Archbishop Malcolm's homily for the Mass of Chrism

Homily preached by The Most Reverend Malcolm McMahon OP, Archbishop of Liverpool, at the Mass of Chrism on Wednesday 28 March 2018 in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, Liverpool

It is good to be here in this wonderful Cathedral as the Church in the Archdiocese: bishops, priests, deacons, religious and people gathered to celebrate the Eucharist and to bless and consecrate the holy oils which will be used in the Easter ceremonies. These symbols of God's unfailing love for us, as he strengthens, heals and confirms us in our faith, remind us of the care which he has for us at every stage and moment of our lives. The way Christians give thanks when they come together is to give thanks to the Lord by the breaking of bread. In this eternal sacrifice we are fed with the Lord himself who sustains us on our journey as his people through thick and thin. Sometimes that journey can be hard and our burden heavy.
 
Pope John XXIII has been a friend, a guide, to me during my life as a priest. I often turn to his Journal of a Soul for spiritual advice, and his address at the opening of the Second Vatican Council helps me keep looking forward with hope to the future of the Church. But there is a photograph of him that troubles me somewhat. The picture shows him during his consecration as a bishop, at the moment the Book of the Gospels is placed on his back. Nowadays it is held above the new bishop's head. Placing the Gospel on the back reminds us that that the Gospels are a burden as well as a joy; that is why I am troubled. I always feel inadequate to bear that burden: the standards they set are too high for me, and I often fail. The Gospels are a yoke (a beam across the shoulders) to which we as priests and deacons are bound – remember the words of your ordination:
 
'Receive the Gospel of Christ,
Whose herald you now are.
Believe what you read,
Teach what you believe,
And practice what you teach.'
 
It is the last line of that charge from the bishop, as the newly ordained is handed the Book of the Gospels, that we find so difficult to fulfil. So much of what you do is highly commendable: you give many years of service, you bring the love of God to your people in difficult moments of life, you feed them with the divine food of the Eucharist and you tenderly give them absolution for their sins – but we, and I include myself, do not always practise what we preach. There are many instances of our personal failings and we turn to the Lord and confess our sins, begging forgiveness just like anyone else, but there are some sins which are not simply personal but affect others.

We are still living under the dark shadow of child sexual abuse – two of our brothers have been convicted of serious offences during the last year – and we as a Church express our deepest sorrow, and apologise wholeheartedly to the victims. Our robust safeguarding system cannot protect us, that is to say we the ministers of the Church, from committing sin, though it strives to protect children and the vulnerable. And the sin of one person hurts and damages every single one of us because we are all members of Christ's Body. That is the burden we bear as members of the Church but especially as its priests and deacons. How it is it that a Gospel that brings us life and life to the full can be such a burden?
 
There are two kinds of yokes: one is the yoke of slavery. We have all seen in our history and in film how African slaves were chained together with beams of wood separating them as they were deported to the Americas to work in the cotton and tobacco fields. The Slavery Museum in the Albert Dock documents this shameful part of our history for all to see. But another image stays with me and that is of a sculpture in the Barbados campus of the University of the West Indies which depicts the slaves breaking their chains and casting off the yoke of slavery.
 
Although the Christian life can be hard to live at times, we do not need to be crushed under its weight. There is another kind of yoke; one which enables us to carry heavier weights than the strength of our arms allows. A beam across our shoulders spreads the load. We can carry more for greater distances with the help of a yoke. The Gospels are such a yoke for us. But we have an even greater help that we often forget: that of the Lord himself. He helps us carry heavy burdens because his yoke is easy and his burden light.
 
We are reminded of this in the prayer for the donning of the chasuble which quotes the exhortation in the Letter to the Colossians (3:14) – 'Above all these things [put on] charity, which is the bond of perfection' – and the Lord's words in Matthew, 11:30: 'O Lord, who has said, "My yoke is sweet and My burden light," grant that I may so carry it as to merit Your grace.'
 
Pope Benedict reminded priests in a Chrism Mass sermon that, 'Taking the Lord's yoke means first of all learning from him. From him we must learn gentleness and meekness: the humility of God who shows himself in his being a man.'
 
Sometimes that yoke can feel very heavy. Some of you may remember Michel Quoist's Prayers of Life. In his Prayer of the Priest on a Sunday Night he lists a litany of hardship:
 
'It is hard Lord to love everyone and claim no one,
It is hard to shake a hand and not want to retain it
It's hard to inspire affection, to give it to you,
It's hard to be nothing to oneself in order to be everything to others
It's hard to be like others, among others, and to be of them,
It's always hard to give without trying to receive.'


But he finishes his prayer:

  'Lord, while all is still and I feel sharply the sting of solitude,
While men devour my soul and I feel incapable of satisfying their hunger,
While the whole world presses on my shoulders with all its weight of misery and sin,
I repeat my "yes" – not in a burst of laughter, but slowly, clearly, humbly.
Alone Lord, before you.
In the peace of the evening.'
 
There are times when the Lord's yoke seems far too heavy – despite what you say, your yoke seems far from light. Indeed, it is very heavy. This week though we see clearly the yoke which he bore. The cross which he bore across his shoulders captures all our lack of obedience, our weakness, our suffering, and all our darkness. Pope Benedict again reminds us that 'his yoke is that of loving him. And the more we love him and with him become loving people, the lighter becomes his seemingly burdensome yoke.'
 
But let Pope Francis have the last word. In his usual direct manner (which I confess I rather like), Pope Francis asked a gathering of Rome's priests at the beginning of Lent: 'At night how does your day end, with God or with television? At the heart of any priest's ministry must be a loving relationship with Christ, so that the priest sees as Christ sees and loves as he loves. It took the disciples time to really become "Christ" to others so this is not a given at ordination. For this to happen, the priest needs to continue to grow in union through prayer and intimacy.'
 
But we may be sure that as weak and broken as we are, Christ will be with us to share our burden and show us the way to be his faithful followers and companions on the road ahead.
 
So, my brother priests, be encouraged in your ministry: with Christ at our side no burden is too heavy to bear, especially that of the Gospel.
 
And you, God's holy faithful people, continue to support your priests and deacons with your love and prayers. Your prayers lighten their lives and give you to their hearts.