April 5, 2012
When the prophet Isaiah spoke to the Jewish people in this morning’s first reading and said, “You yourselves shall be named priests of the Lord, ministers of our God shall you be called,” he was not only addressing the descendants of Aaron, the priests of the Old Testament. He was speaking to all of God’s people.
So when the Church proclaims this same Word of God in today’s liturgy, God, through those words, is speaking to each one of us. “You yourselves shall be named priests of the Lord, ministers of our God shall you be called.” Because of our baptism and our confirmation, we all share in the royal priesthood of Jesus Christ. In these sacraments we are all anointed, that is, “marked” with the sacred oils, which means that we are all set aside, “consecrated” and “dedicated” for the work of God.
In a unique way, priests and bishops are set aside within the believing community when hands are laid upon them, and they are anointed with the sacred chrism at their ordinations. As we acknowledge these distinctions within the Church, the sacred oil is a sign of the sacramental unity of the clergy and lay faithful in the person of the Anointed One, Jesus, the Christ.
Every Chrism Mass has two important moments. First, we bless the holy oils and the chrism used throughout the coming year in our local Church. This takes place during Holy Week to remind us that all sacraments draw their power from Christ’s death and resurrection.
The second key moment in the Chrism Mass takes place when we who are priests renew our commitment to priestly service. Some years that commitment is easier than others. This past year has been a difficult time for the whole Church in Philadelphia, but it has been a uniquely painful Way of the Cross for every priest. Because of that, I’d like to address the heart of my homily to my brother priests and bishops. I’m sure our people here this morning will understand, and I welcome all of you to please listen in.
Brothers, God sometimes blesses us with special moments of insight into his will and into ourselves. This is especially true when the Lord calls us to conversion. Conversion and renewal are important for every Christian. But they’re crucial for us as priests and bishops, because our vocation calls us to be the spark of God’s love in the hearts of his people. If priests and bishops don’t change, very little in the life of the Church can change.
Anyone who has truly known God can never be cured of him.
A few weeks ago, I visited Yeshiva University in New York for a dialogue between Jewish scholars and a group of Catholic bishops. Yeshiva is an Orthodox Jewish university that includes a focus on the study of traditional Jewish religious texts — mainly the Torah and the Talmud. The study is done through daily lectures. But it’s combined with a unique way of immersing oneself in the Word of God called “chavrutas,” the Aramaic word for “friendship” or “companionship.”
In the chavruta style of learning the young men sit together in groups of two and debate and challenge one another to a deeper understanding of the Scriptures. They’re guided by senior rabbinical scholars, but the scholars themselves — as they walk around the study hall — become part of the learning dialogue and expand their own understanding of the sacred text.
I came away from my time at Yeshiva with three main impressions.
What struck me first was the passion the students had for the Torah. They didn’t merely study it; they consumed it. Or maybe it would be better to say that God’s Word consumed them. When a man and woman fall in love, a kind of electricity runs not just between them, but also in the air around them. The story of every true encounter with God is the same. Scripture is a romance. It’s the story of God’s love for humanity. When we give our hearts entirely to seeking God in the richness of God’s Word, we begin to discover and experience that same kind of electricity. I saw it in the students at Yeshiva.
The second thing I noticed was the power of Scripture to create new life. God’s Word is a living dialogue between God and humanity. That divine dialogue mirrored itself in the “learning dialogue” among the Yeshiva students. The students began as strangers, but their work in reflecting on Scripture and in sharing what they discovered with each other, then created something more than themselves — a friendship between themselves and with God.
Third and finally, I saw in the lives of those Jewish students the incredible durability of God’s promises and God’s Word. Despite centuries of persecution, exile, dispersion and even apostasy, the Jewish people continue to exist because their covenant with God is alive and permanent. God’s Word is the organizing principle of their identity. It’s the foundation and glue of their relationship with one another, with their past and with their future. And the more faithful they are to God’s Word, the more certain they can be of their survival.
My point is this: What I saw at Yeshiva should apply to all of us as priests and bishops, and all of our seminarians who will one day join us in the work. The source of our brotherhood, the seal of our friendship, is the person of Jesus Christ — alive in God’s Word, and alive in the Eucharist we celebrate today and throughout the year.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus told the crowds that the rabbis “have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you.” In our Catholic tradition we see that same rabbinical role as the duty and responsibility of priests. In our communities God has charged us with taking our seat on the chair of Moses. We need to do everything we can to purify ourselves of vanity and fear and fatigue and resentment, and to make ourselves worthy of that responsibility. Our own souls, and the souls of our people, will depend on the fire that should burn in our hearts — a fire of love for Jesus Christ, for the Church as our mother, and for the people that God places in our care.
God’s Word never weakens. His promises never disappear. At ordination, God called each of us to a special relationship of friendship with himself and of service to his people. This is the only real privilege of our priesthood. It’s the only one we should seek; and the only one we need for a life of fruitfulness and joy.
The Yeshiva “chavruta” learning dialogue provides a reminder of our responsibility to be friends and companions of one another as we minister together. We cannot fully understand the richness of God’s word nor bear the burden of ministry alone. To be a “companion” means to “share bread” with another. The Eucharist is the source of our fraternal strength.
When we leave here today I pray that we recommit ourselves to trusting in the durability of God’s Word; to renewing our passion for Scripture; to loving one another and to following the witness of zeal I saw so powerfully in the students at Yeshiva University — the same zeal I know lives in each one of you as my brothers. This long Lent is ending. Easter is upon us, and God makes all things new. We need to draw strength from the faith and courage of each other. We need to give ourselves to God without holding anything back, so that through us, God will create a new life for our local Church, for our people and for ourselves.
The writer Francois Mauriac once said that “anyone who has truly known God can never be cured of him.” I think that sums up the life of every good priest I’ve ever known. Each of us began our priesthood as a romance with the God of Israel and the God of Jesus Christ. That thirst for an encounter with the living God; that hunger for the Word of God to consume and reshape our lives with the same electricity so evident in the halls of Yeshiva University — those yearnings still burn in each of us.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the people of Nazareth that the Word of God found in the prophet Isaiah “is today fulfilled in your hearing.” More than any other passage in Scripture, these words are the center of human history; the pivot on which all of creation turns. Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega of this world and all worlds, and we need to reclaim him as the Alpha and Omega of our personal lives and of our ministry. He loves us; he has freed us from our sins by his blood; and he has truly made the Church into his Kingdom.
Jesus said, “I came to cast fire upon the earth, and would that it were already kindled.” The fire Christ meant is the fire of God’s love — the fire of zeal and courage and hope that converts hearts and transforms the world. We need to reclaim the mission God intended for all of us as priests.
There’s a line from the Gospel of Luke that I return to again and again in my life as a priest. And while it doesn’t come from today’s readings, I ask each of us to pray over it in the days and weeks ahead because it speaks to the kind of men we need to be. Jesus said, “I came to cast fire upon the earth, and would that it were already kindled.” The fire Christ meant is the fire of God’s love — the fire of zeal and courage and hope that converts hearts and transforms the world. We need to reclaim the mission God intended for all of us as priests. We begin the future today. So may God grant us the passion to burn up every atom, every trace, every memory of ourselves in a fire of service to God’s will and to God’s people.