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The Rev. John Sweeney (R), a member of the Franciscans of Primitive Observance in Lawrence, left the altar after receiving Communion yesterday at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross during the Chrism Mass.
The Rev. John Sweeney (R), a member of the Franciscans of Primitive Observance in Lawrence, left the altar after receiving Communion yesterday at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross during the Chrism Mass. (Globe Staff Photo / Bill Greene)

O'Malley cites challenges

He urges priestly fraternity 'never to give up on prayer'

Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley, in his annual speech to the clergy of the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, said yesterday that being a priest ''is a great challenge" but that ''never has the world needed you more than now."

Speaking to scores of priests who participated in the annual Chrism Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston's South End, O'Malley made no direct reference to the events that have recently challenged archdiocesan priests, such as the sexual abuse scandal and the closing of dozens of parishes.

Instead, he talked about the religious dimension of difficulty, saying that ''in a priest's life, suffering can be a grace." It was an allusion to his oft-repeated position that the pain caused to the church by the abuse crisis is part of a Christ-like journey.

Without commenting on how the biblical anecdote applies to today's situation, he pointed out that ''Jesus did not seem to pick the best and the brightest" as his disciples. Priests, he said, are to be ''vessels of clay, bearing treasures for God's people."

''Jesus, . . . in forming his spiritual army, did not assemble a well-groomed, highly disciplined, state-of-the-art army of Dale Carnegie communicators in polyester suits and well-moussed pompadours, but rather he went down to the wharves and called a ragtag dirty dozen to be the pillars on which he would build his church, a clear indication that the enterprise was to be more than met the eye," he said.

O'Malley's experience as a Capuchin Franciscan friar -- the friars live in community with one another -- has led him to be an advocate of greater collaboration among diocesan priests, many of whom live alone. Yesterday, he urged priests to cultivate greater fraternity.

''The journey is not easy, and we must learn to lean on one another, to be a gift and blessing for our brother priests," he said. ''We must look beyond categories of ethnicity, age, temperament, ideology, and see in the priesthood a bond that links us irrevocably to Christ and one another."

O'Malley said that priests share a collective image, pointing out that ''we share in each other's successes and failures."

And he urged them to get along with one another. ''There can be no room in our priestly hearts for clerical envy or narcissistic competition or one-upmanship," he said.

O'Malley exhorted priests to install chapels in their rectories, saying ''we must never give up on prayer," and he urged them to pray that more men will choose to join the priesthood. He also said that priests should be ''friend to the friendless and father to the fatherless" and should ''love people, even when they are unlovable."

O'Malley made passing reference to the importance of celibacy for priests, saying ''a chaste priest tries to love as many people as possible."

O'Malley, who frequently cites popular culture in his homilies, argued that the depiction of priests in Hollywood movies has evolved from a reverential depiction to what he called a ''fascination with celibacy." He cited three works that depict priests with romantic attachments -- ''The Cardinal," a film made in 1963; ''Monsignor," made in 1982; and ''The Thorn Birds," a 1983 miniseries -- but also said that two actors in films about priests, Alec Guinness and Raul Julia, had embraced Catholicism after portraying cardinals in the theatrical roles.

''Today's world is skeptical about objective norms and claims based on authority, inherited institutions, and traditions," he said. ''People are quick to see official transmission of the faith as a well-disguised ideology of domination, a clerical device to cramp people's style and keep them from having fun. People are convinced only when they perceive our authenticity, our commitment, our holiness."

O'Malley referred to ''the shallowness of our world," but avoided the detailed critique of contemporary society that landed him in hot water at last year's Chrism Mass, when he included feminism in a list of predominantly negative social developments that he said make it difficult for the church to reach baby boomers. He later apologized.

At yesterday's Mass, archdiocesan priests jointly renewed their commitment to service, promising to become more like Jesus ''by joyfully sacrificing . . . pleasure and ambition" and ''by teaching the Christian faith without thinking of your own profit." Also at the Mass, replicating one of the most ancient rituals for bishops, O'Malley consecrated three vats of oil for use over the course of the next year by priests throughout the archdiocese in sacraments such as anointing the sick.

O'Malley was joined at the altar by Metropolitan Methodios, the hierarch of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Boston. O'Malley twice embraced Methodios, kissing him on each cheek; in his brief introduction, O'Malley voiced a wish that the Roman Catholic Church would reunite with the Orthodox churches. Although the churches are divided in part over the primacy of the pope, Methodios, in his remarks, offered a prayer for the health of the ailing Pope John Paul II, saying, ''We pray that God may restore his health, so that he can continue being a champion of human dignity around the world."

O'Malley's homily was greeted with approval by the priests.

''This was a great chance for us to reenergize and refocus," said the Rev. Mark J. Riley, parochial vicar at St. Patrick Church in Natick. ''It's been very difficult, but days like this focus us on what's most important, and that is Christ."

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.


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