The Cathedral of St Stephen
At times we call this celebration the Mass of the Oils; and it is about oil. But it’s not just about oil, because if it were we’d be wasting our time. The words that ring out over this gathering come from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me…”. It is the Spirit who makes all the difference. That was true in the beginning when the breath of God, the Spirit, moved over the waters of chaos, and it’s no less true now as the breath of God, the Spirit, moves over the oils we bring. That’s the whole point of the blessing and consecration which are at the heart of what we do here.
Recently Pope Francis said that without the Holy Spirit, evangelisation is no more than the Church’s advertising or marketing (General Audience, 22 March 2023); and we need a lot more than advertising or marketing if we are to proclaim the Gospel. Without the Holy Spirit, Jesus isn’t raised from the dead, but stays for ever in the tomb; and if that is true, then we Christians are, as St Paul says, the most pitiful of all people and our faith is futile (cf 1 Cor 15:17.19).
Without the Holy Spirit, the Church is no more than a corpse full of death’s corruption, just another clapped-out human institution where everything depends on our own efforts and Pelagius reigns supreme. Without the Holy Spirit, the Plenary Council in this country would be no more than politics, a cheap power-play in which there is nothing greater than Solomon (cf Matt 12:42). Some have scoffed at the claim that the Plenary Council is the work of the Holy Spirit. The same is true of the global synodal process with its two assemblies, this year and next year. Some scoff at it too, even regard it as a nightmare. There’s nothing new in that kind of reaction. The Gospel of John was accepted quite late into the New Testament canon, chiefly because, with its stress upon the Holy Spirit, it unsettled more hierarchical understandings of the Church and her governance.
Without the Holy Spirit, the ordained priesthood is nothing more than a toxic system of power and privilege, leading to all manner of clerical dysfunction. Baptism is nothing more than a one-dimensional rite of welcome into the human circle or a certificate for entry into a Catholic school. The Eucharist is nothing more than a role-play of the Last Supper, in which the bread and wine remain just what they are and the past is gone for ever. The Bible is nothing more than a dusty book of human words from other times which have nothing to say to us now. The list could go on.
But with the Holy Spirit, we are caught up in something vastly more mysterious and wonderful, something much grander and less controllable that opens up a whole new horizon of possibility. The Church becomes the Body of Christ, wounded yes, but aglow with the light of Easter which nothing and no-one can dispel. The eyes which see the Risen Lord in the Easter encounter now see him present at the heart of the Church. The priesthood becomes an incorporation by Christ of sinful human beings into his own priesthood, and therefore a life of radical self-sacrifice building up the whole Church as a priestly people. Baptism becomes the moment when Christ himself claims the believer as his own for ever and draws the newly baptised into the priestly people. The Eucharist becomes the moment when the sacrifice of Christ is made present in our midst, and the bread and wine become his Body and Blood, food and drink for the feast foreshadowing the wedding-feast of the Lamb. The Bible becomes the living voice of the God who wants to speak to us now and chooses to do so through something as human as a book; Scripture becomes, as the rabbis says, “black fire on white fire”.
But all this means that, with the Holy Spirit let loose, we lose control; and we don’t find that easy. In fact, it makes some people deeply anxious. We prefer to trust to our own planning, our own structures and strategies; and it’s these the Holy Spirit disrupts. We call the Spirit the comforter, and rightly so. But the Spirit is also the great disrupter – certainly of human plans; and we tend to think that if our plans collapse then so too do the plans of God. But not so. In the midst of the collapse of human plans and sometimes because of it, the plans of God continue to unfold as the divine purpose moves inexorably to its goal.
In all of this, we need to listen not to our own voice or the voice of those who agree with us, but to the voice of the Holy Spirit. That’s why the art of discernment is so important. Discernment of the Spirit’s voice in the cacophony of so many voices can be slow and messy. Dictatorship has always been quicker and cleaner; but it’s no way to know what the Spirit is saying to the Church. It’s what you’re left with when the Holy Spirit is ignored. It was St Ignatius Loyola who taught us much about the art of discernment, which is why it’s providential that we now have one of his sons as the universal pastor. Through the Jesuit Pope, the Spirit is teaching the whole Church more of the art of discernment.
It was also providential some decades ago that the charismatic renewal emerged in the Catholic Church. It seemed exotic and slightly dangerous at first, but now its influence is seen and felt everywhere in the life of the Church. It has gone mainstream; even the preacher pf the papal household has long identified with the charismatic renewal. Charismatic spirituality, with its intense experience of the Holy Spirit, has been part of the Church’s life from the beginning. Through history, it has sometimes gone underground and at other times re-emerged to the surface. That re-emergence has been seen in our own time, allowing the Church to come to a deeper sense of the Spirit’s presence and power. The Holy Spirit is no longer the Cinderella of the Blessed Trinity in the Churches of the West.
Though I have never been formally part of the charismatic renewal, it has accompanied and enriched me though my nearly 50 years as a priest. In more recent years, certainly since Pope Francis’ election and his call to synodality, I have come to a deeper awareness that this is a moment of the Holy Spirit and a greater sense of the Church as the ongoing work of the Spirit. That’s why, for all the pressures we face and the many complex problems, this is a strangely exciting time when we aren’t left to our own devices to forge the future but are being called, like Abraham, to follow God into the future which he is making and to work with him in making it.
When we bless the Oils of the Sick and Catechumens this evening and consecrate the Chrism, we place our faith in the Holy Spirit who is given to us: that by the Spirit’s power the oils will no longer be just oil but a real sign of the presence and power of the Risen Christ, the Anointed One, whom we can see and hear and touch and taste. And in saying yes to that, we say yes to so much else. In the end, we say yes to him, “the faithful witness and the first-born from the dead”.