Draw near, O Lord, Holy Father, Almighty and Eternal God. These words mark the beginning of the prayer of consecration that my bishop will proclaim after he and the gathered presbyterate of Atlanta have laid their hands on me at my priestly ordination. He will invoke the Holy Spirit; he will recall the workings of God in the history of man, and with this prayer, I will be inserted into the mystery of salvation as an active agent, as the hands of Jesus Christ the High Priest in the world. And it will happen tomorrow.
Seven years I have been a seminarian. One year in the diocese, two years at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, and four at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, Italy. All of this time has been spent following a plan laid out by the Church to form priests into the heart of Christ, to prepare them to be sacramental instruments. Seven years of grace; seven years in the hidden life, walking with Jesus more or less faithfully, learning to listen to him, learning to help others listen to him. These seven years culminate tomorrow, and then there is a new beginning.
It would not be entirely fair to say that Jesus Christ was a stranger to me before entering seminary, but it would not be far off. Certainly he was a stranger — even perceived by me as an enemy — only a couple of years earlier. And yet somehow, in the providence of God, tomorrow I will be given the power, authority, and obligation to forgive sins in sacramental confession and to celebrate the Eucharist, the central mystery of our faith and of the entire created universe. Jesus came into the world not to judge it, but to save it. He has called me to be his co-worker in salvation, to reconcile souls to him and to assist his children in climbing the ladder of divine ascent, becoming like God, the great mystery to which we have each been called. Draw near, O Lord!
I won’t say that I’m nervous. To be nervous is to have jitters caused by either lack of preparation or lack of confidence in the face of the requirement to perform. I am not nervous. “Nervous” does not capture the depth of my experience. What I am experiencing is fear. Fear of the Lord, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit.
Sometime tomorrow afternoon, I will sit down in a confessional. I will pull a little purple stole out of my pocket. I will kiss it, and I will place it around my neck. I will feel its weight. I will sit there for a minute. I will pray. I will feel horribly unprepared. If I know myself well enough, I bet I’ll start trying to bargain with God, perhaps suggesting that my ordination day is not the best day to hear confessions. Perhaps I should wait until tomorrow?
And then someone will come into the confessional. It will be my first confession, so more likely than not, it will be a friend of mine. And then the most terrible and wonderful thing in the world will happen. My friend will speak to me as if I am Jesus Christ. He won’t be speaking to me. And he’ll suddenly be telling me things that he would never tell me otherwise, things that you would never say to another person. He will give me a window into his soul. Draw near, O Lord!
And I’ll listen. And I’ll be worried about giving him advice. And whatever I say probably won’t be very helpful, because after all, I’m fresh off the boat. A deer in headlights is still a deer, but not in its most impressive moment. Ultimately I’ll say something. I’ll probably forget some part of the rite: either to give a penance or to ask for the Act of Contrition. Thank God the Church supplies. What penance I give will be mundane. I’ll probably want to give something unique and powerfully associated with the sin that has been listed, but my guess is that I’ll fall back on the classic. But you know what, Mary’s happy to be someone’s penance. Draw near, O Lord!
And then I’ll say the words of absolution. They will surprise me, because I’ll remember them. During the confession itself, I probably won’t be listening very well, because I’ll be worried about getting everything right. About half way through the whole thing, I’ll stop listening entirely and start wondering if I remember the words of absolution. And I won’t. And I’ll panic inside, and I’ll start wondering whether I have the card in my pocket. I’ll imagine how horrible it will be for the penitent when I have to tell him to wait a second while I run to the sacristy to get the ritual book with the words of absolution in them. My mind will go so blank that I won’t even be able to remember where I am. My heart will race; my legs will start to shake. Draw near, O Lord!
But then the moment will come. I’ll raise my hand. It will be shaking. I’ll notice. And then the words will start coming from my mouth: God the Father of mercies. I’ll marvel that I remember them, even as I am saying them. My confidence will grow, and when the crucial words come, I will make the sign of the cross with a hand completely free of jitters, because the thing is, Jesus is not nervous about forgiving your sins, and it’s he that does it, not me. Draw near, O Lord!
You’ll have to trust me: that’s the way it will go. Probably. That’s always the way it goes on earth: slipping and sliding and limping all the way to heaven (hopefully). It’s the same with motherhood, which has its moments, but it’s generally about dirty diapers, snotty noses, frazzled nerves, and just holding it together for most of the time and hoping the failures are not catastrophic. Same thing with fatherhood. Same thing with priesthood. Glory is not always a pretty thing, I suppose. Not in this life, anyway.
It’s not nervousness I’m describing really. I’m talking about the smallness I know I will feel in the face of such a mystery. Moses saw God passing by in fire and smoke, and the fear and awe he experienced was such that his face had a radiance frightening to the Israelites. This is no wispy glance at the back of God; this is acting in the person of Jesus Christ, who is God. The audacity of such a thing would be nothing short of the worst sort of blasphemy in the Old Covenant. It is no mean thing to act in the person of the Savior of all the world. Draw near, O Lord!
Seven years as a seminarian. Thirty-three years as a wayfarer in this world. And tomorrow, I taste eternity. Tomorrow I experience the weight of glory. Tomorrow, I will be changed, and when the last trumpet sounds and the dead shall be raised, I shall be raised a Priest of Jesus Christ for all eternity. There is a heaviness in my heart — not of sadness, but of holy fear — a heaviness that finds no expression. Perhaps it is the Spirit groaning in words I cannot understand. It pounds, it stirs my emotions, and it causes a certain kind of ache, a longing that I cannot fulfill, that I cannot ignore, and that I cannot explain. I know it is the Holy Spirit preparing me to receive the gift of priesthood, but all I can think of is glory. The glory of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The glory of creation crying out to be reunited with God. It is in the glory of God that we were made; it is the glory of God to which we are called, and it is glory that forms the only means of understanding what will happen tomorrow: I will see the glory of God, and that glory will be in me. (Me? Are you kidding?) And then I’ll limp on, working it out as I go with the grace of God. Now, always, and unto the ages of ages. Draw near, O Lord!