Praised be Jesus Christ our great High Priest!
Bishop Hanifen, my brother priests and deacons, seminarians, religious sisters and brothers and all of you, brothers and sisters in Christ. I want to welcome the Holy Cross novices and our own diocesan seminarians. Please pray for them that they will persevere in their vocations.
I want to recognize those priests who are celebrating significant anniversaries this year: Father Michael Goodyear and Father Gus Stewart, 25 years; Father George Fagan, 50 years; and Bishop Richard Hanifen, 60 years.
Let us pray also for those priests, who, for various reasons, need God’s special grace and strength. Let us pray for those priests who suffer from illness and pain, as well as for those who are unable to be here today. And we remember Msgr. John Slattery, called home on Nov. 28. May he and all our deceased brothers rest in peace.
Even though we gather early in Holy Week to celebrate the Chrism Mass, this celebration is essentially a Holy Thursday liturgy. Today we celebrate the gift and mystery of the ministerial priesthood, which was instituted by Jesus Christ at his Last Supper on Holy Thursday. Jesus Christ is the Priest of the new covenant. He alone has offered the one acceptable sacrifice to the Father for the salvation of the world. His priesthood has surpassed every other priesthood.
Today we celebrate and give thanks to our great High Priest because he has given a share in his unique priesthood to men that he has personally chosen. Today these priests of Jesus Christ have assembled here — as they do each year on this day — to recommit themselves to Christ and to their priestly ministry. They commit to holiness of life, to sacred celibacy and to faithful service. Today we all reaffirm our support and love for our priests who carry forward their daily dedicated pastoral care of God’s people.
There are many spiritual gifts and many ministries in the Church of Jesus Christ, but none is as essential as the vocation to the priesthood. The Church needs the priesthood. Jesus himself needs his priests to carry on his eternal ministry in the world. Your presence here today clearly expresses your faith in the Church and in the priesthood, as well as the love and respect that you have for your priests.
We priests are well aware of our weaknesses and our sins, but, by the grace of God, we strive each day to serve Christ and his Church as best we can. In spite of the failings of individuals, the Church, which is the Body of Christ, is strong in faith and love. Recall the words of Emeritus Pope Benedict in his inaugural homily: “The Church is alive. And the Church is young. She holds within herself the future of the world and therefore shows each of us the way towards the future . . . The Church is alive — she is alive because Christ is alive, because he is truly risen.”
Those are encouraging words and truly good news. But the “long Lent” of now almost a year has shaken all of us to our very core. The calling of priests and bishops today is loud and clear. We are called to live our priestly vocations with complete integrity and a holiness seemingly reserved only to the great saints. Mediocrity, if it ever was an option, is not today. Priests and bishops must be completely faithful to celibate chastity in mind and body. Bishops must govern with a genuine humility and a fully transparent accountability.
Even as we endure this purification of the Christ’s Church, we priests cannot give away our joy. We are joyful, not because of any false optimism but because of the indwelling of a God who loves us. Our joy is the Spirit that wells up in our hearts and cannot be suppressed. It is this joyful Spirit that is an authentic sign of God’s presence for which we all thirst. In the wake of all that has and will transpire, we priests must be joyful and we must be holy.
In a few moments I will bless the oils that will be used in the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, holy orders, and anointing of the sick throughout this next year. But first I want to speak directly to my brother priests, who today will renew their commitment to serve God and his Church.
Brothers, this is the day for all of us to relive the joy of our ordination. This is the day for the Church to pray earnestly for vocations to the priesthood. But this is also a day to take stock of our lives as priests. In a recent catechesis at his weekly audience, Pope Francis spoke these words to his fellow bishops and priests:
“The Apostle Paul recommends to the disciple Timothy that he not neglect, indeed, that he always rekindle the gift that is within him, the gift that he been given through the laying on of hands. When the ministry is not fostered — the ministry of the bishop, the ministry of the priest — through prayer, through listening to the Word of God, through the daily celebration of the Eucharist and also through regularly going to the Sacrament of Penance, he inevitably ends up losing sight of the authentic meaning of his own service and the joy which comes from a profound communion with Jesus.”
I would like to share once again words of St. John Paul II taken from his reflections on his fifty years as a priest. These words express so beautifully and concisely what is essential in the ministry of every priest:
“If we take a close look at what contemporary men and women expect from priests, we will see that, in the end, they have but one great expectation: They are thirsting for Christ. Everything else — their economic, social, and political needs — can be met by any number of other people. From the priest they ask for Christ! And from him they have the right to receive Christ, above all through the proclamation of the word . . . But this proclamation seeks to have man encounter Jesus, especially in the mystery of the Eucharist, the living heart of the Church and of priestly life. The priest has a mysterious, awesome power over the eucharistic body of Christ. By reason of this power he becomes the steward of the greatest treasure of the redemption, for he gives people the Redeemer in person. Celebrating the Eucharist is the most sublime and most sacred function of every priest. As for me, from the very first years of my priesthood, the celebration of the Eucharist has been not only my most sacred duty, but above all my soul’s deepest need.”
This is where we find our greatest strength and where we carry out our calling most uniquely — in our daily offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. This is by no means all that the priest does, but the Eucharist is the heart and soul of our ministry. And so, on Holy Thursday, we will commemorate not only the institution of the priesthood, but also the institution of the Holy Eucharist. These two are inseparable.
Dear brothers: the people of God count on your love, your pastoral service, and your fidelity to the end. I count on your ministry every day. I could not fulfill my duties as bishop without you. Jesus himself has chosen you to serve the rest. You have been anointed like Jesus, to be able to proclaim the Gospel to the poor and to the whole world. Never forget how important you are in God’s plan of salvation.
All praise and thanksgiving to you, Lord Jesus Christ, our great High Priest, for the gifts of the priesthood and the Eucharist. To you be glory forever and ever. Amen.