April 16, 2019 - Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley Chrism Mass Homily
"Shortly after being named Archbishop of Boston I received a letter from a woman in Ireland who thought that I would be the ideal person to help her find a husband in America. She wanted a man who was a hard worker, who didn’t drink and was always faithful to the precepts of the church. Of course, I sent her a long list of potential candidates. Today, there are services online that help people to find a spouse. People will advertise for a non-smoking, vegan who likes movies, traveling, large dogs and who voted for Bernie Sanders.
Our papers are full of classified ads that we used to call the want ads. People looking for a gardener, a carpenter or babysitter would put their notice in the want ads. The FBI also has its wanted posters which are prominently displayed in the post office. If you go online, you can buy some historical ones that say: “Wanted dead or alive. Reward for information leading to the capture of this individual. Not to report can result in prosecution.” Public enemy number one: Harry Potter.”
Today in our Chrism Mass reflections, I will try to construct the kind of a want ad that Jesus might have put in the Jerusalem Bugle Newspaper, advertising for priests. A close reading of the four Gospels allow us to reconstruct the job description that Jesus Christ could have written for his priests.
I often share with people that growing up in the O’Malley household dinner was an important family event where three generations gathered around the table. There staring down on my parents, siblings and our Nana, who lived with us, was da Vinci’s Christ of the Last Supper. My uncle, Father Jerry, always gave a copy of the Last Supper as a wedding gift to everyone in the family. He knew that it was smart in an Irish family to give the same gift to every couple lest comparisons be made.
Our parents explained to us that the Last Supper was the first Eucharist. Thanks to Dan Brown, I found myself studying a lot about that painting. The beardless figure next to Jesus is not Mary Magdalene as Brown insists, but is the beloved disciple, John. Da Vinci shows us a snapshot of the apostles at the moment when Jesus announces that one of them is going to betray him. Philip is asking: “Is it I Lord?” Peter is leaning towards John telling him to find out from Jesus who it is. Peter is holding a knife in one hand, perhaps the very one he used to separate Malchus from his ear later on that evening. Judas is sitting there clutching a moneybag. It does not appear to be one of those John Straub collection bags that require signatures from the ushers. Its contents could’ve been the 30 pieces of silver or a few drachma that Judas, as the apostolic business manager, may have pilfered from the common fund.
I am convinced that the gospel accounts of the Last Supper provide us with a fascinating job description for a Catholic priest. The shorthand version of such a description might read: “wanted, friends and foot washers.” Certainly, Jesus makes it very clear that he is not interested in hirelings, administrators or efficient functionaries.
The Last Supper in the synoptic Gospels (Mathew, Mark and Luke) is the description of the liturgy of the Eucharist, whereas John’s Gospel is like the liturgy of the Word. Together these gospels teach us so much about our vocation. John’s account of the Last Supper begins with the foot washing. In the book To Kill a Mockingbird, Miss Maudie refers to “foot washing Baptists”. I must confess I have no idea what the nomenclature means, although I know it has been parsed by many literary critics who have commented on this great American classic. Indeed, the foot washing episode at the Last Supper likewise has more than one interpretation. Pope Benedict in the insightful volume: Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week from the entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection has a lot to say about the foot washing. Benedict says that Jesus performs for his disciples the service of a slave, he “emptied himself”. What the letter to the Philippians says in its great Christological hymn, namely, that unlike Adam, who had tried to grasp divinity for himself, Christ moves in the opposite direction, coming down from his divinity into humanity, taking the form of a servant and becoming obedient even to death on the cross. All of this is rendered visible in this single gesture. Jesus represents the whole of this saving ministry in one symbolic act. He divests himself of his divine splendor; he kneels down before us; he washes and dries our soiled feet in order to make us fit to sit at table for God’s wedding feast. When we read in the book of Revelation the paradoxical statement that the redeemed have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb, the meaning is that Jesus’ love to the end is what cleanses us, washes us. The gesture of washing feet expresses precisely this: it is the servant love of Jesus that draws us out of our pride and makes us fit for God, makes us clean.
Pope Benedict describes the foot watching as both sacramentum and exemplum: gift and task. Jesus humbling himself is his kenosis, is making a gift of himself, taking on the form of a slave and dying on the cross. He is inviting us to be one with him in making a gift of ourselves by embracing the cross and by humbly washing each other’s feet.
When I was first named Bishop here, when people were still afraid of me, I had confirmation in a parish. The pastor went to great lengths to serve a wonderful meal for the Bishop, priests and parish leaders. At the end of the meal the housekeeper proudly approached me with a huge piece of lemon meringue pie which he proceeded to drop on my lap. I found it rather amusing, but the pastor was mortified, and the poor housekeeper was apoplectic. Oftentimes I’m sure people think of the Last Supper as being like a well-orchestrated banquet where everything is done to perfection, everyone has a wonderful time and nothing unpleasant occurs. That is not a description of Thanksgiving at the O’Malley household nor of the Last Supper.
The Last Supper begins with Jesus washing the feet of his apostles, kneeling before Judas who has sold the Lord for 30 pieces of silver, and Peter who is about to deny that even knows Jesus. This is a very important lesson for all of us in today’s church. The faces in da Vinci’s Last Supper, filled with fear, indignation and grief are the faces of our Catholic people today who are scandalized and disappointed with leadership in the Church. It is therefore very significant that the authors of the gospel do not whitewash the reality, Photoshop out Judas and Peter. It’s all part of the lesson that Jesus wants to teach us. Jesus wants us to love the Church in spite of the sinfulness and weakness of our leaders. Christ is the head of the Church, and he will never fail us. In the case of Judas, we encounter the perennial danger that even those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gifts, and become partakers of the Holy Spirit, yet can perish spiritually by a series of seemingly small infidelities, in Judas’ case by dipping into the till, ultimately passing from light into the night, where they seem no longer capable of conversion. The story of Judas stands as a stark warning to all of us to be vigilant so as not to betray our friendship with Christ and place our lives in the grip of another power.
Christ in his farewell discourse defines our way of life in terms of mutual love and friendship. “I give you a new commandment: Love one another. As I love you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The theme of love is a mantra that Jesus returns to over and over during this farewell discourse, the first ordination homily, He says: “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and I remain in his love.”
For Jesus, love is the basis of everything, and obedience is the only proof of love. A trusting love makes us safe from disaster and leads us to experience an ever-deeper revelation of God’s love. The more we love God, the more we understand. Fellowship with God and the revelation of God depend on love.
If Jesus begins his farewell discourse by telling us to be foot washers, he continues by telling us we must be friends, and that we must give humble service to one another, and we are to do it out of love and friendship. “You are my friends if you do what I command.” Obedience and love lead us to friendship with Christ. The promises we renew today are our attempt to shape our lives by this loving obedience.
It is important to realize that Jesus loves his disciples in all their weakness. Love must be clear-sighted. If we idolize people and think them faultless, we are doomed to disappointment. We must love them as they really are. Jesus loves His Church as it really is, with all her blemishes. He washes the feet of the betrayer and the denier. The Divine Physician has come for the sick, the lost sheep, the sinner. We can be disappointed, incensed, turned off by sin in the Church, but we must never stop loving the Church and working to reform her. Like first responders, we priests are needed to run into the burning building, not to run away from it.
Being a foot washer takes a lot of humility, a lot of courage, a lot of love to empty ourselves as Christ did. Christ truly wants us to stop fighting over the first places at table and fight over the towel..
Jesus’ public life and ministry is book ended by two wedding feasts: Cana and the Last Supper. At Cana, Jesus uses the foot washing water from the six stone jars to make the most delectable wine. At the Last Supper, the earthly representation of the heavenly wedding banquet, Jesus himself washes the feet of his guests. At Cana, the dirty water becomes wine; at the Last Supper, because of Christ self-emptying, the wine becomes his saving blood.
Christ has given us an example. It was part of the first ordination ceremony. We must be foot washers. We have to accept that the cross is part of our priestly identity and foot washing is an essential part of the job description.
Last year on Holy Thursday, Pope Francis went to Regina Coeli prison; only in Rome would a prison have such a beautiful name. The Holy Father told the prisoners that Jesus is different from Pontius Pilate. Pilate washed his hands of people; “Jesus knows how to take a risk with people,” the Holy Father said to the prisoners as he washed their feet: “This is a service. This is Jesus. He never abandons us, never tires of forgiving us. He loves us so much… Before giving us his body and blood, Jesus takes risks for each of us and takes risks in serving us because he loves us so much.”
When I was a child, I remember the old missals sometimes put a picture of Pontius Pilate washing his hands next to the Lavabo prayers, where the priest washes his hands after the offertory. As Pope Francis reminds us, the attitude of Pilate to abdicate his responsibility for the other is a far cry from the radical hospitality of Christ who came to serve and to teach us how to serve.
The Pharisees were always criticizing Jesus’s eating habits, not so much what he ate, but with whom he ate. He ate with publicans and sinners. The lost sheep was the most welcomed of all. Today, many universities offer majors in hospitality. As priests and foot washers our life is about hospitality, about making people feel welcomed, appreciated, forgiven and celebrated.
At the first ordination Jesus called us to be his friends. In the priesthood, friendship with Christ is our greatest treasure. It is our pearl of great price for which we are willing to sacrifice everything else. Friendship with the Lord is cultivated by a life of prayer and service.
Recently a research review concluded that friendship is twice as important as exercise when it comes to boosting your life expectancy. The same study found the effects of keeping in touch with friends is the equivalent of quitting smoking for your well-being. The study looked at 148 research projects which more than 300,000 subjects took part in. My favorite biography of St. Thomas More, written by Father Bassett, one of his descendants, is called “Born for Friendship.” He barrowed that from a description of Thomas More from Erasmus.
We can survive as priests only if we embrace a life of friendship; friendship with Christ, friendship with our fellow priests, and friendship with the people we serve. Like Thomas More, we are born for friendship. We are ordained for friendship. Like John the Baptist our role is to be: friends of the bridegroom.
At the first ordination ceremony Jesus said: “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” This is what Jesus is asking us in the new commandment where he says: “Love one another, as I love you.”
In the Last Supper ordination homily, Jesus speaks much about the joy that he wants us to experience; but he does not hide the challenges and the pain that are inherent in a life of discipleship and ministry. He warns us that just as the world hated him, it will hate us. It is painful to see a Christian anthropology mocked and rejected by the dominant culture. Jesus tells us very plainly: “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world.”
It is comforting to see that at the Last Supper Jesus explicitly prayed for you and me, and what does he pray for? He prays for unity. “I pray not only for them, the disciples you have given me, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they all may be one, as you Father are in me and I in you, that they may be one in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.”
Fraternal love and service, being builders of bridges and unity are all part of our friendship with the Good Shepherd, the divine bridegroom. We see the toxic polarization in our world, our country, our society, and even in our church. Against this background I appeal to all of my brothers in the presbyterate to look into your own heart to see how we can be healers and builders of unity. It takes a lot of patience, a lot of humility, a lot of love. It takes a capacity to forgive, to begin again, to love first, the way Christ loves us while we are still in sin.
It is by his stripes that we are healed. He lays down his life for us so that we can truly be his friends.
A husband and father can become so absorbed in his profession, in his work, that his relationship with his wife and children suffers. A priest can become so focused on our pastoral duties and parish administration that we can neglect that relationship that gives meaning to our ministry and everything that we say or do.
Our renewal of our priestly promises should be a joyful recommitment to our friendship with the Lord. Two of the greatest events that take place in this cathedral are the Wedding Anniversary Mass, were hundreds of married couples come before the altar to renew their vows of love and fidelity before God. It is always such an uplifting experience to witness the joy and love that is lasted through good times and bad, in sickness and in health. The Chrism masses is a similar experience. Here we gather as friends of the bridegroom and spiritual fathers, here centuries of ministry performed by our generous priests in good times and bad are offered to God with our ADSUM. Here we renew our friendship with the Lord and with each other.
Here Christ himself asked us: “Are you my friends? Do you love me?” Sometimes we are like Peter was quick to say: “Master, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” We should have no illusions about our own weakness, but here we stand together and find strength in our brothers. The church asked us to make these promises together, young priests and old, holy priests and priests who are struggling to be good. We make these promises together and find strength in the witness and the friendship that unites us. We are not private practitioners; we are brothers anointed to be messengers of glad tidings. We are called to friendship and the sacrifices friendship demands.
Peter was renewing his ordination promises at what I like to call the Last Breakfast, when, after his fall from grace, Peter returns and receives a second call to follow Jesus. After fixing breakfast for the Apostles, the Risen Lord asked Peter to renew his ordination promises. Jesus asks three times: “Do you love me?
Today, Christ and the Body of Christ, His Church, are asking us priests three question which could be stated simply as:
“Do you love me?”
“Are you my friend?
“Will you be a foot washer?”
If we say yes with all our heart, Jesus will recommission us: Feed my Sheep.