MOST REV. DAVID J. BONNAR
Bishop of Youngstown
This is Bishop Bonnar’s April 12, 2022 homily for the annual diocesan Chrism Mass at St. Columba Cathedral. The Chrism Mass demonstrates the unity of the diocesan Church, gathering priests and the faithful from throughout the six-county diocese. Included in the Chrism Mass was the annual renewal, by the diocesan and religious priests, of their commitment to priestly service. An additional focus of this Liturgy was the consecration of the Sacred Chrism and blessing of the Oil of the Sick and the Oil of Catechumens.
The video of the Mass, produced by CTNY, follows the homily.
A few weeks ago, as part of our continuing formation program for clergy, we welcomed to our diocese Fr. Richard DeLillio, retired homiletic professor from the Catholic University of America, to speak on preaching in the hopes of making us all better preachers. In his first presentation, Fr. Delillio referenced the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida. Jesus uses spittle, touches his eyes, and he is healed. Fr. Delillio defined preaching as an exercise which seeks to remove the scales from people’s eyes. While preaching is often viewed in the context of hearing, the goal is for the hearer to see and continue the path of ongoing conversion.
What a humble privilege it is for us as clergy to stand at the table of God’s Word and feed his people. As your bishop, I am deeply humbled today by standing here at this pulpit to preach to you on the feast day of the priesthood. I want to take a moment and personally thank you for your life and ministry as priests, especially as preachers.
This Mass is synonymous with Sacred Chrism. It is so inextricably linked that Holy Mother Church names it “the Chrism Mass.” It is not just because the bishop consecrates the oil to be used as Chrism for the coming year along with the blessing the oil of the sick and the oil of the catechumens, but it is also that Chrism is the mark of priesthood. This day always has a way of taking us back to the day of ordination however many years ago it was. While the Chrism has dried up and the fragrance has long been gone, the mark of our priesthood remains. We are priests forever in the line of Melchizedek, consecrated in the person of Christ to continue his mission.
What sets us apart is our anointing. We are anointed, that is, signed and sealed to be Christ to the world. In the 4th Century as the Church began to grow rapidly, priests came to represent their bishops. This is when the concept of parish priests came into vogue.
There is an old story about a group of priests who attended an audience with Pope, now Saint, John XXIII. Among the priests was a chancellor, a university president, a college professor, a hospital chaplain, and a parish priest. They were each asked to introduce themselves. When it came time for the parish priest to introduce himself, he was greatly intimidated. But when he shared who he was and what he did, the Holy Father genuflected to him and said, “that is the most important work of all.”
The duties of being a parish priest are seemingly endless. In fact, many years ago, I stumbled across a prayer card that listed these duties:
- “No matter where he is located, the parish priest has to be the sharer of secrets, the carrier of burdens, the fountain of consolation, and the pillar of strength.
- Solitary, he is called father by thousands;
- poor, he enriches the lives of thousands;
- weak, he gives strength to thousands;
- unimportant, he does things each day whose importance cannot be told in any tongue on earth.
- He is never too busy to hear another’s sorrows; often too busy to realize his own burdens.
- He is a twenty-four-hour-a-day man. He is called from his dinner; wakened from his sleep; disturbed at his prayers. He is at the beck and call of any of his people.
- He is the target of God’s enemies, the magnet of God’s needy.
- Occasionally, he attracts attention; but usually he works unnoticed and unacclaimed while he does the noblest work on earth—keeps Christ in the lives of his people.”
Indeed, the priest is an ordinary man called to do an extraordinary work. The Word of God today in both the first reading from Isaiah and the Gospel from Mark lists the responsibilities and duties of the priest. Anointed with the Spirit of the Lord, the priest is sent. He becomes a man constantly on mission, always in deference to the needs of the Church which are greater than his own. In love and obedience, the priest goes where he is needed for the good of the Church. And let me just say, that as bishop, I am humbled by all of you men who I have asked to assume a new or added appointment. Your love for the Church is inspiring.
The priest is called according to Isaiah “to bring glad tidings to the lowly, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and release to prisoners…to comfort all who mourn…and to give them oil of gladness in place of mourning.” In the Gospel, Jesus echoes this same message by opening the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. In the version given to Jesus, there is the added responsibility written of “recovery of sight to the blind.” In other words, the priest is called to remove the scales from people’s eyes that prevent them from seeing.
The parish priest is charged with the mission of proclaiming the joy of the Gospel to all of God’s people, most especially the poor and needy. One of the daily ways that this work happens is through the power of preaching according to God’s plan. In The Joy of the Gospel Pope Francis writes, “Being Church means being God’s people, in accordance with the great plan of his fatherly love. This means that we are to be God’s leaven in the midst of humanity. It means proclaiming and bringing God’s salvation into our world, which often goes astray and needs to be encouraged, given hope, and strengthened on the way. The Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven, and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel.” (#114). In his preaching, the priest becomes the voice of hope and strength to God’s people. His preaching is not meant to be a torture chamber, a stage to promote one’s personal agenda, or a place for entertainment, but rather an open doorway and a bridge to a new life with Christ Jesus and his Church.
In his preaching, the priest is an intimate part of God’s dialogue with his people. Every preacher needs to be attuned, not only to God, but also to his people. Pope Francis states, “The preacher must know the heart of his community, in order to realize where its desire for God is alive and ardent, as well as where that dialogue, once loving, has been thwarted and is now barren.” (# 137)
The Holy Father points out the beauty and challenge of preaching when he says, “The preacher has the wonderful but difficult task of joining loving hearts, the hearts of the Lord and his people” (#143). Through his prayer, preparation, and preaching the preacher seeks to be a unifier and realize the great priestly prayer of Jesus, “that all may be one.” As priests we stand in the middle of two loving embraces.
The work of preaching is an awesome undertaking that can sometimes leave us wondering and even doubting ourselves. For example, I am sure we all have had those experiences of greeting people in the back of church following Mass. You know what I mean. One person comes up and says, “Father, your homily was a homerun.” And then the next person comes up and finds fault with what was said. We are left shaking our heads. The danger is that we can make this part of our ministry all too personal. It is never meant to be about the “me” of the preacher. When it comes to preaching, the Holy Father offers some sound advice, “What is essential is that the preacher be certain that God loves him, that Jesus Christ has saved him, and that his love has always the last word.” (#151)
In other words, at the risk of sounding trite, we need to practice what we preach. We need to keep in mind what the bishop said to us on the day of our ordination: “Believe what you teach. Teach what you believe. Practice what you believe.” Inevitably, this means from time to time, in total humility, we need to make sure that the scales are removed from our eyes by listening to others preach, availing ourselves of spiritual direction and an annual retreat, examining our conscience regularly, and consistently making a good confession; otherwise, we risk the possibility of the blind leading the blind.
Above all, we must never lose sight of the fact that even in our weakness and brokenness, we are anointed, set apart by God and sent to be his presence in the world: not just at the pulpit in Church but with every breath and step of our lives.
My sons, while we often find ourselves preaching alone at the pulpit in Church and other arenas of our lives, we must recall that we are never alone. Before Jesus died, he said to the disciple whom he loved, “Behold your mother.” Jesus left his mother to all his disciples as a source of strength and grace. Mary is not only the mother of all disciples, but she is the mother of priests.
In speaking about the priest’s relationship with Mary, article #18 of Presbyterorum Ordinis, the Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, states, “Priests should always love her (Mary), with a filial devotion and worship, as the mother of the supreme and eternal Priest, as Queen of Apostles, and as protrectress of their ministry.”
In his First Holy Thursday Letter to Priests dated April 8, 1979, Pope St. John Paul II invited all priests to “entrust” their priesthood to Mary in a special way.
On Wednesday, August 12, 2009, during a General Audience at the Papal Summer Residence in Castel Gandolfo, Pope Benedict XVI said, “Because of his identification with and sacramental conformation to Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary, every priest can and must feel that he really is a specially beloved son of this loftiest and humblest of Mothers.”
Finally, on August 4, 2019, Pope Francis issued a letter to priests on the 160th anniversary of the Cure of Ars, Saint John Vianney, the patron of parish priests. He gave his own witness to the role of Mary. He wrote, “Whenever I visit a Marian shrine, I like to spend time looking at the Blessed Mother and letting her look at me. I pray for a childlike trust, the trust of the poor and simple who know that their mother is there, and that they have a place in her heart. And in looking at her, to hear once more, like the Indian Juan Diego: ‘My youngest son, what is the matter? Do not let it disturb your heart. Am I not here, I who have the honor to be your mother?’”
Gentlemen, my brother priests, my sons: Mary is our Mother. Because we are configured to Christ, the great High priest, Mary sees the image of her son within each one of us even in our weakness and brokenness. To Mary and so many others we are an “alter Christus,” “another Christ.” And as we live out our life and ministry of priests, Mary accompanies us to our Calvary moments. With a mother’s love, Mary is at the foot of our crosses. Moreover, Mary is ever present to tell us what she said to those at Cana in Galilee, namely, “Do whatever he tells you.” Every day this means that we aspire to be missionary disciples who proclaim the Joy of the Gospel by removing the scales from people’s eyes while, at the same time, seeking to practice what we preach and allow the scales to fall from our own eyes so that we might see as God wants us to see. What a sacred privilege! What a precious gift! What a blessed honor it is for us in all of our humanness to be anointed as priests of Jesus Christ and to proclaim the joy of the Gospel to the whole world!