It’s been over a month, and this is the first column I have written on the subject. Please understand that it is not because there is nothing to say, but because there is so much. Nevertheless, I shall devote my next few columns to some sort of exposition on that day, and I hope that I am able to convey the sublimeness of the joy that I experienced and that I saw in my brother seminarians and their families.
The week before ordination, my entire class was on retreat. There are about 40 men in my class here at the North American College, and the retreat was a magnificent experience.
There was a palpable excitement among the men, and a true seriousness and gravity in their recollection during our week in the mountains above the city of Rome. From the grounds of the retreat house, miles in the distance, if the sky was particularly clear, it was possible to see the outline of St. Peter’s Dome. Though it was small to our view, quite distant, and at a much lower altitude, its cupola dominated the days of the retreat as we pondered what was to happen inside at the Altar of the Chair.
I brought a copy of the ordination rite with me on the retreat, and each day for one hour I would consider a different aspect of it. One of the expressions that I hear often, and which I myself have used over and over again, is that no one feels “worthy” to receive ordination at the hands of the Church—that the gift the Church sees fit to bestow on her sons is somehow too much. In many ways, standing before the prospect of ordination makes one feel a bit like King Belshazzar reading the writing on the wall: “you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting” (Dan 5:27). This “unworthiness” is a real experience of many men, perhaps even all, at ordination.
So my experience of praying over the ordination rite during the retreat was all the more surprising. At the beginning of the ordination rite itself, which comes after the Gospel, is a dialogue between the ordaining bishop and the rector of the seminary. Between the two of these men, the will of the Church is expressed.
This is what is said:
Rector: Most Reverend Father, holy Mother Church asks you to ordain these men, our brothers, to the responsibility of the diaconate.
Bishop: Do you know them to be worthy?
Rector: After inquiry among the Christian people and upon the recommendation of those responsible, I testify that they have been found worthy.
Bishop: Relying on the help of the Lord God and our Savior Jesus Christ, we choose these, our brothers, for the Order of the Diaconate.
You will note that the ordination candidate has nothing to do with this dialogue. This is a dialogue among the Church herself: the one with the power to ordain is conferring with the one delegated the responsibility to prepare, evaluate, and discern the vocations of the candidates to determine publicly whether or not the candidate has truly been chosen by God. It is an incredible moment!
Look at the words: “they have been found worthy.” I realized on my retreat that, even though I may feel subjectively unworthy of so high an honor, the Church will declare me worthy, and so I resolved at that moment to stop trying to express my unworthiness and start trying to understand and to receive the Church’s judgment.
“Worthy” is an amazing word. The first biblical phrase that comes to mind when I think of the term “worthy” is from the Book of Revelation: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Rev 5:12). This same word that applies to Jesus Christ has been applied by the Church to me? Seriously?
No matter how much we ever pray about the mystery of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, we never can understand it; in fact, its mystery only deepens. Jesus Christ is truly worthy in every sense of the word to receive power, wealth, riches, might, honor, glory, etc. No good is too great for him. His dignity is such that he can receive God the Father himself in his entirety.
Considering that, any possible description of his worthiness is bound to limp. But this Jesus left all of the things of which he was worthy, and he did so voluntarily. He did not come among us with wealth, riches, glory, might, or honor. He came with humility and meekness. And even his humility we turned to humiliation on the cross. This is the lamb who was worthy of all but who gave all away in a voluntary act of love for each of us. In rejecting “worthiness,” Jesus has made it even more incomprehensible.
Ultimately, the “worth” we possess is that which is given to us by the Lord, the one who created us and who called us to be instruments in his kingdom. The question of the worthiness of the candidate is the question of his vocation: are you certain that this is the will of God? When we follow our vocations—be they to priesthood, marriage, single, or religious life—we are living the life we are “worthy” in Christ to live. So the test is not of the objective worth of the priesthood, of marriage, or of some other vocation, but of the correspondence between the definitive call of the Lord and the willing response of the hearer. When the call and the response resonate, the candidate is worthy, because he is fulfilling what the Lord has called him to do from before the foundations of the world.
“Do you know them to be worthy?” This is also the final question that God the Father will one day ask of us in death. And he will not ask us directly, for our lives speak to our worthiness. Our response has already been made. He will ask his Son, who is our savior and our judge. And, in that blessed day, let it be that each of us hears the words that I heard spoken by the rector, “I testify that they have been found worthy.” The call of the Lord to sanctity meets the willing response of the pilgrim.
The Church teaches that her ordained ministers are called to be a sign of the kingdom that is to come. I suppose starting the ordination with the very sort of inquiry that will be made when we enter into that definitive kingdom is appropriate. All I can say is that it was awesome. It was humbling. It was holy. And I am inexpressibly thankful and filled with the joy of the Lord.
Fr. Joshua Allen is currently the Chaplain at the Georgia Tech Catholic Center in Atlanta, GA. He was ordained in 2011 and is a priest of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. He has a License in Patristic Theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University and also teaches at Holy Spirit College.