The annual Chrism Mass is rapidly approaching. The current directives put this observance under Holy Thursday, but it is rare to see this Mass actually celebrated on Thursday, given that the Triduum begins on the evening of Holy Thursday in every parish. The Chrism Mass is something of a command performance for the priests of a given diocese, who renew their vows of obedience to their bishop as part of the rite. As many of our dioceses are territorially large and participants need to be home for Holy Thursday evening, bishops have discretion to celebrate this Mass earlier in the week. Fittingly the Mass is celebrated at the cathedral; in my diocese it is presently observed on Wednesday evening.
In my years here in Orlando this particular Mass has served multiple agendas aside from the one cited in the Missal. Thirty-some years ago it was a jolly fraternal gathering; the Mass was celebrated early enough so that after the vestments came off there was a cocktail hour and full dinner in the cathedral. We pastors were all in our prime drinking years. Then the powers that be decided that since we were only getting together infrequently, the Chrism Mass was an opportunity for other various additions, such as individual recognition of priests celebrating anniversaries of ordination. Orlando has a very large number of retired priests who live and work here; add a biography to each retiree’s anniversary and the Mass was now taking on Easter Vigil length proportions. Other recognitions were added, and finally I said to someone that I expected the awarding of Eagle Scout Badges the next year.
As a layman I have not attended very many Chrism Masses in the last twenty years. Parishes make note of it in church bulletins, but Orlando is cursed with a very small cathedral. My wife and I attended last year’s, and my guess is that with the priest concelebrants, religious, diocesan officials, etc. filling the pews, there is at most seating for 300 people, and that may be generous. I noticed from my spot in the rear that pockets of people cheered their pastor in the processional. I don’t know when or how that practice evolved in our diocese.
The instructions in the Missal note that the Chrism Mass is a special Eucharistic celebration that “manifests the communion of the priests with their bishop.” The underlying theology of celebrating the unity of Orders with the blessing of the pastoral oils is the continuity of the bishop’s ministry through his pastors in the local parish. The oils blessed in this Mass are bottled and given to each pastor for use in the Triduum of that week. In the old days the “bottling” was done while we pastors were emptying other bottles at dinner. I don’t know the procedure today; it did not seem to me last year that the priests were having dinner given the lateness of the hour at the Mass’s end. Although the Missal does not mention it, the custom in many parishes is to present the oils blessed at the Chrism Mass in some fashion at the solemn Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper, often in conjunction with the presentation of the gifts.
Attending a Chrism Mass is a sui generis event. It is the only time in a year when a Catholic gets to see the entire diocesan presbyterate gathered as one. I have to say, the visuals of last year’s Mass have stuck with me. No participant can deny that our presbyterate—and no doubt most others—is old, ill, and in other ways infirm. The clash between the theology of priesthood of mission embodied in the Mass texts, and the tired men who carry them forward, is stunning. The closest existential comparison I can think of is my father’s World War II reunions; old men, rightly honored for service, many still bearing arms, carrying the scars of battle, and determined to meet again until they die out, which has actually happened in my father’s unit.
I have not mentioned the other visuals. There is great cultural diversity, particularly among currently serving pastors. In my day Orlando was a predominantly Irish presbyterate. Statistically we have known of this cultural shift for years, but the visual impact is quite powerful nonetheless. I wonder if priests in today’s dioceses have enough common background for a shared fraternal and affective life. I tend to doubt it, and I fear for their isolation. Another visual is the occasional young priest of five years or less in Orders. Again, in years past the young priests were idealistic, antinomian (I failed my Canon Law question in my written comprehensive exams in 1974—surprise!), experimenters, and cultural rebels to a degree with long hair, beards, and guitars. Today’s young priests, sometimes referred to as the “John Paul II priests,” strike me as if they want to get older as soon as possible. Some have what appears to be a grim determination to “restore the Church” to something that, frankly, they are too young to know anything about.
Be that as it may, you might want to attend the Chrism Mass in your home diocese this year. If it is true that sacraments are signs, this Mass is a symbol of the living presbyterate in your future. It is the consummate classroom on Holy Orders.