A week from Tuesday, following his episcopal ordination and installation on April 10, our new shepherd, Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, will celebrate the chrism liturgy for the first time. It is one of the most meaningful and powerful rituals in our Church, and has implications for all of us.
At this liturgy, Bishop Scharfenberger will bless the oil of catechumens and the oil of the sick, and consecrate the oil of chrism, which is poured forth in the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and the ordination of priests and bishops.
Let me reflect, then, upon the sacred oils to be blessed and consecrated by Bishop Scharfenberger in order to recall their spiritual significance - both at the time of their conferral and for our ongoing journey as those who have been chrismated, or anointed as disciples and followers of Jesus Christ.
I do so in my farewell column because the chrism liturgy captures succinctly so many of the themes I have tried to promote throughout my 50 years of priestly ministry and 37 years of episcopal service.
Anointed with oil
The oil of catechumens is used to anoint those who are preparing for entrance into the Church, principally through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) process, and those who generally are incorporated as members of the Church through the celebration of sacraments of baptism, confirmation and holy communion conferred at the Easter vigil Mass.
Recently, I read an article in Commonweal magazine by a priest who received five adult catechumens into our faith community at the Easter vigil in 2012. The priest said he looked upon this "damp, greasy, messy-looking crew [of] brand-new Catholics" with "an oil slick of chrism smeared across their foreheads" as a welcome sign of hope.
He asked, "Why would they join [the Church] now? You would think anyone capable of reading a headline or listening to the five o'clock news would run away from any invitation to sign up for envelopes. Yet, here they were, [five adults] stepping aboard the very ship from which so many have disembarked. It made no sense."
However, the priest has come to realize why the Rite of Christian Initiation takes place during the Easter triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Saturday Easter vigil). For "at their best, these three wonderful days give us a glimpse of the kingdom that will come. It's a kingdom of surprises, of the upside-down and the inside-out, where first is last and the least are the greatest, where God is always in the unexpected places....This kingdom grows as quietly as a seed in the ground and will always surprise us."
Seeds of hope
The priest noted that a parishioner recently suggested "that we ought to [do] 'exit interviews' of those who are leaving the Church" - interviews which "would help determine not only what we need to fix, but where we should spend more energy and prayer."
But the priest responded to his parishioner, "When I want to fill my oil lamp with a little hope, the people I really want to talk with are the ones who just signed up for the envelopes."
These are the ones who have been baptized and confirmed in the Church - those who have been anointed by the Spirit through the oil of chrism and have been empowered to exercise Christ's threefold ministry as prophet, priest and king.
We baptized and confirmed share in the one priesthood of Christ by our full, conscious and active participation in the Eucharist and the sacraments. We exercise our prophetic role when we act with the vision, wisdom and courage needed to bring about God's kingdom of peace, justice and love in a world broken in so many places by war and civil conflict; by numbing poverty and social inequality; and by growing secularization, atheism, agnosticism and scientism.
We fulfill our kingly or royal ministry by our humble service as shepherds who lay down our lives for the sheep. Yes, the sacrifices we make as baptized and confirmed Christians, through our prayers, good works, our married and family lives, our daily labor, and the anxiety, stress and troubles we endure, provide the odor of the Christian which advances God's kingdom in our time and place.
Our whole lives
So, at the chrism liturgy and during Holy Week, may we recall the dignity we have as baptized and confirmed Christians. Anointing touches the deepest drama of our lives: birth, growing up, becoming an adult, falling in love, letting go of egoism and daring to give oneself to others, searching for meaning and coping with failure, suffering and ultimately death.
To respond to these latter painful realities, at the chrism liturgy, Bishop Scharfenberger will bless the oil of the sick, which will be employed to anoint those who are ill, aged and infirm and those who are about to pass from this life to the next, so that they might have the spiritual strength and the fortitude to cope with these harsh realities and to unite their suffering and dying with the redemptive suffering of Jesus.
In this way, just as the cross of Calvary was transformed into the glory of the resurrection, so, too, will we be led to enjoy that eternity of life for which each of us has been destined from the dawn of creation.
In the second century, St. Irenaeus of Lyons famously stated that "the glory of God is a human being fully alive." If we believe this, then what could be more wonderful than being anointed with the oil of chrism as baptized and confirmed Christians: named and claimed for Christ, embraced by God's unconditional love, invited to share responsibility for each other and the whole of creation and to transform the world into the image and likeness of our triune God?
Anointed in turn
The oil of chrism is also used to anoint priests and bishops on the occasion of their ordination. The readings and psalms of the chrism Mass speak of God's "anointed ones:" the suffering servant of Israel, King David and Jesus. All three have one thing in common: the anointing they have received in turn is meant to anoint God's faithful people, whose servants they are.
They are anointed for the poor, prisoners, the oppressed, and to exercise the mediating role of preaching, teaching and sanctifying God's holy people.
Last year, at his first chrism Mass as Pope, Francis told the ordained priests and bishops gathered that the only thing that counts for them is "unction, not function." Thus, Francis exhorts priests and bishops to truly be mediators of God's grace - not intermediaries or managers.
The difference between a mediator and an intermediary or manager, Pope Francis says, is that "the intermediary or manager has already received his reward," and "since he doesn't put his own skin and his own heart on the line, he never hears a warm, heartfelt word of thanks."
This, the Pope notes, can only lead to dissatisfaction or sadness.
That is why Pope Francis urges priests and bishops to be shepherds with the "odor of the sheep." He prays that we priests and bishops will be faithful disciples, so that our people will feel that their names are written upon our priestly vestments and that we seek no other identity than to be Christ's disciples.
If this be so, then through our words and deeds, the faithful will receive the oil of gladness which Jesus, the Anointed One, came to bring us.
Past and future
In turning over the governance of our diocese to Bishop Scharfenberger and in reflecting upon the forthcoming chrism liturgy, I thank my brother priests for their faithful and heroic sacerdotal service. I thank our deacons, religious and lay ecclesial ministers for their selfless and dedicated commitment to be faithful heralds of the Good News. I thank all our laity for the many and varied ways they have made Christ present in their homes, workplaces and communities throughout our 14-county Diocese, and especially in my own life.
Finally, I extend my congratulations and fondest wishes to Bishop Scharfenberger as he is ordained and installed next week as our chief shepherd. We are blessed to have a servant leader with such a rich pastoral, legal and administrative background and with such a gracious, humble and gentle demeanor.
Bishop Scharfenberger has taken as his episcopal motto an excerpt from the peace prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, "Lord, Make Me a Channel of Your Peace."
I pray that he will truly be another St. Francis of Assisi for our Diocese, an instrument of peace: bringing healing to those who have been hurt and alienated by clergy sexual abuse; by the closing, merger or consolidation of parishes and schools; and by any failures on my part over the past 37 years to be the caring, pastoral leader a bishop is meant to be.
In accord with St. Francis' prayerful vision, I know that he will strive with every fiber of his being to sow love where there is hatred, pardon where there is injury, faith where there is doubt, hope where there is despair, and light where there is darkness.
May you be as good and supportive to him as you have been to me these past 37 years. Bishop Scharfenberger: Welcome, best wishes and Godspeed always.
(April 04, 2014)