The morning of Holy Thursday has long been the traditional time for the celebration of this Mass for the blessing of the Oil of the Sick and the Oil of Catechumens and the consecration of the Sacred Chrism. The introduction to the rite permits, however, that if it is too difficult for the clergy and people to gather with the Bishop on Holy Thursday, this Mass may be anticipated earlier in the week, especially as it is highly encouraged that all priests participate in it, signifying their unity in the presbyterate of the diocese, and manifesting their communion with their Bishop. In a further extension from the Cathedral Church, we have established the custom of moving the celebration of the Mass to two regional centres, so that many more of the priestly people of God can also participate in the celebration of this liturgy on which the spiritual and sacramental life of the diocese is so clearly focussed each year.
So I thank you, dear people of Kempsey, for making your parish church the Cathedral for this day, and welcoming the Diocese to your midst. I am especially pleased to see present young Catholics from the parish and the diocese as you witness the blessing of the holy oils which were used in your baptism and confirmation, and which are destined for the anointing of the sick and the ordination of priests and bishops.
I think that one of the reasons why the Catholic people have responded so warmly to the opportunity to join in this Mass is that they see it as a moment in which to express their solidarity with their priests and their gratitude for all the good work done by their priests. It is also a moment to pray for the priests who serve you, and for an increase in the number of young men who will listen thoughtfully and prayerfully to God’s call to serve Him as His priests. They certainly need our prayers so that they will be enabled to respond with faith and strength of character to overcome the obstacles which certainly will be put in their way. This past year has not been an easy one, and we cannot but recall this evening the memory of Father Charles Kakumanu and Father Steve O’Donnell who died tragically on the Pacific Highway on the morning after this Mass last year. May they rest in peace. We have had other sadnesses too. But God is good, and we rejoice in the vocations of our seminarians, some of whom are with us tonight. Pray that their numbers may be at least doubled to eight for next year in a fruitful outcome following my recent visit to the Philippines, where the Church is blessed with so many young families and vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
As a baptised and priestly people we treasure the priesthood because these are the chosen men who in a unique way follow the example of Christ our Lord and are anointed for service in His Church: they are set in the midst of the Church to be bringers of the good news, of spiritual liberty, of inward sight, and freedom for the oppressed of soul. As Pope John Paul so often reminded us, we are ordained to stand among you literally, not figuratively or as mere signs, as other Christs. The man in the priestly vestments you see standing at the altar Sunday by Sunday is standing there with hands raised to heaven in the person of Christ Himself, the great High Priest. He is not there in the sum total just of his human qualities of personality, leadership, attractiveness, likeability and virtues. In the consecration of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ the sacramental priest speaks Christ’s very words in Christ’s name, and the Holy Spirit right there in those human hands brings about that change as monumental in its power as the creation of the universe or the conception of the eternal Word within the womb of His Virgin Mother. Whatever we many see, like or dislike in our priests and bishops, it is faith which lights up the real vision: they stand albeit sinners like everyone else in the church, to take words from the Second Reading, in the person of ‘the Faithful Witness, the First-born from the dead, the Ruler of the kings of the earth’, who enabled our sins to be forgiven by His death on the cross. Through and by means of what our priests do in their sacramental ministry they act in the person of Him who is ‘the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega’, and prepare us to meet Him when He returns in glory at the end of time to judge the living and the dead.
The second reading of this Mass sets the truth before us in these grand and apocalyptic terms perhaps to remind us not to lose sight of it in the more human and homely circumstances of our priestly ministry of service. Whatever we priests do, we always do it wrapped around with the towel of service. The priest, like his Lord, is for ever loving his people to the end, and laying down his life for his friends. Whatever we priests do always has its reference to the Last Supper and the Cross, the two points from which the central purpose of our ministry derives its origin, the sacrificial banquet of the Eucharist.
It is in this context that I wish to take this opportunity again to refer to Pope Benedict’s Apostolic Exhortation of last year on the Eucharist, Sacramentum Caritatis, the Sacrament of Love. The Church places in our hands, my dear brother priests, many beautiful teachings on the Eucharist, none more so than in the later years of Pope John Paul the Great. Pope Benedict’s writing in this recent document can be seen as a practical summary and synthesis of much of this teaching, gathering up the outcomes of the 2005 Synod of Bishops, as well as the Eucharistic references in Pope Benedict’s first Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. Sacramentum Caritatis, as you recall, treats of the Eucharist in threefold terms: A Mystery to be Believed, a Mystery to be Celebrated, and a Mystery to be Lived. Each of us priests can read and reread Sacramentum Caritatis with profit, spiritually and practically in terms of how we approach the actual celebration of the Eucharist, helping us to recalibrate, as it were, our understanding, attitudes and approaches. In my estimation this will be a wonderful preparation and guide as we take on the responsibility of the forthcoming implementation in our parishes, from Pentecost onwards, of the new edition of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal.
As we continue the celebration of this Mass let us ask the Blessed Virgin’s help that we may be drawn powerfully into the heart of the work of our Redeemer, so that we His followers may in receiving His Body and Blood become ever more truly the Body of Christ.