Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Archbishop Hanus Reflects on Hope at Chrism Mass

Chrism Mass homily of Archbishop Jerome Hanus, OBS, March 18, 2008:

Last November, Pope Benedict XVI published his second encyclical: Spe Salvi. It deals with Christian hope.
I began studying it and using it for meditation in the month of December. At the same time, I was also very much preoccupied with my ninety-eight-year-old mother, who was getting weaker by the day. I visited her several times last year, and we would talk about her approaching death and her hope for eternal life.
One section of Pope Benedict’s new encyclical has the title "Eternal life–what is it?" The Holy Father asks the question, "Is the Christian faith also for us today a life-changing and a life- sustaining hope?" (10).

Certainly it was for my mother. Her life and her dying would not have made sense without her faith.
The Pope invites us to think about when it all starts for us Christians. He paints the scene of parents bringing their child to be baptized. He makes use of the classic form of infant baptism found in the Roman Ritual for centuries. The priest first of all asks the parents what name they had chosen for their child. Then he continues with the question, "What do you ask of the Church?" The parents answer, "Faith." Then comes the next question, "What does faith bring you?" And the parents answer, "Eternal life."

Our faith is the key to eternal life. Mom was able to live the kind of life she did because of the gift of faith which she received at baptism. She was able to endure with dignity the sufferings and hardships of life, especially the pain and sufferings of her last years, because she had a great hope in eternal life.

So the Pope makes this initial point in his encyclical: because we believe, we hope.

But Benedict XVI doesn’t just leave it there. He asks another question. (We are coming to understand that this Pope appreciates the questions which contemporary human beings have.) As he reflects on faith and hope leading to eternal life, he asks, "Do we really want this – to live eternally?"

Then he observes that "perhaps many people reject the faith today simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive. . . . To continue living forever – endlessly – appears more like a curse than a gift. Death, admittedly, one would wish to postpone for as long as possible. But to live always, without end – this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable."
Certainly that is the experience of many. Human life, because of sin, because of illness and tragedies, because it is often full of sorrow and suffering, can become almost unbearable.
The Holy Father is touching on the very heart of our human existence. "On the one hand, we do not want to die; above all, those who love us do not want us to die. Yet on the other hand, neither do we want to continue living indefinitely . . . " (11).

In the course of this encyclical, the Holy Father calls our attention to several individuals who are powerful models for Christian hope. The story of one is particularly appropriate to recall as we celebrate this Chrism Mass during which oil will be blessed for use in the life of the Church.

This model of Christian hope is probably not known to most of us. But she is the patron saint of the Sudan. Her name is Saint Josephine Bakhita [pictured above]. She was born in the second half of the 19th century, in Darfur – a name well-known to us today because of the tragic condition of that part of the world. When she was only nine, she was kidnapped by slave traders. She was sold in the slave markets of northern Africa, not just once but several times. Each of her masters treated her horribly. They worked her unbelievably hard for a child; they abused her physically and in many other ways. They even branded her with knives, rubbing salt in the wounds so that she would be permanently scarred.

Her awful life took somewhat of a turn for the better when she was purchased by an Italian businessman and brought to Venice, Italy. A different Italian family took possession of her. In her last years as a teen, she worked more as a nanny to a young daughter of the family. Then she began to learn about Christianity.
Up to this point in her life, the only masters she knew were those who had abused and enslaved her. Now she learned that there was a Master, a divine Master, who didn’t hurt people. Rather, this divine Master was kind and good, goodness in person. This Master had created her, loved her now, cared about her, and was inviting her to a life that was completely different than what she had experienced. "What is more, this master had himself accepted the destiny of being flogged and now he was waiting for her ‘at the Father’s right hand.’ Now she had ‘hope’ – no longer the modest hope of finding masters who would be less cruel, but the great hope: [Listen to what she later wrote in her memoirs] ‘I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me – I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good’" (3).

In her 21st year, "On 9 January 1890, she was baptized and confirmed and received her first Holy Communion from the hands of the Patriarch of Venice" (3).

The sacred oils used in those sacraments must have meant so much to her. The words of the prophet Isaiah, proclaiming that a suffering servant would come on a mission of salvation, brought her such joy. Saint Josephine Bakhita heard Jesus, her new Master, saying, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives" (First Reading and the Gospel for the Chrism Mass).

Prior to her baptism, she had been "without God" and "without hope" (cf. Ephesians 2:12). Through her baptism, she received the gift of faith. This faith gave her hope and filled her with longing for eternal life.
Jesus showed her that there is a God, One who is not an indifferent, distant being, unconcerned about us. God rather is a Person who loves us, creates us, sustains us, and comforts us. Jesus showed her how to live, how to hope, and how to die.

In her last years, she suffered many physical ailments. She was confined to a wheelchair and her body marked by pain and disease. Mentally she suffered the trauma of remembering her years in slavery. But she bore all of this with a great sense of hope. She died in 1947. Like my mother, and like millions of other Christians, she was anointed with the oil of the sick. With that sacred anointing, Christians are united once again with Jesus, the Christ, the anointed One.

What a gift – those sacred oils! What a gift all the sacraments are! And what a privilege is ours, my brother priests, to be able to share God’s comfort with the sick and the dying in the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.

We also are privileged to use the oil of catechumens and the Chrism in the Sacrament of Baptism. Thousands of young people and many adults will be anointed with the Chrism in the Sacrament of Confirmation. I will be the privileged but unworthy instrument, the bishop, acting in the person of Christ, using the sacred chrism, to anoint our next priest in the Archdiocese, Deacon Rodney Allers, who is assisting at today’s liturgy.
He will become a member of this presbyterate, joining his energies to those of his brother priests, who work so hard to be faithful ministers of Christ the High Priest, leading the people to Jesus the fountain of their salvation (cf. Prayer of the assembly for the priests in the Chrism Mass).

I thank the priests – those present today and those not – for their continued zeal, for their strong faith, for being heralds of hope especially to those who are without hope. Thank you for proclaiming the Gospel, in season and out of season. Thank you for stretching yourselves in selfless service of God’s people. The Chrism of salvation, with which your hands were anointed on your ordination day, was not used in vain.
The Spirit of the Lord came upon you. You were anointed, so that through you the Lord Jesus could heal the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to captives, and give the people oil of gladness in place of mourning. May Christ continue to strengthen you, to bring to completion the good work he has begun in you (Ordination rite).

Labels: , , ,