‘A mission built on the bond of unity’

During Chrism Mass, Bishop Raica speaks as a father to his brother priests

On April 4, Bishop Raica celebrated the Chrism Mass at the Cathedral of St. Paul. During the Mass the bishop blessed the holy oils and consecrated the Sacred Chrism. Also, during the Mass, the priests of the diocese renewed the priestly promises. The complete text of the bishop’s homily follows herein.

My brother and sisters in Christ! A warm welcome to each and every one of you today, especially if this is your first time to the Chrism Mass, or to the cathedral!

Along with many present today, I look forward in eager anticipation to our annual celebration of the Chrism Mass! It is one of those moments when we assemble as the Diocese of Birmingham with some representatives from parishes, institutions, and religious communities along with many friends from around the diocese. Welcome Bishop Baker, our emeritus bishop. Archbishop Joseph Marino is here today, back home in Birmingham after completing his distinguished service to the diplomatic service to the Holy See and as president of the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy in Rome preparing priests for diplomatic service. I also welcome Abbot Marcus and the Benedictines who are with us today from St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman.

Today, we particularly welcome our priests in such large numbers. Together, we form a united priestly college in dedicated ministry to Christ and His Bride, the Church. We also welcome permanent deacons and their wives, the women and men in consecrated life, pastoral administrators, lay ministers and lay ecclesial ministers, families and faithful from around the diocese and those participating by livestream services. I also welcome the Knights of St. Peter Claver, the Knights of Columbus, and the Knights and Dames of the Holy Sepulcher. [I express] our gratitude for their particular mission of service and charity throughout the Diocese of Birmingham and beyond. Finally, I welcome our seminarians who are home assisting in local parishes. Thanks for responding so generously to the Lord’s call.  

Our focus is two-fold today for this Chrism Mass: 1) bless the oils used during the course of the next year in our sacramental and liturgical celebrations; and 2) an annual gathering of priests to renew priestly commitments.

The blessing of the oils today brings us in touch with the people of God in a most personal way. The oils have a personal quality to them. The Oil of Catechumens is used to provide strength for one’s journey into the embrace of our faith – both in terms of baptism of infants and adults. The Oil of the Sick is used as an agent of spiritual healing and strength, applied to the forehead and hands. The Sacred Chrism is used in ordination to priestly and episcopal service – to anoint the hands and the head, respectively, of the one being ordained. It is also used to set things aside for sacred purpose – anointing the altar and the walls of the church as a solemn consecration and dedication for special purpose.

Today, I turn my attention particularly to my brother priests. It is that day when we renew our commitments we made on the day of our ordination. If you are looking for something to pray about during your Holy Hour this week or on Holy Thursday evening, may I urge you to dig out those promises and use them as a springboard for meditation. I, too, find them useful to reflect upon from time to time. I am so grateful for each of you. I know the people of this diocese are grateful for your ministry. They have hopes – high hopes for their priests. Their prayers sustain us in the ups and downs of our daily ministry.

I believe it is important to call to mind what I mentioned last year as I focused in a general way on the importance of presbyteral unity. During my homily a year ago, I mentioned that as priests our unity is like a three-legged stool – united with God; united with our brothers; and united with those we serve as a necessary balance in ministry.  I also thanked those who support us and our mission of Christ in central and northern Alabama with their prayers, talents, and stewardship resources. I noted that God’s dream for us includes an accompaniment as we walk with each other, fulfilling the dream of God as one people on pilgrimage. From our parishes, schools, charitable institutions, religious communities, we are a beacon of hope.

There is no doubt that our presbyteral mission is built on a bond of unity and not one motivated by self-interest, self-aggrandizement, self-pride. It is not something predicated on the fact that I alone have all the answers. I know I certainly don’t. That becomes clearer with the passing of each day. The bond of unity is a glue that holds us together while we are on the pilgrim journey back to the Father. Unity with each other, linked in charity to the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome, and other particular churches, forges a unique bond of strength by which the Good News of Jesus Christ can be proclaimed in its institutional and charismatic dimensions. As is said succinctly in Latin: Ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia – where Peter is, there is the Church. For this reason, we keep Pope Francis in our prayers that his pastoral mission be accomplished.

With regard to the Church, I hearken back to a homily by Cardinal O’Connor on the occasion of a priesthood ordination at St. Patrick’s in New York in which we are likened to bridegrooms entering marriage. He then elaborates on this unique bride, the Church, with which we priests have an exceptional privileged relationship.

“She’s younger than springtime, but she counts her years in centuries. She’s a startlingly beautiful bride, but she is deformed, disfigured with the wounds, the scars of Christ Himself. She is weary with the centuries, ugly to those who do not know her as you know her.

“She will be to you a gentle, patient, and loving bride but she can be to you stubborn, unyielding, even harsh. She will be faithful to you and yet at times, she will seem to turn away from you, even to betray you. She will be a consoling and comforting bride, but she will be an extraordinarily demanding bride. She will lay down her life for you, but she will demand your life in return.

“For this bride that you marry [today] is not the Church triumphant. This is the Church of this world, the Church of God’s people. God’s people who are strong and holy, God’s people who are weak and sinful. God’s people who are good and generous. God’s people who are selfish and demanding. God’s people who will love you beyond any love you ever imagined, but God’s people who, at times, will seem to you to hate you and to be resentful of you and to be spiteful toward you. God’s people, your bride, will give you indescribable pleasure and immense pain, unutterable joy and profound sorrow. These are God’s people, not yet a fully risen people, not yet a perfect people. And these are the people that you take into your own as their bridegroom as their priest.” [His Eminence, John Cardinal O’Connor, Homily for Ordination to the Priesthood, New York, NY: St Patrick Cathedral, in 1990].

Yes, my brothers, these are God’s people we love with our lives. In just a few moments, we will renew our priestly commitments in the presence of the assembly representing the people of God, our bride, here in the Diocese of Birmingham. In that renewal, we pledge ourselves once again to unite ourselves more closely with Christ, conforming our hearts and minds to His, confirming the promises about the sacred duties we accepted, motivated by the love of Christ. Through it, we come to know and love our bride even more intensely.

In addition, we renew our faithful stewardship of the mysteries of God in the Holy Eucharist, discharging the teaching and shepherding office solely motived by the zeal for souls. Throughout our nation, the Eucharistic Revival challenges and invites us to make the Eucharist the center of our lives and make us true missionary disciples. The real presence of Christ is needed now more than ever. Our priestly leadership comes during the celebration of Mass, our preaching, our availability for celebrating the sacrament of penance and anointing of the sick, or just to accompany someone, to name a few. Do not give up! Christ is with us, and by virtue of our orders, we have received a special gift and grace. For each time we act in His name, Christ acts! Today, more than ever, our people want to see Christ!

I vividly recall one experience I had as I transitioned from an assignment overseas to parish life, which was to begin in July. Because I was working on a project, I was delayed in arriving at the parish until November. One of the parishioners mentioned to me, “Father, without a priest here, the rectory was dark at night. When the rectory lights were on, we knew the presence of our priest, our shepherd is with us.” Like the sanctuary lamp, a presence is consoling. The desire is to have Christ among us is comforting. 

We need to be visible among those we serve, even in symbolic ways. The light in the rectory was one way. Our presence and activity in our parish and wider community is another. Our visible unity as priests, a band of missionary disciples, illustrates our solidarity even further. 

My dear friends, I ask you to pray for that unity among our presbyterate, so that we may remain faithful to the mission entrusted to us and boldly proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ in word and gesture.

Since I have been here, I have received stacks of prayer requests. Oftentimes the prayers are for family members and spouses who’ve abandoned the practice of faith. They wait for and hope for a re-awakening of faith in loved ones. Many requests are related to health concerns. Some are for vocations. Still others are for ongoing social issues that plague our country – from respect life issues to the dignity of immigrants, and from an end of war in Ukraine to the respect for religious liberty and dialogue in Nicaragua and the release of the Bishop Alvarez of Nicaragua. Thank you for sharing your concerns with me. They form the fabric of prayer that seeks to know God’s will and that God’s will be done. May I also ask you to pray for priests and pastoral leaders across our diocese? From Russelville to Lanet, from Fort Payne to Demopolis, and from Athens to Clanton, may we, who form an amazing tapestry of faith in Alabama, remain united in faith, steadfast in hope, and generous in charity as we journey together to our Father’s house by being Christ to each other! Love this bride with your all your heart and with your life.

Under the protective mantel of our Blessed Mother, and imploring the intercessory prayers of St. Paul, the intrepid evangelizer, and St. John Vianney, the patron of priests and co-patron of our diocese, may we be united in zealously proclaiming the Gospel of our Lord, Jesus Christ!