Thursday, April 5, 2012

Maundy Thursday (Mass of the Chrism)

James 5:13-16 / Mark 6:7-13

There are many who ask how we might make the priesthood more effective. Their hearts, we think, are more or less in the right place. After all, over the past generation, at least in those lands once characterized and marked by the presence of the Catholic faith, we see the Church in a kind of decline, if not everywhere in numbers, at least in her impact on society. To the extent that this lack of impact can be traced to a certain disconnect between the faith claimed in name by many in positions of influence — over family, school, workplace, town hall, or even the highest levels of government — we also rightly wonder how we can make the priest more effective in his ministry. Since society at large will no longer teach and sustain the faith through its institutions and the cycle of its observances, its public rhetoric and its professed values, it falls, unfairly or no, on the shoulders of the priest to be the face of the faith. So, we imagine that anything which can make his work more efficient has to be a good thing.

This is why Jesus' sending out of the Twelve two by two seems counter-productive. In sending them he does not equip them, at least not in any tangible way, but in fact divests them of what might make their task easier, and thus, we tell ourselves, more efficient, more capable of reaching more persons and so spreading more dramatically the power of the Good News: And He commanded them that they should take nothing for the way, but a staff only; no scrip, no bread, nor money in their purses. But to be shod with sandals, and that they should not put on two coats. In other words, while provided for a minimum standard of support, a staff and sandals, the Twelve find themselves altogether deprived of anything that might meet the challenges of unexpected trouble. They are rendered altogether reliant on the hospitality they happen to receive, and are even forbidden from finding even better hospitality should the occasion present itself. It looks as though they have been deliberately hobbled, as though Jesus did not want his Apostles to reach as many people as they could by their own devices, making best use of a less than minimum array of resources. In modern terminology, we might accuse Jesus of failing to equip the Twelve for ministry.

Yet, we need to read the passage again. From the very start, we see that Jesus does in fact equip the Twelve, granting them something to which they have no natural claim and which exceeds anything their own best plans could devise. We are told that Jesus gave them power over unclean spirits. When we hear the report of their ministry, we discover that along with their preaching calling men to repentance, they cast out many devils and anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them. In short, their ministry was never  intended to be of the sort that could be duplicated by the good and faithful application of natural powers to respond to human need. Rather, the Twelve, and with them their successors in the priesthood, Christ instituted precisely to communicate to the world a share in those supernatural gifts that flow from his saving mission, especially those accomplished by his Incarnation, and particularly what was brought about in his saving death on the Cross.

While there may be much good in a kind of worldly efficiency among priests, what Jesus Christ wants for his Church, what we should want for our priests, is not a crafty mind, but rather a holy and transparent heart, a soul permeated by the oil of gladness, at whose pleasant spiritual fragrance the wicked spirits who afflict the human race are put to flight. More than the physical ills that oppress us, ills which are often best attended not by priests but by faithful men and women in the lay state, it is the spiritual dimension of man, his natural and supernatural orientation to right worship of God and his need for deliverance from sin and the powers of death and hell, that are answered in the priesthood. This is not a task that can be measured by efficiency. It is measured by holiness and charity, by an inner conformity to Jesus Christ.

This is the gift we celebrate in the Church's renewal of its priests, that we might share more fully the fruits of Christ's victory over Satan, Sin, and Hell, through the ministry of men who, in their humanity, are no different than anyone else. Let us pray for our priests, and not for an efficiency in their work, but rather an abundance of sweet consolation in their prayer. Let us pray for the renewal of that anointing each of them received, and go to them with confidence, that the power of Christ's Passion, made theirs to communicate to us, might be all the more enjoyed by the faithful, now and until the end of the world.

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