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The Oil of Gladness

In his homily at this morning's Chrism Mass, Pope Francis developed the image of anointing with oil and applied it to priestly ministry. He said:

A good priest can be recognized by the way his people are anointed. This is a clear test. When our people are anointed with the oil of gladness, it is obvious: for example, when they leave Mass looking as if they have heard good news. Our people like to hear the Gospel preached with unction, they like it when the Gospel we preach touches their daily lives, when it runs down like the oil of Aaron to the edges of reality, when it brings light to moments of extreme darkness, to the outskirts where people of faith are most exposed to the onslaught of those who want to tear down their faith. People thank us because they feel that we have prayed over the realities of their everyday lives, their troubles, their joys, their burdens and their hopes. And when they feel that the fragrance of the Anointed One, of Christ, has come to them through us, they feel encouraged to entrust to us everything they want to bring before the Lord: Pray for me, Father, because I have this problem, Bless me, Pray for me these words are the sign that the anointing has flowed down to the edges of the robe, for it has turned into prayer. The prayers of the people of God.

And he concluded:

Dear lay faithful, be close to your priests with affection and with your prayers, that they may always be shepherds according to Gods heart.Dear priests, may God the Father renew in us the Spirit of holiness with whom we have been anointed. May he renew his Spirit in our hearts, that this anointing may spread to everyone, even to those outskirts where our faithful people most look for it and most appreciate it. May our people sense that we are the Lords disciples; may they feel that their names are written upon our priestly vestments and that we seek no other identity; and may they receive through our words and deeds the oil of gladness which Jesus, the Anointed One, came to bring us. Amen.

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How absolutely lovely.

Pope Francis also had a powerful statement about the priest as being within and not separate from people when he said that the "shepherd should smell like the flock."

"...according to Gods heart."I've heard a lot of talk about "the mindofGod"and even more talk about "God's will", but I don't think I've ever heard any talk about "God's heart". Wonderful metaphor!

This is striking: "A good priest can be recognized by the way his people are anointed. This is a clear test. " It recalls "You shall know them by their fruits" (Matt 7:16). His description of the priesthood, for me, is original. This homily is not just touching, like several of his previous homilies, but also thought-provoking. "People thank us because." "the manager [] never hears a warm, heartfelt word of thanks. This is precisely the reason why some priests grow dissatisfied""Dear lay faithful, be close to your priests with affection and with your prayers, that they may always be shepherds"Now we know what keeps him going: if we want to do something for him, all we have to do is express our thanks for something he will have done for us.

As an aside, this does not bode particularly well for his management of the Curia!

Two more quick remarks:- If it's a pep talk for his troops, then we can read between the lines and see the problems of the Curia: they are depressed or even bitter because, in his read, they are overly focused on managerial tasks, and he's trying to cheer them up by reminding them of properly ordered priorities- "smell like his sheep": I wonder if he's ever been among real sheep, to be thinking of this. Lambs are cute to handle, but, adults sheep, we avoid touching their wool because if we do then our hands stink and we have to wash them afterwards. The main quality of the oil is its fragrance, but the smell of the sheep would more properly be called the stink of the sheep: the two are opposed, and normally the priest ought to try to be "fragrant". So bringing the two together is striking. I have never heard that before.

I just remembered that Pope Benedict also talked about smells when he started: when he attacked the "stench" of sexual abuse by clergyIt seems to me that in their relation to the world, Benedict and Francis could not be more different: Pope Benedict recoiled from the risk of exposure to the "stench" and other sins, while Pope Francis seems to want his priests to mix with the rest of the world so much that they not only share their fragrance with others but also stink like the others!

Claire--Do you mean you think a fawning curia can manipulate Pope Francis? Or that his approach does not bode well for the curia itself?

I thought this was spectacular. A good priest can be recognized not by the way HE is anointed, but by the way he anoints his people? The phrasing is striking too. I'll have to see if I can make my way through it in Italian (which I assume is what he used.) "When it runs down like the oil of Aaron to the edges of reality" is pretty great.

Mark, well, if he doesn't respect management as an activity or a skill, if it's not a priority, then there's a risk he might not get involved with that.

Catherine,here is the link to the Italian: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/homilies/2013/documents/papa... is one phrase that you picked out: "Il buon sacerdote si riconosce da come viene unto il suo popolo."But I would also underline his insistent request: "Cari fedeli, siate vicini ai vostri sacerdoti con laffetto e con la preghiera perch siano sempre Pastori secondo il cuore di Dio."His first striking gesture was when, at his appearance on the balcony of Saint Peter's, he asked for the people's prayers and bowed his head.These are not pro forma phrases, but urgent requests. The prayers of the faithful are the ongoing anointing we greatly need.

Thanks for the link to the Italian!

When I read:"... when it runs down like the oil of Aaron to the edges of reality ... the realities of their everyday lives, their troubles, their joys, their burdens and their hopes." I couldn't help but think, seeing the priestly ministry described as such, just how much the particular talents of the female half of the human race could contribute to the undertaking. I don't say this to diminish what has been accomplished, or to raise a political point, but more as a hope for the future: that the definition of priestly ministry expands.

Too many priests are passive and say "We are here if the people want us." Frances shouts out to them to get out of their comfort zones. Francis hits a home run every time up. Hopefully, the exhortations will be heard.

"L'odore delle pecore" or "the smell of the sheep" was an expression, in quotations, that the Pope used twice in his Chrism Mass homily. In the same way that John Paul ii was comfortable with personalism, Francis seems comfortable with an existential pastoral language, and he's already given several good examples of this. And so I think he intends a connection with persons in their everydayness with the sense and 'smell' of life lived. We often carry the smells of proximity. The priest should neither be removed from people, want to be removed, or toughest of all, want to smell like another flock. He seems convinced the true unction requires presence; an intentional presence.

Joseph P.,I think your analysis is on target. I was reminded of Hopkins' poem, "God's Grandeur:" And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; And wears mans smudge and shares mans smell: the soilIs bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.To be "unction" in this situation requires a transforming presence on the part of those who bear Good News.

I am very concerned that Bill Mazzella, and others who share his views on the Church in general, have such a favourable opinion of Pope Francis, because I do too. I hope this does not mean Im evolving.

Thanks for your response, Fr Imbelli. You've explored the Pope's message that the competency of anointing extends beyond the form of the ritual. It's an ongoing ministerial skill of finding persons where they are. The leper colony of Molokai was a very permanent priestly assignment and so Father Damian may be an extreme but par excellence example of identity with his people. Holy Saturday morning is for some ethnic groups a time of blessing Easter baskets; another way of picking up smells.

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About the Author

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is an associate professor of theology at Boston College.