Late-afternoon sunlight usually radiates through the Cathedral of St. Joseph’s western windows while the Chrism Mass is being celebrated.
A capacity congregation typically fills the crown-shaped edifice with every hymn and response.
Dozens of concelebrating priests praying the Eucharistic Prayer create a resonant rumble from all sides of the altar.
This time was different.
Bishop W. Shawn McKnight offered the Chrism Mass on the appointed day, but at mid-morning and with only nine other people physically present.
Three priests joined him in person while he blessed and consecrated the oils that will be used for sacramental ministry throughout the diocese in the upcoming year.
The rest of the priests of the diocese participated through a livestream, putting on their ministerial stoles when it came time to renew their priestly promises with the bishop.
The coronavirus pandemic had dispatched God’s people from the Upper Room to their own acres of His vineyard.
Yet, through the continued offering of the Mass and authentic, concrete acts of charity, the communion among the priests, the faithful and the God they serve, remained impeccably intact.
“Wherever you are, dear priests, deacons, religious and faithful, there is the Church, and there is God working among us!” Bishop McKnight proclaimed from the pulpit.
One God, one mission
Offered each year in anticipation of Holy Thursday, the Chrism Mass highlights and solidifies the bonds between the bishop, priests, the sacraments and all the faithful who receive them.
The bishop blesses the Oil of the Sick and the Oil of Catechumens and consecrates the Holy Chrism.
The Oil of Catechumens is used for infants during the baptismal ceremony, and for the anointing of catechumens during the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) as they prepare to be baptized. It designates all members of the Church as learners and gives them a protecting strength against evil.
The Oil of the Sick is used for healing in the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.
Sacred Chrism, named for Christ, is used in Baptism, as well as Confirmation, the ordination of priests and bishops and the dedication of churches and altars.
“Jesus Christ was anointed with the Spirit to repair our broken relationship with God and to heal our fractured humanity,” Bishop McKnight stated. “And so we, as the Body of Christ on earth, bless the oils to be used this year in the sanctification of the people of God.”
He emphasized that the source of all unity is the Eucharist, “the lasting legacy of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
“Without that, there is no Church, there is no ‘us,’” the bishop stated. “For this reason, it is essential during this time of pandemic, for the celebration of the Eucharist to continue in every parish, even daily — though without a congregation physically present.”
He said that while looking out upon a nearly empty cathedral, he kept in mind all who were participating in the Mass from home — “some who are sick right now ... some who are busily carrying-out the demands of charity in their homes, their neighborhoods and local communities ... some who are providing healthcare and ministry to the sick, especially those in our hospitals, as well as the first-responders, and all of their families who help shoulder the burden of their important work to save lives.”
He noted that the whole Church — including all of the angels and saints — participate in every Mass, “offering spiritual worship through our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God, our Father.”
He emphasized that the Chrism Mass foreshadows, interprets and gives context to the entire Paschal Mystery that is highlighted in the celebrations of Holy Week and throughout the Easter Season.
“This Mass of the Holy Chrism and the renewal of priestly promises recapitulates all at once the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the Gift of the Spirit at Pentecost and the birth of the Church,” he said.
The enduring mission of the Church is to teach and to heal.
“All of us who have been anointed with the Spirit of the Lord by our Baptism and Confirmation, and those of us who received a special consecration in the Spirit through the Sacrament of Holy Orders, share in this very same mission of Jesus Christ,” said Bishop McKnight.
“Union of prayer”
Joining the bishop at the altar were Father Louis Nelen, pastor of Cathedral of St. Joseph parish; and Father Daniel Merz, pastor of St. George parish in Linn and Our Lady Help of Christians parish in Frankenstein, and chairman of the Diocesan Liturgical Commission.
Deacon Tyler McClay assisted them.
Father Joshua Duncan served as master of ceremonies. Seminarian Ryan Bax served as acolyte and thurifer.
Ashley Wiskirchen, diocesan director of parish communications, set up and operated the equipment that sent the livestream out over several platforms.
Deacon McClay said it did feel strange to incense empty pews, “and yet at the same time, know people were watching the livestream.”
Fr. Merz said he longed for the fraternity and fellowship of his brother priests and the people for whom they became priests: the lay faithful.
“It was prayerful, though I kept looking up and missing the faces of the people,” said Fr. Merz. “And yet, the ‘union of prayer’ and the certainty of shared faith was still palpable.”
He noted that the Greek word for Church, “ekklesia,” means “being called together — being gathered.”
“We are physically inhibited today in our being Church,” he stated, “but the bonds of our faith and communion in the Body of Christ are not broken!”
Each year at the Chrism Mass, the priests and bishops renew together the promises they made to God at their ordination, when their hands were anointed with Holy Chrism, and the Holy Spirit came down and made them priests.
They did so again this year, albeit somewhat differently.
“These are unique times for sure,” said Fr. Nelen. “I’m willing to bet this was the first Chrism Mass that some of our priests have missed since the day they were ordained.”
Bishop McKnight noted that this diocese usually holds its Priests’ Day of Recollection before the Chrism Mass and honors the priests who are celebrating jubilees.
This year’s priestly jubilarians include: Father Clarence Wiederholt, 65 years; Father Gerald Kaimann, Father Michael Quinn and Father Kenneth Steinhauser of the Jefferson City diocese, as well as Jefferson City native La Salette Father Dennis Meyer, 50 years; and Father Christopher Cordes and Father William Debo, 25 years.
Fr. Cordes, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Columbia, said he would have preferred to take part in the Chrism Mass in person, “but it’s all in the context of doing what we’re called to do in a time when it’s most important to do that.”
“It was different, and I have to admit a bit sad not to be there in person,” said Fr. Debo, pastor of Holy Family parish in Freeburg and Sacred Heart parish in Rich Fountain, “although I was grateful to connect electronically.”
“Where we need to be”
Fr. Merz said several priests called afterward to thank him for representing them and to comment on how beautiful the Mass was.
Fr. Cordes noted that as pastor of a large parish, he lives in community with three priests and two seminarians, “so I had that community to watch and celebrate with.”
He said the bishop’s words about the Church “‘being out where we need to be’ put it all in perspective.”
“Being Church is meant to send us out to live what we celebrate and receive,” Fr. Cordes stated. “We can’t be there (in the cathedral) right now, but we can be out here, and need to be out here.”
Participating from a distance, Father Paul Clark said he still “felt connected to the ministry that we have within the Church.”
“I was reminded that if we are in communion with Christ and His mission, we are in community; we are united regardless of where we are within time and space,” said Fr. Clark, part-time associate pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes parish and a chaplain at Fr. Tolton Regional Catholic High School, both in Columbia.
Although being physically separated from one another and from the sacramental Body of Christ is a sacrifice, “the mystical Body of Christ remains because we remain in communion with God,” he said.
He repeated the bishop’s request to the faithful to pray for all the priests of the diocese, “so that our hearts may be conformed even more closely to the Sacred Heart of Christ, the Eternal High Priest.”