|Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix pours Chrism Oil onto the altar of the |
new Conventual Church of Our Lady of the Angels, Franciscan Renewal Center
(also popularly known as "The Casa"), Scottsdale, AZ
This reflection was originally published in OFM.FYI, the newsletter of the Province of St. Barbara.
Friar Michael Weisshaar (d. 1996) used to welcome Friar Regis Rohder (d.1983) at the Casa’s front door in the early Seventies with a peck on the top of his head and a giggle: “Kiss a relic!” His parking lot is now a shrine. We buried relics under the floor of a new sanctuary there. Our senses were filled with the smell of chrism and flowers and billowing sweet incense. It is not easy on the Catholic imagination to undo what we witnessed on Francis Day at the Casa this year. Recent decades have seen so many sacred buildings of our country closed and abandoned to “profane use.” But as a bishop slathers chrism across the mensa of a new altar and permanently stains the walls with it, something changes inside of us. Something often messy is dedicated as well. Vestments and new altar cloths were ruined with permanent oil stains, ruined like all of us, and dedicated at the same time, perhaps, to a humanity made more sacred.
I didn't want to concelebrate; to sit in habit among the friars felt enough. A question by a Lutheran pastor I studied with at the Chicago Theological Union lingered across my thoughts: “I don't understand you Catholics. If the Lord Jesus was not worried about spilling his Sacred Blood on the garbage dump of Calvary, why are you worried about spilling the blest chalice on a “chrismed” altar? “ But we are. Obsessed sometimes. And sometimes we appear “picky” about the proper rites for dedicating things. But these things “baptize” a building of stone and steel with water and oil and sacred Word. It was good, too, to be among the friars, hearing Bishop Olmsted applaud our kind of Franciscan church-building and rebuilding. Even with our personnel issues, he noted, the three Phoenix Franciscan centers continue to invigorate his diocese. After all, the friars have sought to do “good church” here since our Marcos Di Niza first trudged through this desert looking for gold… more than three hundred years ago.
At that moment of slathering the walls and altar table, we were all one. Not liberal or conservative church people any more. All of our diocesan leadership were there: the bishop, vicar of clergy, vicar general, chancellor and deans… and even a few the “New Franciscans” of the Phoenix diocese. We have done battle recently on the question of what face of the Church do we want project in central Phoenix. Here, we the “older” Franciscans who brought the Gospel to Arizona so many hundreds of years ago became a temporary sea of brown. Our way leans more often toward the human, the messy and the proximate. This seemed to charm as well in the context of ancient rites. In some important way, in the slathering oil, the illuminating of the walls and the dressing of the altar, we were just the Body of Christ, doing business.
The anti-Trump demonstrations just a month ago left the friary and the century-old Basilica of St. Mary’s full of tear gas. We friars had stepped away from the crowds that evening to pray vespers and to anoint Fr. Luis for his surgery the next day. It was a wild juxtaposition - the chanting rage of the crowds at an inhumane national administration and the slathering of oil. We friars there “did church” and attended to the crowds from our front steps. To “church” is a verb, after all. Maybe by doing it well on the steps we reduced the violence in those angry streets. The moment became intimate, graced and blest. Slathering and chanting kept coming to mind as the bishop anointed that altar of Our Lady of Angels.
Our guests did not seem to be bothered by the Casa hand waving and “alleluia” signing. We were just the Body of Christ doing its thing - epiclesis. Dedicating spaces and lives by invoking the Third Sacred Person of the Trinity. Calling on the Spirit to enter our world and heal its violence and self-centeredness. To present a human face of Church, that is our vocation here.
We friars don't build new buildings often anymore. The recent history of St. Barbara has been in the adapting of old ones to new purposes. But here we saw a building changed from being an impressive piece of architecture to a sacred place for worship. I remember the words over the doors in the old St. Anthony Church in San Francisco: Ecce Domus Domini Firmiter Edificata/ This is the House of God firmly built! Or better yet, this is the House of the People of God - on the road, living messes and messy lives. Trudging along on our way to Jerusalem and Calvary. Together.
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