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The Royal Priesthood

alec vanderboom

Three weeks ago, the exulted status of our royal priesthood hit my soul during a funeral. The fragile embroidery on the hem of our Deacon’s robe clashed with his firm stride and heavy, purposeful swings of the brass incense burner. “Deacon Ken is here to serve at Mass,” my mind registered. Deacon Ken, a busy lawyer during the workweek, is here on a Tuesday morning because funerals come first.

We were gathered in the parish church to bury a banker. A loved and respected banker, but not a rich one. A banker who served his church by leading a poor parish out of bankruptcy. A banker who had three kids and couldn’t afford to buy his own house until he turned 60 because he paid for their Catholic schooling. A banker who led our parish prayers of the faithful for several weeks after he suffered a fall in his house, became severely paralyzed and eventually died from his wounds.

Washington D.C. is a town that knows funerals. We house massive Funerals of State for deceased Presidents. We hold 21 gun salutes in Arlington Cemetery for fallen soldiers. We give columns of copy in the Washington Post for obituaries of the rich and famous.

My friend’s husband was not rich or famous. Yet he was royal. His funeral reflected the awesome beauty of our faith in its full majesty.

As Christians, we believe that death is not the end. As Catholic we celebrate the “pause button” on life’s story in a Mass. We have visiting hours in a local funeral home. But we don’t celebrate the funeral in that space. We don’t scatter ashes in the wind. We come together in prayer with incense, and Scripture and purified hearts. We pray for the dead. We share a broken Body with ourselves and the world.

At the end, there is a procession, a procession so long that it needed a police escort which waved us through stoplights and non-turn lanes.

“Why do we get to go through red lights?” my three year old asked his Dad.

“Because we are in a royal procession today,” my husband answered. “Sort of like a funeral parade."

"We are in a funeral parade," I think. I imagine buttoning up my son's blue oxfords like Di and Ferge. My kids have to squirm in uncomfortable dress shoes during the day for funerals, and weddings, and important affairs of State. Only this State has dominions which can't be traced on any world map.
Last week, my husband got a call from his sister. His Dad lay in a medi-vac helicopter miles above the Adirondack Mountains. Dad’s doctors at the local hospital knew that he sick, they knew he had a seizure so violent it took seven men to strap him onto a hospital gurney. Nobody knew what caused Dad's seizure. Was it a sign of a heart attack or a stroke? Was Dad going to live or die? Dad had to be flown to a larger hospital in Vermont for more tests.

My husband sat hundreds and hundreds of miles away. Yet he did not feel helpless. We sent up hundreds of prayers for his Dad. We called many faithful Catholics to ask for prayers and we emailed hundreds more. We lit our Blessed Candles and took out our rosaries. We prayed the Divine Mercy Chaplet, the rosary and a prayer to Our Lady of Divine Grace.

We prayed for Dad to live. But we mostly prayed for Dad to come back to the church. That was our biggest fear. That this teddy bear of a guy, born on St. Nicholas Day, would die voluntarily exiled from the Catholic Church.

Then my husband, did this action, that only royal members of the priesthood can do. My husband call the hospital where Dad was set to land and asked to speak to the priest on duty. Almost immediately, a desk clerk transferred Jon to Father Finealus. “My father is in a medical helicopter headed to Fletcher-Allen hospital right now. I’d like him to receive the sacrament of the sick as soon as he lands. I’m most concerned that he’s been out of the church for almost 30 years. Can you make sure he receives confession and is taken care of there, please.”

Within moments, my husband hung up the phone feeling peaceful and relieved. “Father actually thanked me,” Jon said. “He thanked me so much for calling him. He was so grateful to bring another soul back to the church.”

My husband and I sat in awesome wonder of our faith. Here we were hundreds of miles away for a sick man. Yet here was a faithful priest, happy to help Shepard our beloved Dad home.

Father strove into the ICU soon after our phone call. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law watched him enter the restricted area. Dad hadn’t stabilized enough to be permitted to see Mom yet. However, the nurses waived the priest right through. My father-in-laws first contact with his family came when a priest said “I’ve been sent here by your son.”

I didn’t grow up as a Catholic. Due to an inter-family squabble that happened 350 years ago, I spent the first 28 years of my life turning down invitations to join the universal church. Who needed those pesky “extra” sacraments of the sick, confession, and marriage? I was fine reading my Bible and hanging out on Sunday's with like minded "independent thinking" friends.

As a result, my jaw dropped when my husband was able to personally contact a priest at 7 PM on a Wednesday night. A priest who was OVERJOYED to visit his sick father in the hospital.

“Honey, do you realize what a gift that it?” I said. “If my Dad got sick, there is no one to call at 7 PM. Even if I could somehow find a Methodist church in the area, I’d get an answering machine on at 7 PM. There’s no 24 hour emergency number. Even if I did talk to a kind-hearted secretary, the best she could do is send someone over in a few days to say a joint prayer with my Dad. It's more a corporal act of mercy than a sacrament. Heck, even we can visit the sick.”

My Catholic Father-in-Law got the royal treatment. He got confessed and pardoned. He got the blessed fragrant oil. He got the prayers that united his current sufferings with that of Our Blessed Savior on the Cross.

As Catholics, we rarely get to glimpse into our immense stash of “riches” in heaven. Our lives are supposed to be hidden within the ordinariness of daily life. Sometimes those clay pots crack and reveal the treasure within. Then, even in the midst of suffering and fear, we realize how truly Blessed we are to reside within the safety of our Mother Church.