Francis’ Chrism Mass Sermon: priests are very small

Today His Holiness of our Lord preached a sermon on the occasion of the Chrism Mass of Holy Thursday.   He spoke with eloquence about the priest and priesthood.   He spoke especially about joy, departing from the “oil of gladness” which we speak of on this day.  I am not happy with the English translation, nor in simply reading it.  It is better in Italian and via listening and watching the video.

He spoke about how small a person the priest is.  He is poor, useless, ignorant and frail unless….  The Holy Father also spoke of the Evil One.

We are anointed “to our bones”.

There are a few triples and a couple home runs herein.

Here are some samples:

Dear Brother Priests,

In the eternal “today” of Holy Thursday, when Christ showed his love for us to the end (cf. Jn 13:1), we recall the happy day of the institution of the priesthood, as well as the day of our own priestly ordination. The Lord anointed us in Christ with the oil of gladness, and this anointing invites us to accept and appreciate this great gift: the gladness, the joy of being a priest. Priestly joy is a priceless treasure, not only for the priest himself but for the entire faithful people of God: that faithful people from which he is called to be anointed and which he, in turn, is sent to anoint.  [I think we can legitimately add that ordination is also for the priest himself.  But that is not the emphasis of this sermon.]

Anointed with the oil of gladness so as to anoint others with the oil of gladness. Priestly joy has its source in the Father’s love, and the Lord wishes the joy of this Love to be “ours” and to be “complete” (Jn 15:11). I like to reflect on joy by contemplating Our Lady, for Mary, the “Mother of the living Gospel, is a wellspring of joy for God’s little ones” (Evangelii Gaudium, 288). I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that priest is very little indeed [il sacerdote è una persona molt piccolo…Literally: the priest is a very small person.  The priest is very small.]: the incomparable grandeur of the gift granted us for the ministry sets us among the least of men. The priest is the poorest of men unless Jesus enriches him by his poverty, the most useless of servants unless Jesus calls him his friend, the most ignorant of men unless Jesus patiently teaches him as he did Peter, the frailest of Christians unless the Good Shepherd strengthens him in the midst of the flock. No one is more “little” than a priest left to his own devices; and so our prayer of protection against every snare of the Evil One is the prayer of our Mother: I am a priest because he has regarded my littleness (cf. Lk 1:48). And in that littleness we find our joy. Joy in our littleness!

For me, there are three significant features of our priestly joy. It is a joy which anoints us (not one which “greases” us, making us unctuous, sumptuous and presumptuous), it is a joy which is imperishable and it is a missionary joy which spreads and attracts, starting backwards – with those farthest away from us.  [It is common for Jesuits to take three points. Call it a “triple”.]

A joy which anoints us. In a word: it has penetrated deep within our hearts, it has shaped them and strengthened them sacramentally. The signs of the ordination liturgy speak to us of the Church’s maternal desire to pass on and share with others all that the Lord has given us: the laying on of hands, the anointing with sacred chrism, the clothing with sacred vestments, the first consecration which immediately follows… Grace fills us to the brim and overflows, fully, abundantly and entirely in each priest. We are anointed down to our very bones… and our joy, which wells up from deep within, is the echo of this anointing.  [Nice image.  Yes… the outward signs are also important.  They signal interior realities.]

An imperishable joy. The fullness of the Gift, which no one can take away or increase, is an unfailing source of joy: an imperishable joy which the Lord has promised no one can take from us (Jn 16:22). It can lie dormant, or be clogged by sin or by life’s troubles, yet deep down it remains intact, like the embers of a burnt log beneath the ashes, and it can always be renewed. [Nice.] Paul’s exhortation to Timothy remains ever timely: I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands (cf. 2 Tim 1:6).

A missionary joy. I would like especially to share with you and to stress this third feature: priestly joy is deeply bound up with God’s holy and faithful people, for it is an eminently missionary joy. Our anointing is meant for anointing God’s holy and faithful people: for baptizing and confirming them, healing and sanctifying them, blessing, comforting and evangelizing them.

And since this joy is one which only springs up when the shepherd is in the midst of his flock (for even in the silence of his prayer, the shepherd who worships the Father is with his sheep), it is a “guarded joy”, watched over by the flock itself. Even in those gloomy moments when everything looks dark and a feeling of isolation takes hold of us, in those moments of listlessness and boredom which at times overcome us in our priestly life (and which I too have experienced), even in those moments God’s people are able to “guard” that joy; they are able to protect you, to embrace you and to help you open your heart to find renewed joy.  [This is profoundly true.  Priests often find great strength and hope and reinforcement of courage and focus in the help of laypeople.  We are, after all, oriented to each other.  At the same time, and I would like to offer this as a point of reflection for some readers here, often priests find lay people pouring cold water on our flame and coals.]

A “guarded joy“: one guarded by the flock but also guarded by three sisters who surround it, tend it and defend it: sister poverty, sister fidelity and sister obedience.

The joy of priests is a joy which is sister to poverty. The priest is poor in terms of purely human joy. He has given up so much! And because he is poor, he, who gives so much to others, has to seek his joy from the Lord and from God’s faithful people. He doesn’t need to try to create it for himself. We know that our people are very generous in thanking priests for their slightest blessing and especially for the sacraments.


Priestly joy is a joy which is sister to fidelity. Not primarily in the sense that we are all “immaculate” (would that by God’s grace we were!), for we are sinners, but in the sense of an ever renewed fidelity to the one Bride, to the Church. Here fruitfulness is key.


Priestly joy is a joy which is sister to obedience. An obedience to the Church in the hierarchy which gives us, as it were, not simply the external framework for our obedience: the parish to which I am sent, my ministerial assignments, my particular work … but also union with God the Father, the source of all fatherhood. It is likewise an obedience to the Church in service: in availability and readiness to serve everyone, always and as best I can, following the example of “Our Lady of Promptness” (cf. Lk 1:39, meta spoudes), who hastens to serve Elizabeth her kinswoman and is concerned for the kitchen of Cana when the wine runs out.

[… READ THE REST THERE…  He speaks of new priests, veterans and now… this is great…]

Finally, on this Thursday of the priesthood, I ask the Lord Jesus to make better known the joy of elderly priests, whether healthy or infirm. It is the joy of the Cross, which springs from the knowledge that we possess an imperishable treasure in perishable earthen vessels. May these priests find happiness wherever they are; may they experience already, in the passage of the years, a taste of eternity (Guardini). May they know, Lord, the joy of handing on the torch, the joy of seeing new generations of their spiritual children, and of hailing the promises from afar, smiling and at peace, in that hope which does not disappoint.

An observations.  His Holiness Benedict XVI also reflected deeply on the theme of joy and priesthood.  He has a book called Ministers of Your Joy.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. rosaryarmy says:

    What an amazing reflection on the profound gift of the priesthood!

    I think one of the most fundamental misunderstandings of the priesthood today is that we equate it with power. While a priest does indeed have incredible power, it is not power in the earthly sense but rather the power of Christ. This power comes through most fully when the priest recognizes his own littleness. (Of course, it still comes through even the most wretched priest- ex opere operato- and praise God for that, because where would we be otherwise?)

    I have long felt that Ven. Fulton Sheen’s “The Priest is Not His Own” ought to be required reading for every seminarian. He reminds us that every priest must also be a victim, just as Christ Himself was priest and victim.

  2. acricketchirps says:

    Learn something new every day: I always thought priests only looked small because they were so far away.

  3. Suburbanbanshee says:

    That’s beautiful. Seriously.

    Re: littleness, of course it brings to mind that St. Therese (with her “little way”) is a great patroness for priests and missionaries!

  4. amenamen says:

    “anointed down to our very bones”

    Is this his own original expression? If it is not already a phrase in a theological lexicon, it should be from now on.

    A deep injury goes “to the bone”. One who is very cold is “chilled to the bone”. Beef can be marinated all the way through, to the bone. This is an apt image of the indelible mark on the soul, the sacramental character.

  5. StJude says:

    My Priest didnt get the memo… he is a big guy.

  6. Andrew says:

    Ergo si durus est sermo, et nondum intellectus est, durus sit impio, tibi autem pietate molliatur: quia quandoque solvetur, et fiet tibi oleum, et usque ad ossa penetrabit. (S. Augustini in Ps. XLIV)

    Per oleum ideo Spiritum Sanctum accipimus, quia sicut oleum nutrit carnem, et usque ad ossa penetrat, sic Spiritus Sanctus animam in qua habitat. (Migne: Haymonis Halberstatensis Episcopi Commentaria: PL 116)

  7. Andrew says:

    Therefore if the saying is hard, and not yet understood, let it be hard to the impious, but for you let it be soften by piety, and turn to oil, and penetrate down to the bone. (S. Augustini in Ps. XLIV)

    Through oil therefore we receive the Holy Spirits, because as oil nourishes the flesh, and penetrates down to the bones, so the Holy Spirit does to the soul in which he dwells. (Migne: Haymonis Halberstatensis Episcopi Commentaria: PL 116)

  8. Vecchio di Londra says:

    The story of the boy David conquering the giant Goliath has a great truth in it. G.K.Chesterton describes his modest, bespectacled hero-detective Father Brown – who solves even the most twisted and obscure of crimes with what one might call a sort of ‘theo-logic’ – as “a mild hard-working little priest.” Fr Brown peers and blinks short-sightedly, carries a battered umbrella, has a benign smile for everyone, is incapable of taking offence at even the rudest insult, and looks so innocent that he is constantly patronised by police and underrated by the criminals he goes on to catch, reeling them in deftly and cleverly.
    And just as innocently as his hero, Chesterton managed to smuggle a lot of Catholic philosophy into his detective fiction. He based Fr Brown on Fr John O’Connor, a parish priest in Bradford who had influenced Chesterton’s conversion to Catholicism in 1922.
    The actor Alec Guinness related how Father Brown brought about his own post-war conversion to the Catholic faith: he had been acting the role of the priest in a film on location in Burgundy. A local child, thinking Guinness was a real priest, took his hand and chattered away at him in French as they walked down the street, then ran off, waving goodbye with a beaming smile. Guinness had had a neglected childhood, and was so impressed at the confidence and affection his priestly habit seemed to inspire in the lad that he never forgot it; soon after he began visiting a Catholic church to pray, and then asked for instruction.
    OTOH not all literary priests are so small or modest. In ‘The Little World of Don Camillo’ it is not the priest but the local village in the Po Valley that is a ‘piccolo mondo’. The hero himself of Giovanni Guareschi’s stories of cultural warfare with the Communist mayor Peppone, Don Camillo the local padre, is “a skilled hunter and fisherman…a big man – and about as graceful in his movements as a division of armoured cars…equipped with super-sized bones and muscles.” He wears a size 12 shoe, and is able to tear a pack of cards in two, with his bare hands.
    (And no, I’m sorry Father Z, but I’ve absolutely no idea what kind of hunting rifle or ammo Don Camillo uses, you’ll just have to refer to the stories…:-)

  9. Suburbanbanshee says:

    But Don Camillo is “little” in his perpetual return to humility before the crucified Christ, and in his simplicity.

    Re: priests, Instapundit linked to a blogpost about the “lost world” of National Geographic’s old article on the US Air Force, and one commenter noted that he’d once known the guy who’d had the most hours ever in an F-4. And that after his wife died, this pilot had joined the priesthood, and had tried to help the commenter; and he was thinking about this priest on Good Friday today. Does anybody know this priest he’s talking about? (Though I suppose it could be an Orthodox or Episcopalian priest he’s talking about, or he could be speaking loosely about a minister.)

    The current “most hours” guy is named Wayne Yarolem and he runs a company called Global Security, but I’m sure there have been different “most hours” guys through the years.

  10. Mike says:

    This sermon is an excellent innoculation against a clericalism that would hightlight the priest for worldly reasons rather than for theological ones.

  11. Priam1184 says:

    Thank you to all the Fathers who read this for all that you do for us.

  12. Sonshine135 says:

    If the Priest is small, how much smaller are we the laity? Truly humbling.

  13. I can answer that question, Sonshine135.

    My parish priest is about 5′ 7″.

    I’m just under 5′.

  14. Supertradmum says:

    This is beautiful. I have not seen “clericalism” in years. In fact, most priests I know are timid, not taking power which they should take over issues and people.

    The emphasis in seminaries on being “vulnerable priests” (I have heard this first hand) and on not standing up for the truth, but catering to the laity seems to contradict this call to being small-are priests not “too small”? The timidity of priests must be addressed if the laity are to be challenged to become holy.

    Having said this above, I think the overall message is quite profound.

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