In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, as we advance towards our Diocesan Synod, our Chrism Mass cannot but be a celebration of the merciful love that is at the heart of the priesthood of Jesus Christ. As our second reading this evening puts it, “He loves us and has washed away our sins”. He has made us “a line of priests to serve his God and Father”, “a race whom the Lord has blessed”. We all share in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ, the One whose name is mercy, whose identity is mercy, whose mission is mercy.
In the readings we are given a description of key features of that priesthood. We are “to bring the good news to the poor, to bind up hearts that are broken, to comfort all those who mourn and are despondent, to proclaim liberty, to give new sight to the blind, to set the downtrodden free…”.
In his day when people met Jesus, they met mercy. As indeed we hear him say in this evening’s Gospel: “This text (about God’s mercy) is being fulfilled today even as you listen”. But what about us today two thousand years later? Where can we see and hear fulfilled the text about God’s mercy in Jesus? Here we come to the miracle of the Church. Despite our limits, Jesus still repeats the Gospel of mercy in and through us today too. I want to suggest three ways:
Firstly, through the priesthood of all the baptised expressed in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. The highest form of love is mercy. Mercy isn’t just about forgiveness. We live in merciful love when see, love and serve Jesus in one another.
Many works of mercy, both corporal and spiritual, have been carried out by people in this church – the hungry have been fed, the sick and those in prison have been visited, the naked have been clothed, the stranger and the least have been welcomed. And we could continue – education has been given, the doubtful have been advised, wrongs have been borne patiently, offences forgiven and the afflicted comforted. I greet with gratitude all here who give witness to the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, those, for instance, working in the social service area or disability sector, those who assist in any way in meeting the material and physical needs of their neighbours.
Just a few days after his election, Pope Francis remarked, “feeling mercy… this word changes everything. This is the best thing we can feel: it changes the world. A little mercy makes the world less cold”. The corporal and spiritual works of mercy really matter. When we think of the terrorism we have seen in recent days, and the many conflicts of our world, the plight of the poor and the new forms of slavery around us, the situation of refugees and the destruction of the environment, we realise that our world will not be saved if the love that is merciful does not spread in our hearts, minds and lives.
The instinct right after the horrific attacks in Brussels might, understandably, be to pull back and close in on ourselves out of fear. But that would merely give in to people behind such attacks, people who merely want separation, mistrust and fear. If anything now is the time to increase our corporal and spiritual works of mercy, opening up in a new way to people, not least to the migrants whose culture we don’t know.
As we carry out the blessing of the Oil of the Sick and the Oil of Catechumens, let us recognise that our Church community is called to continue Jesus’ merciful priesthood in corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
A second way the merciful priesthood of Jesus can be fulfilled today, indeed each day, is prayer of the heart. An inner struggle goes on in each of us. St. Paul describes it so well in the seventh chapter of the letter to the Romans: “I can desire what is right, but I cannot do it .For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me… Wretched man that I am! (Rom 7: 18-24).
But it is precisely here that the Good News of mercy comes in. Jesus came not for the healthy but for the sick. He calls not the righteous but sinners. In our hearts, we can exercise a spiritual priesthood right throughout the day – recognising, naming and offering anything that casts a shadow in our life to Jesus living in us – our sins, our limits, our infirmities, our ego, the burden of our humanity. Our day can become a frequent priestly dialogue of mercy with Jesus in us.
There is a story told of St. Jerome. It is said that one night, Jesus appeared to him in a dream. Jerome had become a monk a short time before that and despite big efforts to follow Jesus, he wasn’t happy. He was struggling with old temptations that had come back. In the course of the conversation Jesus asked Jerome what had he to give to him. Jerome named all that he had done to follow the Lord – he had left his country, he had carried out night vigils, he had done penance. “Do you have anything else to give me?” asked Jesus. “I have given you everything, I have nothing more”, replied Jerome. At which point Jesus said, “I know that, Jerome, but you do have something else that is really yours to give. Give me your sins! I want to forgive them all”.
It is a mysterious thing but our sins can be an offering that Our Lord Jesus can turn to the good. We need to practice handing over to him our sins, our imperfections, our imperfect sentiments and anything that is dragging us down. If we offer it all to him with humility, with love and with confidence, he then gets to work in us and changes our sin and misery into a flame of love for him. The transforming power of his merciful priesthood comes alive in our lives. So let’s not hold anything back or be ashamed or afraid to offer him our sins and limits. “Our sins are the throne of divine mercy” wrote Saint Pope John XXIII.
The third way Jesus’ merciful priesthood is fulfilled today in our world is the through gift of ministerial priesthood. Soon the priests gathered here will be renewing their priestly promises, promising to be more united with the Lord Jesus, and more closely conformed to him who is the shepherd and spouse of the Church.
Ordained ministers are present among the People of God reminding us that we are not alone on the journey of holiness, that our works aren’t our own initiative, that it is Jesus Christ who comes to our aid to build us up as his Body, the Church. Through the ministry of priests, it is Jesus himself who wants to be present to his people with his mercy in the tangible form of word and sacrament, feeding us with the Bread of life, speaking words of life, forgiving and accompanying us on our pilgrim journey home. Priests point us to the eternal.
I want to acknowledge with gratitude the tireless ministry of our priests. In our preparations for our Synod, we’ve recognised many signs of change ahead of us. And change is not easy. And this is certainly true for priests for whom priestly ministry is not just a job or part time commitment. It involves the whole of their life and affects them deeply. So, as we hear priests renew their priestly promises, we can be grateful for their ministry and pray for them.
Priests are needed as much as, if not much more, than before. Pope Francis so often reminds us that the Church is like a “field hospital”. In our world there are so many people wounded by material problems, by scandals, also in the Church, people wounded by the world’s illusions. These wounds need to be treated in the Church first and foremost with mercy, the tender compassion of God that heals. Others – doctors, psychologists, lawyers, they’ll do their good works. But the first and deepest treatment people want from the Church and from priests for their wounds is mercy. Priests are first foremost missionaries of merciful, compassionate love.
Dear brother priests, as we renew our promises in this Year of Mercy, let us meditate on the life and words of Pope Francis regarding mercy. I have distributed a text from the Pope for each of you. He invites us to let ourselves be embraced by God the Father in Confession and remain in this embrace. And he also asks us, “Dear brothers do you know the wounds of your parishioners? Do you perceive them? Are you close to them? It’s the only question....”. As he puts it, specialized treatments can be done later, but first we need to treat the open wounds. Some people keep their distance through shame so as not to let their wounds be seen. And perhaps they distance themselves with some bitterness against the Church, but deep down inside there is a wound. “They want a caress!” as the Pope puts it. Our pastoral concern must be marked by great tenderness, a spiritual caress that heals wounds, even those hidden deep in those we meet.
And so I conclude. Two thousand years ago, Jesus said, “Today this text is being fulfilled”. That “today” is also our “today”. The merciful Priest, Jesus Christ, is still with us through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, in the prayer of the heart and especially in and through ministerial priesthood. Amen.