, so to speak, the Bishop and priests are accompanied by deacons, who have been appointed to these special tasks in the Church’s ministry. I encourage you to remember that your ministry is rooted in the service of God’s holy people. Foremost, it is amongst the people that you will fulfil your ministry – and there you will find your fulfilment.
And now I speak to all those who are not ordained. The wonderful thing about Baptism is that it enables all those who live in Christ to share in his priesthood. If we think of the people of the Old Testament bridging the gap between the nations of the world and a very distant God so that they may be described not just as a nation of priests but also as a priestly people, it will help us understand the idea of the priesthood of all believers. As the new People of God, it has fallen on us all to be priests to the world. Through you, the world is sanctified. The presence of baptised Christians in everyday situations brings Christ to them, and them to Christ. No longer are we a bridge between that which is near and that which is far off. By virtue of our Baptism, Christ is present in each of us. That places a responsibility on us to live up to that great gift.
Our response is what matters – and others will judge Christ and his Church by the way we behave. More positively, we can stand out from the crowd and make a difference to society. There is no doubt that between Christians and the secular world there is, nowadays, a great gulf in moral values. Our moral values are expressions of our Christian faith. We uphold the dignity of the individual, in the womb, in the test-tube, in the work place, in the refugee camp, on the streets and on the deathbed. Christ is present to us in all these situations, suffering with us as Priest, Altar and Victim – but redeeming us by his priesthood in which we all share.
You should not confuse your participation in the ministerial offices of the ordained priest, as readers or extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, with your participation in the priesthood of Christ! As much as this helps the priests and deacons – and is good and even necessary – it is not what is meant by sharing in the priesthood of all believers.
As lay people, your part in God’s plan for his Creation is to be Christ in the world – where you are, in your world of friends, of work, of school, of college, of university, of family, of leisure. Be Christ by your presence, by your words, by your actions, and by your example. It is a daunting task – but it is what you have been consecrated with the Oil of Holy Chrism to do.
Finally I want to thank every one of you today for the part you play in the life of the Church in the Archdiocese of Liverpool. As priests, deacons, religious and lay people, we make up the Church in this great Archdiocese, in Liverpool, in West Lancashire and on the Isle of Man. We need one another. We need to support one another and show that we are united in our mission to be Christ and to bring his mercy to the world. We are to be a ‘light for the nations’. Amen.