Cardinal O’Malley’s Chrism Mass homily

Homily delivered by Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley at the April 3 Chrism Mass celebrated at Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston

There are 100 Jesuit priests living in St. Mary’s Hall. It must be one of the largest religious houses in the world. I call Father Paul Harmon the Father Abbott, though not many abbots have that many monks. Father Harmon has 100 Jesuits waiting in him hand and foot.

For a while the largest community of priests in modern time was the Pfarrerblock. It was the priest section of the concentration camp at Dachau. There were a cardinal, bishops, and about 3000 Catholic priests there, in addition to some 100 Protestant clergy and 30 Orthodox priests. Many did not survive the ordeal. In 1975 I participated in a Mass in St. Peter’s with Cardinal Wright and several hundred priests who were survivors of concentration camps. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life. Cardinal Wright often cited the sociological studies done about the concentration camps. The researchers interviewed survivors: Jews, intellectuals, political prisoners, from Italy, France, Germany, Hungary, Poland. All were asked: In the midst of the hell that was the concentration camp, surrounded by all the horror rife in those prisons, horrors that depersonalized, destroyed personality and sanity as well as health, what group remained sane the longest? What group remained useful the longest? What group retained their sense of identity the longest? What people were the last to suffer the crisis about why they were alive, or who they were or what was their task? What group, what nationality, what profession, what race was most able to forget themselves and their problems so they could serve the others who had the same problems? The answer was almost invariable: the Catholic priests.

One of the inmates of the Pfarrerblock at Dachau was a priest from Luxembourg who kept a diary documenting the torture of the priests. The Nazis crucified priests and crowned them with barbed wire. In 2004, a German film director got a hold of the diary and produced a film called Der Neunte Tag (The Ninth Day). The protagonist is a Luxembourg priest, Abbe Kremer, who had been imprisoned for being part of the resistance movement in his country.

One of the most powerful scenes in the film is the Mass the emaciated priests celebrate clandestinely using a crust of bread. Abbe Kremer is promised his freedom if he will cooperate with the Nazis. There are very tense conversations with an SS office, Officer Gebhardt, who had been in the seminary but had long since renounced his faith. At one point Gebhardt says, “It was my mother’s fondest wish that I become a priest, so as to have a dignitary in the family.” Father Kremer answers, “Priests are servants, not dignitaries. My mother knew that.”

I was very struck by that phrase, because many people do consider the priest a dignitary. The increasing role of the laity, the fall out of the sexual abuse scandal, the secularization of the culture have all caused people to see the priest differently. And yet many still think of priests as dignitaries. All the same, Abbe Kremer and his mother Madame Kremer knew that the priest is not a dignitary, but is a servant like Jesus is a servant. The more we understand Jesus’ identity, the more we will understand our own.

In today’s Gospel, Luke details the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. This periscope is prefaced with the phrase “He began to teach” — this is the way Christ’s ministry begins. The account of Jesus’ first sermon in the synagogue opens with Jesus choosing the text of Isaiah. For Jesus nothing is improvised, nothing is a coincidence. Isaiah is the great prophet of the Messiah. He speaks of the Virgin who will conceive a son, Emmanuel, God with us. Isaiah describes for us the suffering servant. When people read Isaiah 53 without knowing which part of the Bible it comes from, they often wrongly assume it is from the New Testament. One author claims there are 121 passages in Isaiah that describe Jesus. In today’s lessons, Isaiah speaks of the servant who is anointed — the Christos, the Messiah — by the Spirit. He goes on to describe Christ’s mission; to announce the Good News to the poor, restore sight to the blind, to free the captive and the oppressed, to declare a Jubilee. And just to make sure that we did not miss the point, Jesus says: “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus is the Messiah, the Suffering Servant, the Wounded Healer.

This is the same Christ of whom John writes in today’s reading from Revelation, “He loves us, He has freed us from our sins, He has made us priests”. He has made us priest because He loves us, not because we are good looking, clever or holy, but because He loves us. John goes on to say: “Behold He is coming amid the clouds, and every eye shall see Him, even those who pierced Him.” We behold the one who was pierced. The Risen Lord is still the Suffering Servant, still the wounded Christ. That is why the Risen Lord is so quick to show His wounded hands when he appears to the first priests and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit, whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven them.” This Suffering Servant loves us and is patient with us: “A bruised reed He will not break, and a smoldering wick He will not snuff out.”

Today’s Gospel from the fourth chapter of Luke depicts for us the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry. Placing this scene first is an important interpretive move for it suggests that the rest of the Lukan story (the Acts as well as the Gospel) should be read in light of this scene. By citing the Prophet Isaiah, Jesus is providing us an interpretation of His ministry. The descent of the Spirit is an anointing for office. Anointed with the Spirit, Jesus is the Messiah, the Christos, the King of Israel, but His immediate function is prophetic: He is to be the bearer of the Good News.

In Luke especially we see the poor as the protagonists of the Gospel. The Suffering Servant is close to those who are poor, marginalized, sick, and forgotten. When Jesus speaks about “the release of captives” this can also refer to Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation, the forgiveness of sins. Recovery of sight to the blind refers to Jesus’ healing power but also to His teaching role that helps people to understand revelation and to see by the light of faith. It is as though Isaiah has written the job description for the Messiah, the Suffering Servant.

When Jesus called His apostles in the Gospel, He said, “Follow me”. He didn’t say, “How would you like to be suffering servants?” That would be like the Irish marriage proposal, “How would you like to be buried with my people?” But when the apostles were still thinking they were going to be dignitaries, two of them went with their mother to ask for thrones at Jesus’ left and right. Jesus responds by asking that terrible question, “Can you drink of the chalice that I am going to drink?” They responded, “We can”. I am sure they had no idea what they were saying.

When we were ordained, the ceremony began with an invitation, “Let those who are to be ordained come forward”. We responded blithely, “Adsum — Present!” Did we have any idea what we were saying? Like the apostles, we answered with naïve enthusiasm. Like a young man making his marriage vows; for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, all the while looking forward to the better, the richer, the good health.

Can you drink of the chalice of the Suffering Servant by whose stripes we are healed? Like the sons of Zebedee, we said “Adsum, possumus, we can”. We had no way of knowing that we were being called to be priests in the most challenging time in the history of the Church in our country. Looking back on my days in the West Indies when a hurricane flattened most of our churches, schools and rectories, I recall that we survived on coconut milk and peanut butter and were without water, phones or electricity for six months, a year without television (that was a blessing). What could be worse than this, I thought at that time. Having experienced our recent crisis, I say, “Give me a good hurricane any day!”

None of us knew what we were getting into when Christ said, “Follow me.” We had only a vague notion that the path might lead to Calvary. We knew in theory. Living it is different.

It is not by accident that one of the symbols of the Catholic priesthood is the chalice. I always felt a little sad that as a Capuchin I could not have my own chalice. I would like to have taken my uncle’s, Father Jerry Reidy, the diocesan priest who baptized me, or have a replica of the O’Malley chalice that is in the museum in Dublin. But the chalice is not a trophy. In the National ordination ceremony the Bishop handed us the chalice and paten and said: “Receive the oblation of the holy people to be offered to God. Understand what you do, imitate what you celebrate, conform your life to the mystery of the Lord’s Cross.” “Agnoscite quod agitis, imitamini quod tractatis.”

The fear of the Cross is what makes us mediocre. The fear of suffering. When Jesus prayed, “Let this chalice pass from me, but not my will but thine be done”, Peter was watching and listening, but when the soldiers came the apostles fled, even the ones who said, “we can drink of the chalice”. They ran. Peter tried to follow Jesus at a safe distance. That didn’t work. In the attempt he denied his master three times. It is impossible to follow Jesus at a safe distance. We need to follow Him up close. Later, the Risen Christ will ask Peter, and all His priests, “Do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” “Feed my sheep”. A few weeks later after that conversation, St. Luke depicts the apostles, including Peter, who have been flogged and beaten for their preaching, for feeding the sheep. They were told not to speak about Jesus and were dismissed. “So they left the presence of the Sanhedrin rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name of Jesus. And all day long, both in the temple and in their homes, they did not stop teaching and proclaiming the Messiah, Jesus.” They drank form the chalice of suffering and fed the flock of Christ.

We are afraid of the Cross. These last weeks of Lent, praying the Stations I always identify with Simon the Cyrenean. He was pressed into service. He was embarrassed to be part of an execution, angry because he was innocent and forced to be part of a spectacle. He was afraid of what damage would be done to his standing in the community, in his family. I like to think that later Simon the Cyrenean looked back on that horrific experience of carrying Christ’s cross up Mount Calvary through a hostile crowd as the defining moment in his life. His sons, Rufus and Alexander, surface in Acts and Mark and the Epistles. He must have embraced the faith and passed it to his family. Still his hesitancy contrasts with the spontaneous and courageous gesture of compassion of Veronica. She overcame fear and drew near to Christ.

As priests we must overcome our fears: of suffering, of failure, of shame, of sickness, of death, of being alone. Only love can cast out all these fears. Today the High Priest, Good Shepherd and Suffering Servant offers us the cup to drink. Father Henri Nouwen said, “Drinking the cup that Jesus drinks is living a life in and with the spirit of Jesus which is the spirit of unconditional love. The intimacy between Jesus and Abba, His Father, is an intimacy of complete trust, in which there are no power games, no mutually agreed upon promises, no advance guarantees. It is only love, pure, unrestrained and unlimited love.”

That intimacy gave Jesus the strength to drink His cup. That same intimacy Jesus wants to give to us so that we can drink ours. That intimacy has a name, a Divine Name. It is called the Holy Spirit. Living a spiritual life is living a life in which the Holy Spirit will guide us and give us the strength and courage to keep saying “yes” to the great questions, “Can you drink the cup? Do you love me?”

Today Jesus is telling us not to carry the Cross like the Cyrenean, through fear and compulsion. Follow the Master up close, do not fear the chalice, do not fear the Cross. Fear only not loving enough, that is the only real tragedy. The only real failure in the priesthood of Jesus Christ is not loving enough.

At the first Eucharist the Lord washes the feet of His disciples to give us an example, to teach us to be servants. He gives us a new commandment to love one another as He loves us. His total and sacrificial love must be the measuring stick for the love and unity, the communion that binds us together. Then He gives us the sacramentum caritatis, the sacrament of love where, as His disciples, we will find the nourishment to love as He commands us. We are the vessels of clay that carry these treasures for God’s people.

Let us strive to live as His priests, servants of the Suffering Servant, who grasp the chalice firmly each day, who know what we are doing, who imitate what we handle, who conform our lives to His Cross. Let us never forget Jesus’ words: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” In giving your lives you are part of the ransom.