Among the many changes that the Coronavirus (and its associated COVID-19) plague has wrought has been a significant change in the way I had planned to spend a weekend last month. I am sad to report that I missed attending my first-ever ordination. OK, not actually mine, but one for someone near and dear.
Longtime readers know that my oldest son has been in formation to become a Catholic priest as part of the Dominican Order. For those who don’t have a good grasp on how religious orders subsist within the larger Catholic Church, you can read my description about religious orders in general and the Dominicans in particular.
He began that journey not long before I began this blog, and a few of you have been right with me as I experienced my first Parents’ Weekend with the Dominicans and more recently as I experienced his Solemn Vows in which he bound himself to life as a Dominican Friar. He recently passed another milestone in that journey, his ordination as a Deacon.
We Catholics are part of a sacramental Church, which means that there are certain physical things that represent a special kind of grace in our faith lives. Baptism, First Communion, Penance (confession), Confirmation, Matrimony and Anointing of the Sick (last rights) are the way the Catholic Church accompanies most of us on the (hopefully) long journey from birth to death. That’s – – six of them. “Wait, don’t you Catholics have seven sacraments?” Yes we do, and that seventh is called Holy Orders.
Holy Orders are what the ordained get in place of marriage (though there are some exceptions which I may get into at some future point). Catholics have three kinds of ordained ministers who receive the sacrament of Holy Orders – Deacons, Priests (presbyters in the Bible) and Bishops.
The Bishop is a successor to the Apostles and oversees a “local church”, in that very ancient Roman geographical concept of a diocese. Priests are the ordained ministers that everyone thinks of – they perform the baptisms, weddings and funerals and celebrate Masses with us, under the authority of their Bishop.
The Deacon, though of ancient origins, was a concept that fell out of use for quite a number of centuries but has been dusted off in recent decades. The Deacon assists the Priest in things like baptisms, some weddings and the authority to preach at Mass. Some Deacons are of that status permanently and are often older married men who feel a calling to serve in a unique (and demanding) way. Others are “transitional Deacons” who live that state of ministry on the way to ordination as a Priest. This is the one my son and three of his brother friars recently celebrated.
I have never been to an ordination. Mrs. JP and I were excitedly planning a trip to St. Louis for the occasion. It was going to be a big deal, because an ordination always involves a Bishop. We Catholics talk (though not often enough) about the “four marks of the Church – one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” The “apostolic” part means that each Bishop received his Holy Orders and authority from an earlier Bishop, and so on and so on in a direct line that reaches all the way back to the original Apostles of the New Testament. So yes, we consider this a big deal.
The present contagion, however, cancelled all of our plans. My son and his Dominican brothers were deeply disappointed, of course. Then it was decided that, because they were already on the Bishop’s calendar, they could do the ceremony privately in their own chapel – so it was back on, but not in the large public way that had been originally planned.
As immediate family we were allowed to access a private live stream which I was tech-savvy enough to be able to cast onto our big TV. The feelings here were bittersweet – happy for our son’s milestone and that we were allowed to view online, but sad that we were not able to actually experience the happening ourselves.
It was a powerful event for us, and must have been so much more so for those physically present. One by one each of these four young men knelt before the Bishop who placed his hands upon them, transferring a measure of his authority to them.
It is a part of Catholic belief that receiving the sacrament of Holy Orders makes a very real change in a person. It is said that a priest is a priest forever and that nothing can happen which will remove that indelible mark. Priests who lose their way and commit reprehensible acts can have their authority revoked (called being laicized or defrocked) but they remain priests just as one who gets a divorce after a sacramental marriage remains married in the eyes of the Church.
We are hopeful that by next year life will have returned to some kind of normal and that our son’s anticipated ordination to the priesthood will be open for all to attend and celebrate. But there are, of course, no guarantees.
For now we will let it soak in that “this is really happening” – the life our son set out for in 2014 is now partially realized and will hopefully be fully realized before we know it.
We are under no illusions about what is in store for him. There was a time that his was a path to near-universal admiration and respect, but that time is long over. There are many who think religion is a load of nonsense and many more who look at the ordained as fools, charlatins and outright evil. This will not be an easy gig for our son and these other young men. As an example, he is serving this summer in a parish and neighborhood that are largely African-American, and the friars there avoid wearing their long white habits out of fear that they might be wrongly identified as KKK robes. Don’t laugh, it has happened before.
But perhaps tribulations like these are necessary. We have all jokingly said that anyone who actually wants to be President of the United States ought to be automatically disqualified for the job just for that reason. In the same way and more seriously, maybe by dissuading those who want to be priests because of the esteem and influence it brings will makes the entire Church better off . Then maybe we will have more priests who are used to being unpopular, and therefore more inclined to tell us all what we need to hear instead of what we want to hear.