By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
Such was the continuing Lenten journey of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in exactly five weeks – from Ash Wednesday Feb. 10 to the Chrism Mass March 16.
Celebrating the Mass with nearly every priest serving in the diocese, Bishop James V. Johnston Jr. consecrated the three cleansing, strengthening and life-giving oils that will be used in administering sacraments throughout the year in every parish and mission in the diocese.
The oils are:
• Oil of the Catechumens, used in adult Baptism.
• Oil of the Sick, used in the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.
• Oil of Chrism, used in the sacraments of Confirmation, Holy Orders and infant Baptism.
It is indeed a day to celebrate, Bishop Johnston told the congregation at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
“Nearly 40 days ago on a February Wednesday we had ashes put on our heads, black and dirty,” he said.
“It was a journey of faith, a journey of repentance, a journey of humility and honesty about our sins and our need for God in our lives,” Bishop Johnston said.
Bishop Johnston told the congregation that the tradition of ashes dates back to the ancient Jews, who publicly wore ashes and sack cloth as a sign of repentance for sins and the desire for reconciliation.
But the tradition of cleansing with sacred oils also comes from Judaism, then instituted by Jesus Christ himself – “Christ” meaning “anointed” – as the outward sign of life-affirming power of the Holy Spirit.
The day’s first reading from Isaiah speaks directly of the journey from ashes to the “oil of gladness” and new life.
“To place on those who mourn in Zion a diadem instead of ashes, To give them the oil of gladness in place of mourning, a glorious mantle instead of a listless spirit.”
“Oil instead of ashes. That’s what we’re about tonight,” Bishop Johnston said.
While the oils are used in four of the church’s seven sacraments, the Chrism Mass is also a day to celebrate the priesthood – the men who sacrifice generously to answer the call of God to serve his people and administer the sacraments.
It is ordinarily celebrated on the morning of Holy Thursday – the day Christ broke bread with his apostles at the Last Supper, then commanded them to “Do this in remembrance of me.”
But for practical reasons, the Chrism Mass is celebrated in most dioceses a week earlier, just before Palm Sunday, as the church approaches the holiest days on the calendar.
Priests in the diocese have for years gathered for an entire day of reflection, prayer and retreat before concelebrating the Chrism Mass in the evening with their bishops, and renewing their ordination vows, as they hear the congregation renew their own pledge to strengthen priests with their prayers.
It is a reason to celebrate life in God, Bishop Johnston told the congregation, with the focus on the sacramental oils.
“This oils will be used as an outward sign of the power of God,” he said.
“The sacred Chrism will be used by our priests in Baptism and Confirmation in the sacred rites of being reborn as Christians,” Bishop Johnston said.
“I will use these oils when I ordain men who have generously responded to the call to become priests,” he said.
“That is what these sacred oils do. They unite us and conform us to Christ,” he said.
“Jesus is the anointed one. That’s what ‘Christ’ means,” Bishop Johnston said.
“Jesus wishes us to share in the anointing of the Holy Spirit because we belong to him. Everything he has is ours. What descended upon him, he makes possible for us in the sacraments,” he said.
Whatever sacrifices are made to follow Jesus are repaid more than in full, Bishop Johnston said.
Turning to his priests, he said, “We are all asked often what we gave up. Tonight, we rejoice in what we have received.”
“We offer ourselves up, and we received hundreds of brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, and children,” he said.
And every disciple needs each other as they need Christ, the anointed one.
“No one can be holy on their own,” Bishop Johnston said.
“We each need God and we need each other. We need the help of you, the people of God,” he said.