With great joy, I welcome everyone to this Chrism Mass. This is the only annual diocesan assembly that brings together priests, deacons, women and men religious, seminarians, lay faithful from our various church parishes, institutions, (Catholic) Life Center personnel, Catholic high school students and cathedral musicians. We represent in microcosm our entire local church.

Today we remember with deep fondness members of our clergy who, since last year’s Chrism Mass, have been received into eternal life: Msgrs. William Green and Gerald Lefebvre, Father Michael Collins, Deacons Peter Schlette and Milton Schanzbach. “May they rest in peace. Amen.” We also recognize the ordination anniversaries of priests in our diocese: 45 years: Fathers Peter Callery SJ, Leonard Kraus SJ, Sam Maranto CSsR; 40 years: Brother Ray Hebert SC; 35 years: Fathers Randy Cuevas and Philip Spano; 25 years: Fathers Denis Ekwugha and Desmond Ohankwere MSP. “May God, who has begun the good work in you, continue to bring it to fulfillment. Amen.”

This church blessing of the oils can be dated back to the Easter Vigil in the early 200’s. By the 400’s it had been transferred to Holy Thursday. In 1967 (Blessed) Pope Paul VI permitted the ceremony to be held before Holy Thursday to facilitate better attendance, as well as provided assembled priests to renew the promises they made at ordination. This Eucharist highlights the unity of bishop and priests, on the anticipated feast day of priests on Holy Thursday, when Jesus ordained the apostles. The ceremony involves the blessing of three oils, the oil of the sick (used for the anointing of the sick), the oil of the catechumens (used at baptism), and the chrism in which balsam, an aromatic resin, is added (used for baptism, confirmation, ordination of priests and bishops and dedication of churches). The oils blessed today for use until the following year’s Mass will be caringly brought to local church parishes and Catholic institutions by many of you. Through our participation today we become symbolically present whenever and wherever these oils are administered in the diocese through the coming 12 months. What an exalted privilege. May I also suggest we pray for those who will be anointed with any of these oils this coming year.

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The oil of the olive tree has life-giving properties of healing, nutrition, warmth and light. “Anointing, in biblical and other ancient symbolism, is rich in meaning. Oil is a sign of abundance and joy. It cleanses and limbers. Oil is a sign of healing, since it is soothing to bruises and wounds, and it makes radiant with beauty, health and strength. Anointing has all these meanings in the sacramental life. The anointing of the sick expresses healing and comfort. The pre-baptism anointing with the oil of catechumens signifies cleansing and strengthening. The post baptismal anointing with sacred chrism in confirmation and ordination is the sign of consecration” (The Catechism of the Catholic Church #1293-1294). In her intriguing book, “From the Beginning to Baptism, Scientific and Sacred Stories of Water, Oil and Fire,” theologian-scientist Dominican Sister Linda Gibler traces the 13 billion year history of olive oil. “In the sacramental story this pervasiveness of olive oil continued as it made God’s blessing visible with abundance and joy. Through these developmental stages the emphasis of oil shifts from the inorganic to the living, to human thought, and finally to its planetary nature. In this final stage we experience ourselves not only in our particular human lineage, which stretches back 13.7 billion years to the beginning and reaches ahead into the future”(p. 70).

Let me take this occasion to congratulate St. George Parish, Baton Rouge, for the dedication of its new church last month, and St. John the Baptist Parish, Zachary, for its new church dedication later this month. Every Catholic, at least once, should experience the solemnity and beauty of a Chrism Mass, the other special liturgies of Holy Week (particularly the Easter Vigil), the dedication of a new church and an ordination ceremony. And those of us in 2011 celebrated our diocesan golden anniversary at the River Center will ever forget its powerful impact?

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The Diocesan Pastoral Planning Taskforce with the cooperation of clergy and parishioners deserves special recognition. The responsibility of serving increasing congregants with markedly decreasing number of priests is daunting. Imagine if in 1917 we had already been established as the Diocese of Baton Rouge. Imagine if the bishop of that diocese would have celebrated the Chrism Mass here at St. Joseph. Imagine if all the priests then assigned to this territory, 32 in total, had been present with him. Attendance from the civil parishes would have encompassed: 1 from Livingston; 4 from St. Helena and Tangipahoa; 6 from Assumption; 1 from West Baton Rouge; 3 from East St. James; 3 from West St. James; 3 from Ascension; 4 from Iberville; 3 from Pointe Coupee; and 4 from East Baton Rouge (1 from St. George and 1 from the newly established St. Agnes, with the pastor and assistant pastor of St. Joseph and the pastor of St. George rotating the ministry to Catholics in Denham Springs and in the Plains near Zachary). Okay, you can now stop imagining. Over the years, as today, the Catholic Church in our diocesan area has had to be resilient. We must redouble our prayer and work for vocations to the priesthood, diaconate, consecrated life and ecclesial ministers, as well as collaboratively maximize our personnel resources. Prayer, consultation, strategizing and incremental pastoral modifications will continue to be needed.

This past summer brought our extended community two over-reaching tragedies: the shootings in July and the flood in August. July underscored the urgency of raising our consciousness and commitment to improve racial understanding and harmony, the role of impartial law enforcement and universal respect and protection for those who seek to ensure our safety. A diocesan Commission for Racial Harmony which I established is working diligently to promote those common goals.

In August our area was beset by record flooding. People from near and far responded spiritually, financially and through heroic volunteerism. Our diocesan Catholic Charities, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, members of our church parishes and institutions valiantly assisted in the recovery of those who suffered severe loss. These two month back-to-back occurrences demonstrated that while we have more progress to make, the true underlying character and spirit of our people were again displayed.

In closing I pray from the New Testament Letter of Jude: “Grace, mercy and peace will be with us from Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, in truth and love … To the only God, our savior, though Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power and authority before all time and now and forever. Amen” (1:2, 25).