Rhona Marber and West del Rosario have been attending the Archdiocese of Portland's Chrism Mass for years. The sisters, members of Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in Southeast Portland, were excited enough Monday that they were finishing each other's sentences.
"It's like a privilege," said del Rosario, "to see all the priests in one place," continued Marber, "and it makes you feel like," del Rosario added, "you want to cry," concluded Marber.
At the annual Mass, held during the start of Holy Week at St. Mary Cathedral, Archbishop John Vlazny blesses oils that will be sent out to parishes and used for baptisms, confirmations and anointing of the sick. Priests by the score renew their promises to teach and serve.
John Acree, a member of Cathedral Parish and a Knight of Columbus, helped cook dinner for priests and was an usher for Mass, a big job on a night when there are many more people than seats. The congregation exceeded 750.
"Seeing the priests is inspiring," Acree explained. "They are people who like to give so much for the rest of us."
Priests old and young spilled out of Cathedral School before Mass, having enjoyed the fellowship, along with prime rib and salmon. They stood in the fragrant spring air next to the cathedral, telling stories and laughing.
In one huddle, Father Ken Sampson of Star of the Sea Parish in Astoria encouraged several seminarians in their studies. "This is one of the days I look forward to most," Father Sampson said, watching his brother priests stream past. "It's a day like this that reminds me we are part of something bigger."
Father Nicolaus Marandu, longtime pastor of Immaculate Heart Parish in Portland, said the Chrism Mass is when the church remembers Christ creating the priesthood. "And he told us to share it with others," Father Marandu said. "We renew our vows on this night. It is a beautiful thing to do with our brothers."
Fredy Bonilla, a 29-year-old seminarian born in Colombia, was moved by the encounter the fraternity of priests. Bonilla, who will go to Astoria soon for a year of experience in a parish, practiced his English through the evening.
"I feel welcomed in this archdiocese," he said. "People are saying, 'We are waiting for you.'"
About 160 priests attended along with 2.5 bishops, as Archbishop Vlazny joked. He was counting himself, retired Auxiliary Bishop Kenneth Steiner and Bishop-designate Liam Cary, a Eugene pastor named last month to lead the Baker Diocese and slated for bishop ordination May 18. The congregation — including his brother priests — gave the bishop-to-be a vigorous round of applause.
Though the gathering of clergy and hierarchy is impressive, the night is really about Jesus, Archbishop Vlazny said during his homily.
The three oils — oil of catechumens, oil of the sick and sacred chrism — reflect the roles of Jesus as good shepherd, divine physician and great high priest, the archbishop told the large congregation. He added that Jesus is found today in the People of God, baptized to carry out his evangelizing mission.
"We are anointed with holy chrism to be Christ Jesus for others," he said. If that sounds brazen, he told the crowd, we should remember the mission of the church was God's idea, not ours.
The archbishop spoke out strongly for religious freedom, citing the federal health care debate and the plight of Christians in areas inhospitable to their faith, including the Holy Land and even the west coast.
He compared secular activists to Communist regimes that disqualified religion from public debate, then reminded listeners that the founding of the U.S., the abolition of slavery, women's suffrage and the civil rights movement were driven in large part by religious ideas and vision.
"Christian hope is a gift," he said. "It assures us that despite all the horrors of human history, God will not let us be torn from his hands."