Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron gave the following homily to more than 160 priests and 800 members of the faithful gathered for the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday, April 2, 2015.
Listen to the Full Homily
It seems appropriate to begin with — I hope it’s not to trite to put it this way — certain kinds of “shout-outs.” And the first, of course, belongs to Cardinal Maida. Your Eminence, it is so wonderful to have you here in the Cathedral today. I hope you’ve had a good rest this winter, and thank you for being with us today, Cardinal. Thank you so very much.
To all of you, the people of God, who have been drawn by the Holy Spirit here today, how good it is that we can be this mystery, this sacrament — anticipating here, in our earthly praise and singing, how we will be at the end of time. This is a foretaste of the joy God has in store for us.
I’m particularly glad for the presence of the elect and the candidates from various parishes who are here today. How right that you should be in the Cathedral to see the consecration of the chrism by which you will be sealed at the paschal vigil. And that’s true, I think, for some of you young people, who are later to be confirmed in the ordinary course of things.
That then leads me to give my particular shout-out to the lay ecclesial ministers who are present. I know that many of you who are involved in the ministry of the RCIA are here today, as well as those engaged in youth ministry. I want to say how grateful all of us priests are for having you as coworkers.
And then, to those who, along with me, are consecrated to the apostolic ministry in holy orders, and the deacons. How grateful I am for your service, and especially the liturgy says — and it’s not a trouble for me, it’s easy to be particularly attentive to my brother priests today — that this Mass of the sacred chrism is a powerful testament and experience of our own fraternity in the priesthood. As I saw so many of you come into the Cathedral I was thinking about the cost that the priesthood is to you. Some of you, long illnesses. Others even a period of doubt. I know somebody here who suffers from terrible back pain, and continues in the ministry. That’s just one example. But how good it is that God has shared the priesthood with us. And particularly I am thinking about our brothers in the deaconate who will be ordained priests in 50-some days — here today to be part of the ceremony wherein is consecrated the chrism that, please God, I will be able to use to anoint their hands when we come back here on the vigil of Pentecost.
In July it will be 19 years ago that I walked into this Cathedral and Cardinal Maida ordained me a bishop. And since that time, now for all of those weeks, sacred chrism has been an essential part of what I might call my episcopal toolkit. I’m quite confident that, if they should dig me up five, ten years after my burial, my thumb will be incorrupt.
As I was preparing to do my first celebration of confirmation, one of my… friends said, “just remember, thumb, chrism, forehead. That’s simple. You can get that.”
But it was in preparation for coming here today that I spent a lot of time thinking about the sacred chrism, because it is in some way so very simple, and yet a central element of my ministry. And that reflection led me really through three stages, and that’s the structure of my homily today.
I began to think about the particular character of chrism. How in the life of the Church it works as a sacramental, a sign of the Holy Spirit. And from there, I was led on to think about the work of the Holy Spirit as such — what is the mission, the ministry of the holy spirit to us in the Church. And where I ended in those reflections over the last few weeks was to think about today. Not just the ministry of the Church in every age, the mission, the ministry of the Holy Spirit in every age. But the mission of the holy spirit — his particular task — as I see it, here in the early 21st century. So that’s what I’d like to do today: offer a reflection on the holy oils … what I will call the ‘permeating touch’ of the Holy Spirit. I want to draw out some implications of what that is, what I mean by that characterization. Then I’d like to reflect with you a little bit on why it is so important to be touched by the Holy Spirit, to be anointed with the Spirit. And then, of course, why this is so important in our time, in these years.
At the end — and I’ve been certain to ask Joe Balistreri to sing it today — I like to sing at the chrism Mass, “There is a Balm in Gilead.” My hope is that when we come to that, our hearts will be filled with an understanding. And so it won’t be simply sentimental, but a deeply rooted and ardent prayer. That way, I don’t think there’ll be any danger that we’re just here as an audience. But that we will truly participate in the mystery that God will unfold in our midst.
So about the Chrism. It has struck me that perhaps there is no more paradigmatic, archetypal sacramental than the sacred chrism. Yes, we use holy water all the time. There are candles. Palms. Everybody comes for Palm Sunday. And don’t we get a lot of people on Ash Wednesday. Those are all very powerful. But the chrism — it is essential for confirmation. You can baptize with a lot of different kinds of water. It doesn’t have to be blessed water for the baptism to work. But without chrism, there is no confirming. The sacred chrism is not blessed. It is consecrated. The Church understands it to be so very particular, so special. It is, it seems to me in the mind of the Church, the sacred chrism, though it isn’t a substantial, but it is truly a real medium for the real presence of the Holy Spirit.
The anointing of the oil is certainly a natural symbol. From time immemorial, oil has been (used) for healing. It heals the wounds of those who are in need of that. Perhaps more significantly as a symbol, it works as a kind of substance which pervades whatever it touches. I remember when I make this point about a girl in grade school, who used to bring popcorn for her lunch, and the bag in which she put the popcorn always had that kind of translucent oil spot. Oil pervades. It suffuses. You can’t get it out. And that’s why I think it functions so well as a symbol for the Holy Spirit. Because where the Spirit is, his blessing has been poured out and it pervades whatever he blesses, wherever he takes up his abode.
And so this symbol, this sacramental, was rightly used in the Old Covenant for kings and prophets and priests. And in the fullness of time, it became the symbol for the great anointed one, the messiah. Not a messiah, but Jesus Christ. The offspring of David, whose coming was foretold in the first reading we heard today. Jesus who, in the synagogue in Nazareth as we heard in the Gospel, stood up and claimed this for himself. The spirit has anointed him to bring glad tidings. This has now become his property, his second name. Jesus, the Messiah. Jesus, the Christ. Jesus Christ, the anointed. So then with these reflections about how the sacred chrism is a vehicle for communicating the presence of the Holy Spirit, I’d like to talk a bit about the work of the Spirit at all times and particularly in our time.
We begin by acknowledging that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus Christ. He comes from Christ, and he is given by Christ. He proceeds from the Father and the Son, as we Latins say – or through the Son as the Greeks put it. And with the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. The Spirit is sent to us by Jesus Christ. But I think we haven’t really gotten to the deepest truth about this, about where the Spirit is from and how he is from Jesus, unless we go to St. John. Think about what we will hear on Good Friday, when Jesus had taken the wine, he said “It is finished,” St. John reports. And bowing his head, Jesus handed over the spirit. I was reading a commentary by the Jesuit (Fr. Ignatius) de la Potterie, who pointed out that nowhere else in literature is this formulation used to talk about somebody dying — handing over the spirit. So that St. John needed a completely new turn of phrase, both to report the death of Jesus, and to talk about what comes of it. The Spirit — where has he come from? He came from the heart, the lungs, the torso, the very flesh of Jesus in his dying. And so is fulfilled what St. John reports in the seventh chapter when Jesus said that the Spirit will flow out from within himself when Jesus was Glorified. Isn’t that so important to understand the work of the Holy Spirit — that he comes out and is presented to us, touches us, anoints us. Coming forth from Jesus Christ in the great act of his love. And so it’s not surprising in the next chapter of St. John on Easter night when the risen Christ comes into the upper room and he breathes on the disciples. This is where the Spirit comes from, onto us. He comes out of Jesus himself, out of the risen Christ. Out of the Christ who was once dead but now is alive — and alive because the Holy Spirit came back into his body, early before Dawn on the first day of the week.
On the cross, Jesus began the era of the Holy Spirit. And what does the Spirit do, this spirit that comes out of the very body, the lungs, the flesh of Jesus? He impresses on every place he is, on everyone he enters, the form of Jesus Christ. This is what he did when he overshadowed Mary. He impressed upon the elements of her womb the form of Jesus. When we priests extend our hands in the epiclesis over the bread and the wine, the Spirit then comes to impress the very form of Jesus upon those elements. The Christ form is the self-offering of God the Son. And wherever the Holy Spirit dwells, whenever the Holy Spirit touches and transforms, he makes present the offering that belongs to the sons and the daughters of God, to make to the Father. This is healing. This is the healing we sing about in the sacred chrism, in the anointing with the Holy Spirit. This is reconciliation. There is no other way to have reconciliation, and to offer oneself in sacrifice to the Father and to the service of one another. This is the new creation that we pray for in the psalm, “send forth your spirit, O Lord, and they shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth.”
This testimony which I have articulated, offered about the Church’s faith and the power of the Holy Spirit and the work of the Holy Spirit, is true in every age. This is always what he’s been doing since the death and rising of Christ. But I have then been led, and I want to share with you some thoughts, about our time, and what I understand to be the urgent task for which we need the Holy Spirit in our time.
And for that I’d like to begin with some phrases from the sequence in Pentecost, when in the liturgy we say to the Holy Spirit, “Heal our wounds, our strength renew; On our dryness, pour your dew. Melt the frozen, warm the chill.” Being dry, being frozen, being chill — that seems to me to be a condition which is very particular to our time.
Has there ever been a time like ours when a people who once heard the Gospel, living in a culture that had over time been shaped according to the principals of the Gospel, has so willingly become asleep about the Gospel, and shed the Gospel, and become indifferent to the Gospel? Are we not frozen, chill, and dry? Are we not bored with Christ? Is that not the condition that the Holy Spirit needs to heal in our time? Have we not come to a time when, sad as it is, hearts no longer seem to be restless, but rather more drugged, befuddled. Are we not at a time when there’s a loss of confidence that there is out there, somewhere, some good worth striving for? So that the typical attitude of our time in so many is simply, “Whatever.” …?
I think Cardinal Ratzinger was speaking about this at the beginning of the millennium. He said: The deepest poverty is the inability of joy, the tediousness of a life considered absurd and contradictory. This poverty is widespread today, in very different forms in the materially rich as well as the poor countries. The inability of joy presupposes and produces the inability to love, produces jealousy, avarice — all the defects that devastate the life of individuals and of the world.”
I was reading in Blessed John Henry Newman some lines that seemed to well articulate this being frozen, chill and dry. Newman wrote: “What a truly wretched state is that coldness and dryness of soul, in which so many live and die, high and low, learned and unlearned. Many a great man, many a peasant, many a busy man, lives and dies with closed heart, with affections undeveloped, unexercised.”
As I, as a pastor, consider the challenges of today, I look and see so many who are resigned in order to be destitute of what is good and noble, because our age claims to have discovered that anything that presents itself as worth the warmth of one’s heart is mere trumpery — an illusion confected in order to manipulate, often with a view to gaining power or money. Don’t we live in an age when so many are dry, chill and frozen because every claim seems to be merely an advertisement, and we know what advertisements are about.
I recognize as a pastor this attitude of heart what the ancients call acedia — the noonday devil. The sort of weariness that saps the vitality out of life. The kind of thing that’s very typical of people who are past their prime. About this condition Dorothy Sayers writes: “This is the sin which believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for.” We have known it far too well for many years. Incessant activity, she says, this desire to always be connected which is typically of our time, she observes — these are all disguises for an empty heart and an empty brain and the empty soul of acedia.
I realize I’ve gone on at length, and perhaps I risk boring so many of you. But I do believe in my heart as a priest that this condition is the great wound which the Holy Spirit, we must call upon Him to heal today. This kind of weariness that saps life of its vitality. Imagine if you would a retelling of the parable of the merchant who searches for a fine pearl. And in our day, might that parable be about a merchant who doesn’t care anymore? Who goes from market to market, never even able to recognize the pearl of great price? And to this condition there has to be a response. God does not want it to be this way. This is of great evil — a great affliction that so many should be bored with Jesus Christ. And we must then, the Church and especially we pastors, we must — as Pope Francis says — give people back the joy of the Gospel. We have to help them rediscover the joy that comes from knowing that they are loved by God, and that they can reciprocate that love to God, and that God wants it back.
We have to teach our age to ask from God, to expect everything from God, even God himself. Somebody has to teach the 21st century in the United States to believe again that each of us is made for some purpose beyond oneself. To strive for that purpose by acts that perhaps are great, but perhaps are simple and small… but to strive nonetheless for a great good. Indeed to strive for someone who is great and good. To strive for someone who is the greatest and the best.
Someone has to teach our age about Jesus. And that then is the strategy of the Holy Spirit — to lead in the re-proposing of Jesus Christ. To bring those whom Christ loves face-to-face with Him. Because it is out of that face that his love shines. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to present Jesus as his most attractive. Jesus healing our wounds. Jesus forgiving our sins. Jesus standing with us in our trial. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to make Christ present in the power of his Love. To touch us with his anointing externally in the sacraments. To touch us in the anointing of our hearts and minds through his internal action. This is the case for all of us. For you and me who are already fully initiated sacramentally in to the Church. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to stir into an ardent flame whatever ember might be banked up and suffocated by our own difficulties and our own trials, our own acedia. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to do this for us who seem to be all-in and all-committed. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to do this for those who are lax and languid in their life of faith. People we see at Christmas and Easter and funerals. It is the work then finally of the Holy Spirit to do this to make Christ present, to anoint them, to help them know Christ, even for those who have never yet heard of him.
We are all called then to be instruments of the Holy Spirit. It is only the Holy Spirit who can make Jesus present. But we, each of us, can do our part. That’s what the New Evangelization is about. To assist the Holy Spirit in making supple once again minds that have become brittle and dry because they are — falsely, but they are nonetheless — resigned to a meaningless existence. We’re called to be instruments of the Holy Spirit because only he can melt frozen hearts, hearts that are frozen in lovelessness. And it is our great vocation, in the beginning of the 21st century as the Catholic people in the Archdiocese of Detroit, to assist the Holy Spirit in warming spirits that have become so chilled… that acting in order to lay hold of what is truly good seems just too impossible. What is the New Evangelization? It is about dedicating ourselves totally to assist the Holy Spirit in making present Jesus Christ in His compelling love.
And so, now you see the secret. It’s all pretty clear. I’m calling us all to work in these years ardently for the New Evangelization, and I’m preaching today in order to connect the sacred chrism and the power of the Holy Spirit with the New Evangelization initiative.
I need your prayer! I need everybody’s prayer! It’s not just for me. It’s not just for the priests. It has to be for all of us. Who could remain indifferent in the face of this acedia, this noonday devil!? This being bored with Jesus!? We must pray that the Holy Spirit will touch, in great power, hearts. That he will ignite the dry, the frozen and the chilled. We must pray for ourselves. We must pray for each other. You must pray for me and I pray for you. That the Spirit whom we call down into the chrism today will come in power into every pore and every part of the mystical body here in southeast Michigan.
Take courage! Or, to use a very plain and homely expression, pull up your socks! Be open, and ready, for what the Holy Spirit will do. Because it will be great if we let Him be great. Be persevering. Don’t be faint-hearted. Don’t give up at the first or the second or the third or the 77th failure. And, above all, be confident. Be confident in the power of the Holy Spirit to change hearts and make things new.
The world thinks it’s old. The world feels like it’s middle-aged and, “oh, it hurts, and my knees don’t work, and I’m just tired and it’s all just too much.”
But we’re not old, our Church. We’re young. The spirit is alive.
The Spirit has come from the heart of the risen Jesus, and he will do this. That’s what I’ve come to the Cathedral today to say and testify to, and that’s what I ask all of you to join me in believing and doing.