Celebrating the Chrism Mass, which commemorates the ordained ministry of the bishops and their priests, Pope Benedict XVI explained the very meaning of the priesthood by way of a catechesis on liturgical vestments.
Offering the solemn and moving Mass along with most of the Cardinals, archbishops, bishops, and priests present in Rome, the Holy Father and his brothers renewed their priestly promises and the Pope blessed the Holy Oils for use in each of the parishes of Rome.
The Pope begun his long homily by recalling a passage from the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoi, who in one of his tales tells the story of how a poor Russian shepherd explained to a king who God was by asking him to exchange clothes, and thus make him aware of how Jesus, being God, changed his noble ‘clothes’ to become a man and take upon him our poor vestments.
“Christ put on our ‘clothes’: the pain and the joy of being a man, the hunger, the thirst, the tiredness, the hopes and disappointments, the fear of death, all our apprehensions, through to his death. And He gave us his ‘clothes,’” the Holy Father recalled.
“This is what is accomplished in Baptism: we are re-clothed in Christ, He gives us his clothing and this is not an external thing. It means we enter in an existential communion with Him, that His being and ours merge together, they mutually permeate one another,” the Pope said.
“This Theology of Baptism,” he continued, “returns in a new way and with new gravity in the priestly Ordination. As in Baptism there occurs an ‘exchange of clothes,’ an exchange of destiny; a new existential communion with Christ is given.”
“Likewise,” the Pope explained, “an exchange takes place in the priesthood: in the administration of the Sacraments, the priest acts and speaks ‘in persona Christi.’ In the Holy Mysteries he does not act or speak on his own behalf, but speaks on behalf of the Other – on behalf of Christ.”
The Holy Father explained that as such, in the Sacraments, “what it means in general to be a priest is made visible in a dramatic way; just as we have expressed with our ‘Adsum – I am here’ during the priestly consecration: I am here that I may be at your disposal.”
“Putting ourselves at Christ’s disposal,” the Holy Father explained, “means we let ourselves be drawn into his ‘for all’: by being with Him, we can really be there ‘for all.’”
The Pope reminded the priests of the world that, “in the moment of Priestly Ordination, the Church makes visible and comprehensible these “new clothes” even on the outside, as we are re-clothed in the liturgical vestments. In this outward gesture, the Church wants to make evident the interior event and the task which is given us through the event: re-clothing Christ; giving oneself to Him as He gave Himself to us.”
“I wish above all, dear brothers, to explain on this Holy Thursday the essence of the Priestly Ministry, interpreted in the liturgical vestments which, precisely, on your part, desire to illustrate ‘re-vesting in Christ,’ to speak and act ‘in persona Christi (in the person of Christ,’” the Pope said.
Liturgical vestments and the Priesthood
The Holy Father then turned to the individual vestments of the priest, beginning with the amice, the white cloth which priests put on first, over their shoulders and collar.
“In the past, and in monastic orders to this day,” Pope Benedict said, “[the amice] was placed first on the head, as a sort of hood, becoming in this way a symbol of the discipline of the senses and the thoughts as necessary for the proper celebration of the Holy Mass.”
This necessity remains to this day, the Holy Father said, emphasizing that, “my thoughts must not wander through the worries and expectations of my daily life; my senses must not be distracted by those things within the Church which would casually grab my eyes and ears.”
The priest’s heart, the Pope continued, must be turned to the Lord in his midst. “If I am with the Lord, then with my listening, speaking, and acting, I will also draw the people into communion with Him.”
Turning then to the alb and stole, the Holy Father recalled that the ancient prayers connected with these vestments refer to the new clothes which are put on the prodigal son when he returns to the house of his father; and for that reason, “When we approach the liturgy to act on behalf of Christ, we all realize how far we are from Him, how much dirt exists in our life.”
It is only the blood of the lamb, as cited in the book of Revelation, that “washes our robes and makes them white.” Therefore, Benedict said to the priests present, “by wearing the alb, we should remember: He suffered for me as well. And only because His love is greater than all my sins, can I act on His behalf and be the witness of His light.”
The Holy Father also explained how the alb should recall the “vesting with love,” to which we who are called to the wedding feast are called.
For this reason, the Pope added, we should ask ourselves, “Now that we are getting closer to the celebration of Holy Mass… whether we wear this dress of love. Let’s ask the Lord to take any hostility away from our soul, to remove from us any feeling of self-sufficiency and to really dress us in the dress of love, so that we will be bright people, not people who belong to darkness.”
Pope Benedict also touched briefly on the meaning of the Chasuble, which according to his explanation, symbolizes the yoke of Christ. “Wearing the yoke of the Lord means first and foremost: learning from Him; always being willing to be taught by Him.
From Him, we must learn meekness and humbleness – God’s humbleness that becomes apparent in His being a man”.
“Sometimes we would like to say to Jesus,” the Pope confessed, “Lord, your yoke is not light at all. Actually, it is awfully heavy in this world. But then, as we look at Him who carried everything – who personally experienced obedience, weakness, pain, all the darkness, suddenly these lamentations of ours die down.”
“His yoke is to love with Him. And the more we love Him and with Him we become people who love, the lighter His seemingly heavy yoke becomes for us.”