Diocesan Family -- Before a congregation of some 900 strong, Bishop O'Connell celebrates the Chrism Mass March 21 in St. Robert Bellarmine Church, Freehold. Craig Pittelli photos
Diocesan Family -- Before a congregation of some 900 strong, Bishop O'Connell celebrates the Chrism Mass March 21 in St. Robert Bellarmine Church, Freehold. Craig Pittelli photos

Story by Mary Stadnyk |Associate Editor and Lois Rogers| Correspondent

Likening the ministry of the priesthood to that of an artist, Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., reminded his brother priests that the holy oils he blesses at the Chrism Mass each year are the oils that priests use to “paint the portrait of what a community of faith should be in the Diocese of Trenton.”

To see photo gallery on this story, click here.

“My brothers, we are the artists who paint that picture, the picture the world sees and what it does not see – a Church of Mercy,” said Bishop O’Connell, referring to the Oil of the Sick, Oil of Catechumens and the Sacred Chrism.

Each year, the Monday of Holy Week in the Diocese of Trenton is an especially blessed time for members of the diocesan family as they gather for the annual Chrism Mass, an occasion filled with splendor, rich symbolism and tradition.

In addition to Bishop O’Connell’s blessing of the holy oils to be used in the sacramental ministry of priests and deacons in parishes and missions throughout the coming year, the Chrism Mass is also when priests of the Diocese stand before the Bishop and renew their vows and recommit themselves to their priestly vocation in service to God’s people in the Diocese.

St. Robert Bellarmine Church, Freehold, was filled the evening of March 21 with some 900 lay persons, religious, priests and deacons who joined Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., for an occasion that is regarded as one of the most solemn and significant liturgies in the Church year.

Bishop O’Connell, in his homily, spoke of how the Chrism Mass and the blessing of the Oil of Catechumens, Oil of the Sick and consecration of the Sacred Chrism dates back centuries to the early Church and how the renewal of priestly commitment was incorporated into the Holy Week ritual of blessing of the oils, which Bishop O’Connell said are, in a sense, the “tools of our trade.”

Tradition and Symbolism

At the Presentation of the Gifts, representatives from various parishes brought forth vessels containing the Oil of the Sick, Oil of Catechumens and the Sacred Chrism to the sanctuary where they were to be blessed by Bishop O’Connell later during the Mass. Parish delegates would then carry the blessed oils and chrism back to their faith communities to be used in sacramental rites throughout the year.

Bearing the Oil of the Sick were members of St. Luke Parish, Toms River, in recognition of the White Mass the parish celebrates annually to bless and recognize the many members of the health service community in greater Toms River and beyond. The Oil of Catechumens was carried by members who serve on the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults team in St. Raphael-Holy Angels Parish, Hamilton. The Sacred Chrism was carried by a team of parishioners and staff from Holy Cross Parish, Rumson. Bishop O’Connell dedicated the newest iteration of Holy Cross Church and blessed its altar with Chrism last summer.

In consecrating the Sacred Chrism, which gives the Chrism Mass its name, the Bishop mixed olive oil with a sweet-smelling balsam in a vessel. After reciting a prayer, Bishop O’Connell breathed over the vessel and asked God to fill it with the power of the Holy Spirit.

The gifts of bread and wine were presented by parishioners of Christ the Redeemer Parish, Mount Holly.

A Priestly Brotherhood

As the Chrism Mass “strengthens the sense of the priesthood” and is most often when the bishop preaches on the priesthood and encourages his priests to remain faithful to their vocation, Bishop O’Connell offered an analogy that focused on the unity that should exist between the priests and their ministry of service.

The Bishop shared of having had the “sad and sobering occasion” of attending the funeral Mass of New Jersey State Trooper, Sean Eamonn Cullen, in St. Charles Borromeo Church, Cinnaminson, March 14 (see page 8). While it was a day filled with emotions that were wrapped around the profound beauty of the Catholic burial rites and civil tributes of law enforcement, the Bishop cited that “one of the most striking elements of that day” was seeing over 1,000 men and women from throughout New Jersey and from all over the country in attendance.

“It was awesome,” he said of the loving and prayerful tribute offered for Trooper Cullen. Though dressed in a variety of uniforms and wearing different badges representing their respective jurisdictions, “something united them as one, something that words cannot sufficiently describe but their silent presence spoke volumes, in one united voice that needed no words, yet was heard by all who were present.”

“These brave men and women had come together, united because one of their own had died fulfilling their common mission – to protect and serve,” said the Bishop. “In those solemn moments, the rituals of the Catholic faith offered our Christian hope to all present that his life had changed, not ended – a hope, a faith and a promise born of that first Holy Week, the life and the Death and the Risen Life we celebrate.”

Similarly, “it is one of our own who died on Good Friday and his mission to save us from sin that unites us here,” said Bishop O’Connell, referring to Jesus Christ.

Focusing on the unity that should exist between priests, the Bishop reminded them that “No priest is ordained to live, to serve, to minister alone.”

“My brothers, we are one community because of the Sacrament we have received after a long formation; because of the hands placed on our heads by the bishop and one another in the presbyterate; because of the sacred Oil of Chrism with which the bishop anointed our hands.”

The Bishop reminded his priests that the Office of Priesthood “is the office, this love, that belongs to us as brother priests, no matter what obstacles may fall in our paths…the office of love given by Christ to us through the Sacrament of Holy Orders is our duty, our burden, our joy.”

 “My brothers, as you process out from this Chrism Mass, look around you. These faithful who are here tonight or who are scattered throughout the four counties of our Diocese are the lives for whom the oils have been blessed; the lives for whom you have renewed your priesthood; the lives you touch with the sacraments, with your preaching, with our consolation, with your ministry, all part of the ‘office of love’ given you from the wood of the Cross, from the empty tomb.”

Voices of the Faithful

After the Mass, the Johnston family – parents and children – was happy to share their feelings about their role in the Chrism Mass.

“It was a very special honor to be asked by Father Manning to carry the Chrism, especially since our new church was blessed with Chrism by Bishop O’Connell last summer,” said Eileen Johnston, who noted that it was the first time she had attended a Chrism Mass.

The Mass, she said, made her more mindful of the sacramental occasions such as Baptism. “You know that [people] are anointed at Baptism,” she said. But this experience really put some perspective on it, said Johnston who added that because of her participation, she will look to see where the holy oils are located when she visits a church for the first time.

Donald, who is in fifth grade, said this was his first opportunity to “go up to the altar and meet the Bishop.” He said he is eager to share the details of his experience with his school friends.

Russell, the family patriarch, spoke of the fact that the family enjoys watching Midnight Mass at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral with the Cardinal and his priests on television. He likened the Chrism Mass to a close to home variation of that.

“It felt so very special,” Russell Johnston said. “It was something to be proud of.”

Bridget summed up her reaction by saying that the evening was similar to the feeling she had when the new church was dedicated. “Tonight, there was the Bishop and all the priests and the deacons and the seminarians, and everybody,” she said. “It was like a big, Christian club!”

Father John Large, parochial vicar of St. Thomas More Parish, Manalapan, had attended the Chrism Mass last year as a transitional deacon. Ordained by Bishop O’Connell last year, this marked his first time participating as a priest.

Clearly moved, Father Large called the experience a “tremendous blessing. It is something that I have been looking forward to for a long time. The entire celebration was quite moving and I was able to prayerfully enter into it.”

“It was inspiring to see the priests of the diocese gathered around the Bishop to celebrate the Eucharist, to renew our priestly vows, and to consecrate the sacred oils that we use in the Sacraments throughout the year. I believe that the Bishop’s homily went to heart of the matter...unity!”