The courses are complete. The vestments are ready. The chalice sits waiting for its sacred duty. Six years in the seminary have finally led to this: ordination to the Sacred Priesthood. Since Joe has been fraternally nudging me to post more, I thought I might take a moment and give a glimpse into what it is like for a man on the verge of being ordained a priest.
With the end of every school year comes ordination season, and here I am, one of the 497 to be ordained priests in the U.S. this year, waiting for the tsunami of graces and emotions that is scheduled to arrive this Saturday. How did this come to be? Growing up I never imagined that I would be a priest (I was certain I was going to be an astronaut), and surely it was just yesterday that I had made that difficult phone call to the vocation’s director to tell him that I was interested in applying for the seminary. Now, with six more years of education under my belt, the Church thinks I am ready to be one of Her priests.
I am naturally a bit nervous about the whole thing. Sure, I have studied the priesthood and even practiced the things a priest does, but I have never actually practiced being a priest per se. I have practice Mass and confession, but I have never actually celebrated them. A few weeks ago I realized the underlying nervousness I had towards the upcoming ordination when I had a startling dream. In my dream I had laid down for a quick nap after my priesthood ordination but then awoke to the frightening realization that I had overslept and missed my first Mass! I was terrified. How could I possibly miss my first Mass? It is a humorous dream in retrospect but my racing heart did not find it funny at the time.
Despite the moments of nervousness, there is a certain level of peace that pervades these last days of preparation. On my canonical retreat I found great consolation in the last words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew where He says, “Behold, I am with you always” (Mt 28:20). Why should I be nervous when I know with certainty that Jesus Christ will always be with me?
In preparing for the big day, I have spent a lot of time in prayer with the Rite of Ordination of Priests. More often than not, I struggle getting past the beginning of the rite where the Bishop asks a designated priest, “Do you know them to be worthy?” Me, worthy of this great sacrament? Surely not. I am a sinner and weak man like all the others, just ask my brother seminarians. Yet, the Church in Her great wisdom does not ask the ordinands (or their brother seminarians for that matter) if they think they are worthy. Instead, speaking through the bishop and the designated priest, the Church testifies that She has found the men worthy to be a priests. How could I be anything but humbled knowing that the Church has found me of all people worthy for the priesthood?
A little while ago I read St. John Chrysostom’s classic work On the Priesthood and in it the Golden Tongue repeatedly expresses his astute awareness of the dignity of the priesthood and the frailty of his human nature before the sublime office. At one point he says, “I know my own soul, how feeble and puny it is: I know the magnitude of this ministry, and the great difficulty of the work; for more stormy billows vex the soul of the priest than the gales which disturb the sea“ (III.8). The media constantly reminds us that receiving the sacrament of Holy Orders does not prevent a man from committing sin. Yet, despite his own frailty, the priest is given the great privilege of being God’s instrument of mercy and grace in people’s lives and access to their greatest joys and deepest sorrows. As I approach the altar of God and prepare to receive this gift myself, humility has been a faithful companion.
Imagine how excited a couple would be to receive the sacrament of Matrimony if marriage preparation lasted for six years instead of six months! That is kind of how I feel. After spending six years talking about the priesthood and studying it, I feel as if the seminary has done its job and I am more than excited to finally leave the seminary and be a priest. I am excited to have my family and friends together that weekend, and I am excited to finally feed Christ’s sheep, to be a “co-worker” of the Bishop’s in the vineyard, and to have the privilege of ministering the “Sacrament of sacraments” (CCC 1211).
There was a certain joy and excitement in practicing Mass this past year with the understanding that I was not doing it for fun, but that I was doing is so that I might be able to celebrate it in the near future. The experience of practicing Mass reminded me of learning how to fly a plane. You can take thousands of flights. You can watch a pilot fly the plane. You can even notice when a pilot makes a mistake. But that in no way means you are capable of flying a plane. Despite the countless number of times I have gone to Mass, the first few times practicing the celebration of Mass were not pretty. You do not realize the sheer number of times a priest “extends his hands” until it is actually you who are supposed to be the one with your hands extended!
As I enter these last few days, I am reminded of one last quote from St. John Chrysostom which highlights another reason why it is such an honor to be a priest and why I am excited, humbled, and nervous to be one:
“For they who inhabit the earth and make their abode there are entrusted with the administration of things which are in Heaven, and have received an authority which God has not given to angels or archangels” (III.5).