WHEN I WAS a child, decades before the Second Vatican Council, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was celebrated according to the basic formula laid down after the Council of Trent, thus it is commonly known as the Tridentine Mass.
In the section known as THE MASS OF THE FAITHFUL of that liturgy, the priest began with an Offertory verse:
BENEDICTUS SIT DEUS PATER: Blessed be God, the Father, and the Only-Begotten Son of God, and also the Holy Spirit: because He has shown His mercy towards us!
It was participating in those Masses, celebrated according to the, by then, ancient rite, in Latin, and later as an altar boy serving Mass, that the earliest conscious memory of my life began to flower into a profound desire: to be a priest!
The fire of that desire was always the longing to celebrate Holy Mass.
As is clear from reading this telling of the mystery that where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more, often times, frequently for years on end, it seemed that dream was impossible, if not virtually rejected by the sinful choices I so often made.
Now, in the first years of my fortieth decade of life, my studies completed, the Bishop was calling me to ‘orders’, that is, he had set the date for my priestly ordination.
Throughout my seminary years I had asked Our Blessed Mother that, if possible, the chosen date by the Bishop would be on one of her feasts. And so it would be, and not only that, but the same date as the ordination of my spiritual father, which had taken place nearly a quarter of a century before mine.
I was to be ordained with four confreres and so this meant the cathedral was packed with all our families, friends, relatives and, most movingly, not only the priests of the diocese but various priest friends and newly ordained confreres from across the country.
Reception of any sacrament is so sacred that any attempt to put the event, the experience, in words, will necessarily always fail to convey the full impact of sacred mystery.
Yet I feel in my heart an attempt must be made.
Not, however, with my own words.
There are no better words than those of Holy Mother the Church herself, from the Preface to the Canon of the Mass for the Mass of Ordination:
Father, all-powerful and ever-living God, we do well always and everywhere to give You thanks.
By Your Holy Spirit You anointed Your only Son High Priest of the new and eternal covenant.
With wisdom and love You have planned that this one priesthood should continue in the Church.
Christ gives the dignity of a royal priesthood to the people He has made His own.
From these, with a brother’s love, He chooses men to share His sacred ministry by the laying on of hands.
He appoints them to renew in His Name the sacrifice of our redemption as they set before Your family His paschal meal.
He calls them to lead Your holy people in love, nourish them by Your word, and strengthen them through the sacraments.
Father, they are to give their lives in Your service and for the salvation of Your people as they strive to grow in the likeness of Christ and honour You by their courageous witness of faith and love.
Within that brief solemn prayer is contained the whole truth about this sacred mystery of a mere man being sacramentally transfigured by the Holy Spirit into Christ.
It is the holy will of the Father there be but one priest, one mediator, Jesus Christ.
It is also the holy will of the Father that Christ be truly, always, present among us in the reality of sacramental life, most especially in the Holy Eucharist.
For this reality to be made present in time, space, history, the Father wills through the power of the Holy Spirit that men be sacramentally transfigured in persona Christi, in the person of Christ.
It is Christ who chooses the man to be ordained.
It is NOT the man who assumes priesthood.
It is the power of the Holy Spirit, passed by Christ to the Apostles in the upper room and through them to their successors, the bishops and priests across the millennia through the laying on of hands, the invocation of the coming down of the Holy Spirit upon a man, that makes this sacramental reality, real.
The priest is to continually renew the Paschal Mystery which he does each time he celebrates Holy Mass.
He does this for the children of the Father, the family, the holy people, mentioned in the Canon, a people made holy by the same Holy Spirit through their reception of the sacraments, Baptism, gateway to sacramental life, and all the others, and when they render themselves unholy through sin the priest, in the person of Christ, has authority to absolve their sins so in Christ they can begin again to be, to live, as a holy people.
Ordination is not glorification of a man.
Ordination is sacred consecration of a servant who is to pour himself out, like Christ, for the people.
There is another word on this mystery of ordination, of priesthood, of what transpired on the day of my ordination, and it is from a woman who has an extraordinary understanding and love for this sacred mystery, in particular for every priest and who gave her life for priests, the Servant of God Catherine Doherty:
A priest is a lover of God, a priest is a lover of men, a priest is a holy man because he walks before the face of the All-Holy.
A priest understands all things, a priest forgives all things, a priest encompasses all things.
The heart of a priest is pierced, like Christ’s, with the lance of love.
The heart of a priest is open, like Christ’s, for the whole world to walk through.
The heart of a priest is a vessel of compassion, the heart of a priest is a chalice of love, the heart of a priest is the trysting place of human and divine love.
A priest is a man whose goal is to be another Christ; a priest is a man who lives to serve.
A priest is a man who has crucified himself so that he too may be lifted up and draw all things to Christ.
A priest is a man in love with God.
A priest is the gift of God to man and of man to God.
A priest is a symbol of the Word made flesh, a priest is the naked sword of God’s justice, a priest is the hand of God’s mercy, a priest is the reflection of God’s love.
Nothing can be greater in this world than a priest, nothing but God Himself. [dg]
Finally, there being on the face of the earth as I write these lines no more consummate living icon of the fullness of this sacred, awesome, mystery of sacramental Divine Mercy, than Pope John Paul II, it is from him this final word, seeking to convey the ineffable grace of my ordination and of every moment of being priest, now nearly twenty years a reality of my being:
The one about to receive Holy Orders prostrates himself completely and rests his forehead on the church floor, indicating in this way his complete willingness to undertake the ministry being entrusted to him……I was thinking back on that moment of ordination and I wrote a poem………Peter, you are the floor, that others may walk over you…not knowing where they go. You guide their steps……In lying prostrate on the floor in the form of a cross before one’s ordination, in accepting in one’s own life — like Peter — the cross of Christ and becoming with the Apostle a ‘floor’ for our brothers and sisters, one finds the ultimate meaning of all priestly spirituality. [dh]
Until the day I am lain in a plain pine box, vested as all priests are in death to celebrate Holy Mass, each moment of my life has been, will be, a continual, graced, struggle to become what I am by ordination: PRIEST!
To become, joyfully, ‘floor’!