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Message from the Archbishop

Archbishop of Colombo

Dear Fathers, Brothers and Sisters,

Even though the Conclave is always covered by the oath of secrecy which its participants do take, I thought I will share with you all today, as we get together at this solemn celebration to renew our priestly promises and to together bless and consecrate the sacramental oils we will be using during the coming year for anointing, some thoughts on the spiritual significance of what took place. That notwithstanding I must tell you that today’s ceremony truly is a diocesan celebration which brings out the communitarian nature of our calling as bishops and priests in the service of the Lord and of His Church.

As the College of elector Cardinals went into the Conclave there was much speculation about what was expected or what some thought would happen within the four walls of the Sistine Chapel. There is a saying that the Cardinal who goes into the Conclave as Pope would come out as Cardinal. I am reminded of the words in Isaiah “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord
” [Is. 55: 8]. Indeed it is vanity to think of this matter in a purely human fashion. The media went to town with it. There were, we were told, nearly 5000 media personnel following the proceedings and many were struggling to engage us in all kinds of conversations in order to see what was in our minds. But what really happened showed how futile that exercise was. It was all so powerfully plain; God does things in His own way.

The Conclave, I am sure, surprised everybody. It was as you could notice short and what happened was truly the work of the Divine Spirit. Everything happened so quickly and the College gave proof of their intense unity too. The Church received a new Universal Shepherd in the person of Pope Francis. While what happened and how it all happened inside the Conclave will remain a secret, what was heartwarming was to see the greatness of God in giving us a very good, holy and truly humane pastor. A member of the Society of Jesus and former Provincial Superior in Argentina, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio had been for many years the Archbishop of a typically urban Archdiocese, Buenos Aires, the capital city of Argentina. Cardinal Bergoglio is known for his profoundly religious and spiritual commitment, simplicity, special love for the poor and the marginalized and profound erudition.

I had been fortunate to have met him a number of years ago as a member of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments during my term of office as Secretary and had occasion to interact with him personally. I must say that we have in him a Pope with all the characteristics of a suave, gentle and yet firm Pastor – a human being who likes to be with the people especially the lowly ones. From the first moment he has shown that he is happy to be with everyone and to shun some of the attitudes that might keep him away from the people he loves.

I think this is a singular lesson that we ourselves can draw from him – to always be totally dedicated to the Lord and to His little ones. It is this that we always renew – each day as priests and bishops – our consecration to the Lord and to His flock – the flock that He entrusts to us in His infinite mercy. The oil we bless and consecrate today which will be used for the different anointings – be they at baptism or confirmation, at Holy Orders or in ill health stands for that belonging. The anointed one belongs to Christ and to the community – the Church.

Anointing with oil is widely used in the scriptures as a sign of special consecration. Stated the book of Exodus – “you shall take the anointing oil and pour it on his (Aaron’s) head and anoint him” [Ex.29: 7 - Lev. 8:12]. Furthermore God commanded Moses to get the Israelites to bring “pure oil of beaten olive” in order to get a lamp lit up without interruption outside the covenant enclosure in the tent of the meeting. It was also used to consecrate the tabernacle [Lev. 8:10]. Oil is mentioned also with the anointing of kings in Israel among whom Saul and David [1 Sam 10: 1; 16:13]. This anointing connotes consecration or belonging to the Lord. The sick person anointed and prayed over with the oil of the sick, or the baptismal or the sacramental anointing of the adult Christian at confirmation, all symbolize the same consecration or belonging as it is for those raised to the Holy Orders. The sacred oil we bless and consecrate today makes us and our faithful belong firmly to the Lord. And so such belonging should in the first place grow in us dear fathers, co-workers in His vineyard, each day so that we may repeat with Peter those words “Lord you know everything, you know that I love You” [Jn. 21: 17] or “Lord to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” [Jn. 6: 67]. This oil we bless and consecrate today also symbolizes our belonging to the ecclesial community. We as shepherds of the Lord’s flock are consecrated to their service and they to us so that without the flock, our very existence as priests would be meaningless. Our palms are anointed at ordination to symbolize our consecration to their service. Our work is for them. We are ordained priests for them. And so, this oil which we bless and consecrate today reminds us of our belonging not only to the Lord but to our people too. We, so to say, are expropriated from ourselves and transformed in relation to our dear flock.

That is why the Bishop along with his priests, jointly celebrate this event as an event also of their priestly and shepherdly commitment to God and to His people as a diocesan church. The Church, if it has an institutional character, is so set up that all such structures lose their importance, if these are not seen in close relationship to God and to His flock which He has deigned to entrust to us.

Pope Francis has made this clear to us at the Holy Mass he celebrated on the day of his installation last 19th, the feast of St. Joseph. He wants the Church especially its pastors to be loving, caring and protecting in their attitudes towards all the faithful and indeed to all of the world. Speaking of the figure of St. Joseph, the custos or guardian, he stated “in the Gospels, Saint Joseph appears as a strong and courageous man, a working man, yet in his heart we see great tenderness, which is not the virtue of the weak but rather a sign of strength and a capacity for concern, for compassion, for genuine openness to others, for love. We must not be afraid of goodness, of tenderness” [Homily 19th March 2013]. He further stated “today, together with St. Joseph, we are celebrating the beginning of the ministry of the new Bishop of Rome, the successor of Peter, which also involves a certain power. Certainly Jesus Christ conferred power upon Peter, but what sort of power was it? Jesus’ three questions to Peter about love are followed by these commands: feed my lambs, feed my sheep. Let us never forget” stated the Pope, “that authentic power is service, and that the Pope too, when exercising power, must enter ever more fully into that service which has its radiant culmination on the Cross. He must be inspired by the lowly, concrete and faithful service which marked St. Joseph and, like him, he must open his arms to protect all God’s people and embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest, the weakest and the least important” [ibid.].

Yes, dear Fathers, the Church, which is constituted of the anointed faithful and its leaders, that is the bishops and priests specially, who have been again and again anointed at their ordination, needs to be the special manifestation of their consecration to God and to the people. If that ontological link with God and with the people is weak or flawed our very existence is in question. We are anointed or set apart to love Him profoundly and to love and be concerned about the eternal salvation of our people. If instead we tend to only look after ourselves those terrible words that God once pronounced through the Prophet Ezekiel should make us shudder and tremble: “Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.” [Ezekiel 34: 2-6]

Dear Fathers, as we pronounce our renewal of priestly promises shortly, let us also renew our commitment to be totally set apart, consecrated and owned by God Himself in the first place and then by our people. For it is in the threefold renewal of his love for Jesus that Simon Peter, the head of all the shepherds of the Church, came to be invested with the task of feeding the flock entrusted to his care.

Let us pray for our Universal Shepherd Pope Francis whose election ushers in a new era of authentic witness to God’s love and tenderness by the Church especially towards the sinners, the poor and the sceptics or non believers as well as the billions who still do not know or accept Christ, the Lord, as their Saviour; that we too here in our motherland may dedicate ourselves to the cause of Christ’s love and tenderness towards everyone. May our priestly life be in the footsteps of our beloved Lord who loved the world so much that He gave up His life on the Cross to save it from its slavery to sin and death. May the Blessed Mother whose singular consecration to God’s will enabled her to bear the Divine Son in the world especially through Her fiat to the Angel Gabriel, a fact we remember on this feast day of the annunciation, help us through her maternal intercession to make of our lives a joyful and total anointing for God and for the salvation of our dear brothers and sisters and indeed of all humanity. Amen.

+ His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith
Archbishop of Colombo


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