Archbishop’s Homily at the Mass of the Holy Oils

Attached below is Archbishop Stephen Brislin’s homily at the Mass of the Oils at Our Lady Help of Christians Church, Lansdowne on Thursday 6 April 2023.

 “Grace to you and peace from Jesus Christ the faithful witness” – these are the opening words of the Second Reading of today’s Mass from the Book of Revelation. We are all called to be faithful witnesses to God the Father and to his Kingdom, but most especially we priests are meant to respond to this great calling. We have been entrusted as guardians of the sacred mysteries, leaders of God’s people and shepherds of his flock. The question always arises: how do we be faithful ministers in the situation in which we find ourselves, a situation of rapid change, existential crisis and fragmentation of society. 

The ethical vacuum in our country is manifested in lawlessness, violence and obscene corruption that has laid bare the ugliness and the depravity that human beings are capable of. The greed and scramble for resources for self-enrichment is often done in the name of the poor The reality is that it brings greater suffering and poverty to those battling to survive. Promises, forgotten or simply disregarded, in tandem with lofty speeches on resolving these evils, are seen to be the lies that they are and have led to a deep distrust and cynicism, leaving the door wide-open for an enticing populism that promotes superficial answers. As we slide deeper into the abyss of systemic corruption, organised crime and failure, we can recognize that the ethical vacuum brings about a new oppression, albeit with the same roots of greed, power and selfishness. 

There are many shining example of good and committed people, courageous people who defy evil to its face in spite of the consequences. How do we feature, the baptized and ministerial priests who are called, anointed and sent? Are we the trustworthy and authentic shepherds that people long for, the faithful witnesses to beauty, honesty and goodness? How do we witness in the current climate? These are big questions, but there are three basic ways in which we should give witness.

Personal moral integrity and honesty is always the starting point. I am talking about an inner honesty, not merely what is presented on the exterior, but an honesty that is deep within and is between us and God. In a society in which people flout laws with impunity there is the temptation to let some of our values slip. Our calling is to model our lives on Christ, to be alter Christi, living the moral values that we learn from him: to seek and adhere to the truth, to be peacemakers, advocates of justice, laying down our lives in the service of others, forgiving and loving. The need is always to be vigilant in incorporating morality into our being, into who we are. They are not external obligations imposed on us but are within because we love God and we love our neighbour. In other words, because we love we are driven to do good rather than feeling we have to do good. Our relationship with God and our closeness to him is the key, the sina qua non, of assimilating ethical values into our being. It is that relationship that gives us the grace to live the promises and vows we have taken and want to live them, rather than suffering them as a burden. If we see them only as obligation we will do the minimum and live by the letter of the law, rather than the spirit. A deep and constant life of encounter with Christ is the source of honest self-evaluation and awareness, and it is the source of the strength we need to resist the temptations of minimalism, of carving out a comfortable mini-kingdom for ourselves, of the misuse of finances and material resources, of crossing boundaries in relationships. Love of God is the force that gives us joy in obedience to God, freeing us from the things that bind us through self-interest or that bind us through our fears. 

Secondly, we are faithful witnesses of God in our priesthood when we are unifiers, striving to bring about and preserve unity among God’s people. It is easy for those in leadership to work on the differences, the cracks, among people in order to divide them. The Church is entrusted to do the opposite – to bring together different and disparate people into a unity that is respectful and accepting of the richness of diversity, diversity that is a gift given by God. It is by and through diversity that we come into fuller communion with God, who opens his arms to all those who seek him as the Scriptures testify. It is a challenge for us to overcome the cultural prejudices and exclusiveness that we have grown up. It can be uncomfortable and inconvenient to welcome, accommodate and accept other cultures. We South Africans are still burdened with our history and our society remains fragmented. The growth in the number of migrants and refugees has created new tensions in society and a new challenge for the Church. Christ belongs to all, indeed, the Church belongs to all. Sharing is integral to discipleship of Christ and this entails, too, the opening and sharing of our worshipping communities, not treating others as strangers but as brothers and sisters. It cannot be that those who “come in from the outside” must simply adapt to the way we do things. We also learn from them, make them at home by accommodating different languages and ways of doing things. This includes ensuring that they are given a part in the leadership of the parish community. Unifying people is not confined to cultural practices, but includes the false divisions and dichotomies that humans seem to love to make, such as dismissively dividing people into “progressive” or “conservative”.The rationale of being a synodal Church is to journey together with our eyes set on God, to listen to and learn from each other, to discern God’s will as the whole Church through his Word, prayer and reflection. It is in, and through, the very diversity of the Church that we are led as a community by the Holy Spirit. There is no one group who owns the full deposit of the faith. It belongs to all of us, each group has its place, and each adds to the beauty and the fullness of the Church. We can only successfully discern God’s will together in mutual respect and acceptance. In our fragmented and divided world the Church and its leaders are meant to be bridge-builders and the symbols of this complementarity.

Finally, we give faithful witness through our closeness to the people we serve. People are struggling and questioning in their search for meaning. There seems to be little that binds us as a community; rather so much seems fluid and transitory. Individual choice is on the way to becoming the new, untouchable, cultural standard. We are battling to come to grips with the crises facing our country and the very real dangers that face us. Financial struggles, family issues, health concerns are all part of people’s daily life. Superficiality is a characteristic of the times, aided and abetted by social media. Personal attention and authentic concern is part of what it means to be a shepherd in the image of Christ. Closeness to the people we serve is a witness that we give to the love that God has for each and every one of his children. Remoteness and unconcern are not options. There is nothing that trumps knowing parishioners, their families, their struggles, their hopes and dreams. Jesus describes that closeness, or even intimacy, of the sheep knowing the voice of the shepherd and the shepherd knowing his sheep. Pope Francis puts it as having the smell of the sheep. This does not mean that we try to be “one of the guys”. It is an availability and an openness to be with people, to visit them and to be there when they need support, help or consolation. As priests we are always expected to maintain our professionalism such as respecting boundaries, being on time for Mass, preparing our homilies, keeping appointments, ensuring good administration. We are the face of the Church and the face of Christ, and we are faithful to that through both our closeness to people and through the appropriate professionalism of doing properly the things we should be doing. We can enhance faith or we can be an obstacle to faith. We must pray very hard that we will never be an obstacle to the faith of others. With the psalmist we pray, “O God, you know my folly; from you my sins are not hidden. May those who hope in you not be shamed because of me, O Lord God; may those who seek you not be put to shame because of me, O God of Israel” (Ps 69:6).

So today, let us renew our priestly vows whole-heartedly, in freedom and once again committing ourselves to serve God loyally and to be his faithful witnesses. We pray that we will be the priests he wishes us to be and that he will continually work through us for the growth of his Kingdom and the well-being of his people. 

I would like to thank all the priests in the Archdiocese for their ministry and the witness that they give. Truly, we are the earthenware jars that God has chosen to work through. Thank you for your generosity, your support and your willingness to respond to the needs of the people of this Archdiocese. I also thank you, the people of God, for your support and the love you show to the priests. We cannot fulfil our ministry properly without you. May God bless you and your loved ones abundantly, may he keep you safe and may he always be close to you.

+Stephen Brislin
Archbishop of Cape Town
6th April 2023

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