Mass of the Chrism
Homily by the Most Revd Geoffrey Jarrett, DD, Bishop of Lismore
All Saints’ Church, Kempsey; 14 April 2014.
Echoing through this Mass of the Holy Oils are the words of Isaiah the Prophet, as he beheld the happy prospect of the return of God’s people from exile in Babylon, and the repair of Jerusalem’s former devastation. These words hold an even greater resonance for us in this liturgy, as we hear them repeated in the Gospel from the mouth of the Son of God.
“The spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, freedom to those in prison.”
While as St John speaks of the whole of God’s people washed in the blood of Christ as a kingly and priestly people, it is clear that among them are chosen servants named ‘priests of the Lord’ — with holy oil anointed, the particular subjects of the everlasting covenant — whom the Lord’s hand will specially overshadow, and his outstretched arm protect. Two thousand years later, in every diocese on this day each year, those of us who are his ministerial priests recall the favours of the Lord’s truth and love given to us, and respond with a fresh pledge of commitment to priestly service made on the day of our ordination.
I had the pleasure this afternoon of being asked to launch here in Kempsey a very handsome book The History of the Catholic Church in the Macleay Valley and to congratulate the author and his many collaborators on one of the finest of its kind that I have yet seen. It traces the story of the planting of a faith, of a people, the families, the religious and the clergy of the Macleay Valley. Of this story, you the present generation here assembled in this parish church, can, under God, be so justly proud.
In its pages you can especially trace the story of its priests — and what an extraordinary and diverse collection of men across more than a century. One of them, Father MacGuiness, sought approval from the bishop for a letter soliciting four thousand pounds from donors far and wide. He wrote “In order to save the souls of the poor Catholic children in this mission, it is my intention to build convents and schools in Kempsey and Smith Town.” The purpose of this appeal caught my attention because it used what might seem a somewhat archaic term, at least to the modern ear — “to save souls.” Perhaps we could even ask, where would such an objective be considered among the goals and purposes of Catholic school education today, or in the advertising of Catholic Schools Week? “Send your children to a Catholic school in order to save their souls!”
Yet, when we consider our priestly vocation, such a description must light up with a vivid meaning, a very precise understanding of why we responded to the Lord’s call those years ago and why we press on with vigour in the service of our parishes and their schools. What drove St Paul to go to the gentiles, St Thomas to India and all the rest? — Irenæus to Gaul, Patrick to Ireland, Boniface to Germany, Cyril and Methodius to the Slavs, Dominic to the Albigensians, Francis Xavier to Goa and Japan – that famous Jesuit sending out his urgent call, “Young men of Paris, give up your small ambitions! Come east and preach the Gospel!” At the same time the friars set off to convert the American continent from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego, and three hundred years later Pompallier and the Marists set off for Oceania, the dangers, privations and martyrdom in the name of Jesus Christ of small account.
In the nineteenth century there’s a heroic story of a ‘new evangelisation’ when priests from France, already struggling with English, went south from the comforts of established churches, learning Spanish to rescue the old Mexican missions of the conquista. In Willa Cather’s wonderful but strangely named historical novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop, the protagonist is a young bishop traversing southward across a thousand miles of untracked territory to reach Santa Fé, to make it the centre of his new diocese in New Mexico. His only companion is a boyhood friend with whom he went through seminary, a priest of intrepid faith and zeal. He seeks his friend the bishop’s permission to go further south. The reason: “To hunt for lost Catholics, Jean, utterly lost Catholics, down in the new territory, towards Tucson. There are hundreds of poor families down there who have never seen a priest. I want to go from house to house, to every settlement. They have nothing to feed upon but the most mistaken superstitions. They are like seeds, full of germination but with no moisture.” In short, the priest and his bishop, as the beautifully told story unfolds, are driven by nothing but the naked ambition of the salvation of souls.
What an extraordinary five words: “In order to save souls.” It could be that Father MacGuinness of Kempsey might have been familiar with the spiritual teachings of his contemporary, St John Bosco. What is the motto of the Salesians? You may be surprised to discover that it is a quote accommodated in meaning from Genesis chapter 14 verse 21. The motto is: Da mihi animas, cætera tolle. Give me souls, take away all else. Perhaps nearer to our own time that is the origin of Bishop Fulton Sheen’s epigram: Unless souls are saved, nothing saved.
Dear Fathers, dear brothers and sisters, unless the salvation of souls is the driving force of our lives, why would a man become a priest or remain one. Why would a parent or a teacher devote themselves above all else, no matter how useful, to a task more important than the patient catechesis of their children in the truth of Jesus Christ? Why would they strive with every effort to model by their own example the life He uniquely imparts through the teachings and treasures of the tradition of the Church He founded, which He upholds against the gates of hell?
Surely we must be all the more driven in our mission by what is now emerging even more starkly around us and calls us and our children to a new battle for the faith and for souls. The facts are there, and we don’t need more convincing that today we live in a culture of death and amid a moral wasting disease which blights the souls of so many of our contemporaries. No less today than when St Paul told the Ephesians that they lived “in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world,” we are challenged to uphold the flame of faith to dispel the encroaching but not undefeatable darkness. Calling on the gifts which are at our disposal, and with imagination and passion, what the Church has done before in crucial times against great odds the Church can do again.
The adversaries of faith and the great spiritual tradition of Judaeo-Christianity which formed our great culture of the West, and who seek to dismantle it, are becoming restive, not to say aggressive. Just last week, in the Acton Lecture on Religion and Freedom, a former judge of the High Court of Australia, Justice Dyson Heydon, spoke a contemporary revival of sectarianism, “a new anti-Catholicism in Australia which might be called the racism of the intellectuals.” He went on to say, “It’s intolerant, it’s hypocritical, it fails to recognise the extraordinary contribution of Australian Catholicism to many parts of Australian life” and predicted that “the new anti-Catholicism may cause suffering, but it is suffering which may unify Catholics. It may bring other elements of society in behind Catholics, for its programme is more than anti-Catholic.”
Yes, it is true that what we as believers represent is out of line with the spirit of our age. What is rearing up about us, ‘the new totalitarianism,’ which cannot tolerate the freedom of a person to express a contrary value based on faith, this “dictatorship of relativism” which marginalises all contrary views and beliefs — that’s what you get when the elites of the present are allowed to impose their new code of truth and error, of right and wrong, their code — cut off from all transcendent and moral reference points based on revelation and responded to by reason and faith.
Thank you Father MacGuinness for your letter of 130 years ago seeking a mere four thousand pounds to save the souls of the poor children of the Macleay Valley. From our past you bring to the attention of us priests, in this seemingly quaint expression, a reminder to consider the greatness of our calling and our mission, and to look with new insight into the task at hand. An earlier member of this diocesan presbyterium, you remind us what was driving you to build the foundations on which we continue our mission today. Da mihi animas, cætera tolle. Unless souls are saved, nothing is saved.
Thank you, Father Gooley, Father Holloway and parishioners of the Macleay Valley for your hospitality this evening in making your church once again the diocesan cathedral for the Mass of the Chrism. Thank you for the reminder of the great tradition of faith planted here a century and a half ago. In a much shorter period of time you can see the growth in the numbers of our priests. When we were last here three years ago, seminarians Frederick Basco and James Foster received candidacy for Holy Orders, and the assisting deacons were Roland Agrisola and Shelwin Fernandez. You see now all four of them as concelebrating priests, together of course with Father Joe who was then studying more distantly in Rome. Tonight Alexander Munyao, Vitalis Nyongesa and Stefan Matuszek receive candidacy, and seek your prayers for their onward path to the priesthood, together with our other seminarians, and Deacon Bing Monteagudo who looks forward to priestly ordination later this year.
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 saving Lord, Jesus Christ, so that we His followers may in receiving His Body and Blood become ever more truly His Church for the salvation of the world.