From Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday, I celebrated the liturgy at six parishes in our diocese which provides me with a unique experience of our local church. Let me share with you some of what I saw and some of what I preached at each parish.
On Palm Sunday at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Camden the outdoor procession that recalls the Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem was spirited and well organized. The Cathedral choir encouraged the Palm waving faithful to sing Hosannas to the Son of David. The City Invincible can use lots of prayer praising God echoing around its challenged streets. It was a joyous march of God’s people on that cold morning into the warmth and welcome of our Cathedral.
I spoke about the obedience of Jesus to the will of His Father and the obedience of faith in Jesus that we must have. The hymns prepared by the excellent musicians and sung by the choir with the robust participation of the faithful showed the power of praying in Church by singing. That does not just happen. It requires practice, encouragement, talent and joy which the musicians, the choir and the faithful at the Cathedral parish have in abundance.
On Tuesday in Holy Week I concelebrated the Mass of the Chrism with over 225 of our priests during which they renewed their priestly promises made on their ordination day. The Holy Oils were blessed and the Sacred Chrism consecrated. The sacramental life of the church uses the Holy Oils at Baptism, Confirmation, the Anointing of the sick and dying and the Ordination of bishops and priests. Also in attendance were 54 of our permanent deacons who minister the Oil of the Catechumens and the Sacred Chrism at Baptism.
In my homily, I focused on the configuration to Christ of the ordained priest which distinguishes him from the priesthood of all the baptized. He is consecrated to serve the flock of God by sacramental ministry, preaching God’s Word, caring for and praying for the people in cooperation with his bishop to whom he has promised obedience. It was encouraging to have faithful from around the diocese to participate in this once a year Mass and pray for their priests. Our seminarians served. Thank God their numbers are increasing. However, we desperately need more ordained priests for service of and to the Church.
Holy Thursday was celebrated at the parish of Saints Peter and Paul in Turnersville. That most holy night was kept very sacred by the parishioners. The washing of feet in imitation of the very action of Jesus at the Passover meal to teach His followers about serving one another with charity. Women, men, children, teenagers, representing the entire parish walked barefoot into the sanctuary to take their seat for the ceremony. The memory of the Lord was evident that night in the solemnity of the celebration. In the homily I reflected on keeping His memory, that is, making Him present sacramentally and present in our lives. The pastor and the parish staff diligently attended to each detail of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. The silent procession of all the faithful at the conclusion of the Mass out of the Church to the Altar of Repose in the Parish Center would be best described as a very prayerful walk of God’s people accompanying the Blessed Sacrament with great devotion. All knew the Sacred Triduum, a holy time of the year, had begun.
A highlight of the Good Friday Liturgy at the parish of Saint Gianna Beretta Molla was the Adoration of the Cross. The ministers humbly approached the Cross barefoot and the congregation followed with great reverence in silent procession to the Cross. I witnessed the deep faith of our people. Faith that connects the Crucified Savior to each one who adored the Cross. Parents brought their children, even infants, who were encouraged to kiss or touch the Cross. Witnessing such familial piety I could only think with sadness of the too many children whose parents neither model nor encourage the faith of their children.
I spoke about the confidence we need to approach the throne of grace as the author to the Hebrews encourages. A confidence that includes the Cross. There is no Christian faith without the Cross. There is no Christ without the Cross. There is no salvation without the Cross. Unfortunately, too many have no understanding of this truth. Education and formation in faith is a serious need for people of all ages throughout the diocese.
A young man and a young woman were baptized at Saint Vincent de Paul in Mays Landing at the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. New Catholics! Praise God! Five other young adults completed their sacramental initiation into Christ and His Church that night of all nights which saw Christ rising from the dead. We lit the Paschal Fire to break the darkness of that night on which Christ broke the chains of death at His Resurrection. His Light continues to spread into our darkened world through His followers who share the new life of Baptism. Children of the Light. Bathed in the waters of Baptism.
Every detail of that complicated liturgy was done as the Church wants it done. A testimony to the pastor and his associates. I preached on Fire, Word, Water and Eucharist, each of which proclaims that Jesus lives! Alleluia, Hooray for God!
After a week and a day in six parishes I am convinced that the strength of our diocese is in each parish. It was this conviction that encouraged my decision that our diocesan Campaign, Catholic Strong, would be primarily focused on making each parish stronger in its ministries. The parish is where the church is experienced and where it is present. Its future is in our hands. Its future is up to us. We have been given a heritage built up since the foundation of the diocese over 80 years ago. The time has arrived for each parish to be made stronger in its educational, pastoral, liturgical and administrative ministries in order to serve the present and future generations.
What I saw in Holy Week 2018 has solidified my conviction that Catholic Strong is very necessary and that it must be successful. The present vitality and future of parish life depend on our rebuilding and strengthening of our ministries. Yes, our Church is alive. Now we need to strengthen that life, which we can do and will do.
Most Reverend Dennis J. Sullivan, D.D.
Bishop of Camden