Leadership and purpose or kaupapa are hot topics in the Church at the moment. That should not surprise us. The Church is by nature perennis reformatio, and naturally enough some people are more attracted to the brake and others to the accelerator.
But that pedal metaphor can miss the point. The primary agent of reform in the Church is the Holy Spirit. So, growth in insight about who we are and how we should be is always a spiritual journey before it is an administrative one; and that spiritual journey is fed by our liturgical journey. For it is in our Churches and whare karakia that, gathered by God, we most deeply come to understand who we are.
When I look back on a year I can without hesitation say that the time I most feel me, when I most understand what I have been called to be, as Bishop and Hēpara, is now; the Chrism Mass.
That experience I want for you too. Look around you, sense who we are. This Mass breathes our total dependence upon the Holy Spirit; this miha visually manifests who we are, Priests and people united though diverse, and, as Pope Francis has put it very recently, “united not because we are monolithic but because we are a network of varied gifts that the Spirit ceaselessly pours out renewing us and lifting us up out of complacency” (Christus Vivit, 207). This Mass is inspirational and aspirational. It is gift and task or mission.
In our gospel reading tonight we heard Jesus in his own hometown synagogue, quoting from Isaiah. In other words he was drawing on his whakapapa of faith, to explain who he had become; and who you and I too, through baptism, are becoming:
“The spirt of the Lord has been given to you
For he has anointed you with oil
To bring good news to the poor
To bind up hearts that are broken
To proclaim liberty to captives
To the blind, new sight.
Set the down trodden free
and proclaim good news to the poor.
And so, all eyes are fixed on us.
Christian faith is public, witness is word and deed.
So the oils of the Sick, of Catechumens, and of the Chrism, lead us outwards to deeds, to action. Just as Jesus walked out from his synagogue into the lanes and fields of Capernaum to the homes of the afflicted and troubled and lost, so too do our sacred oils lead us out from the comfort of our whare karakia to anoint, to encounter, to soothe the poor and prisoners, the sick and institutionalized, the stumbling or weary, the frail and the infirm, and the searching – including you young people soon to be confirmed with oil of Chrism.
If we really believe that, then the pressing question for us Bishops and priests, parish and school leaders, for each and every baptized person is this: how do we get out from behind our desks our screens our phones into our communities with, literally and figuratively, the sacred oils of God’s workshop. Some might think that ‘from desk to street or community’ is a gross simplification of the Church’s mission or most urgent tasks. Maybe it is, or just maybe that image is an intense demystification of who we are, reminding us of our true work, free of other people’s agendas which easily distract us, free of any of our own muddling of what is truly important.
There is a temptation for some to imagine our sacred oils locked up from year to year in a beautiful repository as though they should be venerated, while we get on with the “real work” of worrying about insurance premiums and building maintenance and compliance codes and attendance dues. Yet, those tracks can become an escape from, not an embrace of, who we are called to be.
Integral to tonight’s magnificent liturgy is therefore the call to go to the peripheries: oil by its seeking nature reaches to edges, nooks and crannies, places and, for us, people sometimes previously unseen, unnoticed or even unknown. We have become acutely aware that among those sometimes unnoticed or unknown are those who have been abused as children. One case of abuse within the Church whānau, or in society, is one case too many. Wrong-doing, whether individual or systemic, has left us a wounded people and deeply shamed.
Sometime ago I wrote in an article that the sexual abuse of minors reduces me to silence. I was criticised for that comment. I have thought about it since. So, I want to clarify that for me silence, far from suspending thought or emotion, enables them. Silence is a preparatory stage of conversation or dialogue, silence saves us from reducing tragedy to just another “issue” to be managed by processes and protocols. In silence, I prepare for any deep encounter.
On the level of deed, of action, I am the Bishop representative on what we call our Tautoko or support group for the Church’s engagement with the Royal Commission of Inquiry into historical abuse in state and faith based institutions. I drafted the Bishops’ letter pleading with Prime Minster Ardern to include our Catholic faith based institutions within the scope of the Royal Commission. From the day of its announcement, we wanted to be included so that we too can learn from the past and be contributors to a safer Aotearoa.
In our Diocese, at Our Lady of Lourdes parish centre here in Palmerston North, we recently had a study day on safeguarding. Every priest (bar those in resthomes and one who was overseas) together with key parish workers participated. It was a hope-filled day which will be followed up by further workshops and initiatives, and I thank Mr Dave Mullin, my project manager and our diocesan safeguarding officer, for organizing the event.
In God’s workshop, our oils are essential tools in most of our sacraments including of course Holy Orders or the Ordination to Priesthood. Tonight it is appropriate that I thank our priests. Brother priests, I thank you for your shared humanity, I thank you for your readiness to share with me your weaknesses and any troubles, I thanks you for the way you seek to embody God’s grace at work within you, and I thank you for your dedication to serving your people and building communion in our often divided world.
In July, I am travelling to Burma or Myanmar to meet with the Archbishop of Yangon and two priests he has kindly agreed to loan us to serve in our Diocese from next year. We welcome tonight too the four new members of our Cistercian community at the Kopua monastery near Dannevirke who have come from the Philippines just a few months ago to bolster numbers there. Maayong pag abot mga igsuon!
I am also in discussion with the Oceania Province of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, a large French founded Order, very active for example in Northern Australia. They are wanting to establish their first community in Aoteroa in our Diocese of Palmerston North. And last but not least I welcome among us Deacon Vui, known to many of you, who will be ordained to the Priesthood on June 29th and then appointed to our New Plymouth parish. Lucky Taranaki! Vui to you too thanks for your deep generosity of heart and mind and our prayers are with you as you take your last steps towards priesthood.
To each and everyone of you, thank you for all you do. Our parishes and faith communities are vibrant and growing. Thanks be to God. Let us grow too in our understanding of ourselves as the bearers of God’s sacred oils, the healing and strengthening and guiding powers of which our people long.