I invite you to travel back in time. Go back 10, 20, 40 years, whatever brings you to the day of your ordination. No doubt you remember many things about that day, the church where the ceremony took place, the ordaining bishop, the number of ordinandi, the priest who assisted you. Those are pleasant and valued memories, but, I suggest, incidental and relatively unimportant.
There are three times in which to know an event: in anticipation, in participation and in remembrance. In anticipation, understanding and appreciation are hindered because it is only a foreshadowing, not the real experience. In participation, understanding is hindered by the confusion of so much, so fast. Only in remembrance is there full recognition, realization and understanding of the fuller meaning of an event.
Recall the ceremony itself. The initial dialog emphasizes that it is the Church that calls. The call is from God through the Church. The priest is chosen, not self-appointed. No one has a right to ordination A priestly vocation is exactly that, a call, a gift. The words Jesus addressed to his disciples have a particular resonance for the ordinandi. “You did not choose me, no, I have chosen you” (Jn 15:16).
After the designated priest presents the candidates for ordination, the bishop asks him: “Do you judge them to be worthy?” The answer is a formality since, at that point, the answer can only be affirmative. Any candidate for whom an affirmative answer could not be given would have been dismissed at an earlier stage.
To grasp the full meaning of the response, a paraphrasing of the formula used by the designated priest is helpful: “We know of no crimes, vices, or character defects which would exclude the ones presented as viable candidates for the priesthood. Positively, the candidates seem to possess the qualities which would enable them to be faithful and productive priests. There are, however, no guarantees about the future.”
No one makes himself worthy of this gift. It is the call, God’s special grace, that makes a man acceptable. No doubt the one being ordained is aware of his unworthiness and weaknesses, an awareness that becomes more fully conscious with the passing of the years. But weakness actually relates us more profoundly with God.
St. Paul makes clear that God’s power is made manifest in weakness. When Paul pleaded three times to be freed from the thorn of the flesh, the Lord replied. “My grace is sufficient for you; for power is at its full stretch in weakness.” Paul’s response was: “It is, then, about my weakness that I am happiest of all to boast, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor 12:9-10).
After giving a homily in which the bishop first addresses the assembled people and then the candidates, he asks the candidates to declare their intention to undertake the priestly office. The bishop then invites the candidates individually to promise respect and obedience to their ordinary.
The bishop proceeds to lay his hands on the head of the ordinandi. From Old Testament times the laying on of hands signified the receiving of a supernatural gift and the handing over of a certain power. The laying on of hands is the heart of the ceremony, the point at which the power, the grace of the priesthood is conferred. The laying on of hands is a powerful symbol. A symbol is a sign but not just any sign. A symbol is a sign that works in a mysterious way, suggesting more than it can clearly describe or define. A symbol has a depth of meaning which is evoked rather than explicitly stated.
God’s Pledge of Grace
The power conferred is not sensibly perceptible but nonetheless real. The power is conferred absolutely and irrevocably, together with God’s solemn pledge of grace for its exercise. That pledge of grace can be frustrated only by culpable resistance on the part of the recipient.
Traditionally it is said that ordination puts an indelible mark on the soul. How does one mark a soul? It seems preferable to say a person is transformed and empowered in a distinctive way and that the transformation can never be undone. That idea was commonly expressed by the phrase: ”You are a priest forever.”
In the Old Covenant, hands were laid on a condemned man and on a sacrifice to expiate sin. From that custom an analogy can be drawn. The priest is a man condemned, as it were, to a life of service and called upon to sacrifice his ease, pleasure, and personal interests to serve the needs of his people. The priest is “condemned” to accept another’s decision regarding the place and type of ministry he is to exercise and thus sacrifice his will in obedience. The priest is also “condemned” to a life of celibacy as he pledges to sacrifice the blessings of marriage and family life.
Shortly after laying his hands on the one to be ordained, the bishop removes his hands. But God’s hand will remain on the priest in a special way. It is an omnipotent but gentle hand. It can weigh heavily. It can also raise up. Another significant laying on of hands follows. The priests participating in the ceremony come forward and lay hands on the newly ordained priest. This is a sign that all priests share in one Spirit, one power, and one mission.
The bishop then clothes the ordained with the priestly vestments as an outward sign of their priestly character. He anoints the hands of the candidates; hands that are to bless; hands that are to bring God’s peace and forgiveness to sinners; hands that are to be extended in prayer for the community; hands that are to hold the body and blood of Christ.
Next the bishop gives the chalice and paten to the new priests, symbolizing that the priest is to bring the body and blood of Christ into the world daily as food and drink for the faithful.
Clearly the ordinandi have made a decision to respond to God’s call to the priesthood. The ordination ceremony confirms and consecrates that decision. Something more is involved than a decision which, once taken, cannot be altered. The decision is in the present, but, like many decisions, somehow involves and embraces the future. Later conduct is inescapably influenced by that decision. The decision is validated when actually carried out in the future. Receiving Holy Orders is a fact that influences future actions and decisions. Any future action must take that fact into consideration. One cannot act as if that fact did not exist.
But the face of a decision can be changed. One can either stand by or betray an earlier decision. The grace of ordination can become more and more integrated into a priest’s life or that grace can be neglected, be less and less influential on how his life is lived. A priest can become unfaithful or, as the old Irish expression has it, he can become “a spoiled priest.” That is why the priest must begin each day anew by striving to become more fully what he has been called to be.
Participant in Christ’s Suffering
Through ordination a man participates in a unique way in the priesthood of Jesus Christ. Whoever participates in the priesthood of Christ must expect to participate somehow also in His suffering as well. It is not simply a question of the suffering that is the common lot of human beings, such as significant health problems or the diminishments of age. The priest will typically be called upon to face loneliness and abandonment, perhaps even betrayal, such as Christ suffered in Gethsemane. Some priests will suffer physical abuse, even death because of what they are. Many, if not all, priests will experience misunderstanding and verbal abuse because of pastoral decisions made.
Again, most, if not all, priests will have occasion to lament as Jesus lamented over Jerusalem. One who laments is a person who loves and cares deeply. A lament stems from a vision of what could have been but is lost. Lamenting includes sorrow and anger mixed. It means accepting loss and bearing its grief but retaining energy to go on.
In the homily presented in the Roman Pontifical, the bishop exhorts the ordinandi: “Know what you are doing and imitate the mystery you celebrate.” Those words lead to reflecting on the power and the daunting challenge the priesthood involves. Such reflection causes a certain “fear and trembling.” The priest might well ask himself how he can live up to the tremendous responsibility that his ordination imposes. In a sense, the answer is simple: only with the grace of God. The words of St. Paul take on a special meaning. “We hold these treasures in earthen vessels, so that the immensity of the power is God’s and not our own” (2 Cor 4: 7). They remind the priest of his human fragility but also of the power of God working through him.
There is a touching literary illustration of that truth. In his book Diary of a Country Priest, George Bernanos portrays a priest who believes himself to be, if not a total failure, at least a poor instrument of God’s grace. What he fails to see is the effect of his witness and his suffering on others. But his dying words express the profound insight he has been granted, “Grace is everything.” TP
Father Clark, O.M.I., was ordained in 1955 for the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. He was president at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) and is currently semi-retired, doing occasional preaching for parish missions and retreats.