“The Enduring Value of the Priesthood”
Homily for the Chrism Mass
March 29, 2023; St. Mary’s Cathedral
As is the case for many other bishops, it is my custom to give our priests the gift of a book every year at Christmas. My choice this past Christmas was inspired by the story of Fr. Walter Ciszek, an American Jesuit missionary in Russia during World War II who was falsely arrested for being a Vatican spy and condemned to prison and later a forced labor camp in Siberia.
I read the autobiography of his experiences during those decades of his life when I was in the college seminary pursing my philosophy studies, and it has been a great inspiration to me ever since. He wrote a sequel to this historical account that was a spiritual reflection on these experiences, “He Leadeth Me,” which was the book I gave to the priests for their Christmas gift last year.
Sufferings of the Priest
Because of its association with Holy Thursday, the Chrism Mass has the ministerial Priesthood as one of its focuses. And although Fr. Ciszek’s ordeal may seem a rather remote point in history to us now, the spiritual stamina and valor with which he persevered in his priestly calling are of timeless inspiration. Indeed, so are his experiences.
The spiritual torments he endured were even greater than the physical. He describes his initial experience of being admitted to the first prison in which he was incarcerated with a trainload of other prisoners in this way:
In discussing with others the various reasons for our arrests, I made no secret of my thought that one of the reasons, surely, for my arrest was the fact that I was a priest. If I thought this revelation might serve to emphasize my innocence, or give my fellow prisoners a greater sense of trust and confidence in me, or even give me an opportunity to serve them better or console them in their anguish, I was in for a rude awakening. I was treated instead with contempt. Apparently the many years of Soviet propaganda had had some effect. I was shocked to learn that many of my fellow prisoners looked on the priests as parasites in society, living a life of ease paid for by the pennies of poor old women, or as immoral men given to drinking, women chasers, or perverts. The more educated prisoners or minor party officials had acquired a distorted image of the Church from communist tracts in which the political, social, and human aspects of the Church were described with all their errors, shortcomings, abuses, and injustices. A priest to them, at best, meant a man out of step and out of place in a socialist society …
I was struck when I read these words at how closely they parallel what priests in our own time and place face, albeit with much diminished severity. But are not priests in our own time and place subject to this kind of social slander because of the shortcomings and abuses of bad actors who seem to gain all of the notoriety? In our own time we have seen good priests with decades of faithful service to the Church smeared with the sins of the few. And does not this, too, serve a certain agenda that is hostile to the Church, that would like to see the Church canceled out from mainstream society?
Undying Appeal of the Priest
And yet, the appeal of the priest cannot be suppressed; the deep yearning of people for the man of God who has given himself completely to the service of the Church to provide them the life-giving sacrament of the Eucharist and God’s forgiveness in the sacrament of penance, incarnating the very presence of the Church for them, cannot go away, whether they realize it or not. And those who are most hostile do realize it, which is precisely why they are so hostile. Fr. Ciszek recounted this as well in his experiences of imprisonment in the former Soviet Union. He writes:
The authorities … knew priests had influence on other people. From the point of view of those in charge of the camps, therefore, that made priests especially dangerous no matter what they were telling their fellow prisoners. Accordingly, priests were called in regularly for interviews by the … security agents…. One purpose of the interviews was a sort of constant psychological warfare, a form of harassment and intimidation, not-so-gentle reminder that such dangerous enemies of the Soviet people as priests were constantly under surveillance.
And that is precisely how Fr. Ciszek found the enduring value of his Priesthood. He recounts:
I was not helpless or worthless or useless in that prison at Perm. I was not terribly humiliated because I was rejected as a priest. These men around me were suffering; they needed help. They needed someone to listen to them with sympathy, someone to comfort them, someone to give them courage to carry on. They needed someone who was not feeling sorry for himself but who could truly share in their sorrow. They needed someone who was not looking for consolation but who could console. They needed someone who was not looking for respect and admiration because of what he was but rather someone who could show them love and respect even if spurned and rejected himself.
Priestly People of God
And this, too, closely parallels what we are experiencing in our own time and place. Indeed, this is the experience of the people of God in every time and place. The oils that are blessed and consecrated at this Mass are for the entire people of God. The Chrism – whence this Mass gets its name – in particular is used for anointing the entire priestly people of God: not only the hands of the priest and the head of the bishop at their ordination, but also the heads of all of the people of God at their baptism and confirmation.
I see this enduring value of the Priesthood also among you, the priestly people of God. Thank you for your love for your priests, and your support for them. You know the value of that which only they can provide, that only they can be. They are there by your side, providing the grace of the sacraments, teaching and guiding, counseling and consoling, rejoicing and weeping, so that all of us, as a priestly people, may continue the mission of our Lord Jesus Christ.
At the beginning of his public ministry he sat down in the synagogue to proclaim the fulfillment of the prophecy from Isaiah: he is the anointed one to bring Good News to the poor. We are all anointed in him and for him, to continue that proclamation of the Good News.
Again: because of its association with Holy Thursday, the Chrism Mass has the ministerial Priesthood as one of its focuses. Obviously, of course, this is because our Lord gave us the Eucharist at the Last Supper, and therefore simultaneously instituted the sacrament of the Priesthood. It is the Eucharist that binds us together in the communion of God’s love and grace, which enables us to carry on this mission, for which He has anointed us. Without the Eucharist we are nothing; consequently, without the Priesthood we are nothing.
We all experienced the sadness of the deprivation of the Eucharist during the time of pandemic. You, the people of God, you longed for it, and I am grateful to and proud of our priests who strived to provide it in as safe a way as possible during those early months of fear and confusion. Here, too, we see a parallel, although in much milder form, with what Fr. Ciszek and his fellow Catholics who were imprisoned by the communists in the Soviet Union suffered.
He recounts that one of his greatest joys was to be sent from the prison to the forced labor camp in Siberia because, as he says, it was possible for him to say daily Mass once again, and even to function as a priest. As he puts it, “For all the hardships and suffering endured there, the prison camps of Siberia held one great consolation for me [as opposed to the prisons]: I was able to function as a priest again. I was able to say Mass again, although in secret, to hear confessions, to baptize, to comfort the sick, and to minister to the dying.”
And if we thought we had it hard trying to hold Mass safely and legally, imagine what it must have been like for them, bearing in mind that in those days the Eucharistic fast was from midnight, and the forced laborers were given barely enough food to survive on as it was:
In every camp, the priests and prisoners would go to great lengths, run risks willingly, just to have the consolation of the sacrament.… Most often … we said our daily Mass somewhere at the worksite during the noon break. Despite this added hardship everyone observed a strict Eucharistic fast from the night before, passing up a chance for breakfast and working all morning on an empty stomach. Yet no one complained. In small groups the prisoners would shuffle into the assigned place, and there the priest would say Mass in his working clothes, unwashed, disheveled, bundled up against the cold. We said Mass in drafty storage shacks, or huddled in mud and slush in the corner of a building site foundation of an underground. The intensity of devotion of both priests and prisoners made up for everything; there were no altars, candles, bells, and flowers, music, snow-white linens, stained glass, or the warmth that even the simplest parish church could offer. Yet in these primitive conditions, the Mass brought you closer to God than anyone might conceivably imagine. The realization of what was happening on the board, box, or stone used in place of an altar penetrated deep into the soul.
It penetrated deep into the soul, even in those dire conditions. Does it for us, in the beauty and comfort of our churches, in the beauty of this exquisite Cathedral? We love the Eucharist and we long for it, but do we sometimes take it for granted or regard it mindlessly because it is so easily available to us?
“Do this in memory of me,” he commanded us that night: not only to repeat a ritual, but to live his sacrifice in our lives, that sacrifice which he makes present on the altar at every Mass. We have inherited a legacy of predecessors in the faith of whom we can be rightly proud, who have repeated that sacrifice of Christ in their own lives, in their very flesh, in order to have access to and make available his sacrifice which he makes present to us in the most holy Eucharist.
Let us thank God for this precious gift, for the gift of the Priesthood, and for these brothers of ours who have responded to that call and those who are preparing to do so. Let us pray that many more will hear and heed this call, for the glory of God and the sanctification of His Church. And let us all renew our devotion to our Lord’s sacrifice and incarnate that in our own lives, each according to our own vocation in life, so that we may be faithful to the mission for which he has anointed us, that all may hear and receive the Good News of salvation, and so be brought to the perfection of communion with him forever in heaven.
 Walter J. Ciszek, S.J., with Daniel L. Flaherty, S.J., He Leadeth Me (New York: Image, 1973) p. 45.
 ibid., p. 110.
 ibid., p. 49.
 Ciszek, pp. 132-133.