In my home diocese of Atlanta, all of the seminarians gather on Wednesday evenings for Mass and dinner, which is an opportunity to meet new men and to renew existing friendships. This gathering is especially important for those of us who study in Rome, since we are more separated from the diocese during the year. For the last two weeks, we have been treated to something truly wonderful: newly ordained priests have been celebrating our Mass and then joining us for the evening.
On June 27, the Archdiocese of Atlanta ordained eight men to the priesthood of Jesus Christ. I had arrived back in Atlanta from Rome only 36 hours earlier, so I was suffering the effects of jet lag, but I was asked to serve in the ordination. I had the good fortune of being the crosier bearer for the bishop, the principle perk of which is a good seat. I have attended many ordinations in the diocese, but this was the first one I had ever seen up close: the seminarians serve the Mass in one way or another and can see only a small bit of the ceremony.
Now entering my fifth year of seminary, this ordination was particularly powerful, because this was the first time I could say that I knew each of the men for their entire period of theological studies. It is one thing to see men ordained who you might not know well, but it is quite another to see men ordained with whom you have studied for four years and with whom you are friends. I frequently glanced of one of the newly ordained during the ceremony—Fr. Nicholas—and it was all I could do to keep from blubbering like a little girl when he knelt before the bishop and received the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands. (I did manage to contain myself.)
Fr. Nicholas also studies in Rome, so I have gotten to know him quite well in the last two years. He was also the first to celebrate Mass for the seminarians at our Wednesday gatherings. This Mass of Thanksgiving was the culmination of six years of study. In the parish, people are often surprised when I tell them I am entering my fifth year of formal studies as a seminarian. They have a hard time understanding why it takes so long to be able to do something so seemingly simple as celebrate Mass. After all, anyone who attends Mass regularly with a little time to read thorough the Missal would be able to do everything that the priest does externally, save of course the sacramental transformation. To a lot of lay people, the culmination of six to eight years of study can seem anti-climactic, since the external work of the priest is not apparently difficult.
Of course, being a priest is much more than going through the external motions of the Mass on Sunday. Many priests find themselves in assignments where the depth of their theological studies could seem superfluous; after all, in a normal parish setting, the precise details of the Albigensian heresy or the question of the self-knowledge of Jesus Christ are unlikely to come up as essential elements of ministry. Furthermore, after a few years out of school, many priests would not remember such details anymore than an electrical engineer remembers the details of Calculus V or a doctor remembers the specifics of inorganic chemistry.
Our Academic Dean at the North American College reminds us constantly as we wrestle with the necessity of studying seemingly mundane and utterly forgettable details that we must fight the temptation to view theological studies in a base utilitarian manner. The process of study is an essential part of the personal vocation of the seminarian: something that leads to his own sanctification. Such study also helps us to have confidence in the truths we believe. Most Catholics understand that the teachings of the Church have a history and a reasoned foundation, even if they don’t know what it is. We learn to have confidence in the reasonability of the faith by learning the reasons that are behind seemingly difficult beliefs or actions, and that process among others occurs in education and formation. Even if one does not recall every detail, the process of learning and the methods of interpretation and investigation are immeasurably valuable.
So, six to eight years it is. And the culmination is the celebration of Mass as an ordained priest. Perhaps it seems to some people to be anti-climactic. To me and to many others, the celebration of Mass as a new priest seems like the apex of a journey that cannot possibly get better. But I also know from talking to priests that, with faithful prayer, each year as a priest of Jesus Christ is more amazing. The same can be said of seminary really: each year is better even though progressively harder. It’s hard to explain; it’s just the way it is.
Fr. Tim celebrated Mass for us last week—the second of the newly ordained to come to the seminarian gatherings. The seminary process really amazes me. When I first met these men who were just beginning first theology, I could not imagine them as priests—not that they were bad guys, but they just didn’t seem like priest material. I’m sure the same has been said about me—justifiably so! But, when I saw Fr. Nicholas and Fr. Tim celebrate Mass, it was clear to me that from the beginning—from the beginning of everything—they couldn’t have been anything other than priests of Jesus Christ. The necessary gifts were there from the beginning, and seminary helped them to be uncovered and developed, and now they are being shared with the world. God willing, in fifty years at their golden jubilee, we will look back at their lifetimes spent serving Christ and his Church and hardly remember a time when they were not the precious instruments of God in the world.