Editor’s note: This homily by Father Paul Philibert, O.P. originally was prepared for the March 15, 2016 Chrism Mass at the Cathedral of St. Helena in Helena, Mont. Reprinted with permission.
Tonight as we gather for the Chrism Mass, we welcome Jesus Christ in our midst in many ways. Here we become the privileged sign of the Church as a sacrament for the world. If Christ’s church is indeed “a sacrament – a sign and instrument of communion with God and the unity of the human race,” (Lumen Gentium 1) then certainly this gathering of the diocesan church in its cathedral with its bishop is its most striking ritual portrait. Here is your bishop, who is ministerial head of the mystical body of the local Church, accompanied by his ordained ministers. With him, they lead the people whom they shepherd to the table of this cathedral. Here the Body of Christ in the Church of Helena, habitually scattered across the wide region of the diocese as witnesses to their faith and the gifts of the Spirit, is gathered together to celebrate the Spirit’s power to form us all into “one body, one spirit in Christ.” (Eucharistic Prayer III)
In the prayer of the consecration of the chrism, Bishop Thomas will pray: “Christ by his suffering, dying and rising to life saved the human race. He sent God’s Spirit to fill the Church with every gift needed to complete God’s saving work.
Through the sign of holy chrism, [O God], you dispense your life and love to all people. Anointing them with the Spirit, you transform them into the likeness of Christ your Son, giving them a share in his royal, priestly and prophetic work.
[Lord] God, pour out the gifts of your Spirit on our brothers and sisters who will be anointed with it: let the splendor of holiness shine on the world from every place and thing sealed with this oil.”
Our life in Christ begins with our being anointed with holy chrism, grafting us onto the Body of Christ and implanting us in Christ’s Paschal mystery. In this new life, dying is the way to true life, rising with Christ is the way to consecrate the world to God. The Church calls this new existence in Christ a holy and royal priesthood, because what priests do is offer, and what we as a priestly people do is offer our lives along with Christ’s life to his divine Father. As always, it is the Holy Spirit who is the sanctifier and transformer. We pray in each Mass, “May the Holy Spirit make of these gifts of bread and wine the body and blood of Christ,” and then a bit later “May the Holy Spirit make of those who eat this bread and wine, one body, one spirit in Christ.” So tonight, in a radiantly visible way, this is who we are. We are saved from a life of futility and are slowly being reformed into Christ by the working of the Holy Spirit so that each of us, all the baptized, may be fruitful, apostolic participants in Christ’s continuing mission to the world.
Christ is present to us in his living word, as we listen to Isaiah proclaim: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good news to the poor, to comfort the broken hearted, to release captives.” We hear Jesus apply these words to himself in Luke’s Gospel, but we also know that this same living word is meant to live in us. For each member of this apostolic body of Christ is a missionary disciple (to use a phrase dear to Pope Francis), who lives first and then articulates the holy word of the Scriptures. Christ is also present to us in this assembly, where we see how the incarnation of the Son of God includes every human particularity – male, female; old, young; Anglo, Latino, Asian, African; thinkers and doers. Every expression of humanity is engaged in showing forth the saving power of God that was poured out into Jesus, our Savior.
Tonight’s second reading from the book of Revelation, in describing the faithful as a kingdom of priests, also gives us these words of Christ: “I am the Alpha and the Omega – the beginning and the end.” To understand the priesthood of the people of God, we need to understand that without us Christ can be the Alpha (the beginning and inauguration of the new creation), but he cannot be the Omega. This is what Paul means in Colossians (1:24) when he says “in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body which is the church.” Not that anything was lacking in Christ’s ministry. But he can only be the fullness, the all in all, the completion of creation, when all those destined for life in him have opened their hearts and given their lives. The chrism of the Holy Spirit marks us with the character of this Christ life – so we will fill up the Body of Christ as Omega.
Vatican II and the popes since the Council stressed the teaching that the whole people of God are anointed in the Spirit and called to make their lives spiritual sacrifices. Compared to the 19th century, this is a new vision of the Church that sees its entire membership as apostolic and on mission. But this same teaching makes it clear that the spiritual sacrifices of the faithful are completed only through the ministry of priests. They call the Body of Christ together, teach the faithful to offer Christ to the Father and their own lives as well (Presbyterorum Ordinis 5). They call forth the charisms of God’s people to reach out to the frontiers of evangelization. With this understanding of the ministry of priests, we can appreciate that never before in history has the prophetic and pastoral role of the ordained been so crucial and so important as it is now.
All God’s faithful people are in their own way “stewards of God’s holy mysteries” (1Cor 4:1), but this phrase in First Corinthians is clearly meant by St. Paul to refer to those who like him have been called and have pledged their whole lives as ministers of God’s word, available to God’s people, and fully docile to God’s Holy Spirit. So tonight we celebrate the power of the Holy Spirit in consecrating and transforming the lives of all those touched by holy chrism: the baptized faithful, the recognized ministers among the people of God, deacons called to ecclesial service, presbyters consecrated to a life for others, and our bishop who is the father of the local Church.
In a few moments, Bishop Thomas will consecrate the sacred chrism for the coming year of grace. He will breathe slowly over the vessel in which the oil of chrism is contained and pray that this mixture of oil and perfume will be transformed into a source of God’s blessing. The Holy Spirit is the breath of God, and by the bishop’s consecration the grace of the Holy Spirit is imparted to this chrism. As for us, as we are anointed, whether in baptism or ordination, the mystery of our conformity to Christ is realized through this holy sign. As a result, we can and should make our own the words of Christ in tonight’s Gospel:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released. That the blind will see, and that the oppressed will be set free. … For the time of the Lord’s favor has come.”
Tonight, as we celebrate these radiant mysteries toward the end of our Lenten journey, we remember that we are doing so at a privileged time, in the Jubilee Year of Mercy. May the Spirit’s anointing pour out into us all the gifts of compassion, tenderness, generosity, insight, devotion to the poor, mercy for the suffering, and yearning for the liberation of the oppressed that belong to this year of the Lord’s favor. We pray earnestly together:
Holy Spirit be in our midst,
Holy Spirit of God reshape our hearts
Holy Spirit shine on us and we shall be saved.
Father Paul J. Philibert, O.P. was one of the founders of the Congar Institute for Ministry Development. A friar of the Southern Dominican Province of Saint Martin de Porres, he was a highly respected theologian, teacher, author and translator of works by Yves Cardinal Congar and Marie Dominique Chenu, O.P. Among his best known works are “The Priesthood of the Faithful: Key to a Living Church” and “Stewards of God’s Mysteries: Priestly Spirituality in a Changing Church.” He served on the Board of Directors for the Congar Institute, and was a past Provincial and Senior Fellow at the Aquinas Institute.
Fr. Philibert taught several classes for the Diocese of Salt Lake City lay ecclesial ministry candidates and conducted a retreat at Saint George Catholic Church. In the winter of 2016, Susan Northway, director of the Diocese of Salt Lake City Office of Faith Formation, received a call from Fr. Philibert. He was planning to preach at the Cathedral of Saint Helena’s Chrism Mass in Helena, Mont. Because his travel plans called for a four-hour layover in Salt Lake City., he offered to present a reflection on the Year of Mercy. Northway welcomed the opportunity and moved ahead with plans for the event. However, in a telephone call about a month later, Fr. Philibert said that he was feeling ill and had cancelled all travel plans. A few days later, he emailed Northway a copy of the Chrism Mass homily and a PowerPoint of the talk he had prepared for the faithful in Utah.
Fr. Philibert died on April 14, 2016 in Saint Louis, Mo.