by Bishop Blase J. Cupich
(From the April 19, 2012 edition of the Inland Register)
(This is an edited version of the homily by Bishop Cupich for this year’s Chrism Mass.)
There were years in our recent past when the largest community of priests in the world, over 2,500, was Priestsblock 25487, the priests’ section of the concentration camp at Dachau. One of the inmates, Father Jean Bernard, kept a diary documenting the torture of the prisoners, even to the point of recounting how the Nazis crowned priests with barbed wire and crucified them. In 2004, a German film director got hold of the diary and produced a movie called The Ninth Day. In the film the author-priest is given the fictionalized name Abbe Kremer. At one point he is promised his freedom by the Gestapo chief, Officer Gebhardt, if he will cooperate with the Nazis. To gain the priest’s trust, Gebhardt, who had long since renounced the Catholic faith, confides that he was once a seminarian, but left the seminary two days before ordination to take up a career in the Nazi administration. “It was my mother’s fondest wish,” the SS officer revealed, “that I become a priest, so as to have a dignitary in the family.”
Abbe Kremer said in response: “But, sir, priests are servants, not dignitaries, and my mother knew that.”
Abbe Kremer and his mother, Madame Kremer, knew the Jesus whom we hear about today in Luke’s Gospel, the one who walked into his hometown synagogue and proclaimed himself a servant. Our priests also know this same Jesus. Since the day of ordination, when they said “present” or, for some, “adsum,” they have served with generosity and dedication. We will recall that first moment of their priesthood with the renewal of their ordination promises at this Eucharist. While the Chrism Mass has a special meaning for our priests, it is first of all a feast for the whole Church. This Gospel passage is nothing less than Jesus’ inaugural address, and it provides the entire Church with a point of reference for how we continue the service of Christ in the world.
Luke tells us that Jesus began his service by teaching. The Gospels are replete with stories of Jesus the teacher, known especially for his confidence and patience. These two qualities are needed as he has the long-term aim of bringing people to a full share in the life of God, which begins with learning how to live together here on this earth. There is, as the catechism so nicely puts it, a resemblance between the union of the divine persons, the life of the Trinity to which we are called, and the solidarity that human beings establish among themselves in truth and love. For Jesus, a just society is essential to the fulfillment of the human calling to share in the life of God. (Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1878 and 1886).
Teaching how our lives with God and a just society are connected is the service Jesus takes up his first day on the job and which he invites us to share in our day.
And so in the face of the tendency in an election year to consistently reduce a political agenda to the facile question “are you better off than you were four years ago?” the Church says, wait. There are other questions that can be of service, such as: how will we protect the weakest and vulnerable in our midst? How do we heal the wounds of racism in our country? How should a state be helping and supporting parents committed in a permanent and faithful relationship and who take the risk and responsibility for bringing children into the world and raising them with sound values, a sense of hope, and an ethic of responsibility? And when an agenda of radical individualism characterizes certain groups of people “disposable” because at this point in their life due to illness, youth, or old age and weakness they are dependent on us, the Church reminds us of what we already know from experience – that full human development takes place in relationship with others and that we should instead pursue a more comprehensive vision of human solidarity that values what it means to be member of the human family.
In all of this, as Pope Benedict XVI tells us, “Our aim is simply to help purify reason and to contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just.” It is to teach with confidence and patience that a just society is essential to the fulfillment of the human calling to share in the life of God.
Yes, there are members in our own Church who would prefer the approach often taken by other faith groups. “Why can’t Catholics get their act together like these people?” I am asked. They envy how such communities are able to form a tightly cohesive group, rallying their members into a political bloc, able to deliver a solid vote. But that is not how Jesus served. Instead, he taught, and confidence and patience were the marks of his teaching.
In just a moment we will bless the oils to be used for our ministry, our service to the People of God in the coming year. It seems to me that the symbol of oil has a lot to offer as we take up in a fresh way the service of teaching in this year. Three of its qualities come to mind.
First, oil glistens. It reflects light, which the pope reminded us is our aim in teaching, to bring the light of reason to public debate, ever confident of the depth and richness of our Catholic social tradition – ever confident that the truth will win out.
Oil also eases resistance. Approaches that depend on strident and harsh language, condemnations and division only end up creating greater resistance to the truth.
Our teaching has to give people room to consider what we are saying, trusting all the while that God’s grace is at work in them.
Finally, oil heals. It enters areas of past hurts. Our service of teaching must be patient, especially when it is clear that other personal issues are involved in an individual’s decision. The movement from the neuralgic to the rational takes time, time that requires our patience.
All we need to do is to serve, as Abbe Kremer and his mother knew, by teaching with confidence and patience as did Jesus on the first day of his ministry. And as a further sign that even in our day God’s word can be fulfilled in our hearing, I, like Jesus, am now going to roll up the scroll of this longer-than-usual homily and sit down.