Without a doubt, Holy Week marks the high point of the liturgical year. It’s a very significant time for every Catholic, as we follow Jesus with a lively faith and strive to share once again in the fullness of the Paschal Mystery. As the Preface for the Passion of the Lord reminds us: “The days of his life-giving death and glorious resurrection are approaching. This is the hour when Christ triumphed over Satan’s pride, the time when we celebrate the great event of our redemption.”
But if Holy Week is special for all God’s People, it has particular meaning for our priests, and one of the celebrations that highlights that truth is the annual Chrism Mass.
The Chrism Mass is always celebrated during Holy Week, in this Diocese on Monday evening. At this beautiful and rich liturgy, the holy oils that are used for the Sacraments throughout the year are blessed and then distributed to our parishes. Additionally, as the Roman Missal says, “This Mass, which the bishop concelebrates with his presbyterium manifests the communion of the priests with their bishop . . . To show the unity of the presbyterium, the priests who concelebrate with the bishop should come from different parts of the diocese.”
The Chrism Mass, renewed in recent years, has become a vibrant event in many dioceses. In Providence too, it is a very special part of our liturgical life, bringing together most of the priests and many of the faithful of our diocesan church. It’s wonderful to see so many of our priests together at the same time and their presence is a visible manifestation of the unity they have with their bishop and, just importantly, with one another.
One feature of the Chrism Mass is the renewal of commitment to priestly service. The bishop asks the priests, gathered in the Cathedral where most of them were ordained, and in the presence of God’s People: “Are you ready to renew your own dedication to Christ as priests of the new covenant? Are you resolved to unite yourselves more closely to Christ and try to become more like him? Are you resolved to be faithful ministers of the mysteries of God? Are you resolved to imitate Jesus Christ, the head and shepherd of the Church? To each of these questions, the priests respond: “I am.”
As the ceremony of renewal continues the bishop asks the faithful to pray for their priests, “to help them be faithful ministers of Christ the High Priest.” The Bishop also asks the people to pray for him as well, “that despite my own unworthiness, I may faithfully fulfill the office of apostle which Jesus Christ has entrusted to me.”
As a bishop leading the renewal of priestly commitment for eleven years now, in two dioceses, I sense that this moment is much more than just a formal ritual for our priests. The recommitment is personal, sincere and moving. It’s clear that our priests are grateful for their vocation, mindful of the importance of their work, and are eager to renew their commitment to serve Christ and His Church.
On the first Holy Thursday, Jesus instituted the ministerial priesthood at the Last Supper. But the priesthood never exists in the abstract. Around the table in the Upper Room it was made flesh in the Apostles gathered with the Lord. And throughout the history of the Church it has taken form in countless other men, imperfect individuals with failings and foibles. Priests know, better than anyone else, that they are but “earthen vessels who hold the treasure of the glory of God.” (Cf. II Cor 4:7)
Since arriving in the Diocese of Providence I’ve been genuinely impressed by the priests of the Diocese. They are sincere, talented and hard working, and they serve generously without complaining. Their service spans several generations. We have an encouraging number of dedicated young priests, still learning, but intelligent and multitalented, confident in their identity and clearly in love with the Lord. We have lots of priests in the middle age, growing in age, grace and wisdom, often facing serious challenges in their daily ministry, but still anxious to do the work of the Lord. And we have a good number of “senior priests,” now retired from active administration but, in many cases still active ministers of the Lord, helping out here and there, and always supporting us by their prayers and good example.
On this occasion I would like to again sincerely thank the priests of the Providence Diocese for their personal kindness to me, their support of my ministry, and for all they do as priests of the Lord Jesus Christ.
I also encourage you, dear readers, to take a moment during Holy Week to express a word of gratitude to your priests. Perhaps you can drop them a note or thank them in person. But don’t take your priests for granted. Help them, support them, and pray for them, everyday!
Please remember, too, those priests who have experienced difficulties in their lives: those who struggle with illness or other personal problems; those who through human weakness have failed in their ministry and on occasion even hurt their people; and those, who for a variety of reasons have left the ministry and moved on to another chapter in their life.
As the bishop concludes the renewal of commitment to priestly service at the Chrism Mass he says to the assembly, “May the Lord in his love keep you close to him always, and may he bring all of us, his priests and people, to eternal life.” That’s a fervent hope and a good prayer for all of us during the week we call “holy.”
(This column originally appeared in The Providence Visitor)