“The preaching of the Good News is mysteriously linked to persecution and the cross,” Pope Francis told priests at the scaled-down Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday in St. Peter’s Basilica, but “the cross is non-negotiable.”
“The preaching of the Gospel is effective,” Pope Francis said in his homily, “not because of our eloquent words, but because of the power of the cross.”
Coronavirus emergency restrictions meant that Rome’s annual liturgy – which every diocese around the world celebrates on or about Holy Thursday – saw only about a hundred priests concelebrating and renewing their promises.
The Chrism Mass of Holy Week is a yearly recurrence, in which the bishop blesses the oils used in the administration of the Sacraments and other blessings throughout the year: Oil of Catechumens; Chrism; and the Oil of the Sick. These are used to bless those entering the Church, for rites of Christian initiation and ordination and to bless new altars, and to heal and strengthen Christians suffering various infirmities, particularly those in some danger of death.
“Why did the Lord embrace the cross fully and to the end?” Pope Francis asked. “Why did Jesus embrace his entire Passion: his betrayal and abandonment by his friends after the Last Supper, his illegal arrest, his summary trial and disproportionate sentence, the gratuitous and unjustifiable violence with which he was beaten and spat upon?”
“If mere circumstances conditioned the saving power of the cross,” Pope Francis went on to say, “the Lord would not have embraced everything. But when his hour came, he embraced the cross fully. For on the cross there can be no ambiguity!”
He illustrated the point with an anecdote from his own life of priestly ministry in Argentina.
“In a very dark moment in my life,” he said, “I asked the Lord for the grace to free me from a difficult and complex situation.” Calling the circumstances “a dark moment,” he explained that he was then preaching the Spiritual Exercises to some religious sisters, one of whom approached him for confession on the final day. “She had a clear gaze, eyes full of light,” Pope Francis said, “a woman of God.”
“At the end of the confession, I felt the urge to ask her a favor, so I said to her, ‘Sister, as your penance, pray for me because I need a particular grace’.” Then, he added: “If you ask the Lord for it, surely he will give it to me.”
Pope Francis said the penitent paused for a moment and appeared to him to be in prayer. Then, she looked at him and said: “The Lord will certainly give you that grace, but make no mistake about it: he will give it to you in his own divine way.”
“This did me much good,” Pope Francis said, “hearing that the Lord always gives us what we ask for, but that he does so in his divine way. That way involves the cross, not for masochism, but for love, love to the very end.”
Love to the very end was the core theme of Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re’s homily later Thursday evening in St. Peter’s Basilica, where he celebrated the Missa in coena Domini in Pope Francis’s stead.
Pope Francis celebrated Holy Thursday privately, in the chapel of disgraced Cardinal Angelo Becciu. The former Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and before that sostituto – roughly the papal chief-of-staff — Becciu resigned in disgrace last year at Pope Francis’s behest, on suspicion of financial impropriety. Pope Francis also stripped Becciu of the rights associated with his rank, but let him keep his cardinal’s red hat. Cardinal Becciu has repeatedly and forcefully denied wrongdoing.