Holy Thursday, 9 April 2020. St Eugene's Cathedral
The Chrism Mass is the one annual event when the Church in each diocese gathers. During it, we bless the Holy Oils for use in sacraments throughout the year, and all priests are asked to renew the promises of their ordination. But this year, there is no gathering for that moving ceremony. We have priests in Derry diocese who were ordained any time from 1951 to 2019. Today we would have had Fr Declan McGeehan renewing his promises for the first time, nine months after his ordination - and Fr Michael Keaveny remembering his ordination in March, 69 years ago.
So all the priests will remember this year when they have been asked to recall their promises in entirely unpredictable conditions. Some of them had to discover how to minister in the midst of the Troubles when violence was all around. This year our parish communities are being challenged as to how they maintain a sense of spiritual life and parish belonging in the midst of a pandemic which threatens life and cuts out human contact. But the Spirit of the Lord has been given to the Church to bring good news to the poor in all circumstances and not just in those situations where we have gotten comfortable. We are not a religiously inspired social movement. The Church belongs to Christ and its mission is determined by what he suffered on Calvary. It is not determined by what we find convenient or even popular, let alone populist. Our Gospel passage comes at the very beginning of Jesus' public life. He knows what he is called to do and be. He is prepared to walk that path whatever it may ask of him.Jesus seeks out the little ones and tells his church to bind up the broken hearts, those who mourn and who are despondent. It is a monumental task – but Jesus says that the Spirit has been given to us so that his message can be credible in our day and in our circumstances.
I know that our official pastoral plan must take a back seat as more pressing priorities prevail, and we have to grapple with unexpected pastoral situations. But the themes of the plan can still be a guide to how our parishes try to minister in new circumstances. The challenges change but the same themes run through all we do.
Firstly, as a Church we do not stop in our commitment to" build welcoming and inclusive communities". Many of those who have been regular churchgoers want to know that their community has not vanished into thin air. They benefit from the reassurance of the familiar, be that the inside of a church they know or the face and voice of a local priest. Others may find that there is nourishment for them in the range of prayer times that are offered. The Jesus who was crucified between two thieves as a fellow miscreant would want us to reach, not just the reasonably contented but also those who feel isolated, frightened or unimportant in these difficult weeks. Thus, our ministry on-line and on the phone is not just trying to keep our flocks together. It is also an opportunity to get the good news of hope and connectedness to wherever it is most needed. Today first reading reassures us that even if we might not be very good at it this is not excuse for not trying, because it is God's Spirit that is at work and not just our imperfect efforts.
Our second pastoral theme is "disciples of Jesus Christ, Growing in Faith together". The response to on-line parish outreach suggests that many are open to understanding faith. After all, this is a time when the current cultural offering is seen as being very thin and unable to offer much meaning. The fragile framework of relentless entertainment and pleasure, work and weekend has ground to a halt. Success and scientific logic don't have all the answers. And many feel stranded, disorientated. This is not a time for anything other than the chance to speak intelligently into that reality, offering the wisdom of the Cross. It is a time to share resources and ideas, not to make us strong but to give strength to those who feel fragile.
And our third theme talks about making Jesus known and loved. We have a strong and rich tradition of art, liturgy and devotions. They can speak to the imagination, the heart and the head of people of all ages and all levels of faith and doubt. Jesus did not order people to love him. He told them that God loved them and invited them to respond to a love that does not ebb and flow but remains firm. He faced pain and helplessness – and he is in solidarity with those whose hearts are shaken. This Holy Week offers great opportunities for us to let the love of Christ speak to frightened hearts everywhere. We have nothing to offer but that love of Christ.
Today, the priests will renew their vows. But as a Church, our second reading tells us we are a priestly people and the ministry of Jesus our High Priest invites us all to renew our commitment to serve his mission, his ministry. That is not a ministry where we do our best for God. It a ministry where we leave ourselves open to the Spirit of God to use us and work through us. This is not our ministry for God but the divine ministry working through us as the Body of Christ. But it is a ministry where God is always in charge. Where we think that we are in charge, we can be assured that we will get it wrong.
This is a strange Chrism Mass. I thank the dedicated priests for all the creative work they have been doing and for loving their people in new and challenging circumstances. I never cease to be amazed at what so many of them have done in recent weeks. And I thank the generous people of faith who have taken up the new challenge. We have no idea where God is leading us – but we don't need to know. We walk forward in faith. This may be a time when the Lord is remaking his Church for the new mission fields that lie ahead. It may be a time when he is calling out for new ministers and new ministries in his Church. On this Holy Thursday morning, in the diocesan church of Derry, we ask God's grace to enlarge our hearts and make them open to the Holy Spirit. Then, the Lord's mission which began in Nazareth will continue to bring good news to broken hearts.
+ Donal McKeown