In his Chrism Mass homily the Bishop of Ebbsfleet reflects on apostolic responsibility and the importance of prayer
It is often (and rightly) said that one of the criteria of the work of apostolic ministers is to be a witnesses to the risen Lord. (That is why bishops, shockingly and daringly, use the actual words of the risen Lord when they greet God’s people: ‘Peace be with you!’) In other words, the apostle (whether a bishop, a priest or a deacon) is the person whose ministry is to make others contemporaries with Jesus. Indeed that is the most important feature of God’s calling to public ministry in the Church: those who have been ordained must, by a whole variety of means, help those whom God is calling – both in the Church and beyond it – to feel and to open up to the presence of Jesus, to become his disciples, to live as his contemporaries.
The apostle’s task
Dear brothers in the priesthood, dear deacons, that is our task, the task for which Jesus prayed before he was betrayed.
‘For their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they too may be sanctified in truth … And I ask … also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, … so that the love with which you loved me may be in them, and that I may be in them’ (John 17.18–22).
Making people contemporaries of Jesus must also mean that ordained ministers – priests especially – have the particular responsibility to stay close to Jesus: to stand in his shoes, to see life from his viewpoint, to speak with his voice, to kneel on his knees, to enter in a sacramental and personal way into Christ’s prayer and sacrifice. ‘Priests have a clear vocation to pray and to live in a strongly Christ-centred way’ (Pope Benedict): to ‘remain’ with Christ, to abide with him ‘close to the Father’s heart’ as St John likes to repeat (cf. John 1.18; 15.4–10; 1 John 2.28).
Our ministry is totally tied to this ‘remaining’ with Christ, and draws all its effectiveness from it. And yet! Just listen to these words, which Augustine of Canterbury might well have heard Pope Gregory preach (when he was a senior monk in Gregory’s monastery in Rome) just four or five years before he came ashore on Ebbsfleet beach to become bishop of the English. Complaining about the bishops and priests of his own time, unprepared as they were to rise to the challenges and address the social chaos all around them, Gregory accused himself by saying:
‘We are engulfed in earthly affairs! What we have taken on in the priestly office is one thing, but the facts of our lives are quite another! We abandon the ministry of Word. We are called bishops and priests, but perhaps rather to our condemnation, since though we own the title, we do not have the quality’ (Homily 17.14, on Luke 10.1–9, to the Bishops and Clergy, Lateran Basilica, c.591).
Not a bad admission of what ministry feels like 1400 years on? In another place, a few years later commenting on the Song of Songs, Gregory wrote, ‘By being enslaved to guarding the exterior activities of the world, I lost that watchful concern for my interior life’ (Expositio in canticum canticorum, 40).
Apostolic responsibility (the responsibility to make the church contemporaneous with Jesus) requires of the clergy demanding disciplines of self-awareness and awareness of Jesus. Both are impossible without personal prayer. Both constantly require rootedness and stillness and contemplation in the company of Jesus. Prayer will always take us to where Jesus is. There we can learn from him, who he is, what he teaches, and what he is doing – in us personally, in one another, in his body, in his world, and especially in the poor and suffering. Nothing can ever substitute for it; nothing is so sure a solvent for the cynicism, fatigue, unbelief, self-deceit, or whatever it is that tries to take hold of us, and alienate us from the Lord.
Often of course our prayer will be focused by particular kinds of learning involved in absorbing the Scriptures, especially regular lectio divina on our own; as well as by practices of meditation, the rosary, and eucharistic adoration; the daily office (daily), and above all in the Eucharist. But the core of our prayer must be a matter of daily periods of silent prayer – simple expectation, silent eagerness to be taught, stillness before the only One whose judgement and love ultimately count.
Indispensable and inescapable
There is never any need in prayer to attract God’s attention. We simply need to settle – as we might on the seashore (to use a favorite image of Pope Gregory’s) – and become aware of the immensity of the waves of the sea. Or, if it feels as if you are actually at sea – that life is turbulent and painful, and all you can do is desire the security of the shore – all we need do is drop anchor, and realize that we are (as at all times) held buoyant on God’s eternal act of love in Jesus. Whether it feels rewarding or not, you just do it. It is the deepest, the most indispensable and inescapable aspect of our calling, because prayer is precisely the life we have been given as apostles, witnesses that Jesus is alive, and that we are all his contemporaries.
Anointing the World
The Bishop of Burnley’s Chrism Mass homily emphasizes that through our common baptism we all have a ministry in Christ’s name
As Jesus takes us right to the heart of his own vocation, he reminds us of our vocation also. ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me.’ Each of us can say that. We have all been anointed – anointed by Christ the anointed one. This Mass is a precious one to priests and deacons because we have been anointed to a Sacramental ministry and today we share the privilege of renewing our commitment to that task. But of greater significance is the anointing of the whole family of the baptized. Through our common baptism we all share the identity of Christ. We are his body, his bride, his chosen people called to be one with him and called to proclaim him as we anoint the world.
So we have been anointed by Christ. In turn we anoint in his name. The oils that will be brought in this Mass indicate what that means. Their immediate purpose is to be used by priests to anoint the baptized and the sick and those to be confirmed or ordained. But like every sacrament they point beyond themselves to the vocation of all who have a ministry in Christ’s name.
So first we bless the Oil of Baptism. Your priest will use it at the font. But this oil is also a sign that we are all called to draw the world to new life through conversion to Christ. I have been fascinated over the past few days by the attention given to the reburial of Richard III. It showed what the nation wants from its established church. People are quite happy with us as long as we are no more than a wing of the heritage industry. They are fine with a church that puts on nice flower arrangements and pretty robes in order to bury a long-dead monarch. A church safely located in the past, that’s what we saw last week, that’s what most people want. Yet the God whom we proclaim speaks today and says with urgency ‘come and follow me.’ The God whom we proclaim is saying at this very moment ‘you must turn to me to be saved.’ The God to whom we give voice is saying now to the world of greed and selfishness, ‘what I want is justice.’
A contemporary challenge
We proclaim contemporary relationship with a living God. And we lay before the world a contemporary challenge. Repent and believe the Good News. As those who anoint with the Oil of Baptism, our call is to invite the world to conversion and new life. Never forget the pressing, urgent importance of that call. Take every opportunity you can to speak the name of Christ. See every conversation, every visit, and every encounter as a chance for witness. To us has been entrusted the message of salvation, and unless we speak that message boldly the world cannot be saved.
Then next we bless the oil of the sick. Your priest will use it through the year to minister to those who are in pain or at the point of death. But this oil is a sign to all of us that we have a ministry as healers. I could not help noticing a survey in the papers last week that claimed that Preston had the unhealthiest High Street in the country, in other words the largest concentration of shops such as tanning salons and cheap takeaways that Guardian readers don’t like. What a lot of nonsense. The health to which we bear witness runs rather deeper than a vague dislike of Burger King.
We are called to bear witness to the possibility of forgiveness by forgiving others, a ministry especially laid before your priests as they celebrate with you the Sacrament of Reconciliation. For as we forgive others, we show the world the way to healthy relationships. We bear witness to a healing saviour, for we know that health is not about short-term well-being but is about the whole journey to salvation and wholeness, a journey that is directionless without the Christ who reaches out with the touch of life.
Destined for glory
And finally we consecrate the oil of Chrism, used by the Bishop at Confirmations and Ordinations, used by the Archbishop to crown a monarch. This oil is a sign to all of us of the dignity of human life, raised from the dust but destined for the crown of glory. We live in a world where human life has value only when it is economically convenient that that be so, a world where your preciousness is contingent upon your wealth. We are the world’s fifth largest economy, yet yards from the door of this church you will find children who will have nothing to eat today, you will find older people living in the cold, you will find families trapped in the depressing cycle of debt, of insecure benefits, of exploitative jobs and zero hours contracts. Yet these are the people whom Christ anoints as kings and queens. These hungry children have crowns laid up for them in heaven. Our Diocesan Vision commits us to the transformation of the communities in which we are set. We can do that only when we understand the dignity and the transcendent preciousness of every single human life, born or unborn, for all are worthy to feel the eternal touch of the Chrism of salvation.