Most Rev. John Vlazny Archbishop Emeritus of Portland
There is a French legend about the midnight hour on Christmas Eve. As the story goes, a mysterious spirit of peace prevails throughout the world at that time, a spirit that is so powerful and all-emcompassing that even the cattle in the stables and the deer in the forest fall to their knees in adoration
God has given me the grace once again to celebrate Midnight Mass at our St. Mary’s Cathedral on that holy night when heaven and earth became one. Our hearts are filled with joy that God did descend from his heavenly throne and came to make his dwelling among us. Christmas is intended to be an island of calm during stormy times. In the past, even nations at war have managed to call a halt to their battles, at least for this day. We hope and pray that Christmas will not be just a mere interruption in the normal activity of our lives, but that Christmas will change all the hostility that divides people in today’s world into the peace proclaimed by the angels and the love which was born on that first Christmas so long ago in a Bethlehem cave.
When I went to my office in the Pastoral Center on the first Tuesday of Advent, there was a letter and package awaiting me from the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganó, the Pope’s representative in the United States. I immediately wondered if it was a notice about my successor. Could I be so fortunate as to be the first one to receive a Christmas gift this year from the Pope? Well, that is not exactly what happened. It was indeed a Christmas gift from the Pope, but it was a letter from the Nuncio advising me that our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI, had named three of our priests as his Personal Chaplains, Rev. Msgr. Donald Buxman, Rev. Msgr. Patrick Brennan and Rev. Msgr. Joseph Betschart.
All three of these men are stalwarts in our presbyterate. Msgr. Buxman has been a marvelous pastor, a dedicated vocations director, and presently an affable and collaborative Vicar for Clergy. Msgr. Brennan has served as judicial vicar of the archdiocese, rector of Mount Angel Seminary, our Vicar for Clergy and presently pastor/rector of St. Mary’s Cathedral. Msgr. Betschart was pastor of Our Lady of the Mountain Parish in Ashland and Campus Ministry Director for the students at Southern Oregon University, Archdiocesan Pro-Life Director, Academic Dean and Formation Advisor at the Pontifical North American College in Rome and now rector of Mount Angel Seminary. All three of them have been dedicated and much appreciated pastors of God’s people. What makes them rather unique in the presbyterate is that they have also survived the challenge of working with the archbishops here in western Oregon. That is no small accomplishment, to be sure!
It is a joy that they are being recognized for their priestly dedication and zeal by the Holy Father in this truly blessed season of the year. One gentleman reacted by questioning me about such honors. He said, “I thought we weren’t doing these things anymore.” I have to admit, in the church we probably are not so prone these days to applaud, congratulate or thank people for excellence in their service. Everybody else does it and I wonder why the church stopped doing it. I am grateful that our Holy Father doesn’t think praising and thanking are no longer the appropriate reactions to loving and faithful service. In October our Holy Father honored some laity and religious who have served us so well. I am glad our priests have not been forgotten. Ours is a wonderful presbyterate and, with the announcement of these honors, together with the ordination of Bishop Liam Cary as Bishop of Baker back in the spring, Rome is acknowledging that this archdiocese is served by a wonderful presbyterate and it is time that all of us who have been beneficiaries of their service are reminded of how gifted we have been.
Yes, Christmas is indeed a time for gift-giving and gift-receiving. The greatest gift of all, of course, is the one we have all received, Jesus Christ, born our Savior and Brother. Amazingly he lived on this earth for only 33 years. He himself never received any public honors nor did he ever travel far from home. But no one else has ever made such an impact upon the lives of so many people. He wanted to remain present to people of all times and all places even after his Ascension into heaven. And so He chose to establish a church, the people of God, the community that would make his presence felt until he would come again at the end of time. At Christmas we celebrate the presence of Jesus in a very special way. But we also celebrate His presence every time we gather for Eucharist. Then, at the end of every Mass, the presider sends us forth to be Christ for other people in all our comings and going during the week ahead. That is, of course, quite a challenge.
Most of us are quite intimidated by the thought of being called upon to do something so incredibly challenging. We remember how St. Peter reacted when it became clear to him that Jesus wanted him and the other apostles to share in His work. Peter reminded the Lord that he was a sinful man and could never be entrusted with such a sacred responsibility. Jesus responded that this would make Peter all the more effective because people would recognize that the only way the mission could ever be successful would be if God were working through a man like Peter, or through people like you and me.
The second challenge comes from the reaction we sometimes encounter when we do let the light of our faith shine in the world. In these very secular times the noteworthy presence of religious people, symbols or activities is not always well received. I recently read about a lawsuit being filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Montana through which the organization was hoping to have a statue of Jesus Christ removed from a mountain close to where skiers frequently pass. Then there was the recent desecration of statues in our own Portland Grotto. The incident was reported, but there certainly was no outrage reflected in anything I read or heard about the incident. Obviously a religious place like The Grotto in our midst doesn’t please all the neighbors.
In spite of such negative reactions to God’s presence, we still come together to celebrate Christmas proudly and joyfully. Yes, I know it’s more politically correct to greet everyone “Happy Holidays!” But that’s not our greeting. For us it is “Merry Christmas.” It’s the birthday of Jesus. It is the day which embarked all of us on the road to eternal life with God our Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Fortunately, we have been gifted with our faith, our loving relationship with the God who made us, saved us and walks with us. We recognize and celebrate the importance of Christmas Day.
Christmas, my friends, is our church’s great annual renewal of the experience of wonder and joy we feel at the nearness of our God. The marvelous gift of Jesus Christ, given to us by his Father on that first Christmas night, is best mirrored not by the gifts we give to those who know we love them, but by those we give to people for whom the love and the newness of God seem so far away. Such gifts may not be at the top of the list of our world’s wants, but they certainly are right at the top of the list of our world’s needs. Merry Christmas to one and all!