Column by Father Jonathan Dickson
I have mentioned before that one of the highlights of my week, as a priest, is Thursday morning at Saint Joseph’s Catholic Academy. All of our students, faculty, and staff come together for about 30 minutes as community and as chaplain I have the honor of celebrating Mass with them. Off course, I am under no illusion that Mass is the top priority for a student in high school. I was in high school once, too, and I am sure Mass was not at the top of the list of my own priorities. I am also aware that a large minority of our students are non-Catholic, but as I have said before, worship is essential to who we are, and because it is a Catholic school the Mass is the form in which we gather for worship. But this is the point! We gather! For 30 minutes, every Thursday, a gym full of socially distanced students and faculty silence themselves and recognize that we are a community who comes together under the providence and mercy of God.
For me and I hope at least to some degree for our students, it is a moment of pause for a deep breath as we breathe in the life of God. I have written before about why we gather; in this reflection I would simply like to express how significant it is to me that we do indeed gather. In the Mass we believe that the elements of bread and wine are changed “substantially” (a discussion for another time) into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. In receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, we become the Body of Christ. While those of us who are not Catholic do not subscribe to the same understanding of the Eucharist, I hope we all still believe that “when two are three are gathered together, God is among us.” Therefore, as I hold up what I believe is the Body and Blood of Christ during the Mass, I have to accept that I am looking at the Body and Blood of Christ, not just in the consecrated elements, but in every student that stands in front of me.
At the core of all that we profess, we believe that every human being is made in the image and likeness of God, and for Christians Christ is the incarnate image of God. Therefore, for lack of a better term we believe that every human being is an “image of the image.” So, when I stand behind the altar, I am looking out at the face of Christ in every student who sits in the Student Life Center. In short, I cannot celebrate the Mass without believing that God is before me, not just in bread and wine become Body and Blood, but that he is in front of me present in the entire student body. We gather as Catholic, non-Catholic, believers, and those struggling with belief, and we acknowledge not only our desire to worship God, but the dignity of every student gathered in the Student Life Center.
The gathering is the recognition of life in all of its diversity and splendor. And it constitutes not just the community of SJCA but the community of all human beings that make up our world. The Church offers Mass for the life of the world and we at Saint Joseph’s are a microcosm of the world. In John 6:51 Jesus says, “ I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” For Catholics this bread/flesh is the Eucharist. It is my hope that all of us gathered to recognize that worship itself gives life. It is an encounter with Jesus Christ the living God and therefore it is truly life giving. We gather as John’s Gospel says that we “might have life and have it more abundantly.”
This time set aside is crucial to who we are both as individuals and as a community. We reorient ourselves back toward our Creator and since we were made to live in communion we are then rightly ordered toward our neighbor. During this time all rivalry, enmity, or hostility that may exist within any community ceases so that we can recognize that each of us are in fact, made in the image of God. This draws us into community as I again realize that the person besides, in front, or five rows back is my brother or sister. We must recognize this for true community to exist! And so, we gather…
Father Jonathan Dickson is the Parochial Vicar at Our Lady of Victory Parish in State College, Chaplain at Saint Joseph’s Catholic Academy in Boalsburg, and Diocesan Director of Ongoing Formation for the Clergy.