Mass of Chrism – St. Muredach’s Cathedral
In a gesture which is both historic and symbolic, the priests and I entered the Cathedral though the Door of Mercy for this Mass of Chrism. As pilgrims we walked through that Door conscious of our sinfulness, conscious of our need for forgiveness; from God, from one another and from all those wounded, disillusioned or uninspired by our ministry in the service of the Lord. But we entered freely, conscious too of the warm welcome we would receive from the God who loves us and loves our every effort at service of Him and of His people; despite our limitations and our frailty.
On Ash Wednesday, at the beginning of our Lenten journey this year, Pope Francis commissioned Missionaries of Mercy in Rome; over one thousand priests who would lead a worldwide movement of mercy shown to sinners and of reconciliation with a God who is always ready to welcome back his Prodigal children.
In an unscripted ‘pep’ talk to some 700 Missionaries of Mercy before their commissioning, the Pope’s attempt to imitate Brian Cody’s ‘pep’ talk at half-time in an All-Ireland, Pope Francis observed that many people abandon confession because priests scold them or pry for embarrassing details. Confessors, he said, “aren’t called to judge, with a sense of superiority” but should instead welcome penitents with “open arms”. And he added: “It’s not with the cudgel of judgment that we will succeed in bringing the lost sheep back to the fold.”
Reflecting the far reach of the Catholic church in ministering to its 1.2 billion flock, the Missionaries of Mercy will be travelling this year to countries including the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, China, Burundi and Israel. One priest will head to the far north of Canada; another will use a camper to reach Catholics living in remote parts of the Australian countryside. And with his typical sense of humour, the Pope added: “If you’re going to the Arctic, bundle up!”
On the day itself, Ash Wednesday, addressing the Missionaries directly, he said: “Dear brothers, you will be able to help open the doors of the heart, to overcome shame, to not flee from the light. May your hands bless and lift up your brothers and sisters with paternity; that through you the gaze and the hands of the Father might rest on His sons and daughters and cure their wounds!”
To help open the doors of the heart, to overcome shame and to not flee from the light; for Pope Francis, these words sum up our ministry in the Confessional.
“to help open the doors of the heart”.
“There can be some obstacles that close the doors of the heart. There is the temptation to bolt the doors, that is, to live with our own proper sins, minimizing them, always justifying ourselves, thinking we are no worse than others; so, then, the locks of the soul are closed, and we remain closed within, prisoners of evil.” – the Pope’s words. And we have to ask ourselves nowadays, what are the obstacles that close the doors of our hearts; remembering that all of us, bishop, priests and people are subject to this same temptation. For those of us who are older, what we were told were mortal sins in the past no longer seem to hold the same sense for a younger generation. And some of this is good for no longer have we got the serious problem with scruples which we had in the past. But not all of it is good. There is, as the Pope said, a greater tendency nowadays to live with our own proper sins, minimizing them and always justifying ourselves”. The words that come most easily from our lips in Confession are; sure I have no real sins, I didn’t shoot anyone. I can’t really think of anything. Perhaps but the words of Psalm 36, at Morning Prayer, also come to mind: ‘Sin speaks to the sinner in the depths of his heart. There is no fear of God before his eyes. He so flatters himself in his own mind that he knows not his guilt.’
“to overcome shame”.
I often think that overcoming shame is one of the real reasons for the drop off in one to one Confession in a Confession box. People, and that includes us priests and bishops, are ashamed to admit what they –we- have done to God, to ourselves or to another human being. Commenting on this, Pope Francis said; “Another obstacle is the shame in opening the secret door of the heart. Shame, in reality, is a good symptom, because it indicates we want to break away from evil; above all we must never transform it into fear or dread.” I think he puts his finger on it; unfortunately, our shame tends to turn almost automatically into fear or dread. And that fear or dread can often be of the man who sits at the other side of the grill in the Confession box rather than of God. I know that when I queue up for confession, ‘Was he hard on you?’ is the question I would love to ask the person who went in before me. Then I realize I shouldn’t think of asking it. Often, our real failure is to take the step of faith and realize that in Confession, in the human being who is sitting in the confessional, we encounter God and we should have no fear or dread of God. And I know that is easier said than done.
‘to not flee from the light’.
T.S. Elliott, in The Four Quartets, wrote:
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind Cannot bear very much reality. Time past and time future What might have been and what has been Point to one end, which is always present.
For me, the one end which is always present is God, his love and his mercy. ‘Time past and time future. What might have been and what has been’ – all blend into this love of God for us which is provided for in Confession and which is always available to us. And while in common with all mankind, we cannot bear very much reality, the assurance of this love should invite us to ‘not flee from the light’ of our own sinfulness, as the Pope remarked.
In short, to help open the doors of the heart, to help people overcome their shame and to help them face themselves and their own lives, to not flee from the light; for Pope Francis, this sums up the privileged ministry that is ours in the Confessional.
During this year and, particularly, at this Mass of Chrism, we reflect on God’s Mercy and on its meaning in our lives. Under the guidance of Pope Francis, let us not either bolt the door of mercy or move away from it.
At this Mass of Chrism also, the priests and I will renew before you, the representatives of the people of this diocese, our commitment to God and to our service of the portion of the People of God living in this diocese. As we do, I know that you would want me to publically thank the priests for their dedication and commitment. Despite our frailty and shortcomings, I know that I can truthfully say that the quality of pastoral care given by the priests of this diocese is second to none. In fact, I am quite certain that it is the best ever given. And the only cloud of sadness which hangs over us is the knowledge that as they grow older, fewer in number and are not replaced by younger men, the quality of that care cannot be guaranteed for the future. On your behalf, therefore, and on my own I say to the priests: a very sincere ‘thank you’.