So much happens so quickly in the Church year that many important things can go right past us. One quite notable development – which almost no one noticed at the time – occurred when Pope Francis spoke right before Easter specifically to clergy about the nature of priesthood during his homily at the Chrism Mass in St. Peters. His words are worth retrieving.
At a Chrism Mass, the oils for anointing in the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, the Anointing of the Sick, and Holy Orders are blessed by the bishop of the diocese. The grace of these sacraments preserves and develops the worshipping Church for which he is responsible.
In Rome, Pope Francis said: “The readings and the Psalm of our Mass speak of God’s ‘anointed ones’: the suffering Servant of Isaiah, King David, and Jesus our Lord. All three have this in common: the anointing that they receive is meant in turn to anoint God’s faithful people, whose servants they are; they are anointed for the poor, for prisoners, for the oppressed.”
He did not say the “Catholic poor,” etc. The Church has long ministered to and been an advocate for all the poor and oppressed in any community where it is present.
Francis’ expressions remind us of the bitter words of the last pagan emperor of Rome, Julian the Apostate: “Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans [i.e., Christians] devote themselves to works of charity, and by a display of false compassion have established and given effect to their pernicious errors. Such practice is common among them, and causes contempt for our gods.” (Epistle to Pagan High Priests)
Of course, Julian’s “gods” did not exist. And in the culture that promoted them, genuine acts of charity showed just how much the “gods” were indeed figments of the imagination. Not a trivial experience given that two false gods, figments of the modern imagination – Nazism and Marxism – obliterated tens of millions of people in the twentieth century. And the body count from modern liberal extremism in areas like abortion in our own society is large and still growing.
Pope Francis linked the anointing and the actions of the anointed, the priests. Originally: “The names of the twelve tribes of Israel were also engraved on the breastplate [of the priest] (cf. Es 28:21). This means that the priest celebrates by carrying on his shoulders the people entrusted to his care and bearing their names written in his heart. When we put on our simple chasuble, it might well make us feel, upon our shoulders and in our hearts, the burdens and the faces of our faithful people, our saints and martyrs who are numerous in these times.”
Psychologically and spiritually, this is a different kind of man, then, this priest who consciously “carries” his people as he approaches the table of the Lord. Grace and effort have molded his consciousness to function in this way. The Patron of Priests, Saint John Vianney, held himself responsible for the any moral lapses on the part of his people.
Francis used the phrase “his people” repeatedly. The priest is not a CEO, but the shepherd of his flock. The scriptural term still has force. It has not been replaced by modern secular alternatives.
Moreover, the shepherd has an effect on his flock:
A good priest can be recognized by the way his people are anointed: this is a clear proof. When our people are anointed with the oil of gladness, it is obvious: for example, when they leave Mass looking as if they have heard good news. Our people like to hear the Gospel preached with “unction,” they like it when the Gospel we preach touches their daily lives, when it runs down like the oil of Aaron to the edges of reality, when it brings light to moments of extreme darkness, to the “outskirts” where people of faith are most exposed to the onslaught of those who want to tear down their faith.
This is not the good news of the “two jokes and one announcement” homily, but conspicuously Good News, with capital letters. Furthermore, Pope Francis makes this assertion fully aware from firsthand experience that genuine faith meets hostility.
His reflections finished with a look at the parish:
People thank us because they feel that we have prayed over the realities of their everyday lives, their troubles, their joys, their burdens and their hopes. And when they feel that the fragrance of the Anointed One, of Christ, has come to them through us, they feel encouraged to entrust to us everything they want to bring before the Lord: “Pray for me, Father, because I have this problem,” “Bless me Father,” “Pray for me” – these words are the sign that the anointing [of the priest] has flowed down to the edges of the robe, for it has turned into a prayer of supplication, the supplication of the People of God.
This is a pope who has an earthy, yet solidly theological, way of communicating the faith. And he’s only getting started.