Entry 0523: Homilies Delivered During the Celebration
of the Chrism Mass by Pope Francis
On four occasions during his pontificate, Pope Francis has delivered reflections on Holy Thursday during the celebration of the Chrism Mass, on 28 March 2013, 17 April 2014, 2 April 2015, and 24 March 2016. Here are the texts of the four homilies delivered on these occasions.
HOMILY OF POPE FRANCIS
Saint Peter’s Basilica, Holy Thursday, 28 March 2013
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
This morning I have the joy of celebrating my first Chrism Mass as the Bishop of Rome. I greet all of you with affection, especially you, dear priests, who, like myself, today recall the day of your ordination.
The readings and the Psalm of our Mass speak of God’s “anointed ones:” the suffering Servant of Isaiah, King David and Jesus our Lord. All three have this in common: the anointing that they receive is meant in turn to anoint God’s faithful people, whose servants they are; they are anointed for the poor, for prisoners, for the oppressed. A fine image of this “being for” others can be found in the Psalm 133: “It is like the precious oil upon the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down upon the collar of his robe” (v. 2). The image of spreading oil, flowing down from the beard of Aaron upon the collar of his sacred robe, is an image of the priestly anointing which, through Christ, the Anointed One, reaches the ends of the earth, represented by the robe.
The sacred robes of the High Priest are rich in symbolism. One such symbol is that the names of the children of Israel were engraved on the onyx stones mounted on the shoulder-pieces of the ephod, the ancestor of our present-day chasuble: six on the stone of the right shoulder-piece and six on that of the left (see Ex 28:6-14). The names of the twelve tribes of
Israel were also engraved on the breastplate (see Es
28:21). This means that the priest celebrates by carrying on his shoulders the people
entrusted to his care and bearing their names written in his heart. When we put
on our simple chasuble, it might well make us feel, upon our shoulders and in our
hearts, the burdens and the faces of our faithful people, our saints and martyrs
who are numerous in these times.
From the beauty of all these liturgical things, which is not so much about trappings and fine fabrics than about the glory of our God resplendent in his people, alive and strengthened, we turn now to a consideration of activity, action. The precious oil which anoints the head of Aaron does more than simply lend fragrance to his person; it overflows down to “the edges.” The Lord will say this clearly: his anointing is meant for the poor, prisoners and the sick, for those who are sorrowing and alone. My dear brothers, the ointment is not intended just to make us fragrant, much less to be kept in a jar, for then it would become rancid, and the heart bitter.
A good priest can be recognized by the way his people are anointed: this is a clear proof. When our people are anointed with the oil of gladness, it is obvious: for example, when they leave Mass looking as if they have heard good news. Our people like to hear the Gospel preached with “unction,” they like it when the Gospel we preach touches their daily lives, when it runs down like the oil of Aaron to the edges of reality, when it brings light to moments of extreme darkness, to the “outskirts” where people of faith are most exposed to the onslaught of those who want to tear down their faith. People thank us because they feel that we have prayed over the realities of their everyday lives, their troubles, their joys, their burdens and their hopes. And when they feel that the fragrance of the Anointed One, of Christ, has come to them through us, they feel encouraged to entrust to us everything they want to bring before the Lord: “Pray for me, Father, because I have this problem,” “Bless me Father,” “Pray for me”—these words are the sign that the anointing has flowed down to the edges of the robe, for it has turned into a prayer of supplication, the supplication of the People of God. When we have this relationship with God and with his people, and grace passes through us, then we are priests, mediators between God and men. What I want to emphasize is that we need constantly to stir up God’s grace and perceive in every request, even those requests that are inconvenient and at times purely material or downright banal—but only apparently so—the desire of our people to be anointed with fragrant oil, since they know that we have it. To perceive and to sense, even as the Lord sensed the hope-filled anguish of the woman suffering from hemorrhages when she touched the hem of his garment. At that moment, Jesus, surrounded by people on every side, embodies all the beauty of Aaron vested in priestly raiment, with the oil running down upon his robes. It is a hidden beauty, one which shines forth only for those faith-filled eyes of the woman troubled with an issue of blood. But not even the disciples—future priests—see or understand: on the “existential outskirts,” they see only what is on the surface: the crowd pressing in on Jesus from all sides (see Lk 8:42). The Lord, on the other hand, feels the power of the divine anointing which runs down to the edge of his cloak.
We need to “go out,” then, in order to experience our own anointing, its power and its redemptive efficacy: to the “outskirts” where there is suffering, bloodshed, blindness that longs for sight, and prisoners in thrall to many evil masters. It is not in soul-searching or constant introspection that we encounter the Lord: self-help courses can be useful in life, but to live our priestly life going from one course to another, from one method to another, leads us to become pelagians and to minimize the power of grace, which comes alive and flourishes to the extent that we, in faith, go out and give ourselves and the Gospel to others, giving what little ointment we have to those who have nothing, nothing at all.
The priest who seldom goes out of himself, who anoints little—I won’t say “not at all” because, thank God, the people take the oil from us anyway—misses out on the best of our people, on what can stir the depths of his priestly heart. Those who do not go out of themselves, instead of being mediators, gradually become intermediaries, managers. We know the difference: the intermediary, the 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 is precisely the reason for the dissatisfaction of some, who end up sad—sad priests—in some sense becoming collectors of antiques or novelties, instead of being shepherds living with “the odor of the sheep.” This I ask you: be shepherds, with the “odor of the sheep,” make it real, as shepherds among your flock, fishers of men. True enough, the so-called crisis of priestly identity threatens us all and adds to the broader cultural crisis; but if we can resist its onslaught, we will be able to put out in the name of the Lord and cast our nets. It is not a bad thing that reality itself forces us to “put out into the deep,” where what we are by grace is clearly seen as pure grace, out into the deep of the contemporary world, where the only thing that counts is “unction”—not function—and the nets which overflow with fish are those cast solely in the name of the One in whom we have put our trust: Jesus.
Dear lay faithful, be close to your priests with affection and with your prayers, that they may always be shepherds according to God’s heart.
Dear priests, may God the Father renew in us the Spirit of holiness with whom we have been anointed. May he renew his Spirit in our hearts, that this anointing may spread to everyone, even to those “outskirts” where our faithful people most look for it and most appreciate it. May our people sense that we are the Lord’s disciples; may they feel that their names are written upon our priestly vestments and that we seek no other identity; and may they receive through our words and deeds the oil of gladness which Jesus, the Anointed One, came to bring us. Amen.
HOMILY OF POPE FRANCIS
Saint Peter’s Basilica, Holy Thursday, 17 April 2014
Anointed with the oil of gladness
Dear Brother Priests,
In the eternal “today” of Holy Thursday, when Christ showed his love for us to the end (see Jn 13:1), we recall the happy day of the institution of the priesthood, as well as the day of our own priestly ordination. The Lord anointed us in Christ with the oil of gladness, and this anointing invites us to accept and appreciate this great gift: the gladness, the joy of being a priest. Priestly joy is a priceless treasure, not only for the priest himself but for the entire faithful people of God: that faithful people from which he is called to be anointed and which he, in turn, is sent to anoint.
Anointed with the oil of gladness so as to anoint others with the oil of gladness. Priestly joy has its source in the Father’s love, and the Lord wishes the joy of this Love to be “ours” and to be “complete” (Jn 15:11). I like to reflect on joy by contemplating Our Lady, for Mary, the “Mother of the living Gospel, is a wellspring of joy for God’s little ones” (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 288). I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that priest is very little indeed: the incomparable grandeur of the gift granted us for the ministry sets us among the least of men. The priest is the poorest of men unless Jesus enriches him by his poverty, the most useless of servants unless Jesus calls him his friend, the most ignorant of men unless Jesus patiently teaches him as he did Peter, the frailest of Christians unless the Good Shepherd strengthens him in the midst of the flock. No one is more “little” than a priest left to his own devices; and so our prayer of protection against every snare of the Evil One is the prayer of our Mother: I am a priest because he has regarded my littleness (see Lk 1:48). And in that littleness we find our joy. Joy in our littleness!
For me, there are three significant features of our priestly joy. It is a joy which anoints us (not one which “greases” us, making us unctuous, sumptuous and presumptuous), it is a joy which is imperishable and it is a missionary joy which spreads and attracts, starting backwards—with those farthest away from us.
A joy which anoints us. In a word: it has penetrated deep within our hearts, it has shaped them and strengthened them sacramentally. The signs of the ordination liturgy speak to us of the Church’s maternal desire to pass on and share with others all that the Lord has given us: the laying on of hands, the anointing with sacred chrism, the clothing with sacred vestments, the first consecration which immediately follows. Grace fills us to the brim and overflows, fully, abundantly and entirely in each priest. We are anointed down to our very bones, and our joy, which wells up from deep within, is the echo of this anointing.
An imperishable joy. The fullness of the Gift, which no one can take away or increase, is an unfailing source of joy: an imperishable joy which the Lord has promised no one can take from us (Jn 16:22). It can lie dormant, or be clogged by sin or by life’s troubles, yet deep down it remains intact, like the embers of a burnt log beneath the ashes, and it can always be renewed. Paul’s exhortation to Timothy remains ever timely: I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands (see 2 Tim 1:6).
A missionary joy. I would like especially to share with you and to stress this third feature: priestly joy is deeply bound up with God’s holy and faithful people, for it is an eminently missionary joy. Our anointing is meant for anointing God’s holy and faithful people: for baptizing and confirming them, healing and sanctifying them, blessing, comforting and evangelizing them.
And since this joy is one which only springs up when the shepherd is in the midst of his flock (for even in the silence of his prayer, the shepherd who worships the Father is with his sheep), it is a “guarded joy,” watched over by the flock itself. Even in those gloomy moments when everything looks dark and a feeling of isolation takes hold of us, in those moments of listlessness and boredom which at times overcome us in our priestly life (and which I too have experienced), even in those moments God’s people are able to “guard” that joy; they are able to protect you, to embrace you and to help you open your heart to find renewed joy.
A “guarded joy:” one guarded by the flock but also guarded by three sisters who surround it, tend it and defend it: sister poverty, sister fidelity and sister obedience.
The joy of priests is a joy which is sister to poverty. The priest is poor in terms of purely human joy. He has given up so much! And because he is poor, he, who gives so much to others, has to seek his joy from the Lord and from God’s faithful people. He doesn’t need to try to create it for himself. We know that our people are very generous in thanking priests for their slightest blessing and especially for the sacraments. Many people, in speaking of the crisis of priestly identity, fail to realize that identity presupposes belonging. There is no identity—and consequently joy of life—without an active and unwavering sense of belonging to God’s faithful people (see Evangelii Gaudium, no. 268). The priest who tries to find his priestly identity by soul-searching and introspection may well encounter nothing more than “exit” signs, signs that say: exit from yourself, exit to seek God in adoration, go out and give your people what was entrusted to you, for your people will make you feel and taste who you are, what your name is, what your identity is, and they will make you rejoice in that hundredfold which the Lord has promised to those who serve him. Unless you “exit” from yourself, the oil grows rancid and the anointing cannot be fruitful. Going out from ourselves presupposes self-denial; it means poverty.
Priestly joy is a joy which is sister to fidelity. Not primarily in the sense that we are all “immaculate” (would that by God’s grace we were!), for we are sinners, but in the sense of an ever renewed fidelity to the one Bride, to the Church. Here fruitfulness is key. The spiritual children which the Lord gives each priest, the children he has baptized, the families he has blessed and helped on their way, the sick he has comforted, the young people he catechizes and helps to grow, the poor he assists, all these are the “Bride” whom he rejoices to treat as his supreme and only love and to whom he is constantly faithful. It is the living Church, with a first name and a last name, which the priest shepherds in his parish or in the mission entrusted to him. That mission brings him joy whenever he is faithful to it, whenever he does all that he has to do and lets go of everything that he has to let go of, as long as he stands firm amid the flock which the Lord has entrusted to him: Feed my sheep (see Jn 21:16,17).
Priestly joy is a joy which is sister to obedience. An obedience to the Church in the hierarchy which gives us, as it were, not simply the external framework for our obedience: the parish to which I am sent, my ministerial assignments, my particular work, but also union with God the Father, the source of all fatherhood. It is likewise an obedience to the Church in service: in availability and readiness to serve everyone, always and as best I can, following the example of “Our Lady of Promptness” (see Lk 1:39, meta spoudes), who hastens to serve Elizabeth her kinswoman and is concerned for the kitchen of Cana when the wine runs out. The availability of her priests makes the Church a house with open doors, a refuge for sinners, a home for people living on the streets, a place of loving care for the sick, a camp for the young, a classroom for catechizing children about to make their First Communion. Wherever God’s people have desires or needs, there is the priest, who knows how to listen (ob-audire) and feels a loving mandate from Christ who sends him to relieve that need with mercy or to encourage those good desires with resourceful charity.
All who are called should know that genuine and complete joy does exist in this world: it is the joy of being taken from the people we love and then being sent back to them as dispensers of the gifts and counsels of Jesus, the one Good Shepherd who, with deep compassion for all the little ones and the outcasts of this earth, wearied and oppressed like sheep without a shepherd, wants to associate many others to his ministry, so as himself to remain with us and to work, in the person of his priests, for the good of his people.
On this Holy Thursday, I ask the Lord Jesus to enable many young people to discover that burning zeal which joy kindles in our hearts as soon as we have the stroke of boldness needed to respond willingly to his call.
On this Holy Thursday, I ask the Lord Jesus to preserve the joy sparkling in the eyes of the recently ordained who go forth to devour the world, to spend themselves fully in the midst of God’s faithful people, rejoicing as they prepare their first homily, their first Mass, their first Baptism, their first confession. It is the joy of being able to share with wonder, and for the first time as God’s anointed, the treasure of the Gospel and to feel the faithful people anointing you again and in yet another way: by their requests, by bowing their heads for your blessing, by taking your hands, by bringing you their children, by pleading for their sick. Preserve, Lord, in your young priests the joy of going forth, of doing everything as if for the first time, the joy of spending their lives fully for you.
On this Thursday of the priesthood, I ask the Lord Jesus to confirm the priestly joy of those who have already ministered for some years. The joy which, without leaving their eyes, is also found on the shoulders of those who bear the burden of the ministry, those priests who, having experienced the labors of the apostolate, gather their strength and rearm themselves: “get a second wind,” as the athletes say. Lord, preserve the depth, wisdom and maturity of the joy felt by these older priests. May they be able to pray with Nehemiah: “the joy of the Lord is my strength” (see Neh 8:10).
Finally, on this Thursday of the priesthood, I ask the Lord Jesus to make better known the joy of elderly priests, whether healthy or infirm. It is the joy of the Cross, which springs from the knowledge that we possess an imperishable treasure in perishable earthen vessels. May these priests find happiness wherever they are; may they experience already, in the passage of the years, a taste of eternity (Guardini). May they know, Lord, the joy of handing on the torch, the joy of seeing new generations of their spiritual children, and of hailing the promises from afar, smiling and at peace, in that hope which does not disappoint.
HOMILY OF POPE FRANCIS
Saint Peter’s Basilica, Holy Thursday, 2 April 2015
“My hand shall ever abide with him, my arms also shall strengthen him” (Ps 89:21).
This is what the Lord means when he says: “I have found David, my servant; with my holy oil I have anointed him” (v. 20). It is also what our Father thinks whenever he “encounters” a priest. And he goes on to say: “My faithfulness and my steadfast love shall be with him. He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father, my God and the rock of my salvation’” (vv. 24, 26).
It is good to enter with the Psalmist into this monologue of our God. He is talking about us, his priests, his pastors. But it is not really a monologue, since he is not the only one speaking. The Father says to Jesus: “Your friends, those who love you, can say to me in a particular way: ‘You are my Father’” (see Jn 14:21). If the Lord is so concerned about helping us, it is because he knows that the task of anointing his faithful people is not easy, it is demanding; it can tire us. We experience this in so many ways: from the ordinary fatigue brought on by our daily apostolate to the weariness of sickness, death and even martyrdom.
The tiredness of priests! Do you know how often I think about this weariness which all of you experience? I think about it and I pray about it, often, especially when I am tired myself. I pray for you as you labor amid the people of God entrusted to your care, many of you in lonely and dangerous places. Our weariness, dear priests, is like incense which silently rises up to heaven (see Ps 141:2; Rev 8:3-4). Our weariness goes straight to the heart of the Father.
Know that the Blessed Virgin Mary is well aware of this tiredness and she brings it straight to the Lord. As our Mother, she knows when her children are weary, and this is her greatest concern. “Welcome! Rest, my child. We will speak afterwards.” “Whenever we draw near to her, she says to us: ‘Am I not here with you, I who am your Mother?’” (see Evangelii Gaudium, no. 286). And to her Son she will say, as she did at Cana, “They have no wine” (Jn 2:3).
It can also happen that, whenever we feel weighed down by pastoral work, we can be tempted to rest however we please, as if rest were not itself a gift of God. We must not fall into this temptation. Our weariness is precious in the eyes of Jesus who embraces us and lifts us up. “Come to me, all who labor and are overburdened, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28). Whenever a priest feels dead tired, yet is able to bow down in adoration and say: “Enough for today Lord,” and entrust himself to the Father, he knows that he will not fall but be renewed. The one who anoints God’s faithful people with oil is also himself anointed by the Lord: “He gives you a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit” (see Is 61:3).
Let us never forget that a key to fruitful priestly ministry lies in how we rest and in how we look at the way the Lord deals with our weariness. How difficult it is to learn how to rest! This says much about our trust and our ability to realize that that we too are sheep: we need the help of the Shepherd. A few questions can help us in this regard.
Do I know how to rest by accepting the love, gratitude and affection which I receive from God’s faithful people? Or, once my pastoral work is done, do I seek more refined relaxations, not those of the poor but those provided by a consumerist society? Is the Holy Spirit truly “rest in times of weariness” for me, or is he just someone who keeps me busy? Do I know how to seek help from a wise priest? Do I know how to take a break from myself, from the demands I make on myself, from my self-seeking and from my self-absorption? Do I know how to spend time with Jesus, with the Father, with the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph, with my patron saints, and to find rest in their demands, which are easy and light, and in their pleasures, for they delight to be in my company, and in their concerns and standards, which have only to do with the greater glory of God? Do I know how to rest from my enemies under the Lord’s protection? Am I preoccupied with how I should speak and act, or do I entrust myself to the Holy Spirit, who will teach me what I need to say in every situation? Do I worry needlessly, or, like Paul, do I find repose by saying: “I know him in whom I have placed my trust” (2 Tim 1:12)?
Let us return for a moment to what today’s liturgy describes as the work of the priest: to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom to prisoners and healing to the blind, to offer liberation to the downtrodden and to announce the year of the Lord’s favor. Isaiah also mentions consoling the broken-hearted and comforting the afflicted.
These are not easy or purely mechanical jobs, like running an office, building a parish hall or laying out a soccer field for the young of the parish. The tasks of which Jesus speaks call for the ability to show compassion; our hearts are to be “moved” and fully engaged in carrying them out. We are to rejoice with couples who marry; we are to laugh with the children brought to the baptismal font; we are to accompany young fiancés and families; we are to suffer with those who receive the anointing of the sick in their hospital beds; we are to mourn with those burying a loved one. All these emotions, if we do not have an open heart, can exhaust the heart of a shepherd. For us priests, what happens in the lives of our people is not like a news bulletin: we know our people, we sense what is going on in their hearts. Our own heart, sharing in their suffering, feels “com-passion,” is exhausted, broken into a thousand pieces, moved and even “consumed” by the people. Take this, eat this. These are the words the priest of Jesus whispers repeatedly while caring for his faithful people: Take this, eat this; take this, drink this. In this way our priestly life is given over in service, in closeness to the People of God, and this always leaves us weary.
I wish to share with you some forms of weariness on which I have meditated.
There is what we can call “the weariness of people, the weariness of the crowd.” For the Lord, and for us, this can be exhausting—so the Gospel tells us—yet it is a good weariness, a fruitful and joyful exhaustion. The people who followed Jesus, the families which brought their children to him to be blessed, those who had been cured, those who came with their friends, the young people who were so excited about the Master, they did not even leave him time to eat. But the Lord never tired of being with people. On the contrary, he seemed renewed by their presence (see Evangelii Gaudium, no. 11). This weariness in the midst of activity is a grace on which all priests can draw (see ibid., no. 279). And how beautiful it is! People love their priests, they want and need their shepherds! The faithful never leave us without something to do, unless we hide in our offices or go out in our cars wearing sun glasses. There is a good and healthy tiredness. It is the exhaustion of the priest who wears the smell of the sheep, but also smiles the smile of a father rejoicing in his children or grandchildren. It has nothing to do with those who wear expensive cologne and who look at others from afar and from above (see ibid., no. 97). We are the friends of the Bridegroom: this is our joy. If Jesus is shepherding the flock in our midst, we cannot be shepherds who are glum, plaintive or, even worse, bored. The smell of the sheep and the smile of a father. Weary, yes, but with the joy of those who hear the Lord saying: “Come, O blessed of my Father” (Mt 25:34).
There is also the kind of weariness which we can call “the weariness of enemies.” The devil and his minions never sleep and, since their ears cannot bear to hear the word of God, they work tirelessly to silence that word and to distort it. Confronting them is more wearying. It involves not only doing good, with all the exertion this entails, but also defending the flock and oneself from evil (see Evangelii Gaudium, no. 83). The evil one is far more astute than we are, and he is able to demolish in a moment what it took us years of patience to build up. Here we need to implore the grace to learn how to “offset” (and it is an important habit to acquire): to thwart evil without pulling up the good wheat, or presuming to protect like supermen what the Lord alone can protect. All this helps us not to let our guard down before the depths of iniquity, before the mockery of the wicked. In these situations of weariness, the Lord says to us: “Have courage! I have overcome the world!” (Jn 16:33). The word of God gives us strength.
And finally—I say finally lest you be too wearied by this homily itself!—there is also “weariness of ourselves” (see Evangelii Gaudium, no. 277). This may be the most dangerous weariness of all. That is because the other two kinds come from being exposed, from going out of ourselves to anoint and to do battle (for our job is to care for others). But this third kind of weariness is more “self-referential:” it is dissatisfaction with oneself, but not the dissatisfaction of someone who directly confronts himself and serenely acknowledges his sinfulness and his need for God’s mercy, his help; such people ask for help and then move forward. Here we are speaking of a weariness associated with “wanting yet not wanting,” having given up everything but continuing to yearn for the fleshpots of Egypt, toying with the illusion of being something different. I like to call this kind of weariness “flirting with spiritual worldliness.” When we are alone, we realize how many areas of our life are steeped in this worldliness, so much so that we may feel that it can never be completely washed away. This can be a dangerous kind of weariness. The Book of Revelation shows us the reason for this weariness: “You have borne up for my sake and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first” (Rev 2:3-4). Only love gives true rest. What is not loved becomes tiresome, and in time, brings about a harmful weariness.
The most profound and mysterious image of how the Lord deals with our pastoral tiredness is that, “having loved his own, he loved them to the end” (Jn 13:1): the scene of his washing the feet of his disciples. I like to think of this as the cleansing of discipleship. The Lord purifies the path of discipleship itself. He “gets involved” with us (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 24), becomes personally responsible for removing every stain, all that grimy, worldly smog which clings to us from the journey we make in his name.
From our feet, we can tell how the rest of our body is doing. The way we follow the Lord reveals how our heart is faring. The wounds on our feet, our sprains and our weariness, are signs of how we have followed him, of the paths we have taken in seeking the lost sheep and in leading the flock to green pastures and still waters (see ibid., no. 270). The Lord washes us and cleanses us of all the dirt our feet have accumulated in following him. This is something holy. Do not let your feet remain dirty. Like battle wounds, the Lord kisses them and washes away the grime of our labors.
Our discipleship itself is cleansed by Jesus, so that we can rightly feel “joyful,” “fulfilled,” “free of fear and guilt,” and impelled to go out “even to the ends of the earth, to every periphery.” In this way we can bring the good news to the most abandoned, knowing that “he is with us always, even to the end of the world.” And please, let us ask for the grace to learn how to be weary, but weary in the best of ways!
HOMILY OF POPE FRANCIS
Vatican Basilica, Holy Thursday, 24 March 2016
After hearing Jesus read from the Prophet Isaiah and say: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21), the congregation in the synagogue of Nazareth might well have burst into applause. They might have then wept for joy, as did the people when Nehemiah and Ezra the priest read from the book of the Law found while they were rebuilding the walls. But the Gospels tell us that Jesus’ townspeople did the opposite; they closed their hearts to him and sent him off. At first, “all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words that came from his mouth” (4:22). But then an insidious question began to make the rounds: “Is this not the son of Joseph, the carpenter?” (4:22). And then, “they were filled with rage” (4:28). They wanted to throw him off the cliff. This was in fulfilment of the elderly Simeon’s prophecy to the Virgin Mary that he would be “a sign of contradiction” (2:34). By his words and actions, Jesus lays bare the secrets of the heart of every man and woman.
Where the Lord proclaims the Gospel of the Father’s unconditional mercy to the poor, the outcast and the oppressed, is the very place we are called to take a stand, to “fight the good fight of the faith” (1 Tim 6:12). His battle is not against men and women, but against the devil (see Eph 6:12), the enemy of humanity. But the Lord “passes through the midst” of all those who would stop him and “continues on his way” (Lk 4:30). Jesus does not fight to build power. If he breaks down walls and challenges our sense of security, he does this to open the flood gates of that mercy which, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, he wants to pour out upon our world. A mercy which expands; it proclaims and brings newness; it heals, liberates and proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor.
The mercy of our God is infinite and indescribable. We express the power of this mystery as an “ever greater” mercy, a mercy in motion, a mercy that each day seeks to make progress, taking small steps forward and advancing in that wasteland where indifference and violence have predominated.
This was the way of the Good Samaritan, who “showed mercy” (see Lk 10:37): he was moved, he drew near to the wounded man, he bandaged his wounds, took him to the inn, stayed there that evening and promised to return and cover any further cost. This is the way of mercy, which gathers together small gestures. Without demeaning, it grows with each helpful sign and act of love. Every one of us, looking at our own lives as God does, can try to remember the ways in which the Lord has been merciful towards us, how he has been much more merciful than we imagined. In this we can find the courage to ask him to take a step further and to reveal yet more of his mercy in the future: “Show us, Lord, your mercy” (Ps 85:8). This paradoxical way of praying to an ever more merciful God, helps us to tear down those walls with which we try to contain the abundant greatness of his heart. It is good for us to break out of our set ways, because it is proper to the Heart of God to overflow with tenderness, with ever more to give. For the Lord prefers something to be wasted rather than one drop of mercy be held back. He would rather have many seeds be carried off by the birds of the air than have one seed be missing, since each of those seeds has the capacity to bear abundant fruit, thirtyfold, sixtyfold, even a hundredfold.
As priests, we are witnesses to and ministers of the ever-increasing abundance of the Father’s mercy; we have the rewarding and consoling task of incarnating mercy, as Jesus did, who “went about doing good and healing” (Acts 10:38) in a thousand ways so that it could touch everyone. We can help to inculturate mercy, so that each person can embrace it and experience it personally. This will help all people truly understand and practice mercy with creativity, in ways that respect their local cultures and families.
Today, during this Holy Thursday of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, I would like to speak of two areas in which the Lord shows excess in mercy. Based on his example, we also should not hesitate in showing excess. The first area I am referring to is encounter; the second is God’s forgiveness, which shames us while also giving us dignity.
The first area where we see God showing excess in his ever-increasing mercy is that of encounter. He gives himself completely and in such a way that every encounter leads to rejoicing. In the parable of the Merciful Father we are astounded by the man who runs, deeply moved, to his son, and throws his arms around him; we see how he embraces his son, kisses him, puts a ring on his finger, and then gives him his sandals, thus showing that he is a son and not a servant. Finally, he gives orders to everyone and organizes a party. In contemplating with awe this superabundance of the Father’s joy that is freely and boundlessly expressed when his son returns, we should not be fearful of exaggerating our gratitude. Our attitude should be that of the poor leper who, seeing himself healed, leaves his nine friends who go off to do what Jesus ordered, and goes back to kneel at the feet of the Lord, glorifying and thanking God aloud.
Mercy restores everything; it restores dignity to each person. This is why effusive gratitude is the proper response: we have to go the party, to put on our best clothes, to cast off the rancor of the elder brother, to rejoice and give thanks. Only in this way, participating fully in such rejoicing, is it possible to think straight, to ask for forgiveness, and see more clearly how to make up for the evil we have committed. It would be good for us to ask ourselves: after going to confession, do I rejoice? Or do I move on immediately to the next thing, as we would after going to the doctor, when we hear that the test results are not so bad and put them back in their envelope? And when I give alms, do I give time to the person who receives them to express their gratitude, do I celebrate the smile and the blessings that the poor offer, or do I continue on in haste with my own affairs after tossing in a coin?
The second area in which we see how God exceeds in his ever greater mercy is forgiveness itself. God does not only forgive incalculable debts, as he does to that servant who begs for mercy but is then miserly to his own debtor; he also enables us to move directly from the most shameful disgrace to the highest dignity without any intermediary stages. The Lords allows the forgiven woman to wash his feet with her tears. As soon as Simon confesses his sin and begs Jesus to send him away, the Lord raises him to be a fisher of men. We, however, tend to separate these two attitudes: when we are ashamed of our sins, we hide ourselves and walk around with our heads down, like Adam and Eve; and when we are raised up to some dignity, we try to cover up our sins and take pleasure in being seen, almost showing off.
Our response to God’s superabundant forgiveness should be always to preserve that healthy tension between a dignified shame and a shamed dignity. It is the attitude of one who seeks a humble and lowly place, but who can also allow the Lord to raise him up for the good of the mission, without complacency. The model that the Gospel consecrates, and which can help us when we confess our sins, is Peter, who allowed himself to be questioned about his love for the Lord, but who also renewed his acceptance of the ministry of shepherding the flock which the Lord had entrusted to him.
To grow in this “dignity which is capable of humbling itself,” and which delivers us from thinking that we are more or are less than what we are by grace, can help us understand the words of the prophet Isaiah that immediately follow the passage our Lord read in the synagogue at Nazareth: “You will be called priests of the Lord, ministers of our God” (Is 61:6). It is people who are poor, hungry, prisoners of war, without a future, cast to one side and rejected, that the Lord transforms into a priestly people.
As priests, we identify with people who are excluded, people the Lord saves. We remind ourselves that there are countless masses of people who are poor, uneducated, prisoners, who find themselves in such situations because others oppress them. But we too remember that each of us knows the extent to which we too are often blind, lacking the radiant light of faith, not because we do not have the Gospel close at hand, but because of an excess of complicated theology. We feel that our soul thirsts for spirituality, not for a lack of Living Water which we only sip from, but because of an excessive “bubbly” spirituality, a “light” spirituality. We feel ourselves also trapped, not so much by insurmountable stone walls or steel enclosures that affect many peoples, but rather by a digital, virtual worldliness that is opened and closed by a simple click. We are oppressed, not by threats and pressures, like so many poor people, but by the allure of a thousand commercial advertisements which we cannot shrug off to walk ahead, freely, along paths that lead us to love of our brothers and sisters, to the Lord’s flock, to the sheep who wait for the voice of their shepherds.
Jesus comes to redeem us, to send us out, to transform us from being poor and blind, imprisoned and oppressed, to become ministers of mercy and consolation. He says to us, using the words the prophet Ezekiel spoke to the people who sold themselves and betrayed the Lord: “I will remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth. Then you will remember your ways, and be ashamed when I take your sisters, both your elder and your younger, and give them to you as daughters, but not on account of the covenant with you. I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the Lord, that you may remember and be confounded, and never open your mouth again because of your shame, when I forgive you all that you have done, says the Lord God” (Ezek 16:60-63).
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For reflections delivered during the celebration of the Chrism Mass
by Pope Benedict XVI,
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For reflections delivered during the celebration of the Chrism Mass
by Pope Benedict XVI,
please scroll down to the bottom of this page.
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