The Chrism Mass Homily
Bishop Sean O'Malley, OFM Cap.
Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption
March 26, 2002
(As is tradition, Bishop O'Malley celebrated the Mass of Chrism with the clergy of the Diocese of Fall River concelebrating on Tuesday of Holy Week. At the Mass, Chrism --- a mixture of olive oil and balsam --- used at baptism, ordination and the dedication of churches and altars, was blessed by the bishop for use in the Diocese throughout the year. In the context of the liturgy Bishop O'Malley also led those priests present through a renewal of commitment to priestly service.)
In our Capuchin monasteries, as Lent approaches we gather in House Chapters to discuss what special Lenten Practices the community should take on --- beyond those required by Church Law or our Constitution. I remember one such gathering where the Superior wrote suggestions on a blackboard and then asked for a vote He wrote the tally on the board and was about to announce what penance had been democratically selected for our community when a very quiet lay brother raised his hand and said: "Father Guardian, I propose that we do the penances that got the least votes --- those are the real penances."
When people ask me what I am doing for Lent, I say, "I am reading the newspapers." This has been the most painful experience of my life. I love the Church and the priesthood and these scandals are a heart-rending scourge. I know that so many Catholics are suffering the same agony. The resignation of two very popular priests in recent weeks has been painful. The old Latin adage comes to mind: "Peccata optimi pessima."
We are horrified by the accounts of the victims and saddened and shamed by the stories and the mishandling of cases. It is of grave concern that some priests have not kept their vows and have been sexually involved with teenagers and, in far fewer cases, with small children. Having met with scores of victims of clerical child abuse at the time of the Porter case, I am painfully aware of the grave damage inflicted on children or teenagers when the perpetrator is someone who represents God and religion for them. It is a terrible betrayal of trust.
Yet, on the other hand, the unabated media reports have caused many victims of abuse to be re-traumatized and have brought great suffering to good and faithful priests. Indeed, it is unimaginable that any other profession or institution would have its performance, over a period of half a century, scrutinized under such harsh lights.
Although I believe false accusations are few and far between, it does happen, and it is a nightmare for that priest, his confreres, his family, and his people. I have no doubt that the false accusations leveled against Cardinal Bernardin were more than a contributing factor in his early death; and in our own Diocese, the accusations against Father O'Dea and Cardinal Medeiros fill us with indignation and sorrow.
Yet, just as the Pagan Kings of the Old Testament who conquered, humiliated, and enslaved the Israelites, the media might be functioning as God's means of purifying the Church and forcing us to repent our past sins, to be more faithful to our ideals, and to continue to redouble our efforts to create a safer environment for our young people.
The media does well in holding the Church accountable; but, as the public, we also need to be more informed about the dimensions of the problem. I do not have any statistics, but I did read reports this month that said in January 2001 Florida had a backlog of 51 ,000 reported cases of child abuse that had not been investigated by the Department of Social Services. They hired private agencies -which did not work out too well -and they have a present backlog of 28,581 reported cases that have not been investigated.
I presume that these almost 30,000 cases are only a small percentage of the cases reported. My point being that the problem is much bigger than any of us suspected, and that this is not an exclusive problem of the Catholic Church. It is a human problem that we need to be aware of and address with ever-greater resolve, more resources, and renewed commitment.
I have been anticipating this Chrism Mass for some time. It is usually one of the happiest moments of the year. What can I tell you this year? We are living a very sad chapter of the history of the Catholic Church; but I am here to say that it is only a chapter, it is not the whole book. Each year, I take this occasion to thank the priests for their hard work. Many of you hold more that one job, Pastor, Parochial Vicar, Cabinet Member, Dean, Tribunal, Chancellor, Bishop's Secretary, Hospital Chaplain, Vocations Director, Campus Ministry, Family Life Director, Pro-Life Director, Health Facilities Director, Propagation of Faith Director, Continuing Education and Formation of Priests Director, Archivist, Pastoral Planning Director, Ecumenical Officer, Communications, Ministers of Confirmation, RCIA, staffing the diocesan mission in Honduras, ministries to immigrants, work in Renew 2000, Catholic Charities, Television Apostolate, CYO Director, Scout Chaplain, ...so many jobs in addition to the fine work done in the parishes. So many of you are alone in parishes with ever-growing demands. I also want to mention our retired priests who do yeoman's work, helping our harried pastors. I thank you for your faithful service under such adverse circumstances. I know that at times it is difficult to keep on going. Discouragement is our greatest enemy. May this Chrism Mass give us the chance to renew our unity in the presbyterate, to lean on Christ and one another.
I repeat to you the words of our Holy Father Pope John Paul II recalling the episode in the Gospels where Jesus reassures the Apostles in a storm tossed ship on the Sea of Galilee, the Pope makes the urgent plea: "Do not be downcast and resign yourself to the storm and sea! Instead, be united in hope and find strength in your common faith! Remember the long history of the Church. Never allow this faith to become weaker or more feeble! On board the ship of the Church, fear and complaints must never gain mastery of our hearts."
Last year at the Chrism Mass, I spoke of witnessing, being preacher and martyr. We are the Church of the martyrs and must be willing to suffer for our ministry and for our people.
Holy Week is the time when the Good Shepherd lays down His life for His people. Christ. the Priest. becomes the victim and. though innocent. takes on the guilt of the guilty. Many innocent priests are being looked upon with suspicion. as the Holy Father notes in his Holy Thursday letter to us. It is an opportunity to understand more clearly what the Passion meant for Jesus. Jesus suffered unjustly and by His stripes we are healed.
There are times when a priest suffers unjustly by association. That, too, is part of our call to be good shepherds, to resist the temptation of self-pity, and to ask the Lord to grant us courage and strength. There is a Listerine commercial that says: "Anything that tastes this bad has to be good for you." Somehow this bitter medicine will make us better priests, better fathers, and better shepherds.
The present crisis has been a "September 11th" for the Church, with all the pain and fear and upset. My prayer is that this crisis in the Church will do for us what September 11th has done for the country. I hope that we will put aside some of our rugged individualism that characterizes priests and helps us to forge the fraternity that Christ wanted us to have when He washed the feet of the first priests and gave them the commandment to "love one another".
I would hope that this crisis would make us all realize the primacy of the spiritual in our vocation. Only by an authentic personal relationship with Christ, based on asceticism and a deep prayer life, will the priest be able to survive. If we fooled ourselves into thinking that a perfunctory prayer life and a shallow spirituality reflecting pop psychology, or new age "warm fuzzies" was enough, we must now come to the moment of truth and recommit ourselves to a priestly rule of life that will generate the strength and enthusiasm needed to be fruitful and effective ministers.
People are quick to blame the Church's problem on celibacy. In fact, the Church's problems are a result of celibacy not being embraced and lived. In former times people exercised more restraint in sexual matters. Television, Hollywood, and songwriters respected certain standards. People, by and large, postponed sexual relations until they were married. Fidelity to one's spouse was taken for granted and divorce was something rare, practiced mostly by movie stars.
Today by contrast, MTV, the Internet, the music industry, and Hollywood promote promiscuity even among teens. Cohabitation is becoming the norm, adultery is winked at, divorce is rampant, and one- third of children in the United States are born out of wedlock. The sexual revolution has not been good for our country; nor has the Church been left unscathed, as the present crisis clearly indicates.
The problem is not celibacy, but living chastely in a world that has rejected any limitations on sexual activities. Today we will renew our commitment to celibacy. We must do so conscious that to live this commitment demands interior resources that come from prayer and from healthy friendships with people who share our ideals.
Celibacy is difficult, but not impossible. The Catholic people have benefitted by the availability and service of the celibate priests and nuns for two thousand years. I think of the friars from my Community who went as missionaries to the most primitive and dangerous places on the globe to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. "They took their coffins with them," that is to say, they went with the intention of serving there until they died.
Yesterday, we received reports that Father Jim Kelley, originally a priest of Fall River, had disappeared when the small plane he was piloting went down in a blizzard in Alaska. For decades, Father Kelley has worked as a missionary priest in the 160,000 sq. miles of the Archdiocese of Anchorage. Father Jim, up in his seventies, was flying to one of the twenty-three faith communities he ministered to, from Bristol Bay to the Aleutian Islands. Once again, it was his priestly commitment of celibacy that made Father Kelley available to serve God's people. This Holy Week, Father Kelley will miss the Chrism Mass, to celebrate the heavenly Liturgy of the Lamb who was slain. He is coming home to New Bedford to be buried.
The Church needs not less celibacy, but more celibacy, more fidelity in marriage, more chastity in our youth. It is truly a great challenge. When Jason Evert was here for the Diocesan Pilgrimage last week, he said that teaching chastity to our young people today is sometimes harder than talking about interracial marriage to the Ku Klux Klan.
We renew our priestly commitments today with humility, realizing that we depend on God's grace and the strength we gain by prayer and a priestly fraternity .We want to live our commitment faithfully and generously so that we will truly be more available for pastoral service, and so that the witness of our lives will inspire our married couples to fidelity in their relationships. Finally, we want to live our priestly commitment in such ways that our own lives will invite others to follow this same path.
Fr. Craig Pregana, our Vocation Director, said the other day that he feels like he is selling tickets for voyage on the Titanic. At a moment like this, we must redouble our efforts to encourage vocations. The courage, generosity , and fidelity of our diocesan priests can be an important witness to our young people about the vocation to service as a priest.
In visiting the seminaries in Cuba last month, I was amazed to discover that 90% of the seminarians are converts. It showed me that the Holy Spirit can touch peoples' hearts and draw them to a life of service, even under the most hostile circumstances.
Finally, I urge all of my brother priests to read the Holy Father's Easter Letter to Priests. The theme this year is the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He uses the story of Zachaeus (a Biblical icon, he calls him) to illustrate his teaching on confession.
I close my reflections by making the Holy Father's words my own:
"It is precisely our faith in Christ that gives us the strength to look trustingly to the future. We know that the human heart has always been attracted to evil, and that man will be able to radiate peace and love to those around him only if he meets Christ and allows himself to be 'overtaken' by Him.”
As Ministers of the Eucharist and of Sacramental Reconciliation, we, in particular, have the task of communicating hope, goodness, and peace to the world. My wish is that you will live this most holy day in peace of heart, in profound communion among yourselves, with your Bishop and with your communities, as we recall, with the institution of the Eucharist, our own "birth" as priests. With the words of Christ to the Apostles in the Upper Room after the Resurrection, and calling upon the Blessed Virgin, the Mother of the Good Shepherd, I warmly embrace you all as brothers.
Peace, peace to each and every one of you.