Given at Westminster Cathedral on 31 March 2015 at the Chrism Mass for the Diocese.
Since the first days of his pontificate, Pope Francis has spoken repeatedly, passionately, about the mercy of God. Now he has announced a Holy Year dedicated to the great gift of God's mercy. Today this is our theme.
Already we have heard that we are sent, in the footsteps of Jesus, to bring good news to the poor, to bind up hearts that are broken, to comfort those who mourn, who are despondent and have lost hope. We still have ringing in our ears the words of Jesus: 'This text is being fulfilled today, even as you listen'. In the power of the Holy Spirit, they are fulfilled here and now. This is our commission.
Today we consecrate the oils of consolation and gladness. The Oil of the Sick: 'May Your blessing come upon all who are anointed with this oil that they may be freed from pain and illness and made well again in body, mind and spirit.' The Oil of Catechumens: 'Bring them to a deeper understanding of the Gospel, help them to accept the challenge of Christian living and lead them to the joy of new birth.' The Oil of Chrism: 'Wash away the evil they have inherited from Adam, and when they are anointed with the holy oil make them temples of Your glory, radiant with the goodness of life that has its origin in You.'
These oils are consecrated for the holiness of the world, for the holiness of every moment, from birth, through joy and sickness and unto death. Our whole ceremony this morning is best understood, not as the Church gathering to look to its own needs, but as coming to receive the strength and blessing of God so as to go out with God's mercy to the world.
What is it about the mercy of God that makes it so difficult for us to grasp? How often we sense a tension between the wonder of that mercy on the one hand and the justice of God on the other. But this is so only if we confuse the justice of God with our ideas of human justice – that every crime has its consequence, its punishment. That is not divine justice. Rather, the justice of God is the ‘well-being offered by God to His people’. It is our salvation.
Our misunderstanding can arise when we are preoccupied with our sin, through guilt or fear, or when we focus mainly on the failure of others. Then we can start thinking of God's justice in these human terms, as presenting the penalty that has to be paid. Then mercy can seem as somehow excusing us from the demands of this justice and as even being opposed to it.
But God’s mercy is not like that. It is not a message of cheap grace. Rather God’s mercy is our opportunity for repentance, the invitation to start again. Mercy is ultimately grace for conversion, the ‘time’, the ‘space’ for healing, for new life. True justice and mercy are inseparable. God’s justice, His well-being for us all, flows from His mercy toward us and that mercy is the heart of God’s justice. God never withdraws these gifts of justice and mercy. His grace, flowing from the side of Christ, enables us to set out, again and again, on the pathway of true discipleship, humble, repentant, yet always joyful, knowing our daily need for mercy and accepting wholeheartedly the call of God's justice to one another and, of course, to the Lord Himself.
I was reminded of this, forcefully, a few days ago when visiting the new school of Our Lady and St Joseph in Poplar. A striking new crucifix hangs in the School Hall. It shows the Body of Jesus, adorned with beautiful leaves springing from the trunk of the tree, the Cross, on which He hangs. The words on the new foundation stone of the School give the explanation: they are an extract from these words from the Book of Revelation: 'Then the angel showed me the river of life, rising from the throne of God ... and flowing crystal clear down the middle of the city street. On either side of the river were the trees of life which bear twelve crops of fruit each year and the leaves of the tree are the cure for the nations' (Rev. 22.1-2). It is to Him that we always come for healing. Our task is to bring others to the Cross of Jesus, to its healing leaves, to the mercy of God.
In the Cross of Jesus we see the justice and mercy of God as one. Here, the sight of total loving obedience which is our well-being. Here, the full consequence of our sin is seen, the weight that falls upon us all whenever we ignore the justice of God, in our unfaithfulness, our callous treatment of each other, our greed, our gossip and our self-indulgence. Here, in the Cross, the full glory of God's mercy is also revealed. Here we see God, out of love, constantly emptying Himself so as to take upon Himself all the burdens we heap upon each other and upon ourselves. Divine mercy frees us from those burdens and restores us, again and again, on our journey towards justice.
Today we priests renew the promises first made at our ordination, remembering that, in a particular way, ours is a ministry of mercy. Through us the mercy of the Lord is to come to others, to those who are hurting and afraid. This is not easy. We need great prayer and encouragement.
My dear people, we priests rely on your prayers and your love. We thank you wholeheartedly for all that you give. Without you we are lost.
May I add here that your prayer is really needed at this time as the Church prepares for the next Synod of Bishops. It is wrong, in my view, to think or speak of this Synod as a battle, a battle between contesting sides. Battles have winners and losers. And often 'collateral damage' is the most tragic consequence of hostilities. No, this Synod is a time of prayerful discernment, discernment about how we are to bring the love, mercy and truth of God to all people in need, in so many different and difficult circumstances. So please do pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
For our encouragement, today in a special way, we look to Pope Francis.
He reminds us priests to be close to our people at all times. He tells us that we priests ‘need to accompany with mercy and patience the eventual stages of every person’s growth as these progressively occur.’ He says: ‘A small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties.’ He says: ‘Everyone needs to be touched by the comfort and attraction of God's saving love, which is mysteriously at work in each person, above and beyond their faults and failings’ (EVG 44-45).
His second word of great encouragement for us came just recently, in February, when speaking about the man suffering from leprosy, about how, according to the old law, this man was excluded from the community, isolated in his misery. He spoke of how Jesus not only cured his disease and returned him to the family of his people but also how this man became a fervent proclaimer of faith in Jesus. Then Pope Francis said this: ‘This is the “logic”, the mind of Jesus, and this is the way of the Church. Not only to welcome and reinstate with evangelical courage all those who knock at our door, but to go out and seek, fearlessly and without prejudice, those who are distant, freely sharing what we ourselves freely received.’
This is the pastoral love we seek to renew in ourselves today. Pope Francis tells us that this love is to be ‘creative’. He insists that it is ‘creative in finding the right words to speak to all those considered incurable and hence untouchable.’ Then he added, ‘Contact is the language of genuine communication, the same endearing language which brought healing to the leper. How many healings can we perform if only we learn this language of contact!’ (15/2/2015). Let us pray for this creativity!
At ordination the hands of the priest are anointed. They are to be hands of healing, hands of mercy. They are to be hands of the language of contact. They are to be extended in gestures of welcome towards those who feel excluded. They are to support and encourage all who struggle in their journey. They are to be raised in the words of absolution in Confession and reach out with the oil of healing and consecration. As Pope Francis has said: Unction, please, not function!
Today we thank God for the great gift of his mercy, a mercy flowing from the Cross of Jesus, revealing the full meaning of His justice, His loving purposes which are always and only for our good and our happiness. May God guide and renew our Church this day that we may all be messengers of this mercy and heralds of this joy.