This is Bishop Robert Brennan’s full homily from the Diocese of Brooklyn’s 2023 Chrism Mass.
Last year I shared with you the story of my crozier – broken, mended and stronger – and how it reflects back to me precisely who I am – broken in my weakness and sin, mended through God’s mercy, and stronger for the experience of that mercy. With your indulgence, I will share a story about another crozier, not mine, and a story I have told in other circumstances so begging your further indulgence, I may repeat myself to some of you.
You see, in 2021, just before St. Patrick’s Day, a good friend of mine from Ireland sent me an article from the Irish secular press about St. Patrick in art. This particular piece focused in on stained glass windows in two Churches – one in Ireland and the other right in Columbus Ohio, in the Church of St. Patrick where I was to celebrate Mass that St. Patrick Day. The window tells the legend of the Saint baptizing the King of Cashel. There you see St. Patrick in all his Episcopal regalia and the king on one knee bowing reverently as Patrick pours the water. If you look carefully, you will see the king grimacing in pain. Look again more carefully and you will see the crozier of St. Patrick (in those days designed more authentically as a shepherd’s staff – complete with a pointed spike on the end meant to catch the ground when climbing the hills – planted firmly on the king’s feet.
The story goes that when all was done, and Patrick learned what happened he was mortified! He asked the king “Why didn’t you say something?”, to which the king replied, “I thought it was part of the ceremony! After all, didn’t you say that Baptism meant being conformed to Christ crucified and risen?”
Gathered today as the Church of Brooklyn and Queens here at the Co-cathedral for the Chrism Mass we celebrate the bonds of communion through that gift of Baptism by which we are all conformed to Christ, priest, prophet and king, living always as a member of his body sharing in his everlasting life. The Holy Oils used in the sacramental life of the Church will be blessed and sent forth from here to the parishes and schools in our local church. Today we pray for the priests of our diocese as they renew their promises of Ordination and they/we in turn are renewed by Christ for His service. Thank you one and all for your joyful and prayerful presence here this evening.
So, what then Fathers, does it mean to be conformed to Christ. Back in January of 2019, Pope Francis called together the bishops of the United States for retreat sending his own papal preacher the Father Raniero Cantelemesa to preach it. The theme Father Cantelemasa chose was “He appointed Twelve that they might be with him and send them forth to preach.” (Mark 3:14). Doesn’t that cover it for us as priests? To be with Jesus and to preach the Gospel – this is one way of expressing what it means for us as priests to be conformed to Christ.
Being with Jesus:
Let me quote Fr. Cantelemesa. “We know from the Gospels what “being with Jesus” meant to the Twelve. It involved leaving one’s home and work to follow him as he moved from place to place, and sharing everything with him: meals, rest, travels and hardships. In the biblical world, the teacher-disciple relationship was very different from what it is today. It involved more than just listening to lectures. The disciple actually went to spend quality time with the teacher; he learned the lessons from watching how the teacher lived. And that’s how it was for the apostles. Theirs was a “seminary on the move” because the Teacher didn’t have a fixed residence.”
How often has each of us spoken about the difference between knowing about Jesus and actually knowing Jesus. Our retreatmaster put it this way: Is Jesus for us just a personality, a celebrity, or is he a person we can talk with and enter into friendship. Unfortunately, for a vast majority of Christians, Jesus is a personality, not a person, a part of a set of dogmas and doctrines, one who we remember on an objective level as a piece of history. Is it any wonder there is a crisis of faith in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The root of any Eucharistic Revival has to be the rediscovery of Jesus as a real person and a meaningful encounter with him.
For us as priests, this encounter is crucial if your ministry is to be effective. How often in the Gospels do we see Jesus stepping away to pray, to be in communion with the Father. “Great crowds would assemble to listen and be cured – but he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.” Jesus would withdraw to pray before taking on any major work or decision. Jesus calls us to that same communion – to be with him, to spend quality time with the teacher.
Father Cantelemasa tells a story about St. Bernard responding to the invitation of Pope Eugenius III to apply this lesson to the life of pastor of the Church – the Pope certainly got what he asked for:
Do not trust too much to your present dispositions; nothing is so fixed in the soul as not to decay […] I am afraid that you will despair of an end to the many demands that are made upon you and will become hardened. […] It would be much wiser to remove yourself from these demands even for a while, than to allow yourself to be distracted by them and led, little by little, where you certainly do not want to go. Where? To a hard heart […] This indeed is the state to which these accursed demands can bring you if you go on as you have begun, to devote yourself totally to them, leaving no time or energy for yourself […] Now, since everyone possesses you, make sure that you too are among the possessors […] Remember this and, not always, or even often, but at least sometimes give attention to yourself. Among the many others, or at least after them, do please have recourse to yourself.”
We need both formal time in prayer and to cultivate what Father Cantelmesa calls a prayer of “Desire”, something very deep; a habitual reaching for God; the yearning of the entire being, the longing for God, with the Risen Christ who promises to be with us always, until the end of the age.
I remember speaking about the importance of prayer in the life of a priest when someone objected: “But, Father, do you know how busy we priests are? How many demands are placed on us? When the house is on fire, how can we remain calm in prayer?” I answered: “You’re right, brother, but imagine this: firefighters get a call; there’s a fire. They race to the scene, with sirens blaring, but when they arrive, they realize that they have not even a drop of water in their tanks. When we neglect prayer, we have nothing with which to meet the needs of our people
Preaching the Gospel
This evening we hear the content of “preaching the Gospel of Jesus”.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.
Jesus returns to the Synagogue where he learned the scriptures and takes upon Himself the prophecy of Isaiah. Indeed, he will bring good news to the poor, liberty to those who are captive by the power of evil, sin and rejection, recovery of sight and freedom. This is the Gospel we preach when we preach Christ. But let’s be honest, Jesus calls us, not only to preach the content of the Gospel but to preach in the manner in which he did so. With simplicity of life, and profound respect for those who suffer and are rejected, Jesus empties himself, self-emptying love. We heard it on Sunday:
though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, walked with people, listened, engaged, encouraged, healed and called to conversion. He laid down his life for his sheep and He calls us to do the same.
In the first reading we find the full text of the prophecy Jesus quotes. There are two images that fascinate me: To place on those who mourn in Zion a diadem instead of ashes, to give them oil of gladness in place of mourning a glorious mantle instead of a listless spirit.
Mourning, listless spirits – Jesus lifts the burdens by sharing the task of carrying them bestowing dignity and healing in the truth. How many listless spirits are out there, how many are mourning.
Being conformed to Christ involves being with the Lord and preaching His Gospel through simplicity of life and self-emptying love. I recollect these reflections with you brother priests, not in any judgment, but rather as a call to myself in these days of Holy Week. As I will ask all of you here present during the renewal of promises, I ask you to pray for me, that I may grow in this lifelong process of conversion, desiring more and more to be conformed to the Lord.
If anything, brother priest, a year and a half in, I come before you with profound gratitude, always inspired by your holiness, your love of Jesus and your desire to serve. If these thoughts can speak to you, terrific! We have many challenges together, but many joys. I welcome our jubilarians today: LIST
Last year I had the privilege of ordaining three priests: Father Andrew Tsiu, Father Vincent Vu, and Father Alex Olszecki. In June I look forward to ordaining 4 priests: Deacon Eusebius, Deacon Timothe, Deacon Ernesto and Deacon Samuel. And in the days to come we look forward to welcoming into our number through incardination Father Paul Anel, Father Alex, Father…. And Fr. Liju Agustine. We thank our senior priests who are retiring, and all our senior priests and we pray for those who have died.
Having the chance to speak TO the priests, may I speak for them. Thank you! Thanks to all of you, God’s faithful people whom we have the privilege to serve. Thank you for inspiring us, for inviting us into your lives, for encouraging us and for calling us to grow in our relationship with Christ.
We thank our deacons who collaborate with us. Thank you for your generous and authentic spirit of service. Visiting our parishes, I see the many fine ways you serve the parishes, the way you know the parishioners, the ways that you work both publicly and behind the scenes. Thank you. I really do look forward to future gatherings with the Order of Deacons to celebrate and renew your diaconal ministry. Thanks as well to your families. It will be a joy in May to ordain 21 new deacons for service in the Church in Brooklyn and Queens.
We have a wonderful legacy of religious life here in our diocese and our Religious can be found in all sorts of ministry and witness. I am always amazed at everything I see you doing today and grateful for the many apostolic works that have been handed on by the Religious Congregations.
And to all of you people of God who collaborate with us in our parishes and through the different movements. God continues to do amazing things here. Through Baptism we are indeed conformed to Christ, crucified and risen and we are sent forth. As we bless the Sacred Oils of the Catechumens, of the Sick, and Chrism we give thanks for Christ, present and living among us, sharing his life and sending us in mission.