Okay folks, it’s getting pretty real.
I am on retreat this week praying that I will be a faithful servant of God. Don’t worry – I’m not cheating on retreat. I wrote this column last week to be published while I was away.
So much has happened, and all of it has been a joy. At the North American College, we return to Rome in early September even though classes do not begin until mid-October. In the month or so that we have before classes, we spend each day in conferences at the college on topics that are not covered in our theological programs at our various universities. Normally, these conferences are on the more practical aspects of priesthood, since such subjects are not the purview of universities catering to religious sisters and laypeople as well as seminarians.
My class has been learning how to be a deacon in liturgy. It’s hard to capture how joyful this experience has been. I have been a seminarian for six years. I have been attending daily Mass for longer. Each day I watch the priest extend his hands, add water to the wine, navigate the Sacramentary, elevate the host and the chalice, etc. But I don’t think it is possible to actually run through the process for the first time without constantly experiencing chills.
It made me think of my brother.
I remember the look on his face eight years ago when his first son was born. We had been at the hospital for a long time: the delivery was extremely difficult for my sister-in-law, and she eventually had a caesarian. My brother had excitedly called me on his way to the hospital. The joy of anticipation is one thing; the joy of reality is even greater.
After the ordeal of birth, when we finally saw the little bundle of joy that had been brought into this world as the sign of love between his parents, it was indescribable. How could God love anyone that much? How is it possible?
My brother, to whose room I ran in the middle of the night as a little boy when I was afraid to sleep in my own, who taught me to ride a bike when all efforts of my mother and father had failed, who helped me through second grade, who bailed me out of all sorts of trouble all through life, who was my best friend, was holding his son, staring at him. Joy streamed from his face.
And he has never been the same.
His face was forever changed. I have never seen the pre-father brother that I knew growing up. He’s in the brother I see now, but only as a part. A greater joy has eclipsed the lesser.
That’s a little bit like the experience of learning the liturgy. We have been told by our formators, and I believe it to be true, that we cannot ever look at the liturgy in the same way again. It is not just a matter of studying the words. It is a matter of practicing them, of seeing through the perspective of the priest – through the perspective of Christ. All of that will be solidified in my two-fold ordination, first to deacon, and then to priest.
I practiced a fake Mass the other day. A fake Mass! I went up to a fake chapel filled with things we would use and stumbled through the Mass, pretending to consecrate, pretending to elevate, realizing how awkward some of the actions can actually be and how much practice they truly require. I never “played Mass” as a kid, though I now know plenty of kids who do, but I’m playing Mass now! (And I think my first attempt might have gotten poor marks from the five year-olds.)
I realized the other day that for some of the men in my class, this is like being a kid again. What a grace that is! Being a kid is just plain fun.
When I attend “real” Mass with the seminary community, my classmates who have already been ordained deacons are serving at the altar. They are presiding over vespers. They have already baptized children and have celebrated weddings. It is all becoming so real. I wonder if the same thing will happen to me that happened to my brother?
On Saturday September 18, which is the birthday of my nephew, I took the Oath of Fidelity. At this ceremony, each man to be ordained reads aloud to the entire seminary community a document that contains the Nicene Creed as well as statements professing loyalty to the Magisterium. It was a profound moment. No one in my class really knows why. All of us had the intention of fidelity anyway, but something about publicly declaring it was a moving moment.
I was the first to state my name, “I, Joshua Todd Allen,” and then it moved to the man next to me, and so on. Then, all together, we professed explicitly to believe in each and every word contained in the Nicene Creed. Such an oath is required by the Church of her teachers, of those officially charged with instructing in the faith, something the deacon does when preaching on the Word of God. Listening to all of the men state their names, one after the other, was amazing: these are the same guys I was awkward around only three years ago, a new fish in a new pond, testing the waters and figuring out how this Rome thing was going to go.
And here we are, about to be ordained to the transitional diaconate. About to promise perpetual celibacy. About to bind ourselves to the Liturgy of the Hours five times a day for the rest of our lives. About to promise obedience not just to the person of our bishops, but to each unknown man who will hold the office in the future. About to receive the Holy Spirit and be conformed to Christ the Servant.
Rest assured, I have plenty of material to pray about this week on retreat. I beg of you, please say a prayer for me and my class. We will be ordained on the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. Pray that we become good a zealous priests, ready to live the truth of Christ, and if necessary, even die for it.