Whenever I See A Priest Wearing His Collar…

romancollarWhenever I see priest wearing a Roman collar it reminds me of Jesus Christ. Not because I think the priest is perfect and sinless but because, in his vocation, the priests always points to Jesus Christ. That collar is a beacon of light for me. And it makes me sad that so many priests choose not to wear one “except when they’re on duty.”  To begin with, the priesthood is a vocation and not a 9-5 job. There is never a moment that the priest is not a priest, both in this life and the next one. It’s like biological fatherhood: it defines you forever. You really DON’T get a day off. Sure, there are those times when wearing your collar might not be appropriate. Like when you’re sleeping. Or scuba-diving. Or getting a hip replacement. But if you’re making a run to Target for cat food and toilet paper then wear your collar. You never know who might see you and think of Jesus. Maybe for the first time in a very long time.

When I see a priest wearing a collar it reminds me to be thankful for all those men over all those centuries who have answered the call of God and dedicated their lives to the service of His people. I’m reminded of all the sacrifices they made: of material wealth, of the comfort and love of a biological family, of independence. I think of the martyrs of our Catholic faith who were killed because they were deacons or priests or bishops. Without priests there would be no sacraments. Without priests, we could not receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. I’m grateful to every faithful priest for bringing Jesus to His Church at every mass.

When I see a priest wearing a collar it reminds me to be joyful. Yes, I’ve known my share of crabby old (and not so old) priests. After all, priests are as happy or as crabby as the rest of us. But the joy of our Christian journey comes from sharing in the good news of the Gospel. Christ died to save us. Christ rose again to conquer death. God is love and mercy. And the joy that flows from that good news calls us to give our lives back to the One Who made us. Priests do that in a remarkable way in their vocation of service and love. That circular collar they wear, like the circle of a wedding band, embodies the endless love and commitment of a life’s vocation. Their collar is at once the yoke of Christ and the true freedom that comes from saying “yes” to God’s will for his life. And in that is joy.

I know that in and of itself, the collar is just a symbol. The priest is just as much a priest in his civvies as he is in his clerical clothes. But symbols are important!  Think of the bishop’s ring, the vestments worn at mass, the chair in the cathedral, a holy card, a medal, a lighted candle or any of the other images or reminders of our faith. They MATTER. Some may think that wearing a collar is some kind of barrier that sets the priest apart from the people in the pews. Father is so much “cooler” in jeans, etc. I disagree completely. That collar is, for me, a wonderful connection within the Church, binding us all together in a world that is forever seeking to tear the Church apart. That collar says: “Be at peace. I’m your priest and we’ll get through this together.”  That collar makes the priest somehow bigger than himself. Not in a powerful way, but in a way that invites a hurting world to approach God’s mercy seat. That collar can be a doorway to repentance and reconciliation for someone who may have been away from the Church for many years. What a privilege for the priest who wears it.

Yes, I know black clothes are hot in the summertime. And that collar only makes things worse. I know that some of you have been called names and been made to feel uncomfortable and perhaps even ashamed when you wear your collar in the world. Since the abuse scandals, being a priest has had added crosses to bear. But the last I checked they aren’t executing priests in America. Surely the burden of wearing a collar is worth it anyway. You see, Father, we need you to be there for us. We’re fighting a battle here in this life and when we look around on the battlefield we need to be able to identify our officers. We can’t ask you for confession if you’re in your golf shirts and khaki shirts. But in your collar, you’re an occasion of grace for me. When I see you in your collar I feel a little less alone, a little more joyful, a bit more grateful and a lot more likely to examine my own relationship with Jesus. When you put on your collar in the morning and walk out into the world, you say: “God matters more than I do. I choose to do His will for my life. I’m here to serve the people of God. Won’t you join me?”  Amen, Father. And thank you.

“The world looks to the priest because it looks to Jesus!  No one can see Christ; but everyone sees the priest, and through him they will catch a glimpse of the Lord.”
         —-Blessed Pope John Paul II

Christ Before…well..everything!

OXYGEN VOLUME 13One of the most jarring things Jesus ever said, at least in my opinion, is when He’s speaking in St. Luke’s gospel about the effects His ministry will have on families. He tells us, “They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law”(Luke 12:53).  At first blush this seems to go against everything we know about the Gospel. Doesn’t Jesus preach about love and peace and caring for one another? Aren’t we taught to give more than we’re asked for and to forgive seventy-times-seven? Isn’t love and forgiveness what Christ is all about?

Well, yes and no. Obviously it is God’s great love for us that sent His Son to live as one of us and to give Himself up for us as the perfect sacrifice. Living in Christ means living in His love and allowing His love to transform us. In that love we find forgiveness and mercy—and are called to be His hands and feet as we love and serve the people of God. Certainly God’s plan for our lives is a love story. And in human terms, that unfolding love story first begins within the context of our families. This is where we first know love and experience the care and peace that only the intimacy of family life can provide. Jesus chose to enter humanity in a family and was loved and nurtured by Our Lady and St. Joseph in the home they made for Him. So how can all we know about Christ and the Gospel make sense of this passage written for us by St. Luke?

One thing we learn us that there is an order, a hierarchy, of love. Our love of God must come first in all things, even in families. If we allow anything or anyone to come before Him, our lives are disordered. Jesus is illustrating the utterly transformative effect that following Him will have on our lives. He comes first in all things: before our jobs, before our friends, even before our families. Our commitment to Jesus MUST transform every area and aspect and moment of our lives. Being a Christian changes how we choose to make a living, whom we marry (and IF we marry), how we conduct ourselves in business, how we raise our children, how we spend our money, and how we contribute to the community in which we live. If we claim Him as savior then He must be first in our lives. This is what Jesus means in St. Luke’s gospel. Jesus claims us entirely for His Sacred Heart.

That claim can and must radically change us. St. Paul calls us “new creations”(II Corinthians 5:17). That newness of life in Christ sets us apart from the world. We are in the world but not of the world(Romans 12:2). We don’t live like other people. We work and play differently. We have different goals and achieve them in different ways. If we’re just like everyone else, then we’re not doing it right. When Christ comes first in all things, it means everything else is ordered AFTER Him. And that can and does cause problems in some families. We know these problems well. We may have experienced them in our own families: choices made which conflict with faith, marriages unravelled by sin, children ravaged by divorce, and lives wounded through walking a path away from God. Love is a messy journey and we’re all struggling at it. We’re trying to find they way God wants us to be His beloved child. A trusted prayer in times like these is,”Lord, help me to be like Jesus.”  Help me to love as Jesus loves, to forgive as Jesus forgives, to be humble and merciful as He is humility and mercy. I fail at this every day. A hundred times a day. St. Paul tells us how to love like Jesus. You know this scripture. “Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. Love does not demand its own way. Love is not irritable and it keeps no record of when it has been wronged”(I Corinthians 13:4-7).  These verses are about true love, sacrificial love: love that costs you something. The kind of love that families share, the kind of love that can see them through the most difficult of times. At the center of that kind of love is the humility of Jesus. Humility that gives without counting the cost, expecting no repayment. How much division in our families and our churches is a result of pride? Of keeping score and wanting to be right? Of putting our own wants and needs first? Probably most of it. Keeping Christ first puts everything and everyone else into their proper places. Especially in our families.

“As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live.”
       —Blessed Pope John Paul II

The Rapture? Uh. No.

Rapture predictionJust in case you missed it, last December came and went and the world didn’t end. Just so you know. The Maya may have been good at lots of stuff, but predicting the end of the world wasn’t one of them. And they’re not alone. There have been dozens of groups of people over the centuries who’ve busied themselves with trying to discern the end of this world. Some of them were out for fame or for money. Some were just sadly-deluded fringe-dwelling nut jobs. Others seemed motivated by genuine concern for their little flocks and in helping them prepare for what they truly perceived to be some kind of private revelation which they believe God had shared with them. The one thing all these groups have had in common is that they’ve been wrong.

Here’s what the Catholic Church teaches on Christ’s return and the end of time: “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Matthew 24:36).  Jesus says it, we believe it. Our Catechism teaches us that Christ already reigns in glory through His Church (paragraphs 668-679).  We profess the Nicene Creed at Mass every Sunday and we affirm that the second coming of Christ is something we look forward to with great hope. Jesus will come in glory and the dead will rise and each one of us will stand before Him. The symbolism of the “rapture” and the thousand-year earthly reign of Christ are lost on those who read the Scriptures too literally. Jesus spoke many times about us being prepared for His return. When He comes is less of a concern for us Catholics than our work here and now, in our own hearts and lives. Are we making room for Him? Are we living as He taught us to live? Here’s the truth: we’ll meet Jesus at His second coming whenever that may be. But we’ll most certainly meet Him at the moment of our death. It seems a more prudent use of our time, our talent, and our treasure to prepare for that encounter than to worry about the “rapture.”

Instead, we should be like the faithful steward that Jesus described (Luke 12:35-48) who waited on his master’s return from a wedding feast. He kept the lights of his house burning to welcome the master home. Everything was in order; everyone was busy doing their job to make the house ready. The steward wasn’t fearful of his master’s return because he was ready for him. He had done all that had been asked of him. He wasn’t concerned with being punished because he knew the master would be pleased with him. We affirm this in another prayer of the Mass when we pray that we “wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior.”  This hopefulness sets us apart from those who dread the end of their earthly journey out of fear. Someone has said that your attitude about death depends on whether you imagine Jesus  as your judge or as your friend.  Of course, He is both. He is Friend, Creator, Savior, Redeemer, Shepherd, and Judge. Yet we sometimes persist in fear of our friend and our “Abba.”  Surely the parable of the good steward should be our guide as we anticipate meeting Jesus face-to-Face.

Moreover, we know that we encounter Him in our daily lives in the many “distressing disguises” He wears. When we serve the poor in our communities and visit the sick and the imprisoned—we meet Him. When we make time for a lonely person or care for a child in need—we make time for and we care for Christ. We’re called to actively participate in building the Kingdom of God which has come to us in Christ (Matthew 12:28; Luke 11:20) and these works of mercy are one way we do that. Catholics believe we live in a kind of “middleness” between the Ascension and His second coming at the end of time. Our salvation is a gift won for us by Jesus on the cross, but we are as St Paul says, “to work out (our) own salvation” (Philippians 2:12) until He returns. In this tension between the “already” and the “not yet” we find the purpose of our lives. We feed the hungry; we love our neighbor; we help bring healing to a hurting world. This purpose and our work are gifts from God and fill us with great joy and sustaining hope.

And so at Sunday Mass when we pray for Christ’s return it is in that same joy and hope. On that day we’ll know the final victory over death and sin and evil. The dead will rise in their newly-glorified bodies and the Church, the Body of Christ, will realize the fullness of Her true nature in Him. I love how St. John describes it: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.’ ” This is our hope and our destiny. Until then, we must be about our Father’s work, like the faithful steward, our lights kept burning.

“And the One seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new’ “
                         —(Revelation 21:1-5)